In 1992, Jimmy Johnson, then coach of the Dallas Cowboys, cut running back “Swervin’” Curvin Richards after he fumbled in the last game of the regular season. That in itself wasn’t so surprising. Coach Johnson had a temper, and he didn’t suffer fumblers lightly. But what was surprising was that Johnson would cut Richards but defend two other players who made similar mistakes in the same quarter of the same game.
Truth be told, all three mistakes were inconsequential. Dallas would go on to win the game 27-14 over the Chicago Bears. They had already secured a bye for the first weekend of the playoffs. The game was nothing more than a notation in the record books as this particular Dallas team went on to win its third Super Bowl in dominating fashion.
The problem was not that mistakes had been made. Richards’ fumble did result in a touchdown for the opposing team, but so did Steve Beuerlein’s interception. Alvin Harper also turned the ball over…and all these happened in the fourth quarter. So, why didn’t Johnson cut all three players? Why did Richards alone incur Johnson’s wrath?
According to Johnson, it was because Beuerlein and Harper committed “hustling errors” while Richards simply showed the sloppiness that comes from a poor work ethic. Beuerlein and Harper were forgiven because they were hustling; they were trying to make something happen. They were taking risks and trying to get the momentum back for an offensive team that had started to focus their attention on the playoffs before the game had even ended.
Richards, on the other hand, failed to execute one of the fundamentals of his job. Had he shown more diligence on the practice field, he might have been spared. But Johnson was irritated with the running back for his lackluster approach to the game. Johnson used this opportunity to teach his team an important lesson. There are mistakes, and then there are mistakes. Mistakes made while taking risks and trying new approaches will be forgiven. Mistakes made because of poor preparation will not.