For all his agility, the greatness of Tony Dorsett is his toughness. Sitting back there in that I formation eight yards deep, he's great at running for the tough yards. I don't know what he weighs, 185 maybe, but he hits like 220. Shoulders level. God, he's a great player. I like to think that our guy, Eric Dickerson, will be like that someday.
LOS ANGELES RAMS COACH, 1983
Tony Dorsett, for 11 years a Dallas Cowboy and for a month a Denver Bronco, is conducting a slow, carefully paced workout at the Broncos' training facility in Denver. The trade that brought him from Dallas for a 1989 draft choice that could range anywhere from the fifth to the first round is four weeks old. In another week he will report to camp with the veterans. He's running striders, three-quarter-speed sprints, across the width of the practice field. On the sidelines, eyes narrowed, two of the Three Amigos, quarterback John Elway's collection of moving targets, watch him run.
"A 4.3 point, that's what he ran in Dallas in minicamp, a 4.3 point," Mark Jackson says to Ricky Nattiel. Jackson looks as if he is trying to fathom how a 34-year-old can still run a 4.38 40-yard dash. "They told Dan Reeves about it," continues Jackson, "and he said, 'Ship that track up here. I want our guys to run on it.' Then Dorsett runs a 4.3 point up here."
The mystery of speed. Did he really run a 4.3 point in Denver? "Something like that," says Dorsett with a smile. Says Reeves with a smile, "Well, he's awful fast." Keep the mystery alive.
"Last year defensive backs only kept one eye on the backfield," says Nattiel. "Now they'll just have to keep two."
"Hey, listen to this," says Steve Watson, the veteran wideout. "Tony's running with [second-year wideout] Sam Graddy, who's got world-class speed. Sam's sprinting, Tony's striding—and keeping up, step for step."
Dorsett laughs when this last bit of information is relayed to him. "I met Sam, but I never ran with him," he says. "Someone's pulling your leg."
The legend, the hope. Be great at 34. Be the old TD. Terrorize the defenses. Give us a terrific running game to go with Elway's rockets. Give us, after three attempts, a Super Bowl triumph.
"I want them to be bold with him," says Jackson. "I want them to run him down the pipe, sneak him out of the backfield and run him on deep patterns, terrorize those inside linebackers, make them double-cover him, give us some breathing room outside. Never mind those little swing passes and things. That's diddly stuff."
In the bright Denver sunshine Dorsett is rolling along near the end of a Hall of Fame career, and the Broncos are keeping their fingers crossed. Can he be a great back again? Sure, he was benched for Herschel Walker last year, but the Cowboys were on a youth kick, and their blocking wasn't what it once was. But then come the whispers from the past, the sad roster of fading stars who were shipped to new teams to rejuvenate tired running games.
O.J. Simpson slowed to a walk with the San Francisco 49ers, and O.J. Anderson became an embarrassment with the New York Giants. "Did either of those O.J.'s ever run a 4.38 at age 34?" says Dorsett.
More whispers: Franco Harris, his moves gone, waiting for the ax from the Seattle Seahawks; Earl Campbell hauling freight for the New Orleans Saints. "Look, the situation was different with those guys," says Dorsett. "Franco was used to running quick traps in Pittsburgh. The Seattle system was different. That's not the case here. Reeves was my offensive coach my first four years in Dallas. At Denver he runs the Cowboys' whole offense—the draws, the traps, the screens, the misdirection, everything. The offense will be no problem for me.
"Earl Campbell? Well, he was one of the runners I've most admired. But his body simply took too many hits. It wore out. In college I didn't take that many abusive licks. Same way in Dallas. My game is negotiation. Do I look like I'm worn out?"
Well, no, not at all. From a distance Dorsett looks slight, but up close the compactness of his 5'10", 189-pound body—the deep chest, the size of the biceps and forearms—surprises you. He says 189 is the perfect weight for him.
Only his face betrays his age. It's a face that has known misfortune—the death of a fiancèe, the death of his father right before a game, a broken marriage, failed business ventures, trouble with the IRS, the scorn of the Dallas fans, perennial battles with the Cowboy organization. When Dorsett arrived in Dallas after winning the Heisman Trophy and the national championship at the University of Pittsburgh in 1976, he was feisty and indiscreet. He didn't fit the good ol' boy Cowboy image.
Dallas won the Super Bowl in his rookie season, and he immediately displayed the great cutback and escape moves that would move him to No. 1 on the Cowboys' alltime rushing list and to No. 4 on the NFL's career list, behind Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Harris. He was a wise guy, but he never dogged it on the field—not for a single play. The fans waited, and last year they let him hear all the boos they'd been saving for 10 years. Last year, for the first time in his career, Dorsett experienced embarrassment as a football player.
Captain Scab was what he called Randy White, the Cowboys' outstanding defensive tackle, when White crossed the picket line in the early days of the players' strike. Then Dorsett, his annuity having been threatened by team president Tex Schramm, broke ranks days later. After he ran for a 10-yard touchdown in a scab game against the Philadelphia Eagles, he was booed. It was probably the first time a Dallas touchdown had been booed in Texas Stadium. "That period was the weirdest in my life," says Dorsett. "I was one of the union spearheads, then I walked through the line—with egg on my face. I hated it. I hated being there, hated the games I had to dress for. The Redskins game? Physically I was on the field, but mentally I was a zillion miles away. Out of all the years I took pride in wearing the silver-and-blue, those were the times I hated being a Dallas Cowboy."
When the strike ended he started with Walker in the backfield. The coaches moved Walker around, from fullback to tailback to wideout. Just after midseason Dorsett had more carries than Walker in nonstrike games, and Walker complained to the coaches: If I'm your future, then give me the ball and stop fooling around. Dorsett agreed.
On Nov. 15, Walker carried 28 times for 173 yards against the New England Patriots, while Dorsett got in for six plays. Against the Miami Dolphins the next week, Dorsett was a DNP (Did Not Play). It was the ultimate embarrassment—the clean jersey. The veterans stared at the floor. If the Cowboys could do it to a guy like Dorsett, no one was safe.
Reeves, who selected Dorsett over former Redskins runner George Rogers, doesn't think lack of ability is the reason Dorsett was benched. "If you've got a line that doesn't create daylight," says Reeves, "then the guy who gets the ball should be the one who weighs 230." According to the Bronco staff, the Cowboys' concept of the running game became ill-suited to Dorsett's talents.
Jim Erkenbeck, who took over as line coach in Dallas in 1987, brought in the zone-blocking scheme that had been successful for him in New Orleans—the massive, hulking people blocking straight ahead with a power back close behind. Dorsett had made his living with the misdirection, toss plays and the trap. At times last year the Cowboys started three linemen who weighed more than 300 pounds. They were hardly mobile.
"It sounds good—big, young, zone-blocking offensive line," said Dallas fullback Timmy Newsome after last year's Dolphins game, "and when they're facing a defensive line that just sits there, it's fine. But Miami stunted a lot, and we couldn't handle it, and that's what happens to a big, young offensive line."
"Tony Dorsett hasn't lost a step," said veteran Dallas guard Brian Bal-dinger, who had been replaced by the jumbos. "He still sees things as quick as any runner in the league. We're changing so many things that the backs aren't on the same page. We're hitting and missing. What Tony did so well was hit in, suck everyone up and then bounce outside. Now it's all inside the tackles and make one cut."
The Broncos are just the opposite. Their guards, Stefan Humphries and Pro Bowler Keith Bishop, are mobile. So are the tackles, Ken Lanier and David Studdard, and center Billy Bryan. Reeves fashioned Denver's running game to resemble the rushing attack Dallas used to have, and it has been maligned in recent years, mainly because it lacked a breakaway back. But how many Dorsett-caliber breakaway backs are in the league—Walker, Bo Jackson, Dickerson on a good day, who else?
As a Tom Landry disciple, Reeves has always been dedicated to the ground game, despite Elway's presence. Last year only six teams ran more times than Denver, and only two scored more rushing TDs. However, in net rushing yards the Broncos ranked 12th. Dorsett's speed could fix that. "What excites me is his enthusiasm." says Reeves. "When I first sat down with Tony, I was excited because he was excited.
"If we get the ball to him 25 to 30 times a game, on runs and passes, I know things will happen, but it's a question of how much work you want to give him. I haven't really worked it out yet."
Reeves and Dorsett had dinner on June 2, the night before the trade was announced. "We talked football for a while," says Dorsett. "I thought, God, what a perfect situation for me. Contending team, same offense, coach I've worked with. Football had become a job last year, J-O-B. Now it's exciting again. I was thinking, as great a coach as Tom Landry was, and as much as I admired him, I don't remember ever having dinner with him—in 11 years in Dallas."
Rogers remained in the picture while Denver negotiated with the Cowboys. Dallas wanted the Broncos to pick up two fifths of Dorsett's $6 million annuity, from which he will receive the first of 20 $300,000 annual payments in 1996. Denver refused. Finally, Dorsett's accountant, Bill Love, dropped the request for annuity funding. The plan was replaced with an insurance policy—funded partly by Dallas, partly by Denver and partly by Dorsett—that guarantees him the annual $300,000 payment. Dorsett's two-year contract with the Broncos guarantees him an annual base salary of $500,000. but yardage and incentives could make him another $250,000 per season. "It's a better deal than I had in Dallas," he says, "which is another reason I'm excited."
Still, the nagging question remains: At age 34, how much fuel is left in the tank? He has carried the ball 2,755 times in his NFL career. Only three backs—Payton, Harris and John Riggins—have more attempts. That's a lot of hits for a 189-pound body.
"Exceptional people must be judged by different standards," says Reeves. "People like Payton and Riggins had plenty left in their 30's. That's the kind of person Tony is."
"Look, I feel great," Dorsett says. (He suffered a mild concussion last Friday during practice, but returned the following day.) "Mentally I couldn't feel better. As far as my reputation for being a troublemaker, well, I don't back off. The Cowboys try to mold everyone in their image, and I couldn't be molded. I created the whole scenario, so I had to live with it.
"I kind of thrived on the controversy I created. The media loved me. Now it's different. I'm at the end of my career, but I'm a newcomer here. I'm focused on what I have to do. The players are going to look at me with suspicion, a show-me attitude, maybe even envy. I can deal with that. The guys I've met have been nice. But when you talk about Tony Dorsett you have to ask this: What has he brought to the picnic?"
Plenty, say the Broncos. Just call him dessert.