It was a merry band of Dallas Cowboys who gathered last Saturday
to pose for the team picture. They laughed when Chad Hennings, a
defensive tackle, took a false step and nearly plunged from the
scaffolding on which the players were standing. They laughed
harder as defensive end Charles Haley repeatedly encouraged
Cowboy owner Jerry Jones to pluck the hairpiece from the pate of
a team executive standing beneath him. And they looked on with
delight as Leon Lett, the usually reserved defensive tackle,
kicked up his heels in imitation of the touchdown dance of a
certain Jheri Kurled, two-sport mercenary who earlier that
morning had become the newest Cowboy.
These 'Boys had reason to be boisterous. Ten hours earlier,
ringmaster Jones had capped a chaotic week (page 60) by
successfully luring free-agent cornerback Deion Sanders to
Dallas with a seven-year, $35 million deal. Prime Time, who's
currently toiling in centerfield for the San Francisco Giants,
will need arthroscopic surgery to clean out his injured left
ankle once the baseball season ends, and he may not be ready for
football until late October.
Dallas has no problem with that. The Cowboys host the San
Francisco 49ers on Nov. 12, and judging by the ease with which
they handled their first two opponents, they may not need him
until then. Despite the distractions to which their owner
subjected them last week, the Pokes went into Texas Stadium on
Sunday and simply overpowered the Denver Broncos. The final
score, 31-21, belied the extent of the Cowboys' domination: The
Broncos filched a window-dressing touchdown in the game's final
Did you think Dallas might be a team in decline? Did you think
that after losing a shot at the Lombardi Trophy to the 49ers,
then losing Pro Bowl center Mark Stepnoski and wide receiver
Alvin Harper to free agency, the Cowboys were on the slippery
slope to the NFL's second tier? Think again.
The core of talent with which they won two of the last three
Super Bowls is intact. Quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver
Michael Irvin and running back Emmitt Smith reported to training
camp in the best physical condition of their lives. Pro Bowl
offensive tackle Erik Williams has returned from the October
1994 car accident in which he was nearly killed, and is mowing
down opposing linemen as before. Smith is, for the time being,
free of the hamstring injuries that kept him out of all or part
of five games in '94. The Cowboys are at last comfortable with
coach Barry Switzer, the hands-off, delegating, diametric
opposite of his predecessor, Jimmy Johnson. They vividly
remember how it feels to play in the Super Bowl and are
desperate to return.
If the Cowboys needed added incentive to knock off the team that
supplanted them, they got it in February at the Pro Bowl.
According to several Cowboys the 49ers were strutting around,
putting on airs. Said one Dallas player, "They were looking down
their noses at our guys, acting like their ---- don't stink."
By September the Cowboys seemed to have all the motivation they
would need. During a conversation with Smith just days before
the Cowboy opener, Irvin noted the absence of Stepnoski and
Harper, saying, "We've got to pick it up this season." And how
did they figure they could do that? "You haven't seen me run
yet," Smith said simply. "This season I'll run like I need to
run." Here was a three-time NFL rushing champ announcing: You
ain't seen nothing yet.
He meant it. Smith was flat-out awesome in the Cowboys' 35-0
drop-kicking of the New York Giants on Sept. 4. The first time
he touched the ball, he went 60 yards up the gut for a score.
Fifteen yards from the end zone, the usually businesslike Smith
raised one hand in the air and turned to mock the nearest Giant.
Could Smith, through this bit of showboating, have been trying
to make Neon Deion feel at home?
Smith rushed for 163 yards and scored four touchdowns in that
game. Against a more rugged Denver defense he piled up 114 yards
on 26 carries. Three plays in particular defined him:
Midway through the second quarter, with the Cowboys facing
third-and-six on the Bronco 16, Aikman drops back to pass and is
in danger of being sacked by blitzing Bronco linebacker Keith
Burns, who is taken out by Smith's textbook cut block. Burns
goes ass-over-teakettle; Smith springs off the ground, sprints
to his left and catches a pass for a 14-yard gain.
Late in the third quarter, Cowboys' ball, second-and-nine on
the Denver 15. Smith, who has rushed 10 times in the quarter,
takes a dump pass five yards and lowers his head into a stand of
Bronco defenders. Tackled, he stays down, having had his bell
rung. After a scary minute, he sits up, then walks off the
field. On the bench, he is further revived with smelling salts.
Three plays after being knocked senseless, he scores what proves
to be the game-winning touchdown on a one-yard run.
In defeat, Bronco tight end Shannon Sharpe sized up the Cowboys
and their prospects. "I think they can win the Super Bowl
without Deion," said Sharpe, who, after making 10 catches in
Week 1, caught five on Sunday. "What sets them apart [from the
49ers] is Emmitt Smith."
"He's a warrior," agreed Bronco coach Mike Shanahan. "If he
isn't the best running back in the league, I don't want to face
the guy who is."
Smith is that unlikeliest of superstar backs: He plays hurt; he
blocks with the zeal of a free-agent fullback. He sat out the
first two regular-season games of the '93 season while engaged
in a contract dispute with Jones, whom he refers to as the
Man. Smith finally reported after signing a four-year, $13.6
million deal in '93--a contract roughly the size of Sanders's
signing bonus. So it was interesting last week to monitor the
reaction of Smith, who has had to scrape for every nickel the
Man has ever given him, while Jones has now broken the bank for
a part-time player with an aversion to physical contact.
As the Cowboys arranged themselves in numerical order for
Saturday morning's team photo, minutes after being officially
informed that Prime Time was on board, one wondered if just a
few of those smiles weren't forced. It had been a tense week for
defensive tackle Russell Maryland, who was rumored to be in
danger of being traded or cut. Maryland's $1.8 million salary
would have to be lopped to accommodate Deion. After the team
picture, Jones sought out Maryland and assured him that those
rumors had no substance. And how about Pro Bowl safety Darren
Woodson--was he feigning cheerfulness? His contract is up this
season, and the signing of Sanders will make it difficult for
Jones to pay him market value next season (page 90).
Smith, for his part, professed to welcome Sanders. His warm
response was attributable at least in part to the fact that
Jones had done a very smart thing. Late in the negotiations with
Sanders, he called Aikman, Irvin and Smith into his office and
gave them the chance to veto the deal.
"I had a conversation with them to detect whether this thing was
going a little overboard," said Jones during Sunday's game. "I
wanted to get a sense of whether or not we were overreaching."
Aikman had already signed off on the deal; the quarterback spent
the first 25 minutes of Thursday's practice in Jones's office,
restructuring his contract so that the sacks of cash the owner
was throwing at Sanders could be squeezed under the salary cap.
Smith, too, gave the Man his personal green light and
appreciated having been consulted by Jones.
"It made us feel like part of the organization," he said after
Sunday's game. "The Man asked me did I have any problem with it?
I told him, 'No, we need [Sanders] here.' He said, 'I want to
hear it from your mouth: Do you want him on the team?' I said,
'Yes, I want him on the team.'"
But do the Cowboys need him on the team? The answer was
"perhaps"--until the season opener, when they lost starting
cornerback Kevin Smith to a ruptured Achilles tendon. The need
for another corner having become suddenly acute, Switzer issued,
through the media, a message to his boss after the opener, a
plea that also served as an invitation for Prime Time to jack up
his asking price. "It's serious now," said Switzer. "Go get
Deion. We need Deion, now."
This proclamation did little to boost the confidence of Cowboy
reserve Clayton Holmes, a fourth-year cornerback who will keep
the position warm for Sanders for another five games or so.
Holmes preferred to look upon his second career start, in which
he would go up against Bronco quarterback John Elway, not so
much as a nightmare as an opportunity. "If I could have a good
game against Elway," said Holmes, who is one of those
glass-is-half-full kind of guys, "that would be a great boost
for my morale."
The Broncos eagerly attacked him. Elway tried to connect with
wideout Anthony Miller on at least three "go" routs to Holmes's
side. Holmes broke up every one. When Elway and Miller did
finally hook up for a pair of touchdown passes, from 11 and 59
yards, it was veteran defensive backs Larry Brown, Scott Case
and Woodson, rather than Holmes, who were beaten.
Despite those two TD strikes, it was a forgettable day for
Elway, who completed just 11 of 24 passes, threw an interception
and a whole batch of ugly balls. The chief source of his misery
was Haley, nicknamed Chucky by the Cowboys because he reminds
them of the havoc-wreaking antagonist in the movie Child's Play.
Having retired after last January's NFC Championship Game, Haley
exercised his constitutional right to change his mind. He came
out of retirement in the off-season, then spent Sunday hastening
the retirement of Denver's Pro Bowl left tackle Gary Zimmerman,
who couldn't have blocked Haley with a front-end loader. Working
primarily from the right side, Haley had five tackles, two
sacks, forced a fumble that led to Dallas's final score and
induced Zimmerman to take a holding penalty and commit a
Jones gets an extra frisson of pleasure from every sack and
every tackle by Haley, simply because the pass-rushing
specialist is an ex-49er. On Saturday, after pointing out that
his Cowboys had gone on to win two Super Bowls after plucking
Chucky from San Francisco, Jones expressed the hope that "with
Deion, we will win the next two Super Bowls."
Who could blame him for entertaining such heady thoughts? Prime
Time was Dallas-bound! Could anyone possibly tire of discussing
Well, actually, yes. After the 49ers trounced the Atlanta
Falcons 41-10 in the Battle of Deion's Former Teams, Jerry Rice
flew into a frothing rage, ranting profanely at reporters whom
he accused of having given Sanders too much credit at the
expense of the 49ers' other defensive backs. Rice finally had to
be led away by a team official, who claimed he did not need
Thorazine to stabilize the temperamental future Hall of Famer.
Peppered with Deion-related questions at his own postgame press
conference, Aikman could not resist pointing out that the
Cowboys had been able to win two of the last three Super Bowls
without Sanders, and that his presence on the roster does not
necessarily make Dallas "a lock" to win the next one.
On this subject Aikman and Switzer, who do not always see eye to
eye, are in agreement. Taking lunch at his desk after Friday's
practice, the Cowboy coach said of Deion, "Well, he gives you a
better chance, but that doesn't mean it gets done. It's how well
you play the day you play." After allowing his interrogator a
moment to mull over that profundity, Switzer offered an
explanation of his team's early success. "The players know my
style, they know who I am,'' he said. "We're through the
transition. Our team has reached a comfort level."
In short order, then, the Cowboys have achieved a comfort level
and secured the services of the world's best cornerback. It is a
combination that should cause severe discomfort for Cowboy
running back in the league, I don't want to face the guy who is."