BUFFALOED BEATEN BADLY BY THE BILLS, DALLAS'S VAUNTED OFFENSIVE LINE LOOKED LIKE JUST ONE MORE COWBOYS PROBLEM AREA

September 29, 1996

The tiny meeting room that is home to the Dallas Cowboys
offensive line has several distinguishing features. For
starters, the walls of this 15-by-20-foot den inside the team's
training facility in Irving are painted a not-so-intimidating
baby blue. The room is so crammed with film equipment,
chalkboards and desks that there is barely space to breathe when
all eight linemen, who collectively weigh more than a ton, meet
to break down film and plot strategy. It's also the meeting room
closest to the lunch buffet line and farthest from the weigh-in
scale. And this week it will be the most unpleasant place on the
planet.

The defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys are now 1-3 after
losing 10-7 to the Bills at Rich Stadium last Sunday, and a
major reason why Dallas is tied with Arizona and New York for
last place in the NFC East can be found inside the line's
troubled little clubhouse. Even with a millionaire Pro Bowl
blocker at every position up front, Dallas managed just 32 yards
and 1.8 yards per carry against the Bills. "This is
embarrassing," said gigantic left guard Nate Newton, 34. "We
used to have an intimidation factor, but that's all gone now.
What are we, 1-3? Who's scared of that?"

Certainly not the 3-1 Bills, who used a barrage of confusing
stunts at the line of scrimmage to neutralize Dallas's bulk,
which moves at a glacial clip these days, what with four
starters banged up with injuries. Left tackle Mark Tuinei, 36,
has a sprained right knee; Ray Donaldson, 38, the oldest center
in the league, is still nursing a broken ankle from last year;
right guard Larry Allen has tendinitis in his left knee; and
right tackle Erik Williams had surgery on his foot a month ago.
"Last year people were calling us the best line ever," said
Dallas line coach Hudson Houck. "Then we lost to Philadelphia
and all of a sudden we were too big, too fat, too out of shape
and too old. I don't buy that."

Stunting against this mammoth line is a strategy that has been
duplicated repeatedly--and with increasing success--since the
49ers crushed the Cowboys in the 1994 NFC Championship Game. For
this team to get that far in the playoffs, a miracle will have
to occur. No 1-3 team has gone on to play in a conference
championship game since the Steelers in 1976, and none has ever
won a Super Bowl. To make matters worse, wideout Kevin Williams
went down with a badly sprained right foot on Sunday and could
be out for two months. And with wide receiver Michael Irvin not
due back from his NFL-mandated five-game drug suspension until
after this week's game against the division-leading Eagles, the
strain is starting to show on running back Emmitt Smith and
quarterback Troy Aikman.

With little time to throw, Aikman was intercepted three times by
the Bills--a team that had not picked off a pass before Sunday.
His last miscue came on the Cowboys' final possession with 2:02
left. Three minutes earlier, a two-yard plunge by Smith had
pulled Dallas to within a field goal. Now, with one more chance,
Aikman took aim at his neophyte wideout, Deion Sanders. But as
he often does, Sanders ran an amateurish pass route, and Buffalo
safety Thomas Smith easily stepped in front of him for an
interception to secure the upset.

The Cowboys converted a measly 25% of their third downs--just
one of the many subjects the offensive line will be getting
lectured about this week. Tentative and powerless against the
Bills, Smith rushed 15 times for 25 yards--his lowest output
ever in a game he played from start to finish. Smith has now
been tackled for no gain 17 times in 1996, and his body is a
gimpy monument to the line's ineptitude. He suffered bruised
ribs on Sunday to go along with previous injuries to his knee,
neck, shoulder and ankle. "I still think I'm dreaming," said
Smith afterward. "It's like a bad dream."

The nightmare also continues for coach Barry Switzer. Last week
Switzer mused about coaching America's Team for another 10
years. He may not last another 10 quarters. Dallas was
unprepared for its opener in Chicago, the Cowboys choked in Week
3 against Indianapolis, and Switzer was outcoached by Buffalo's
Marv Levy on Sunday. Wearing his now familiar postgame
scowl--his lower lip and eyebrows appearing to just about
touch--Switzer all but blamed his blockers by name for the loss.

But it was clearly Switzer's fault that the Cowboys were baffled
by Buffalo's ground-control game plan, which featured an opening
touchdown drive of nearly 11 minutes, orchestrated by backup
quarterback Todd Collins, who took over in mid-week when Jim
Kelly went down with a strained hamstring. "Honestly, we are
just not a good team, and I mean that," said Cowboys safety
Darren Woodson. "On paper we're the best team in the league. On
the field, who knows?"

"We've dug ourselves a deep hole, but we're not six feet under
yet," insists Newton. "Just 3 1/2 feet."

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Aikman was under pressure, or under wraps, all day long as he threw for only 164 yards. [Troy Aikman being tackled by Buffalo Bills player] COLOR PHOTO: LOUIS CAPOZZOLA Was this NFL football or synchronized swimming? [New York Jets player and New York Giants player rolling on ground]

COMING UP

PANTHERS AT JAGUARS

Jacksonville's Mark Brunell is a clone of the 49ers' Steve
Young, whom Carolina held in check on Sunday. If the Jaguars
want to win the Expansion Bowl--and hand Carolina its first
loss--either James Stewart or Natrone Means must run for more
yardage than Brunell.

RAIDERS AT BEARS

Can anybody here run the ball into the end zone? These two 1-3
teams are both seeking their first rushing touchdown of '96.
With a running back named Napoleon (Kaufman) making Soldier
Field his battleground, Oakland has a slight edge.

OILERS AT STEELERS

For a lame-duck quarterback, Houston's Chris Chandler has one
helluva wing: six TD passes against only one interception this
year. And if running back Eddie George continues to improve,
Houston, which has lost four straight to Pittsburgh, will claim
first place in the AFC Central.

CHIEFS AT CHARGERS

San Diego shook the cobwebs out of its offense with 40 points
against the Raiders, including four Stan Humphries touchdown
passes. To win this week the Chargers' offense must keep K.C.'s
defense from scoring.

COWBOYS AT EAGLES

Never mind the Super Bowl champs' 1-3 record. It's this simple:
Whenever Philadelphia running back Ricky Watters rushes for 100
or more yards, the Eagles win. Ricky, don't lose that number.

THE STUPOR BOWL

The New York-New York game lived up to its billing

Here it was, just in time for the new fall lineup, yet another
Big Apple-based comedy. Where Seinfeld is a show about nothing,
this was a show about nothing going right.

But what to name it? Sunday's matchup of bumbling Meadowlands
cotenants, the 0-3 New York Giants and the 0-3 New York Jets,
inspired many cruel suggestions--the Peyton Manning Bowl, the
Stupor Bowl, the Movable Object versus the Resistible Force--and
resulted in some hilarious slapstick. Dick Van Dyke at his
loopiest had nothing on Jets rookie Alex Van Dyke, who, after
flying downfield in punt coverage during the fourth quarter,
dived on teammate Brian Hansen's punt at the Giants two-yard
line and, inexplicably, carried the ball into the end zone,
resulting in a touchback.

Following their sloppy 13-6 win, the Giants were, quite
possibly, the most jubilant 1-3 team in NFL history. "Maybe
David Letterman will start picking on the Jets now," said Giants
linebacker Corey Miller. The win earned the Giants the title of
Jersey State Champs and allowed them to escape--for seven days,
anyway--the pitiless glare of the New York media, which will now
focus its abuse on the team that one Gotham tabloid dubbed
"Kotite's Klowns."

The defeat was Jets coach Rich Kotite's eighth straight and his
17th in 20 games since going to New York. His Klowns, who
haven't scored a rushing touchdown this season, were limited on
Sunday to a pair of Nick Lowery field goals. This was not what
fossil-fuel magnate--and fossil--Leon Hess, the team's
82-year-old owner, had in mind when he spent 80 million
petrodollars in the off-season to upgrade the team's talent.

Last Friday rookie wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson stood up in
the Jets locker room and addressed his elders. The night before,
Johnson and fellow wideout Jeff Graham had been out on the town
with some Chicago Bulls. (Scottie Pippen was in the party,
Michael Jordan wasn't.) "They were killing us," recounted
Johnson. "Blowing cigar smoke in our faces, saying stuff like,
'We have more championships than you guys have wins.'" After
relating to his teammates how humiliating this had been, Johnson
warned them: "If we go 0-4, there are going to be some real
problems around here with me."

Conspicuously unmotivated by the rookie's pep talk was
quarterback Neil O'Donnell, who spent all day Sunday alternately
overthrowing him, underthrowing him and ignoring him. Johnson
caught one pass for 14 yards. To the assembled media after the
game he refused to criticize Kotite or O'Donnell. In private he
was less circumspect. "Why draft me if you're not gonna give me
the rock?" he said. "I mean, c'mon. Give me the goddam ball and
let me do my thing."

O'Donnell was looking for Johnson as he faced a fourth-and-four
on his own 19 with just under two minutes to play. But before
O'Donnell could find Johnson, Giants defensive end Michael
Strahan found O'Donnell. Strahan's sack sealed the Giants
victory. In celebration he stabbed at the sky with his right
forefinger.

The Giants, No. 1? It was nice to see that, despite his team's
struggles this season, Strahan had not lost his sense of humor.

--Austin Murphy

SIDELINES

The Vikings, who came from behind to defeat the previously
unbeaten Packers 30-21, have outscored their opponents 42-3 in
the fourth quarter this season....Jaguars quarterback Mark
Brunell, who through Sunday led the NFL in passing yardage with
1,163, threw touchdown passes of 41, 51 and 61 yards in
Jacksonville's 28-25 overtime loss at New England; previously,
his longest touchdown throw measured 38 yards.... The 49ers'
leading rusher, Derek Loville, has 130 yards in three starts,
and folks in the Bay Area are beginning to remind team president
Carmen Policy that the Niners passed up Karim Abdul-Jabbar (280
yards for Miami going into Monday night's game) in the second
round of the draft in favor of defensive end project Israel
Ifeanyi, who has been deactivated for two of San Francisco's
three games.... The AFC's leading receiver (29 catches) is
former Mesa (Colo.) College quarterback Tony Martin, now a
seventh-year wideout for the Chargers.... Keep an eye on
second-year Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks, who already
has a team-high 40 tackles....Seattle's Rick Mirer threw his
first scoring pass in eight games, a five-yarder to Brian
Blades, in the Seahawks' 17-13 win at Tampa Bay....The
Cardinals, under new coach Vince Tobin, have had two punts
blocked in their first four games; before this season Arizona
had not allowed a blocked punt since 1990.... Bears defensive
tackle Jim Flanigan, whom Chicago sometimes uses as a
short-yardage blocker, caught a one-yard touchdown pass in the
second quarter of Chicago's 35-16 loss at Detroit. In two-plus
seasons in the NFL, Flanigan has four TD receptions....The AFC
East is 6-1 versus its NFC East counterparts this season; only
the Giants, who beat the Jets 13-6 on Sunday, have a win....
Packers fans, beware: Green Bay has lost 12 of its last 14 games
on artificial turf and is 2-8 in its last 10 dome games. Super
Bowl XXXI will be played on artificial turf in the Louisiana
Superdome.

--John Walters

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)