OUT OF STEP EVEN THE RETURN OF MICHAEL IRVIN CAN'T HIDE THE MULTITUDE OF PROBLEMS FACING THE COWBOYS

October 20, 1996

The heart, soul and swagger of the Dallas Cowboys resurfaced on
Sunday at Texas Stadium in the form of a man wearing an
electric-purple suit, a diamond Superman necklace and
gold-plated sunglasses. "I dress like I dress," said Michael
Irvin, the Pro Bowl wide receiver who played football for the
first time since last January's Super Bowl. "I didn't throw out
all my clothes--you know what I mean?"

What Irvin meant was that despite his much-publicized no-contest
plea to a felony charge of cocaine possession last July--and the
resulting NFL suspension that kept him out of the Cowboys' first
five games--both his wardrobe and his public persona remain
louder than an Alice In Chains sound check. But appearances can
be deceiving, as Dallas learned during its less-than-resounding
17-3 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. With Irvin back in the
fold, the Cowboys may look like a team that matches up on paper
with the Dallas ensemble that defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers
in Super Bowl XXX. But upon closer inspection, the Cowboys have
enough problems to make their 3-3 record seem less an aberration
than an accurate barometer. "We're not close to being a
championship team," All-Pro strong safety Darren Woodson said in
a low-key locker room after the game. "We've got a lot of
wrinkles we have to iron out, and it's going to take some time.
If we think getting Michael back fixes everything, we're kidding
ourselves."

So while Irvin caught five passes for 51 yards and helped open
up things for tailback Emmitt Smith (21 carries, 112 yards), his
return was far from triumphant--a fact not lost on Cowboys owner
Jerry Jones, the man whose paychecks facilitate the receiver's
gaudy fashion statements. As loaded as the expression is in
Dallas these days, Sunday's game was a sobering experience for
the Cowboys and for Jones, who made that very observation more
than an hour afterward as he celebrated his 54th birthday by
sipping red wine in his luxury suite. "If anybody on this team
thought that Michael was going to step on the field and
magically produce 12- and 13-play drives, they know better now,"
Jones said. "If people were intoxicated by the promise of
Michael's return, this sobered them up. At this point we've got
to work our tails off to beat anybody we play."

It was a much merrier Jones who sat in his office two days
earlier and broached the possibility that the Cowboys might "run
the table" and win their remaining 11 regular-season games. The
idea seemed preposterous given Dallas's 1-3 start, which had
been followed by a narrow Monday-night victory over the
Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 30. But Jones's Cowboys have won
three of the last four Super Bowls--an unprecedented feat--while
riding the collective brilliance of Irvin, Smith and quarterback
Troy Aikman. Jones refers to that trio as the Holy Trinity, and
no wonder: In the past four seasons Dallas has won 82.6% of the
games in which all three played but only 41.7% of games from
which one or more of them was absent. Dining in a hip Dallas
restaurant last Friday night, coach Barry Switzer admitted that
his realistic goal for the Cowboys during Irvin's suspension had
been a 3-2 start.

Why is Dallas so dependent on its Big Three? Sure, Aikman, Smith
and Irvin are integral to the Cowboys' fortunes, but teams such
as the Steelers (Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd) and the San Francisco
49ers (Steve Young) are far more adept at overcoming the loss of
key players. On Sept. 15 at Texas Stadium, the Indianapolis
Colts survived the absence of star running back Marshall Faulk,
and seemingly a third of their roster, to fight back from a 21-3
deficit and stun Dallas 25-24. Take away Aikman, Irvin or Smith,
however, and suddenly the Cowboys are the Grateful Dead without
Jerry Garcia.

"Maybe we have a mental block," Aikman conceded last Saturday.
"I think there's such a comfort zone, and you get so accustomed
to seeing those guys and knowing the plays they've made over the
years, that when you look in the huddle and don't see them,
there's a little bit of an uneasiness." Not that Aikman was
endorsing the popular depiction of Irvin as a sort of human
elixir. "If we continue to play like we have, even with Michael
here, we'll continue to struggle," he said. "But a lot of people
in this organization believe that Michael's return will make
everything O.K., and that's good. I think our problems run
deeper than that, but if other people see him as a cure-all,
that's half the battle."

The Cowboys face an uphill struggle in the NFC East, with the
Washington Redskins (5-1) and the Eagles (4-2) standing between
them and a fifth consecutive division title. Their bulky
offensive line, heralded during last season's Super Bowl run as
the league's best, has at times looked old, fat and fragile.
Smith, in his seventh season, is getting worn down by the
repeated pounding he's taking this year, and tight end Jay
Novacek may never play again because of back troubles. A bad
back has also sidelined star pass rusher Charles Haley, although
he is due to return for this Sunday's game against the 0-6
Atlanta Falcons at Texas Stadium. Lack of depth is a lingering
concern for Dallas. Because they've doled out so much money to
their stars, the Cowboys haven't had much left to spend on
backups. During training camp one prominent club official
suggested that Dallas had "the worst second and third teams in
NFL history."

Still, there was no denying that the return of the fiery Irvin
would give the Cowboys a huge boost, not only in morale but also
in tangible ways. Without his favorite receiver, Aikman suffered
greatly; going into Sunday's game his completion percentage for
'96 was 58.9%, down from the 65.5% figure he put together over
the past five seasons. After struggling (11 of 23) during the
first half against the Cardinals, Aikman completed 12 of 14
passes in the second. Arizona has one of the NFL's best
cornerbacks in Aeneas Williams, and his aggressive coverage was
effective on Irvin, producing an emphatic breakup on Dallas's
first play and an interception of a deep pass early in the third
quarter. But the Cardinals often rolled a safety, as most teams
do, to help Williams cover Irvin. That double coverage freed up
tight end Eric Bjornson (five catches, 49 yards, two drops) and
neophyte wideout Deion Sanders, who set up the game-clinching
touchdown late in the fourth quarter by catching a 10-yard slant
pass on third-and-nine from the Cardinals' 23.

Irvin's return also jump-started the Cowboys' wheezing ground
game, which had been plagued by injuries to Smith and several
linemen. Smith, bothered by an assortment of ailments--neck,
ribs, ankle, knee and shoulder--had averaged a meager 3.5 yards
per carry coming in. He wore down the Arizona defense, however,
and on the last Dallas drive he and his maligned linemen were
the most spirited, physical players on the field. "We got
Michael back, and that eliminates a lot of the eight-man fronts
we've been seeing," said right tackle Erik Williams afterward.
"I don't care what anyone says, it's tough to block when you're
outnumbered. The first five weeks teams weren't respecting the
pass, and they were blitzing us to death. But today we felt like
the Cowboys of old."

Dallas's performance was tough to assess, given that the foe was
the Cardinals, who have lost 12 consecutive games to the
Cowboys. Arizona's offense featured less imagination and
movement than baseball's labor negotiations, and Dallas's
top-ranked defense, led by linemen Tony Tolbert and Leon Lett
and cornerbacks Sanders and Kevin Smith, had little trouble
keeping the Cardinals out of the end zone. "We were ready for
everything," said free safety Brock Marion. "We won a game we
thought we were going to win, and Michael helped us."

Though Irvin said little publicly in the two weeks leading up to
the game, he clearly saw his return as an opportunity for
healing. Once among the most popular personalities in Texas, he
worried about the way he would be greeted by Cowboys fans, many
of whom had been disillusioned by his arrest and the attendant
allegations of drug use and infidelity. On Saturday, in a taped
appearance on a local cable show cohosted by Sanders and
FOX-TV's Pam Oliver, Irvin said his suspension had allowed him
to rediscover the joy of spending time at home with his family.
Then he announced that his wife, Sandi, was pregnant with the
couple's third child. Replied Sanders, "So, even though you
haven't been working for the Cowboys, you have been working."

As damaging as Irvin's lifestyle choices had been to his image,
he had turned off even more observers after his arrest with his
flippant devotion to ostentatious behavior. From the time police
officers burst into that hotel room and Irvin said, "Can I tell
you who I am?" he became a lot less likable. Witness the way he
approached the 800 hours of community service required under the
terms of his probation. Irvin, according to sources, showed up
one September morning at a south Dallas drug treatment center,
where he was slated to do cleaning and repair work, with an
entourage of seven associates. He was told to come alone the
next day, and things have gone smoothly since.

When it came time for the pregame introductions, Irvin was
greeted by a mixture of cheers and boos, the cheers perhaps
winning out by a 3-to-1 margin. Oddly enough, one person rooting
for the receiver, albeit from the privacy of his own north
Dallas apartment, was Dennis Pedini, the former Irvin supplicant
who last May sold videotapes to a Fort Worth television station
that purportedly showed Irvin possessing cocaine. The 5'4"
Pedini, a self-styled security consultant known around town as
the Inch High Private Eye, served a 30-day jail term after a
judge ruled that his sale of the tapes to the tabloid TV show
Hard Copy in May was in violation of a gag order. In one of
those little twists that make life fun, Pedini was released from
Dallas County jail on Monday of last week, just four days after
Irvin returned to practice with the Cowboys. Pedini, who served
his sentence on weekends over the last four months, has been
unable to find work and plans to leave Dallas soon for greener
pastures. "I'm happy for Michael," Pedini said on Sunday. "If
what he says is true--that he's spending more time with his
family, that he's off drugs--then I guess it's all been worth it."

After watching the game from his sparsely furnished apartment,
Pedini treated a guest to a ride in his black 1994 Ford Cobra,
which he calls the Finkmobile and which contains a hidden video
camera and microphone. While driving past the Cowboys Sports
Cafe in Irving, a favorite hangout for Dallas players, Pedini
blasted a tune by the late rapper Tupac Shakur that Pedini said
was a favorite of his and Irvin's in the weeks following the
March hotel incident. The song, Only God Can Judge Me, includes
diatribes against the media and backstabbing hangers-on.

At roughly the same moment, only a few miles away, Irvin
concluded his postgame press conference, signed a few autographs
and slid into the passenger's seat of a white Mercedes S500. As
the car pulled away, it was obvious that a part of the Cowboys'
world had been righted--but only a part. Regaining their
arrogant aura on the football field will be a much more complex
process.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Irvin caught five passes, but the Dallas offense, with just 17 points, made no great strides. [Michael Irvin catching football] PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Proving he's one of the league's best cornerbacks, Williams (35) limited Irvin to 51 receiving yards. [Michael Irvin and Aeneas Williams in game] PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Kevin Smith's interception put an end to the Cardinals' last shot at getting into the end zone.

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