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BIG D, VERY LITTLE O SPUTTERING ON OFFENSE AND BESET BY NEW DRUG RUMORS, DALLAS NEEDED STAUNCH DEFENSE TO BEAT THE PATS AND CLINCH THE NFC EAST

Dec. 23, 1996
Dec. 23, 1996

Table of Contents
Dec. 23, 1996

Faces In The Crowd
Sportsman Of The Year

BIG D, VERY LITTLE O SPUTTERING ON OFFENSE AND BESET BY NEW DRUG RUMORS, DALLAS NEEDED STAUNCH DEFENSE TO BEAT THE PATS AND CLINCH THE NFC EAST

He wasn't drunk, and he wasn't dreaming, but perhaps Dallas
Cowboys coach Barry Switzer was a tad delusional as he dined
last Saturday night. While entertaining friends at his home near
the team's Valley Ranch practice facility, Switzer was asked how
many points he thought the Cowboys would have to score to beat
the New England Patriots at Texas Stadium the following
afternoon. Sitting at a table overlooking his swimming pool,
Switzer took a forkful of homemade pasta and promptly bit off
more than he could chew. "They're averaging 27 points a game,"
Switzer said of New England, the NFL's highest-scoring team
going into the weekend. "If we can keep them to 27, I like our
chances."

This is an article from the Dec. 23, 1996 issue Original Layout

Unless Switzer was counting on 10 field goals by Chris Boniol,
his projection was out of touch with reality. These days the
Cowboys have more trouble scoring points than Lois & Clark.
Dallas's 12-6 victory over the Patriots was the second this
season in which the Cowboys' once mighty offense failed to
produce a touchdown. The defending Super Bowl champions' best
chance to reach the end zone came when Herschel Walker broke
free on a kickoff return ...and was run down at the New England
19-yard line by kicker Adam Vinatieri.

"Hell, maybe 27 was a bit much to expect," Switzer said after
the game. "We shut their ass down, and thank god for our
defense, because our offense is playing like crap."

In Big D, where every nick is a stab wound, trouble is
brewing--the Cowboys' 10-5 record and fifth consecutive NFC East
title notwithstanding. An offense that includes Troy Aikman,
Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, standout fullback Daryl Johnston
and four Pro Bowl offensive linemen has produced a grand total
of four touchdowns in the last five games. The requisite
off-field distractions abound as well. The week before the New
England game was filled with rumors that various Cowboys had
tested positive for banned substances, though by Monday night
nothing had been substantiated and team owner Jerry Jones
insisted that no league-imposed suspensions were on the horizon.

"It's getting ridiculous around here," tackle Erik Williams said
last Friday. "People are going to the extreme to try to bring us
down, and it's unbearable, man. I hear something new every day."

It's a recipe for finger-pointing and failure, yet the Cowboys
keep rolling. Even with no discernible offensive pulse, Dallas
can't be counted out of contention for a fourth Super Bowl
victory in five years. Winners of nine of their last 11 games
following a 1-3 start, the Cowboys are the team no one wants to
face in the playoffs. Assured of a first-round home game and
with no realistic chance to secure a bye, Dallas now has the
luxury of treating its regular-season finale at Washington this
Sunday as a virtual exhibition game.

Even without star linemen Charles Haley (back surgery) and Leon
Lett (drug suspension), the Cowboys have the NFL's most
dominating defense, as the Patriots, who fell to 10-5,
discovered. Besieged by a constant rush and zipper-lock
coverage, New England's usually potent quarterback, Drew
Bledsoe, did more backpedaling than Hammer at a bankruptcy
hearing. "I don't think we got into much of a rhythm today,"
Bledsoe said in a classic understatement. The Patriots settled
for Vinatieri field goals on their first two possessions, then
had their ensuing drives end this way: fumble, punt,
interception, punt, interception, failed fourth-down attempt,
punt, failed fourth-down attempt, interception.

The standout for Dallas was strong safety Darren Woodson, who
forced a fumble, broke up three passes and had two
interceptions, including the game-clincher with 2:22 to go. But
the hidden hero was defensive coordinator Dave Campo, whose
aggressive calls have helped the Cowboys limit opponents to a
league-low 16 offensive touchdowns in 15 games. Campo had Dallas
blitzing on nearly half of New England's snaps, mixing man and
zone coverages.

Blessed with a pair of outstanding cornerbacks in Deion Sanders
and Kevin Smith (who missed almost all of last season with a
torn Achilles tendon), Campo altered the Cowboys' basic
defensive scheme in the off-season to allow the corners to press
receivers at the line of scrimmage. "We're playing better on
defense than we have since I've been here," Kevin Smith said
after Sunday's game. "This may sound strange, but because we're
missing some big-name players, we have guys who are hungry and
are busting their butts for the team."

The big names on offense continue to struggle. Three days after
failing to make the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career,
Emmitt Smith ran for 85 yards in 27 carries. At one point late
in the first half, Dallas's bulky line began clearing holes for
Smith, who had three consecutive eight-yard gains. However, on
that third carry Smith was knocked out of the game--the story of
his season--this time with a stinger in his right shoulder. At
least Smith made no glaring mistakes, unlike the other two
members of the Cowboys' Holy Trinity. Irvin's lackadaisical
response to an Aikman pass gave cornerback Ty Law a chance to
step up for a first-quarter interception. And with Dallas up
12-6 early in the fourth quarter and facing third-and-one at the
New England seven, Aikman forced a throw to tight end Johnny
Mitchell that Law picked off in the end zone.

Aikman seems to have been sent into a funk by the absence of
tight end Jay Novacek, who has been out all season due to back
ailments. "I'm frustrated," Aikman said, "and I recognize why
we've struggled. Because of injuries and Michael's suspension,
from training camp on the offense has never been able to
establish any cohesiveness. Now, because everyone understands
that we've been struggling, people are pressing too much."

Irvin's five-game suspension at the start of the season, after
he pleaded no contest to drug-possession charges, remains an
issue. Rumors began swirling around the league last week that
along with Irvin, Williams and two other Cowboys had tested
positive. Several TV crews spent the week hovering at Valley
Ranch in case there was an announcement. "It's all bull,"
Williams said on Saturday. "You heard it from me first. I don't
do drugs, I'm clean. It's been like a circus out here since
Monday, people asking about me and Michael."

According to sources a positive test would violate the terms of
Irvin's probation on his drug-possession case. Jones, who
steadfastly denied reports of Lett's positive test before the
defensive tackle was suspended on Dec. 3, was adamant that none
of his players awaits a similar fate now. "Beyond what you
see--and what we've seen is not pretty--there's nothing," Jones
said. "We don't have vulnerability."

Based on the state of their offense, the same cannot be said of
the Cowboys' Super Bowl hopes.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Bledsoe found himself with little time to throw against Tony Tolbert & Co., and was intercepted three times. [Drew Bledsoe and Tony Tolbert]