When it came time to negotiate a contract to retain free-agent
fullback Daryl Johnston last month, the Dallas Cowboys didn't do
the fiscally prudent thing. They paid $7.5 million over five
years for a blocking back who had received no big-money offers
from any of the NFL's 29 other teams. The Cowboys did, however,
do the right thing. Johnston is immensely popular in the Dallas
locker room because he's unselfish and sticks by his teammates,
even those whose lifestyle is far less conventional or
law-abiding than his own. "If one of your brothers or sisters
screws up," he says, "do you disown them? No. A football team's
Quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith campaigned
on behalf of Johnston, one of the NFL's unlikeliest heroes. The
6'2", 242-pound Moose, as he is known by fans throughout the
league, touches the ball an average of only four times a game,
but he is the best pure blocking back in the NFL, volunteers to
play on special teams and was an important part of the Cowboys'
Super Bowl teams in 1992, '93 and '95. On March 19 owner Jerry
Jones anted up, even though it tightened the salary-cap noose
that threatens to strangle the Cowboys (chart, page 52). "We
owed him that contract," says Jones.
As Dallas has quietly tried to emerge from a year of turmoil and
avoid yet another off-season marked by coaching and free-agent
defections, the signing of Johnston was the first public
indication that the dark clouds hanging over the club's Valley
Ranch headquarters were beginning to part. "I think there's a
feeling among the guys in the weight room that the bad days are
over for us," the 31-year-old Johnston said last week, before
driving off to inspect a site in suburban Dallas where he and
his wife, Diane, are about to begin construction on a new home.
With all the rebuilding that's going on with the Cowboys these
days, laying a foundation seems fitting.
Of course, neither three months free of team controversy nor
Johnston's signing wipe Dallas's troubled slate clean. Aikman
will always have a chilly relationship with coach Barry Switzer,
whom Aikman believes is too soft when it comes to player
discipline. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Leon Lett is lying low in
his Dallas condominium, banned from the NFL until at least
November for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
Wideout Michael Irvin still spends about 40 hours a week doing
community service to meet the requirements of his probation,
after pleading no contest last summer to felony cocaine
What's more, this is an aging team that has little to show for
its past four drafts, with defensive end Charles Haley, 33, and
tight end Jay Novacek, 34, both hobbled by chronic back injuries
and always a doctor's appointment away from forced retirement.
And Dallas continues to pay the price for doling out huge
contracts in recent years to keep its stars in the fold. Three
more free-agent regulars--kicker Chris Boniol, punter John Jett
and free safety George Teague--departed this off-season because
they couldn't be squeezed under the Cowboys' cap. Finally, one
of those richly rewarded superstars, cornerback Deion Sanders,
could miss as much as half of the regular season as a result of
his off-again, on-again baseball career.
Yet Aikman looked a dinner companion in the eye last week and
said, "As I sit here right now, I truly believe we can come back
and get to the Super Bowl this year. That's how good I feel
about this team." Aikman feeling good about anything is news in
itself. After all, this is the man who, moments after the
Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX in
January 1996, declared, "I've never been so happy for a season
to end in my entire life."
Aikman's change of heart stems from the 3 1/2-hour meeting he
had a month ago with Jones, during which the owner promised
renewed discipline in 1997 and assured Aikman that there would
be no repeat of the Cowboys' sideshow of '96. Jones even
surprised his quarterback by asking for this favor: Would Aikman
throw to some of the receiver prospects who will be available in
the April draft and give the front office a scouting report on
them? Aikman was all for it and says, "That makes me believe my
Aikman's scouting debut came last Thursday, when along with
Switzer and several assistant coaches he flew in Jones's jet to
Baton Rouge to work out LSU's David LaFleur, one of the
highest-rated tight ends in the draft. From there the entourage
traveled to Huntington Beach, Calif., to evaluate another tight
end, Cal's Tony Gonzales.
In an attempt to enhance his team's tarnished image, Jones was
expected to announce this week that former Cowboys running back
Calvin Hill and his wife, Janet, would head up a counseling
program designed to help players avoid the pitfalls of athletic
fame. "These are highly credible third parties," Jones says.
"They recognize the unique issues of athletes with fame and
Here's how Dallas has addressed some of its pressing issues
since the club was unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs by
the Carolina Panthers in January.
Accessibility. As the Cowboys prepared for that divisional
playoff against the Panthers, their Valley Ranch headquarters
looked like something out of Hard Copy. Minicam-toting reporters
chased players to their cars, trying to get sound bites about
allegations--later proved false--of sexual improprieties
involving Irvin and tackle Erik Williams. Last week, as Jones
plotted a lower-profile 1997, you could hear a dumbbell drop.
Coaches and most front-office executives were behind their
desks, off-limits to the press because of an off-season gag
order that Jones imposed this winter. A new media workroom was
being constructed far from the old one, which was conveniently
located next to the locker room. Reporters will no longer be
able to sidle up to players four or five times a day and won't
be allowed to interview players in the parking lot, either.
"This is not an excuse for our season," says Johnston, "but this
team has gotten so big, and last year the events surrounding our
team were so newsworthy, that it became hard to concentrate on
football. We had to do something."
Free-agent land mines. Those three free-agent regulars are
already gone, and three other big contributors might still
leave: Free safety Brock Marion is close to signing with the
Baltimore Ravens, and linebacker Darrin Smith and wideout Kevin
Williams are shopping around. But the two free agents Dallas
re-signed, Johnston and linebacker-defensive end Broderick
Thomas, are vital.
On March 18, Thomas was sitting in the office of Ravens vice
president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome. Baltimore was
prepared to give Thomas the three-year, $7.5 million deal he was
seeking. "I even shook hands with [Ravens owner] Art Modell on
it," Thomas says. "I was 30 seconds from signing." Then the
phone rang. It was Jones. He told Thomas the Cowboys wanted him
back badly, and that he would send his plane to pick up Thomas.
Six days later Thomas re-signed with Dallas for less money in
1997 than he was promised by Baltimore. "I've made big money in
my career," says Thomas, the sixth overall pick in the 1989
draft, who had stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Detroit
Lions and the Minnesota Vikings before signing a one-year deal
with the Cowboys in 1996. "And I've been unhappy. Winning makes
The Hill factor. Calvin helped found the first drug program run
by an NFL team, the Inner Circle, with the Cleveland Browns in
the late '70s, and as a vice president of the Baltimore Orioles
from 1988 to '93 he was responsible for minority hiring. Janet
is a Washington attorney who has also specialized in minority
hiring. The best example of the Hills' work with athletes is
their son, Grant, the Detroit Pistons' All-Star forward, who has
a reputation as clean as any in pro sports.
No stranger to trouble, having twice been arrested on gun
charges during his pre-Dallas days, Thomas welcomes what the
Hills bring to the organization. "Calvin's not going to be a
cop," he says. "I think guys will look at his wisdom and his
class and listen to him. It'll be like having a second father
According to Jones, the Hills will have the same authority as
the Cowboys' marketing, stadium and public-relations chiefs,
reporting to him but making many decisions themselves.
"Hopefully, when we look back in two or three years, we'll see
that this was a sound way to handle a crisis situation," Jones
Emmitt's attitude. A back doesn't ascend to 12th place on the
NFL career rushing list in seven years by being a slacker, but
since having bone spurs removed from his right ankle on Jan. 15,
Smith has been working out with unusual fervor. One day in early
March, Aikman got word that Smith, never one to beat the sun up,
was getting to the weight room four mornings a week at 5:30.
Aikman had to see it to believe it, so the next day he arrived
at Valley Ranch at 5:40. "I walked into the weight room," Aikman
recalls, "and there he was. I just shook my head. He said, 'You
s.o.b. You tried checking on me, didn't you?'"
Smith, friends say, wants to prove his career has not taken a
downturn after a pedestrian 1996, when he was nagged by shoulder
and ankle injuries. He gained 1,204 yards, but his 3.7-yard
average was his lowest ever.
There are still potholes ahead for the Cowboys as they try to
make their way back to the Super Bowl. One wheel could come off
as a result of the power play Sanders pulled on them. After
Dallas signed Sanders to a seven-year, $35 million deal in '95,
the club assumed that football would be his priority for the
rest of his career. But the Cowboys failed to include language
in the contract that mandated Sanders's availability for every
one of their games. Thus the team had no recourse after he
signed with the Cincinnati Reds on Jan. 30.
"Once the Reds are eliminated from postseason play, Deion is
[contractually] free to play football," Reds general manager Jim
Bowden said last Friday. "If we get to September 1 and we're 18
games out, we'll probably let him go play on Sundays. But if
we're in a pennant race, he'll play baseball."
The future of the 28-year-old Lett, even if he is reinstated by
the NFL, is apparently up in the air. One player says Lett is
mulling over retirement rather than return to face the scrutiny
that comes with being a Cowboy. However, according to Jones,
Lett is working out on his own and intends to return to the team
as soon as possible.
Still, after dinner last week Aikman broke out some expensive
cigars and talked about how he might enjoy training camp this
year after all. "You get the feeling we're building something
good around here again," he said through the smoke.
As always with this turbulent team, we won't be sure until the
Since the salary cap was implemented in 1994, the Cowboys have
had to do some serious number-crunching. But you ain't seen
nothin' yet. According to salary lists obtained by SI, the cap
cost of Dallas's 13 highest-paid players in 1998 will be $43.53
million--roughly the projected salary cap for that year. Some of
those players will be gone by then: Defensive end Charles Haley
and tight end Jay Novacek, for example, may retire this season
because of back problems, but the club's savings on their
nonguaranteed salaries will be at least partially offset by
whatever remains of their prorated signing bonuses. And with a
total of 27 Cowboys under contract in '98 with a cap value of
$50.12 million, the front office will have to renegotiate a
bundle of deals before it can even think about filling its
Among the players not yet signed for '98 are a couple of key
starters: guard Larry Allen, a Pro Bowl player each of the past
two years, and defensive tackle Chad Hennings. Nevertheless,
Dallas owner Jerry Jones doesn't seem fazed. "Every time we make
a decision, it's about winning in 1997," he says. "Everything
else we do is far less important."
Below are the 13 highest-paid Cowboys signed for '98, with their
ages at the start of that season.
PLAYER/POSITION AGE '98 CAP COST
Deion Sanders/CB 31 $7,578,999
Troy Aikman/QB 31 $7,571,250
Charles Haley/DE 34 $3,600,000
Tony Tolbert/DE 30 $3,447,000
Michael Irvin/WR 32 $3,250,040
Leon Lett/DT 29 $3,100,000
Emmitt Smith/RB 29 $3,000,000
Kevin Smith/CB 28 $2,750,000
Darren Woodson/SS 29 $2,750,000
Erik Williams/T 29 $2,600,000
Jay Novacek/TE 35 $1,766,668
Ray Donaldson/C 40 $1,116,668
Mark Tuinei/T 38 $1,000,000