They're still waiting for the thud. Dallas haters around the
country rubbed their hands in glee last year as the Cowboys,
raked by suspensions, injuries and seemingly endless miseries,
struggled through their worst season in six years. America's
Team, people figured, would come crashing to earth.

But when you've been living at the very top of the NFL
skyscraper, where anything less than a Super Bowl ring casts a
heavy gloom over a season, you have to drop pretty far to reach
bottom. Dallas's fall from grace wasn't nearly so precipitous.
The Cowboys still won the NFC East at 10-6 and reached the
second round of the playoffs before the emerging nation called
Carolina ended their season. A lot of teams would have been
happy with that.

The Cowboys built three Super Bowl champions in the '90s with a
strategy based on superstar offense and speedy defense. Last
year the formula fell apart. Wide receiver Michael Irvin was
suspended for the first five games after he pleaded no contest
to possession of cocaine. The experiment of using Deion Sanders
at wideout produced 36 catches and at least twice as many blown
assignments. Quarterback Troy Aikman, bothered by back and calf
injuries, endured his worst season since 1990. Running back
Emmitt Smith dragged his sore knee and ankle through a ho-hum
year and finished with his second-lowest rushing total and
lowest rushing average since he entered the league in '90.

And so on, through defensive tackle Leon Lett's one-year drug
suspension in December and up to Irvin's "It's not in me right
now" press conference in June, at which he spoke of retirement.
Now the Cowboys face a season without tight end Jay Novacek and
pass-rusher Charles Haley, both of whom may be lost to injury,
and with placekicker Chris Boniol, punter John Jett and stellar
weakside linebacker Darrin Smith lost to free agency.

Surely the thud must come--if, through some miracle, the Cowboys
avoid it this year, then in '98, when the crushing weight of
their buy-now, pay-later salary cap load falls on their heads.
It's got to happen, right?

Don't be too certain.

Dallas has concentrated on ensuring that the key veterans--O.K.,
all except Darrin Smith--are locked up. (All-Pro right guard
Larry Allen's contract, which expires after this year, will be
redone.) Owner Jerry Jones anticipates an increase in spending
limits next year, when the NFL's new TV contract is negotiated,
which would release some of the cap pressure.

On the field, Aikman vows there will be no repeat of last
season. "We were a team of underachievers," he says. "Actually,
an organization of underachievers, from the top on down. That's
been addressed in the off-season."

If Irvin decides it is in him after all, he'll have a big-name
running mate--free agent Anthony Miller, who signed with Dallas
on June 2. Aikman will also have a gigantic inside target in
6'7", 280-pound tight end David LaFleur, the team's '97
first-round pick out of LSU. And who's to say Emmitt can't come
back with some real hunger after his '96 downer?

The offensive line has traditionally been the team's strength.
The right side remains impressive, with Allen and tackle Erik
Williams--who feels he has something to prove this season. "My
knee wasn't all the way back last year," he says. "Guys I'd
normally dominate were making plays on me. I've got a long
memory. This is my get-even year." Left tackle Mark Tuinei
played heroically on a partially torn right knee ligament, but
he's 37, two years older than Nate Newton. John Flannery, the
new starting center, is returning from a lengthy knee rehab. Put
all those knees together, and you've got a line that could
dominate--or could limp home.

The Cowboys lose defenders to free agency every year but still
finish near the top of the stat charts. They'll have to find
someone to fill Smith's weakside-linebacker spot, but every year
they plug in people who can run and let the system do the rest.
It has worked.

Granted, this is an optimist's scenario loaded with what-if's.
What if Irvin goes? What if Miller, 32 and coming off the lowest
yards per catch performance of his nine-year career, can't
handle the load? What if LaFleur isn't ready to step into a
sophisticated NFL passing offense? And what if Emmitt, who has
had more carries than any other back in the league since 1990,
simply can't avoid injury?

Well, then it could be another gloomy 10-6 season in Dallas. But
probably not. Across the board, there's just too much talent
here.

--PAUL ZIMMERMAN

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH COVER [REGIONAL] Fighting Back Troy Aikman looks to rekindle the fire in Dallas COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH With Aikman running the show, a complete Cowboys collapse is unlikely. [Troy Aikman in game]

BY THE NUMBERS

1996 Record: 10-6 (first in NFC East)

1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)

Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 102.6 (18) 195.1 (20) 297.7 (24)
DEFENSE 98.5 (9) 175.4 (2) 273.9 (3)

Career Cowboys

Jackie Slater spent his entire 20-year NFL career with the Rams,
the longest stint ever by a player with a single NFL team. The
active players closest to that record are each embarking on
their 15th seasons with their respective teams. Two of
them--Dallas's Bill Bates and Mark Tuinei--entered the league in
1983 as undrafted free agents.

Senior NFL Players Who Have Played Their Entire Careers for One
Team

Seasons Starts Pro Bowls Super Bowls

Bill Bates, Cowboys 15 45 1 2*
John Elway, Broncos 15 203 7 3
Darrell Green, Redskins 15 200 5 3
Dan Marino, Dolphins 15 197 9 1
Bruce Matthews, Oilers 15 212 9 0
Mark Tuinei, Cowboys 15 141 2 3

*Bates was injured and did not appear in Super Bowl XXVII.

PLAYER TO WATCH

At workouts in February, Appalachian State's Dexter Coakley ran
a breathtaking 4.47 in the 40 and displayed a 38-inch vertical
jump. Though Coakley is just 5'9" and 215 pounds, his assets
convinced the Cowboys to take him in the third round in April;
they envision him taking over the weakside linebacker spot.
"It's a finesse position," says defensive coordinator Dave
Campo. "We're asking him to run and cover, not take on blockers.
He's a sharp kid. There's no question we'll find a place for him
somewhere."

PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics

Head Coach: Barry Switzer

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Troy Aikman 5 465 att. 296 comp. 63.7%
3,126 yds. 12 TDs 13 int.
80.1 rtg.
RB Emmitt Smith 3 327 att. 1,204 yds. 3.7 avg.
47 rec. 249 yds. 5.3 avg. 15 TDs
FB Daryl Johnston 220 22 att. 48 yds. 2.2 avg.
43 rec. 278 yds. 6.5 avg. 1 TD

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen

[PVR*]
WR Michael Irvin 12 64 rec. 962 yds. 2 TDs
WR Anthony Miller[A] 86 56 rec. 735 yds. 3 TDs
WR Kevin Williams 146 27 rec. 323 yds. 1 TD
TE David LaFleur(R)[A] 65 30 rec. 439 yds. 3 TDs
PK Richie Cunningham**[A] 309 15/15 XPs 8/10 FGs 39 pts.
KR Herschel Walker 250 27 ret. 28.9 avg. 0 TDs
PR Deion Sanders 289 1 ret. 4.0 avg. 0 TDs

LT Mark Tuinei 6'5" 314 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LG Nate Newton 6'3" 320 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C John Flannery 6'3" 304 lbs. 1 game 0 starts
RG Larry Allen 6'3" 326 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Erik Williams 6'6" 324 lbs. 16 games 16 starts

Defense

LE Broderick Thomas 53 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
LT Tony Casillas 17 tackles 0 sacks
RT Chad Hennings 40 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
RE Tony Tolbert 61 tackles 12 sacks
OLB Randall Godfrey 28 tackles 0 sacks
MLB Fred Strickland 103 tackles 1 sack
OLB Alan Campos 1 tackle 0 sacks
CB Deion Sanders 33 tackles 2 int.
SS Darren Woodson 78 tackles 5 int.
FS Brock Marion 51 tackles 0 int.
CB Kevin Smith 51 tackles 5 int.
P Toby Gowin (R)[A] 89 punts 44.3 avg.

[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)
**1992 statistics (SW Louisiana)

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)