1 Dallas Cowboys The talent is there to rule again in this weakest of divisions, but two straight late-season collapses make you wonder: Can this team of aging stars hold up?

August 29, 1999

Last year the Cowboys' new coach, Chan Gailey, did what he was
hired to do. He erased the memory of Barry Switzer's disastrous
final season and won the NFC East, sweeping the division 8-0.
But that's not the lingering memory of 1998.

The season started on a grim note when quarterback Troy Aikman
broke his collarbone in Week 2. By the time he returned, his
team was 4-3. Then Dallas went on a tear, winning its next four.
But bad things started happening. Cornerback Deion Sanders,
trying to fight through a severely jammed big toe, instead made
it worse and missed the last five regular-season games. The
other corner, Kevin Smith, was hurt in Game 12 against the
Vikings, and the Cowboys had to line up against the Minnesota
point machine with journeymen Charlie Williams and Kevin Mathis
at the corners. Also missing in action were right guard Everett
McIver and tight end David LaFleur and wideout Ernie Mills, who
was supposed to take some of the pressure off Michael Irvin.

Dallas, playing passionless, uninspired football, lost to the
Saints and the Chiefs and beat the hopeless Eagles by four, which
clinched the division. In the playoffs Dallas put up another
lackluster performance against the Cardinals and lost by 13.

The question now: Can you lay the whole sorry finish on
injuries, or is the malaise much deeper, maybe a terminal case
of late-seasonitis, remembering that the Cowboys lost their last
five in '97? "I honestly don't know," Aikman said early in
August. "I think injuries were a part of it, but was that the
entire reason? Every team I've been on goes through a period
when the offense is struggling. Last year it came at the end of
the year. Injuries threw us off our rhythm, and we never
regained it.

"Before Chan got here, the team had to overcome a lot, like
breakdowns within the organization. That made it tougher. Now
the emphasis is on football, top to bottom. There's a good group
of people they brought in this year, through free agency and the
draft. Let's face it, we haven't done a good job of that for the
last four or five years."

What do the 1999 Cowboys have in their favor? Youth and speed,
to go with their four aging potential Hall of Famers, Aikman,
Irvin, Sanders and Emmitt Smith. In the first preseason game
defensive coordinator Dave Campo revealed a new scheme, in which
his two swift rookie ends, first-round pick Ebenezer Ekuban and
fourth-rounder Peppi Zellner, moved inside to the tackle
position on long-yardage downs. It was effective. Randall
Godfrey, an outside linebacker with 4.5 speed, is now in the
middle, and his backup, third-round draft choice, Dat Nguyen,
light at 230, shows terrific ball awareness and explosion and
seems like an ideal nickel linebacker. The old Jimmy Johnson
theory--defensive speed can make up for lack of muscle--is still
in place.

There are questions, though. Can oft-injured Colts' import
Quentin Coryatt bring some zip to Godfrey's old position, or is
there simply too much mileage on him? Can former Panthers
wideout Rocket Ismail be the long-range threat to give Irvin a
little breathing room, or was his 69-catch season last year (33
more than his best previous total) an aberration?

Then there's the Deion and Leon show. No one knows when Sanders
will return from the toe injury that required off-season
surgery. Doesn't sound like much, but a damaged toe is a very
bad thing for a cornerback, whose whole game is built on pushing
off to make lightning cuts. "My gut feeling," Gailey says, "is
that we'll have him most of the year."

"Look for Deion in Game 2, against Atlanta on Monday night,"
Cowboys p.r. man Rich Dalrymple says. "I almost bet on it."

"There's no pain, I'm just not ready," Sanders says. "When the
Lord gives me a sign, I'll be ready." What does he mean to a
defense? Probably more than any player in the NFL. With him at
the right corner, one side of the field is taken care of, and
Campo can work his zones and schemes in a much smaller area.

Defensive tackle Leon Lett was suspended indefinitely for
violating the league's substance abuse policy--his third such
suspension. The rumor around the league is that he'll be
sidelined for four games, which infuriates other teams in the
division, who feel he's getting off lightly. Michael Myers will
hold down the fort until Lett returns.

So there you have it. In the weakest division in the NFL the
Cowboys have a decided edge in personnel, and they should win
the NFC East again. But when things get bitter and nasty in
December, who knows? --Paul Zimmerman

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO MESSAGE TO MICHAEL The Cowboys added a Rocket to their offense in hopes of opening up the field for Irvin (88) to operate.
COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL

SCHEDULE

Sept. 12 at Washington
20 ATLANTA (Mon.)
26 Open date
Oct. 3 ARIZONA
10 at Philadelphia
18 at N.Y. Giants (Mon.)
24 WASHINGTON
31 at Indianapolis
Nov. 8 at Minnesota (Mon.)
14 GREEN BAY
21 at Arizona
25 MIAMI (Thurs.)
Dec. 5 at New England
12 PHILADELPHIA
19 N.Y. JETS
24 at New Orleans (Fri.)
Jan. 2 N.Y. GIANTS

FAST FACTS

1998 Record 10-6 (1st in NFC East)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 8/9/8; defense 12/22/18

1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 12 Opponents' 1998 winning
percentage: .516 Games against playoff teams: 8

TROUBLE-FREE QB

Last year Troy Aikman avoided interceptions and sacks to an
unprecedented degree. Aikman was sacked only once for every 36.0
times that he dropped back to pass, and he averaged one
interception for every 63 passes. Since 1963, when the NFL began
keeping track of sack statistics for quarterbacks, no other
passer has been sacked that infrequently and thrown
interceptions at such a low rate for an entire season. In fact,
only three other quarterbacks in the past 36 years have had a
season with 30 or more drop backs per sack and 40 or more passes
per interception (minimum 200 passes).

Player, team Season Passes Times Drop backs Int. Passes
sacked per sack per int.

Troy Aikman, Cowboys
1998 315 9 36.0 5 63.0
Troy Aikman, Cowboys
1995 432 14 31.9 7 61.7
Erik Kramer, Bears
1995 522 15 35.8 10 52.2
Steve Walsh, Bears
1994 343 11 32.2 8 42.9
Steve Walsh, Saints
1991 255 3 86.0 6 42.5
Dan Marino, Dolphins
1990 531 15 36.4 11 48.3
Dan Marino, Dolphins
1983 296 10 30.6 6 49.3

PLAYER TO WATCH

When Dallas scouting director Larry Lacewell was a coach at
Tennessee, he tried to recruit Randall Godfrey out of high
school but lost him to Georgia. Lacewell joined the Cowboys in
1992 and four years later saw to it that Dallas drafted Godfrey
in the second round. Godfrey started the last six games in '96
and every game since at strongside linebacker. Now he has been
shifted to the middle, where, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says,
"he gives us the fastest middle linebacker we've ever had." The
last Pro Bowl middle linebacker Dallas had was Bob Breunig in
1982. Godfrey could end a 16-year drought.

PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS

Coach: Chan Gailey
Second season with Cowboys (10-6 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Troy Aikman 37
315 att. 187 comp. 59.4% 2,330 yds. 12 TDs 5 int. 88.5 rtg.

RB Emmitt Smith 23
319 att. 1,332 yds. 4.2 avg. 27 rec. 175 yds. 6.5 avg. 15 TDs

RB Chris Warren 223
59 att. 291 yds. 4.9 avg. 13 rec. 66 yds. 5.1 avg. 5 TDs

FB Daryl Johnston 323
8 att. 17 yds. 2.1 avg. 18 rec. 60 yds. 3.3 avg. 1 TD

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
[PVR]

WR Michael Irvin 71 74 rec. 1,057 yds. 1 TD
WR Raghib Ismail[1] 114 69 rec. 1,024 yds. 8 TDs
WR Ernie Mills 184 28 rec. 479 yds. 4 TDs
TE David LaFleur 190 20 rec. 176 yds. 2 TDs
K Richie Cunningham 120 40/40 XPs 29/35 FGs 127 pts.
PR Deion Sanders 252 24 ret. 15.6 avg. 2 TDs
KR Kevin Mathis 339 25 ret. 24.8 avg. 0 TDs
LT Flozell Adams 6'7" 335 lbs. 16 games 12 starts
LG Larry Allen 6'3" 326 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Mark Stepnoski[1] 6'2" 269 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
RG Everett McIver 6'5" 330 lbs. 6 games 6 starts
RT Erik Williams 6'6" 324 lbs. 15 games 15 starts

Defense

LE Kavika Pittman 41 tackles 6 sacks
LT Michael Myers 15 tackles 3 sacks
RT Chad Hennings 29 tackles 1 sack
RE Greg Ellis 39 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Quentin Coryatt[1]80 tackles 2 sacks [2]
MLB Randall Godfrey 86 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Dexter Coakley 72 tackles 2 sacks
CB Kevin Smith 56 tackles 2 int.
SS Darren Woodson 78 tackles 1 int.
FS George Teague 43 tackles 0 int.
CB Deion Sanders 25 tackles 5 int.
P Toby Gowin 77 punts 43.4 avg.

[1] New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 122) [2]
1997 statistics

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)