Downturn In Dallas Injuries, old age and salary-cap woes have the Cowboys between a rock and a hard place

Sept. 18, 2000
Sept. 18, 2000

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Sept. 18, 2000

Summer Olympics [bonus Piece]

Downturn In Dallas Injuries, old age and salary-cap woes have the Cowboys between a rock and a hard place

As he walked through his north Dallas mansion last Saturday
morning, Jerry Jones paused in the library and pointed to a
framed, faded document. "A land deed from Thomas Jefferson,"
Jones said of the paper, which was dated 1807. The library
contains a large sampling of Jefferson's papers as well as books
by and about him. "I really, really admire Jefferson," said
Jones, the embattled but irrepressible Cowboys owner. "He was a
man for all seasons. Great sportsman, too. In fact, I think if he
had lived today, he'd be an NFL owner."

This is an article from the Sept. 18, 2000 issue Original Layout

Jefferson helped write the Declaration of Independence and
engineered the Louisiana Purchase. But how in the world would he
have handled the task confronting Jones: how to keep a team he
built for one last Super Bowl run from becoming an also-ran by
the end of September. It appears that nothing can save this team
now. Not after a 32-31 loss to the Cardinals in the Arizona
desert, a defeat that dropped Dallas to 0-2 heading into a Monday
night showdown at Washington.

"Excuse me if I'm a little sick right now," strong safety Darren
Woodson said quietly after the game, in the sauna that was the
Cowboys locker room. "We've been 0-2 before and come out O.K.,
but 0-2 with this team? Uh, I don't know."

How did Dallas get into this mess? After 10-6 and 8-8 seasons
Jones fired offensively conservative coach Chan Gailey last
January, promoted defensive coordinator Dave Campo to head coach
and brought in offensive assistants to install a vertical passing
attack. Jones then traded two first-round draft picks to the
Seahawks for speedy wideout Joey Galloway and signed him to a
seven-year, $42 million contract. Troy Aikman was excited at the
prospect of throwing downfield again, as he had during the team's
Super Bowl years in the mid-'90s. Jones wasn't even worried by
the training-camp holdout of Pro Bowl right tackle Erik Williams
(he claimed to be considering retirement), who is vital to the
offense's success because Aikman would need more time to throw
deep. Jones was so happy to have Williams back that he didn't
fine the lineman a cent for his 29-day absence. Though it had a
new scheme to learn, the first-team offense got little work
during an 0-5 preseason, because the brain trust didn't want to
put the starters at risk of injury.

Then the embarrassing 41-14 loss to the Eagles at Texas Stadium
in Week 1 plunged the Cowboys into despair. Williams was awful,
looking like a revolving door in the face of a Philadelphia pass
rush that sacked Aikman three of the first four times he dropped
back to throw. Early in the second quarter Aikman suffered the
ninth concussion of his 12-year career, an injury that sidelined
him for the rest of the Eagles game (as well as the Cardinals
game). Philly rushed for more yards (306) than Dallas had given
up on the ground in a game in its 41-year history. When a
downcast Jones walked into the locker room with a minute left in
the debacle, he learned that Galloway, injured in the closing
minutes, was likely lost for the year with a torn ACL in his left

"Joey stood for our commitment to the vertical passing game,"
Jones says. "So that news set me back as much as any thing since
I've owned the Cowboys. In three hours I went from thinking how
Troy and Joey were going to light it up for us all season to
losing both for who knows how long."

Galloway is indeed out for the year, but Aikman is likely to play
on Monday. Does it matter? Dallas may have the NFL's toughest
closing schedule--its final six foes are a combined 10-2--and the
defense has been steamrolled by a one-dimensional Eagles offense
as well as a mistake-prone Cardinals attack. The Cowboys'
cornerbacks, in particular, are killing them: Ahead 31-26 with
four minutes left against Arizona, Dallas had the Cardinals
pinned on the Arizona 15; quarterback Jake Plummer got corner
Phillippi Sparks, a free-agent pickup six days before the Philly
game, to bite on a pump fake and then threw a rainbow to wideout
David Boston that went for 63 yards. Three plays later Plummer
picked on reserve corner Duane Hawthorne, rifling a 17-yard
touchdown pass to wideout Frank Sanders.

Jones can't even use his millions to help bail out his team. An
examination of the NFL's salary-cap figures shows how much the
"dead money"--dollars paid to players who are out for the year
with injury or are no longer on the team--has handcuffed the
Cowboys. They have an alarmingly high 64 such players, who are
eating up $11.2 million of the team's $62.3 million cap. That's
18.1% of the cap figure wasted; most notable is the $2.2 million
accelerated signing-bonus hit the team took for waiving
cornerback Deion Sanders in June. (By comparison, the Super
Bowl-champion Rams have only $2.6 million in dead money.) Now
Jones is paying the price for trying to hold together a team that
could make one last Super Bowl run with Aikman and running back
Emmitt Smith still on the premises.

One of the new players on the roster, 37-year-old backup
quarterback Randall Cunningham, came off the bench and almost
single-handedly beat Arizona with three touchdown passes.
However, with Dallas at the Arizona 43 in the final minute, he
threw four straight incompletions. The last, a hasty throw to the
right flat that was made with no pass rusher near him, would have
been well short of a first down even if it had been caught.
Cunningham, vibrant and feisty for 59 minutes, looked whipped at
the end. As he walked up the tunnel toward the locker room amid
the celebratory din at Sun Devil Stadium, Cunningham talked so
quietly you had to strain to hear him. "I just didn't have
anything left at the end," he said.

Neither does his team.

Buffalo's Smart Spending
Don't Mess With This Bill

Here's a perfect example of why the Bills have remained among the
league's top teams, despite losing stars to free agency: In the
off-season, executive vice president and general manager John
Butler gave unheralded backup nosetackle Pat Williams a
five-year, $12.5 million contract extension and waived All-Pro
defensive end Bruce Smith. Bills fans howled at losing Smith, who
fled to Washington, while the signing of the 6'3", 312-pound
Williams, a 1997 undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M, hardly
generated a murmur.

But after Williams keyed Buffalo's suffocation of Titans running
back Eddie George (17 carries for 37 yards) by making six tackles
and a sack in a 16-13 win on Sept. 3, it seemed the Bills had
spent wisely. Williams, who would have been eligible to become a
free agent after this season, also showed how effective he can be
playing in tandem with starting nosetackle Ted Washington; the
two were on the field together for 18 plays. Williams was so
impressive that he received one of the highest grades ever passed
out by defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. Seventy is considered
a good grade, and Williams scored a 93.

He followed up on Sunday with a sack and a key third-down tackle
for a six-yard loss in a 27-18 win over the Packers. "It's a
great feeling," says the 27-year-old Williams. "The way I'm
playing, I feel like I can't be blocked."

That may sound cocky, but his coach loves to hear it. "That's the
way [the Bucs'] Warren Sapp and [the Vikings'] John Randle talk,
and I like it--as long as you back it up," Cottrell says. "And
Pat's backing it up."

Parity Escalates
New Century, Same Results

The Eagles' Duce Staley runs for 201 yards the first week of the
season, 11 the next. The Broncos lose Terrell Davis and Olandis
Gary to injury in a Week 1 loss and rush for 152 yards in a Week
2 win. San Diego shuts down Oakland's high-octane offense on the
road in its opener, then gets whipped by toothless New Orleans at
home. The Lions have yet to score an offensive touchdown. They're
2-0. If you thought the new season couldn't possibly be as
unpredictable as last season, think again.

Eighteen of the first 30 games this year were decided by seven
points or less. That's three more such games than the league had
in the first two wacky weeks of last season. "I tell our players
that every game is so close that three or four plays make the
difference in almost every one," says Redskins offensive line
coach Russ Grimm.

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at

COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL At 31, Smith still has some spring in his step, but the Cowboys appear to be going nowhere.


The quietest retirement in recent history by a significant
player: last week's exit by Bucs tackle Paul Gruber, who gave up
his comeback from a broken right leg he'd suffered in the 1999
regular-season finale. His exit should have commanded much more
fanfare. In the early '90s, when Tampa Bay was among the league's
worst teams, Gruber was one of the five best left tackles in the

The hoopla over Brett Favre's sore elbow obscured the Packers'
loss of cornerback Mike McKenzie, their best defensive player,
for four to six weeks. He suffered a left knee injury in the
second quarter of an opening-day loss to the Jets....

The Bengals drew the largest crowd in franchise history for
their first game at Paul Brown Stadium, but it was still about
1,500 short of capacity. Then they went out and lost to the
lowly Browns 24-7....

Excellent sign for the Giants: Kerry Collins completed 72.5% of
his throws on Sunday in a 33-18 win at Philadelphia. It was the
most accurate passing day by an Eagles opponent since 1989....

The Lions picked on Redskins cornerback Deion Sanders to the
tune of seven catches for 75 yards and a face-mask penalty in a
15-10 victory. "Worst I've played in my career," Sanders said....

In his new book, The Final Season: My Last Year as Head Coach in
the NFL, Bill Parcells complains with surprising vitriol about
the NFL's suspension of Jets nosetackle Jason Ferguson in
midweek last November--after the team's game plan was in
place--instead of on a Monday. "This league hates me," Parcells
writes, adding, "Every time they get a chance, they try to stick
it to me."