Work in Sports
Aikman returned to element, but will it be enough?
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
WICHITA FALLS, Texas -- Here are three burning questions that are still very much in the process of being answered at the Dallas Cowboys' fan-filled training camp at Midwestern State University. (Does anyone in any place in America go as ga-ga over training camp as Cowboys fans in and around Wichita Falls?) CNN/Sports Illustrated's Don Banks checks in with them on his tour of NFL training camps:
1. Question: Now that quarterback Troy Aikman has been delivered from the constraints of Chan Gailey and his ill-fitting offense, has a head coach he's comfortable with in Dave Campo, has a pair of big-play receivers in Joey Galloway and Rocket Ismail, and is back in his old, familiar precision-passing game that he knows best, will all of that combine to reverse his recent trend of two and some say three consecutive sub-par seasons?
Answer: Aikman pretty much got everything he wanted this offseason as owner Jerry Jones moved aggressively to put his veteran quarterback in the best possible position to recapture some of that old Super Bowl era magic. Aikman is unquestionably looking good and feeling better about things in Dallas than at any time lately. Working with new offensive coordinator Jack Reilly, who was his quarterbacks coach in 1997, and with old offensive hand Ernie Zampese around in an unofficial capacity, Aikman is in his back in his element.
But unlike they did in their Super Bowl years, when Emmitt Smith and the running game was Dallas' bread and butter, the Cowboys need and expect Aikman to be the focal point of the offense these days. That's a role he's not very accustomed to playing.
Dallas should be able to hang up some impressive point totals this season. Aikman has plenty of options to work with for the first time in a while. Both Galloway and Ismail will be asked to stretch the field vertically, freeing up the inside routes for tight ends Jackie Harris and David LaFleur, and possession-type receivers James McKnight and Wane McGarity. The Cowboys are even working in camp on throwing the ball more across the middle to running backs Chris Warren and Smith, another new practice.
Add them all up and the concessions/changes made on Aikman's behalf are substantial. Either he returns his game to its past, loftier standards, or he'll hear a growing consensus that his career has definitely reached its down side stage.
2. Question: With Deion doing his dancing in Washington these days, who's going to be playing cornerback in Big D?
Answer: For as long as Deion Sanders was healthy and in the lineup, Dallas essentially got away with trying to defense only the opposite side of the field. Sanders was that good at erasing his receiver on game day. Now the Cowboys must defend the entire field and need two productive corners to get the job done. And that's where there may be a problem.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been very happy with the well-traveled Ryan McNeil and he's the starter at right cornerback without a challenge. McNeil is having a great camp and looks comfortable in the Dallas system. On the left side, Deion's old stomping grounds, things get interesting.
Veteran Kevin Smith is the odds-on favorite to hold down the left cornerback job through preseason and wind up as the opening day starter. But some observers feel rookie fourth-round pick Kareem Larrimore will wind up winning the job before the season's out.
Larrimore is currently running with the third team, but with 4.34 speed, he's the only Cowboys cornerback who has the quicks to stay up with Dallas receiver Joey Galloway in practice. Look for him to make an impact first in the nickel package, then if he prospers, to challenge Smith. Dallas' cornerback play, however, remains one of its most glaring sources of concern. The Cowboys figure to score a lot through the air and give up maybe just as many points in pass coverage.
3. Question: Is Pro Bowl right offensive tackle Erik Williams seriously considering retirement, or is the no-show just angling for a contract extension or trying to skip the worst two weeks of a football players' existence, the first two weeks of training camp?
Answer: Maybe a little of all of the above. According to his agent, Alan Herman, Williams has been grappling with the question of whether he has the desire to return for a 10th NFL season for a couple months now. While Herman staunchly contends that Williams' motives are not about money or a contract extension, some within the Dallas organization quietly believe that Williams will return to the team in a week or two, and that at some point financial enticement will enter the equation.
For now Cowboys officials are carrying on as if Williams no longer exists, but the situation is sure to come to a head at some point in the not too distant future. The key date may come just after the Cowboys return home from their grueling preseason trip to Tokyo, to play Atlanta on Aug. 5. If part of Williams' reasoning is to lessen the time spent in the drudgery of training camp, missing a whirlwind trip to the Orient and its accompanying jet lag would seem to be a good decision.
Williams isn't known as the hardest worker in the world and he wouldn't be the first player to devise a way to miss some camp time. He's also underpaid by today's right tackle standards and might want to generate one more big payday before facing the retirement issue head on next year.
But if he does wind up walking away, it's Dallas' offensive line that will suffer. Second-year reserve tackle Solomon Page is working with the first team in Williams' absence, but the unit's depth will be diminished if Page has to become a starter. Right guard already bears watching and the Cowboys weren't counting on growing pains at right tackle.