The Texas sun had already made its presence felt on this early June morning when Sherman Williams, the Dallas Cowboys' top draft pick, came strutting onto the team's Valley Ranch practice field. Williams, an unsigned rookie running back, had skipped the first day of this three-day minicamp to have his picture taken by a trading-card company in Los Angeles, and now he was ready to meet some of the icons who would be his new teammates. Quarterback Troy Aikman, defensive end Charles Haley and running back Emmitt Smith, superstars all, went about their business without saying a word. Then Michael Irvin, the Cowboys' All-Pro receiver, spiritual leader and motormouth, came over and broke the ice.
"Hey, Sherman," Irvin said, eyeballing the diminutive Williams with a stare right out of the Mike Tyson handbook. "Don't you ever pull that —— again. The people in the NFC East don't give a damn about card shows. The big boys in San Francisco don't care about that crap. You better get your head on straight, because we don't tolerate that here."
Williams muttered a meek "O.K.," and swallowed hard.
America's Team? This was more like America's Most Wanted.
Tempers ran as high as the temperatures at the Cowboys' next to last off-season gathering before training camp, as a team that once seemed destined to dominate the 1990s tried to preserve what was left of its core. In the last 17 months—or since Dallas won its second consecutive Super Bowl—the Cowboys have taken more hits than Cheech and Chong while doing little to counter those losses.
During the last five months alone, Dallas has lost a defensive coordinator (Butch Davis), three key starters (Alvin Harper, Mark Stepnoski and James Washington) and three valuable backups (Kenneth Gant, Jim Jeffcoat and Rodney Peete). All 10 of the Cowboys' 1995 draft picks—including the 5'7", 196-pound Williams, the 46th overall pick in the draft, out of Alabama—are projected as backups, at best. And their biggest free-agent acquisition, center Ray Donaldson, is a lesser version of his Pro Bowl predecessor, Stepnoski, who signed with the Houston Oilers.
Dallas was a 38-28 loser to the San Francisco 49ers in January's NFC Championship Game, and on paper the gap between the two teams has widened. No wonder Irvin gave Williams such a rude introduction. No wonder second-year coach Barry Switzer went on a 13-minute, profanity-laced tirade at the start of the minicamp, at one point saying, "I told you a year ago at this time that it was your team. What I'm telling you today is now it's my team." According to The Dallas Morning News, Switzer went on to single out two Cowboys who were not present: Williams and guard Nate Newton, who subsequently got a lecture from Switzer after showing up 50 minutes late. It didn't help that Newton looked as though he'd spent his off-season frolicking in a pool of marshmallow crème—he weighed 368 pounds, 40 over his playing weight. Switzer also dispelled locker-room talk that he would appoint an assistant head coach.
The next day, as he sat in his office with his 25-year-old daughter, Kathy, and her frisky Akita, Oskie, Switzer sounded as much like Frank Sinatra as a football coach: "I told them this year we'll do it my way. They won't look to anybody else—coordinators, assistants, whoever—for answers or decisions. I'm going to pull the reins in."
Last year, after riding into town in the wake of the celebrated split between Cowboy owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson, Switzer strove to be unobtrusive, figuring a rookie NFL coach would have trouble bullying the two-time defending Super Bowl champs. The formula worked for a while, as Dallas won the NFC East and, for a third consecutive year, met the 49ers for the NFC title. But when the Cowboys lost to the Niners, Switzer's style came under intense scrutiny, and even he concedes that some of his players viewed him as aloof and uninvolved.
One Cowboy veteran says Switzer, who coached for 16 years at Oklahoma, "came in thinking that pro coaching couldn't possibly be any more pressure-packed. I think it might have jolted him a little, but now he has a better understanding of how demanding the NFL is." Switzer's apparent lack of involvement became a topic in the Cowboy locker room. "People couldn't help but talk about it," Irvin says. "Some guys let the poison seep in, and it spread like a disease. We lost some people in the shuffle. Now we've got them back."