Can Sanders become a star receiver? "That comes with balls," he says, pausing to laugh at his double entendre. "I mean, it comes from balls thrown your way. I like getting the ball in my hands, and I can throw the hell out of it too. We're going to do a lot of fun things this year."
Sanders would love to assume the triple-threat role—passer, receiver, runner—that Kordell Stewart had with the Steelers last season, and Switzer is warm to the idea. But given the reaction of the organization's true power broker, it's a safe bet that Sanders will not be taking many snaps from center this fall. "I'm not here to be a part-time player," Aikman says coldly. "If they want to do that, I can go somewhere else and play." Aikman also dislikes the notion of Sanders's becoming a part-time defender, saying, "There's not a quarterback in this league who wouldn't love to hear that."
A dispute over Sanders's role is the last thing the already strained Aikman-Switzer relationship needs. Since Switzer came on board before the 1994 season, Aikman has been bothered by Switzer's laissez-faire approach and by his failure to support him last year when then Cowboys defensive line coach John Blake, now the coach at Oklahoma, suggested that Aikman singled out black players for criticism. Aikman aired his gripes during a March 29 meeting with Switzer, and though the gap between them remains as wide as a Dallas offensive lineman's rear end, they at least seem to have agreed to disagree.
Of course, Aikman's concerns about Sanders might be moot if Dallas cornerback Kevin Smith doesn't fully heal from the Achilles tendon injury he suffered in the 1995 season opener. Before the injury, Smith had emerged as one of the league's best coverage men, but if he struggles, the Cowboys' secondary, already depleted by the free-agent departure of Super Bowl MVP Larry Brown, may need Sanders full time. Smith recently ran a 40-yard dash in just under 4.5 seconds—good for most players but well off the 4.3 he could run before his injury. He estimates that he is 90% of his former self and plans to be at full speed by the end of training camp, which would increase Sanders's chances of seeing a lot of action at wide receiver.
"I really believe we'll be a better team than we were a year ago," says Aikman, "and that's the first time I've said that since before the '92 season. Obviously, a lot has gone on during the off-season, and it's been suggested that the image of the Cowboys has been tarnished. People tend to look at us and see our talent, but there is also a lot of character on this team, and many people don't realize how powerful that is."
Or how serious Sanders and the Cowboys are about their $35 million experiment.