The final pass of the Dallas Cowboys' final minicamp floated perfectly toward the left corner of the end zone, and Deion Sanders, Dallas's latest project at wide receiver, broke on the football like paparazzi on Princess Diana. Sanders, who is used to playing defense on such plays, soared over rookie free-agent cornerback Buster Owens and slid across the wet grass at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch practice facility. It was grime time for Prime Time, and when Sanders failed to hold on to the pass, he punched the ground in disgust. "Dammit!" he screamed into the muggy Texas air on June 5 as Dallas's three-day quarterback school came to an emphatic end.
Many observers would have viewed the incompletion as insignificant, but not Sanders. He's serious about his bid to become a full-time receiver as well as a full-time cornerback, and apparently so are the Cowboys. Already the league's premier cornerback, Neon Deion is devoting the energy he once spent on baseball to developing his receiving skills. He has been a regular at Valley Ranch during the off-season, and he will work exclusively on offense through the end of the exhibition season in late August.
By then Dallas should have answers to some pressing questions, most notably whether Pro Bowl wideout Michael Irvin will be barred from playing for part or all of next season. Indisputably, Irvin, who caught a club-record 111 passes in 1995, and Sanders, who drew considerable defensive attention on the five dozen or so occasions when he lined up at wide receiver last year, could team to create one of the league's most potent pass-catching tandems. Irvin, however, has more off-the-field problems than Courtney Love, including a drug-possession trial that is scheduled to begin on June 24 in state district court in Dallas. If he's found guilty, Irvin faces up to 20 years in jail, though as a first-time offender he would more likely be put on probation. Depending on the outcome of the trial, the NFL could slap Irvin with as much as a one-year suspension. However, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is optimistic that the matter will be resolved before the start of the regular season and that Irvin won't miss any time in '96.
Regardless of what happens with Irvin, Dallas has big plans for Sanders. The Cowboys' coaches are so excited about the prospects of his lining up at wide receiver that they have hinted that Sanders could be reduced to a part-time defensive player. "I know a lot of coaches and offensive coordinators in this league will be sitting back and smiling because of what we're doing," says Dallas coach Barry Switzer. "But Deion was drawing double teams last year, and that frees up Michael and our running game."
Ever since Alvin Harper signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a free agent in March 1995, the Cowboys have been looking for a big-play receiver to take some of the heat off Irvin. They thought it would be Kevin Williams, a '93 second-round pick, and other than Irvin, the only Dallas wideout with any real NFL experience. But last season the 5'9" Williams was shut out in four games and caught only one pass in each of three others. He did catch nine passes for 203 yards in the regular-season finale against the Arizona Cardinals and had six more receptions for 124 yards in a playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. Still, for the most part, opponents found they could single-cover Williams, double up on Irvin and commit more defenders to containing the Cowboys' other major threats, namely running back Emmitt Smith and tight end Jay Novacek.
Enter Deion. In his cameo appearances on offense last season he caught five passes for 120 yards. The plan was for Sanders to have a larger role on offense, but when he joined the Cowboys' lineup last October, he was still bothered by an ankle he severely sprained while playing baseball for the Cincinnati Reds. It hampered him throughout the NFL season. "That's the only reason my role on offense was so limited," he says. "I was so banged up, I couldn't do the things they wanted me to do."
By the Super Bowl, Sanders was moving well enough to be penciled in as a significant part of Dallas's offensive game plan. He had one spectacular moment against the Pittsburgh Steelers, catching a 47-yard pass from quarterback Troy Aikman to set up a first-quarter touchdown. "This year I plan on getting sick with it," he says of playing receiver. His translation, for the nonstreetwise: He plans to "get down, do my thing, get busy, do the ultimate. They're going to have to put seat belts in the stadium."
The person most excited about the experiment is Jones, who last September shelled out $35 million to nab Sanders. The Cowboys won the sweepstakes over the San Francisco 49ers, the team with whom Deion had won his first Super Bowl the previous January, and the Oakland Raiders, who Sanders says, in an 11th-hour bid, offered "significantly more money" than Dallas. "I see him adding a fourth dimension to a potent offensive team," says Jones.
Switzer and Jones believe Sanders could become the modern-day equivalent of Hall of Fame wideout Lance Alworth, whose speed and leaping ability made him the AFL's dominant receiver of the '60s. "If we find out he's Lance Sanders," Switzer says, "then he plays offense, and we can play him at selective times on defense. Obviously, he can always play the nickel. How much more he plays on defense would depend on a lot of variables: the score, how much we have to play him to take a receiver out of the game, whether Michael is getting open."
A typical game includes 120 plays, and Switzer believes Sanders can play about 90. If the coaches are less enthusiastic about Sanders's offensive skills come September, he will still see spot duty as a replacement for Williams and in three-receiver sets.