Here are two scenarios for the Dallas Cowboys, and you can take your pick.
Scenario No. 1: This is the year they collapse. The passing game has gone south, beginning with wide receiver Michael Irvin, who has been suspended for the first five games for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, and tight end Jay Novacek, who is possibly out for the season with a degenerative condition of the lower back. Just like that, the Cowboys will start the season without two players who accounted for 15 of Dallas's 18 touchdowns through the air in 1995. Left tackle Mark Tuinei, who protects quarterback Troy Aikman's back, has a sprained right knee. Running back Emmitt Smith sprained his left knee, plus his left ankle, in a preseason game. Who knows how effective either will be when they return?
The defense has lost speed. Tackle Russell Maryland and linebackers Dixon Edwards and Robert Jones were lost to free agency and replaced by slower people. Super Bowl hero Larry Brown, the right cornerback, also was not re-signed and left corner Deion Sanders was expected to spend some time at wide receiver, even before Irvin's suspension left Dallas woefully thin at that position. Both ends are iffy, Charles Haley with a bad back, Tony Tolbert with sore knees. Looks bad, huh?
"We're the thinnest team in the league," coach Barry Switzer says. And how about Switzer? Sure, in his second season in Dallas, the Cowboys won their third Super Bowl in four years, but the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers had them on the ropes in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, respectively. On both occasions Dallas escaped, thanks to timely interceptions. The question is: Can Switzer hold the Cowboys together until his stars come back—and afterward?
Last season Switzer made a costly mistake. After defensive line coach John Blake (a Switzer man who in January left Dallas to become the coach at Oklahoma) expressed concern that Aikman was singling out black players for criticism to Switzer, it was the black players—not Switzer—who came to Aikman's defense. Aikman and Switzer reportedly made up in the off-season, but only time will tell. Sounds like a mess, doesn't it?
Scenario No. 2: Dallas gets off to a shaky start, perhaps 2-3 for the no-Irvin period, with losses at Chicago, Buffalo and Philadelphia. Irvin comes back, Sanders returns full time to defense (where he belongs), Smith starts running like his old self, and the Cowboys are in business. People have made the mistake of writing Dallas off early. Remember the 1993 season, when Smith held out for the first two games, both losses, and Haley knocked a hole in the locker room wall? The Cowboys won the Super Bowl that year.
The thing people forget is that no team has the internal leadership Dallas has: Aikman, Irvin, Smith, left guard Nate Newton, plus Haley on the defense. These are exceptional people who practically coach themselves. So what's the prediction? A bumpy ride to the playoffs, a spirited challenge from Philadelphia within the division and formidable opposition from the Packers and the San Francisco 49ers for NFC supremacy. Another Super Bowl appearance? Uh, no. Not this time.
In his driven, tortured and, at times, almost frenzied style Philadelphia Eagles coach Ray Rhodes has drawn a bead on his most hated rival... Dallas, naturally. Last season he did it with emotions. With his team fighting for a playoff spot in December, Rhodes's speech to the Eagles the night before their game against the Cowboys at Veterans Stadium turned into an outburst. "Fie challenged Barry Switzer. Jerry Jones, anybody," one Philadelphia player recalls. "He said they didn't respect us. It was intense, and it was all from the heart."
The Eagles won 20-17, stopping Smith twice on Switzer's now-famous fourth-and-one calls late in the game. Rhodes led his gang of cast-offs into the second round of the playoffs, picking up NFL Coach of the Year honors for his efforts. Nevertheless, Philadelphia's season ended at Texas Stadium: Cowboys 30, Eagles 11. Emotion could take Philadelphia only so far.
Dallas loomed over Philly's off-season. Rhodes needed a left guard with the size to combat the Cowboys' roughneck defensive tackle, Leon Lett, so in the first round of the draft he selected 325-pound Jermane Mayberry of Texas A&M-Kingsville. Rhodes was tired of watching Irvin outmuscle tiny cornerback Mark McMillian, so in came free agent Troy Vincent from the Miami Dolphins. Rhodes needed more passing to take the pressure off tailback Ricky Watters, who had a fine year but clearly was worn out down the stretch, so Rhodes brought in a new bunch of wideouts, led by Irving Fryar, who also played for the Dolphins in 1995.