The tiny meeting room that is home to the Dallas Cowboys offensive line has several distinguishing features. For starters, the walls of this 15-by-20-foot den inside the team's training facility in Irving are painted a not-so-intimidating baby blue. The room is so crammed with film equipment, chalkboards and desks that there is barely space to breathe when all eight linemen, who collectively weigh more than a ton, meet to break down film and plot strategy. It's also the meeting room closest to the lunch buffet line and farthest from the weigh-in scale. And this week it will be the most unpleasant place on the planet.
The defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys are now 1-3 after losing 10-7 to the Bills at Rich Stadium last Sunday, and a major reason why Dallas is tied with Arizona and New York for last place in the NFC East can be found inside the line's troubled little clubhouse. Even with a millionaire Pro Bowl blocker at every position up front, Dallas managed just 32 yards and 1.8 yards per carry against the Bills. "This is embarrassing," said gigantic left guard Nate Newton, 34. "We used to have an intimidation factor, but that's all gone now. What are we, 1-3? Who's scared of that?"
Certainly not the 3-1 Bills, who used a barrage of confusing stunts at the line of scrimmage to neutralize Dallas's bulk, which moves at a glacial clip these days, what with four starters banged up with injuries. Left tackle Mark Tuinei, 36, has a sprained right knee; Ray Donaldson, 38, the oldest center in the league, is still nursing a broken ankle from last year; right guard Larry Allen has tendinitis in his left knee; and right tackle Erik Williams had surgery on his foot a month ago. "Last year people were calling us the best line ever," said Dallas line coach Hudson Houck. "Then we lost to Philadelphia and all of a sudden we were too big, too fat, too out of shape and too old. I don't buy that."
Stunting against this mammoth line is a strategy that has been duplicated repeatedly—and with increasing success—since the 49ers crushed the Cowboys in the 1994 NFC Championship Game. For this team to get that far in the playoffs, a miracle will have to occur. No 1-3 team has gone on to play in a conference championship game since the Steelers in 1976, and none has ever won a Super Bowl. To make matters worse, wideout Kevin Williams went down with a badly sprained right foot on Sunday and could be out for two months. And with wide receiver Michael Irvin not due back from his NFL-mandated five-game drug suspension until after this week's game against the division-leading Eagles, the strain is starting to show on running back Emmitt Smith and quarterback Troy Aikman.
With little time to throw, Aikman was intercepted three times by the Bills—a team that had not picked off a pass before Sunday. His last miscue came on the Cowboys' final possession with 2:02 left. Three minutes earlier, a two-yard plunge by Smith had pulled Dallas to within a field goal. Now, with one more chance, Aikman took aim at his neophyte wideout, Deion Sanders. But as he often does, Sanders ran an amateurish pass route, and Buffalo safety Thomas Smith easily stepped in front of him for an interception to secure the upset.
The Cowboys converted a measly 25% of their third downs—just one of the many subjects the offensive line will be getting lectured about this week. Tentative and powerless against the Bills, Smith rushed 15 times for 25 yards—his lowest output ever in a game he played from start to finish. Smith has now been tackled for no gain 17 times in 1996, and his body is a gimpy monument to the line's ineptitude. He suffered bruised ribs on Sunday to go along with previous injuries to his knee, neck, shoulder and ankle. "I still think I'm dreaming," said Smith afterward. "It's like a bad dream."
The nightmare also continues for coach Barry Switzer. Last week Switzer mused about coaching America's Team for another 10 years. He may not last another 10 quarters. Dallas was unprepared for its opener in Chicago, the Cowboys choked in Week 3 against Indianapolis, and Switzer was outcoached by Buffalo's Marv Levy on Sunday. Wearing his now familiar postgame scowl—his lower lip and eyebrows appearing to just about touch—Switzer all but blamed his blockers by name for the loss.
But it was clearly Switzer's fault that the Cowboys were baffled by Buffalo's ground-control game plan, which featured an opening touchdown drive of nearly 11 minutes, orchestrated by backup quarterback Todd Collins, who took over in midweek when Jim Kelly went down with a strained hamstring. "Honestly, we are just not a good team, and I mean that," said Cowboys safety Darren Woodson. "On paper we're the best team in the league. On the field, who knows?"
"We've dug ourselves a deep hole, but we're not six feet under yet," insists Newton. "Just 3� feet."