The heart, soul and swagger of the Dallas Cowboys resurfaced on Sunday at Texas Stadium in the form of a man wearing an electric-purple suit, a diamond Superman necklace and gold-plated sunglasses. "I dress like I dress," said Michael Irvin, the Pro Bowl wide receiver who played football for the first time since last January's Super Bowl. "I didn't throw out all my clothes—you know what I mean?"
What Irvin meant was that despite his much-publicized no-contest plea to a felony charge of cocaine possession last July—and the resulting NFL suspension that kept him out of the Cowboys' first five games—both his wardrobe and his public persona remain louder than an Alice In Chains sound check. But appearances can be deceiving, as Dallas learned during its less-than-resounding 17-3 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. With Irvin back in the fold, the Cowboys may look like a team that matches up on paper with the Dallas ensemble that defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX. But upon closer inspection, the Cowboys have enough problems to make their 3-3 record seem less an aberration than an accurate barometer. "We're not close to being a championship team," All-Pro strong safety Darren Woodson said in a low-key locker room after the game. "We've got a lot of wrinkles we have to iron out, and it's going to take some time. If we think getting Michael back fixes everything, we're kidding ourselves."
So while Irvin caught five passes for 51 yards and helped open up things for tailback Emmitt Smith (21 carries, 112 yards), his return was far from triumphant—a fact not lost on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the man whose paychecks facilitate the receiver's gaudy fashion statements. As loaded as the expression is in Dallas these days, Sunday's game was a sobering experience for the Cowboys and for Jones, who made that very observation more than an hour afterward as he celebrated his 54th birthday by sipping red wine in his luxury suite. "If anybody on this team thought that Michael was going to step on the field and magically produce 12- and 13-play drives, they know better now," Jones said. "If people were intoxicated by the promise of Michael's return, this sobered them up. At this point we've got to work our tails off to beat anybody we play."
It was a much merrier Jones who sat in his office two days earlier and broached the possibility that the Cowboys might "run the table" and win their remaining 11 regular-season games. The idea seemed preposterous given Dallas's 1-3 start, which had been followed by a narrow Monday-night victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 30. But Jones's Cowboys have won three of the last four Super Bowls—an unprecedented feat—while riding the collective brilliance of Irvin, Smith and quarterback Troy Aikman. Jones refers to that trio as the Holy Trinity, and no wonder: In the past four seasons Dallas has won 82.6% of the games in which all three played but only 41.7% of games from which one or more of them was absent. Dining in a hip Dallas restaurant last Friday night, coach Barry Switzer admitted that his realistic goal for the Cowboys during Irvin's suspension had been a 3-2 start.
Why is Dallas so dependent on its Big Three? Sure, Aikman, Smith and Irvin are integral to the Cowboys' fortunes, but teams such as the Steelers (Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd) and the San Francisco 49ers (Steve Young) are far more adept at overcoming the loss of key players. On Sept. 15 at Texas Stadium, the Indianapolis Colts survived the absence of star running back Marshall Faulk, and seemingly a third of their roster, to fight back from a 21-3 deficit and stun Dallas 25-24. Take away Aikman, Irvin or Smith, however, and suddenly the Cowboys are the Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia.
"Maybe we have a mental block," Aikman conceded last Saturday. "I think there's such a comfort zone, and you get so accustomed to seeing those guys and knowing the plays they've made over the years, that when you look in the huddle and don't see them, there's a little bit of an uneasiness." Not that Aikman was endorsing the popular depiction of Irvin as a sort of human elixir. "If we continue to play like we have, even with Michael here, we'll continue to struggle," he said. "But a lot of people in this organization believe that Michael's return will make everything O.K., and that's good. I think our problems run deeper than that, but if other people see him as a cure-all, that's half the battle."
The Cowboys face an uphill struggle in the NFC East, with the Washington Redskins (5-1) and the Eagles (4-2) standing between them and a fifth consecutive division title. Their bulky offensive line, heralded during last season's Super Bowl run as the league's best, has at times looked old, fat and fragile. Smith, in his seventh season, is getting worn down by the repeated pounding he's taking this year, and tight end Jay Novacek may never play again because of back troubles. A bad back has also sidelined star pass rusher Charles Haley, although he is due to return for this Sunday's game against the 0-6 Atlanta Falcons at Texas Stadium. Lack of depth is a lingering concern for Dallas. Because they've doled out so much money to their stars, the Cowboys haven't had much left to spend on backups. During training camp one prominent club official suggested that Dallas had "the worst second and third teams in NFL history."
Still, there was no denying that the return of the fiery Irvin would give the Cowboys a huge boost, not only in morale but also in tangible ways. Without his favorite receiver, Aikman suffered greatly; going into Sunday's game his completion percentage for '96 was 58.9%, down from the 65.5% figure he put together over the past five seasons. After struggling (11 of 23) during the first half against the Cardinals, Aikman completed 12 of 14 passes in the second. Arizona has one of the NFL's best cornerbacks in Aeneas Williams, and his aggressive coverage was effective on Irvin, producing an emphatic breakup on Dallas's first play and an interception of a deep pass early in the third quarter. But the Cardinals often rolled a safety, as most teams do, to help Williams cover Irvin. That double coverage freed up tight end Eric Bjornson (five catches, 49 yards, two drops) and neophyte wideout Deion Sanders, who set up the game-clinching touchdown late in the fourth quarter by catching a 10-yard slant pass on third-and-nine from the Cardinals' 23.
Irvin's return also jump-started the Cowboys' wheezing ground game, which had been plagued by injuries to Smith and several linemen. Smith, bothered by an assortment of ailments—neck, ribs, ankle, knee and shoulder—had averaged a meager 3.5 yards per carry coming in. He wore down the Arizona defense, however, and on the last Dallas drive he and his maligned linemen were the most spirited, physical players on the field. "We got Michael back, and that eliminates a lot of the eight-man fronts we've been seeing," said right tackle Erik Williams afterward. "I don't care what anyone says, it's tough to block when you're outnumbered. The first five weeks teams weren't respecting the pass, and they were blitzing us to death. But today we felt like the Cowboys of old."
Dallas's performance was tough to assess, given that the foe was the Cardinals, who have lost 12 consecutive games to the Cowboys. Arizona's offense featured less imagination and movement than baseball's labor negotiations, and Dallas's top-ranked defense, led by linemen Tony Tolbert and Leon Lett and cornerbacks Sanders and Kevin Smith, had little trouble keeping the Cardinals out of the end zone. "We were ready for everything," said free safety Brock Marion. "We won a game we thought we were going to win, and Michael helped us."