He wasn't drunk, and he wasn't dreaming, but perhaps Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer was a tad delusional as he dined last Saturday night. While entertaining friends at his home near the team's Valley Ranch practice facility, Switzer was asked how many points he thought the Cowboys would have to score to beat the New England Patriots at Texas Stadium the following afternoon. Sitting at a table overlooking his swimming pool, Switzer took a forkful of homemade pasta and promptly bit off more than he could chew. "They're averaging 27 points a game," Switzer said of New England, the NFL's highest-scoring team going into the weekend. "If we can keep them to 27, I like our chances."
Unless Switzer was counting on 10 field goals by Chris Boniol, his projection was out of touch with reality. These days the Cowboys have more trouble scoring points than Lois & Clark. Dallas's 12-6 victory over the Patriots was the second this season in which the Cowboys' once mighty offense failed to produce a touchdown. The defending Super Bowl champions' best chance to reach the end zone came when Herschel Walker broke free on a kickoff return...and was run down at the New England 19-yard line by kicker Adam Vinatieri.
"Hell, maybe 27 was a bit much to expect," Switzer said after the game. "We shut their ass down, and thank god for our defense, because our offense is playing like crap."
In Big D, where every nick is a stab wound, trouble is brewing—the Cowboys' 10-5 record and fifth consecutive NFC East title notwithstanding. An offense that includes Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, standout fullback Daryl Johnston and four Pro Bowl offensive linemen has produced a grand total of four touchdowns in the last five games. The requisite off-field distractions abound as well. The week before the New England game was filled with rumors that various Cowboys had tested positive for banned substances, though by Monday night nothing had been substantiated and team owner Jerry Jones insisted that no league-imposed suspensions were on the horizon.
"It's getting ridiculous around here," tackle Erik Williams said last Friday. "People are going to the extreme to try to bring us down, and it's unbearable, man. I hear something new every day."
It's a recipe for finger-pointing and failure, yet the Cowboys keep rolling. Even with no discernible offensive pulse, Dallas can't be counted out of contention for a fourth Super Bowl victory in five years. Winners of nine of their last 11 games following a 1-3 start, the Cowboys are the team no one wants to face in the playoffs. Assured of a first-round home game and with no realistic chance to secure a bye, Dallas now has the luxury of treating its regular-season finale at Washington this Sunday as a virtual exhibition game.
Even without star linemen Charles Haley (back surgery) and Leon Lett (drug suspension), the Cowboys have the NFL's most dominating defense, as the Patriots, who fell to 10-5, discovered. Besieged by a constant rush and zipper-lock coverage, New England's usually potent quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, did more backpedaling than Hammer at a bankruptcy hearing. "I don't think we got into much of a rhythm today," Bledsoe said in a classic understatement. The Patriots settled for Vinatieri field goals on their first two possessions, then had their ensuing drives end this way: fumble, punt, interception, punt, interception, failed fourth-down attempt, punt, failed fourth-down attempt, interception.
The standout for Dallas was strong safety Darren Woodson, who forced a fumble, broke up three passes and had two interceptions, including the game-clincher with 2:22 to go. But the hidden hero was defensive coordinator Dave Campo, whose aggressive calls have helped the Cowboys limit opponents to a league-low 16 offensive touchdowns in 15 games. Campo had Dallas blitzing on nearly half of New England's snaps, mixing man and zone coverages.
Blessed with a pair of outstanding cornerbacks in Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith (who missed almost all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon), Campo altered the Cowboys' basic defensive scheme in the off-season to allow the corners to press receivers at the line of scrimmage. "We're playing better on defense than we have since I've been here," Kevin Smith said after Sunday's game. "This may sound strange, but because we're missing some big-name players, we have guys who are hungry and are busting their butts for the team."
The big names on offense continue to struggle. Three days after failing to make the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career, Emmitt Smith ran for 85 yards in 27 carries. At one point late in the first half, Dallas's bulky line began clearing holes for Smith, who had three consecutive eight-yard gains. However, on that third carry Smith was knocked out of the game—the story of his season—this time with a stinger in his right shoulder. At least Smith made no glaring mistakes, unlike the other two members of the Cowboys' Holy Trinity. Irvin's lackadaisical response to an Aikman pass gave cornerback Ty Law a chance to step up for a first-quarter interception. And with Dallas up 12-6 early in the fourth quarter and facing third-and-one at the New England seven, Aikman forced a throw to tight end Johnny Mitchell that Law picked off in the end zone.