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BEST FOOT FORWARD
Peter King
April 07, 1997
By re-signing solid citizen Daryl Johnston, the Cowboys took a step toward restoring class to their organization
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April 07, 1997

Best Foot Forward

By re-signing solid citizen Daryl Johnston, the Cowboys took a step toward restoring class to their organization

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PLAYER/POSITION

AGE

'98 CAP COST

1 Deion Sanders/CB

31

$7,578,999

2 Troy Ailman/QB

31

$7,571,250

3 Charles Haley/DE

34

$3,600,000

4 Tony Tolbert/DE

30

$3,447,000

5 Michael Irvin/WR

32

$3,250,040

6 Leon Lett/DT

29

$3,100,000

7 Emmitt Smith/RB

29

$3,000,000

8 Kevin Smith/CB

28

$2,750,000

9 Darren Woodson/SS

29

$2,750,000

10 Erik Williams/T

29

$2,600,000

11 Jay Novacek/TE

35

$1,766,668

12 Ray Donaldson/C

40

$1,116,668

13 Mark Tuinei/T

38

$1,000,000

TOTAL:

$43,530,625

When it came time to negotiate a contract to retain free-agent fullback Daryl Johnston last month, the Dallas Cowboys didn't do the fiscally prudent thing. They paid $7.5 million over five years for a blocking back who had received no big-money offers from any of the NFL's 29 other teams. The Cowboys did, however, do the right thing. Johnston is immensely popular in the Dallas locker room because he's unselfish and sticks by his teammates, even those whose lifestyle is far less conventional or law-abiding than his own. "If one of your brothers or sisters screws up," he says, "do you disown them? No. A football team's a family."

Quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith campaigned on behalf of Johnston, one of the NFL's unlikeliest heroes. The 6'2", 242-pound Moose, as he is known by fans throughout the league, touches the ball an average of only four times a game, but he is the best pure blocking back in the NFL, volunteers to play on special teams and was an important part of the Cowboys' Super Bowl teams in 1992, '93 and '95. On March 19 owner Jerry Jones anted up, even though it tightened the salary-cap noose that threatens to strangle the Cowboys (chart, page 52). "We owed him that contract," says Jones.

As Dallas has quietly tried to emerge from a year of turmoil and avoid yet another off-season marked by coaching and free-agent defections, the signing of Johnston was the first public indication that the dark clouds hanging over the club's Valley Ranch headquarters were beginning to part. "I think there's a feeling among the guys in the weight room that the bad days are over for us," the 31-year-old Johnston said last week, before driving off to inspect a site in suburban Dallas where he and his wife, Diane, are about to begin construction on a new home. With all the rebuilding that's going on with the Cowboys these days, laying a foundation seems fitting.

Of course, neither three months free of team controversy nor Johnston's signing wipe Dallas's troubled slate clean. Aikman will always have a chilly relationship with coach Barry Switzer, whom Aikman believes is too soft when it comes to player discipline. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Leon Lett is lying low in his Dallas condominium, banned from the NFL until at least November for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Wideout Michael Irvin still spends about 40 hours a week doing community service to meet the requirements of his probation, after pleading no contest last summer to felony cocaine possession.

What's more, this is an aging team that has little to show for its past four drafts, with defensive end Charles Haley, 33, and tight end Jay Novacek, 34, both hobbled by chronic back injuries and always a doctor's appointment away from forced retirement. And Dallas continues to pay the price for doling out huge contracts in recent years to keep its stars in the fold. Three more free-agent regulars—kicker Chris Boniol, punter John Jett and free safety George Teague—departed this off-season because they couldn't be squeezed under the Cowboys' cap. Finally, one of those richly rewarded superstars, cornerback Deion Sanders, could miss as much as half of the regular season as a result of his off-again, on-again baseball career.

Yet Aikman looked a dinner companion in the eye last week and said, "As I sit here right now, I truly believe we can come back and get to the Super Bowl this year. That's how good I feel about this team." Aikman feeling good about anything is news in itself. After all, this is the man who, moments after the Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX in January 1996, declared, "I've never been so happy for a season to end in my entire life."

Aikman's change of heart stems from the 3½-hour meeting he had a month ago with Jones, during which the owner promised renewed discipline in 1997 and assured Aikman that there would be no repeat of the Cowboys' sideshow of '96. Jones even surprised his quarterback by asking for this favor: Would Aikman throw to some of the receiver prospects who will be available in the April draft and give the front office a scouting report on them? Aikman was all for it and says, "That makes me believe my input matters."

Aikman's scouting debut came last Thursday, when along with Switzer and several assistant coaches he flew in Jones's jet to Baton Rouge to work out LSU's David LaFleur, one of the highest-rated tight ends in the draft. From there the entourage traveled to Huntington Beach, Calif., to evaluate another tight end, Cal's Tony Gonzales.

In an attempt to enhance his team's tarnished image, Jones was expected to announce this week that former Cowboys running back Calvin Hill and his wife, Janet, would head up a counseling program designed to help players avoid the pitfalls of athletic fame. "These are highly credible third parties," Jones says. "They recognize the unique issues of athletes with fame and money."

Here's how Dallas has addressed some of its pressing issues since the club was unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs by the Carolina Panthers in January.

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