Accessibility. As the Cowboys prepared for that divisional playoff against the Panthers, their Valley Ranch headquarters looked like something out of Hard Copy. Minicam-toting reporters chased players to their cars, trying to get sound bites about allegations—later proved false—of sexual improprieties involving Irvin and tackle Erik Williams. Last week, as Jones plotted a lower-profile 1997, you could hear a dumbbell drop.
Coaches and most front-office executives were behind their desks, off-limits to the press because of an off-season gag order that Jones imposed this winter. A new media workroom was being constructed far from the old one, which was conveniently located next to the locker room. Reporters will no longer be able to sidle up to players four or five times a day and won't be allowed to interview players in the parking lot, either. "This is not an excuse for our season," says Johnston, "but this team has gotten so big, and last year the events surrounding our team were so newsworthy, that it became hard to concentrate on football. We had to do something."
Free-agent land mines. Those three free-agent regulars are already gone, and three other big contributors might still leave: Free safety Brock Marion is close to signing with the Baltimore Ravens, and linebacker Darrin Smith and wideout Kevin Williams are shopping around. But the two free agents Dallas re-signed, Johnston and linebacker-defensive end Broderick Thomas, are vital.
On March 18, Thomas was sitting in the office of Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome. Baltimore was prepared to give Thomas the three-year, $7.5 million deal he was seeking. "I even shook hands with [Ravens owner] Art Modell on it," Thomas says. "I was 30 seconds from signing." Then the phone rang. It was Jones. He told Thomas the Cowboys wanted him back badly, and that he would send his plane to pick up Thomas. Six days later Thomas re-signed with Dallas for less money in 1997 than he was promised by Baltimore. "I've made big money in my career," says Thomas, the sixth overall pick in the 1989 draft, who had stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings before signing a one-year deal with the Cowboys in 1996. "And I've been unhappy. Winning makes me tick."
The Hill factor. Calvin helped found the first drug program run by an NFL team, the Inner Circle, with the Cleveland Browns in the late '70s, and as a vice president of the Baltimore Orioles from 1988 to '93 he was responsible for minority hiring. Janet is a Washington attorney who has also specialized in minority hiring. The best example of the Hills' work with athletes is their son, Grant, the Detroit Pistons' All-Star forward, who has a reputation as clean as any in pro sports.
No stranger to trouble, having twice been arrested on gun charges during his pre-Dallas days, Thomas welcomes what the Hills bring to the organization. "Calvin's not going to be a cop," he says. "I think guys will look at his wisdom and his class and listen to him. It'll be like having a second father around."
According to Jones, the Hills will have the same authority as the Cowboys' marketing, stadium and public-relations chiefs, reporting to him but making many decisions themselves. "Hopefully, when we look back in two or three years, we'll see that this was a sound way to handle a crisis situation," Jones says.
Emmitt's attitude. A back doesn't ascend to 12th place on the NFL career rushing list in seven years by being a slacker, but since having bone spurs removed from his right ankle on Jan. 15, Smith has been working out with unusual fervor. One day in early March, Aikman got word that Smith, never one to beat the sun up, was getting to the weight room four mornings a week at 5:30. Aikman had to see it to believe it, so the next day he arrived at Valley Ranch at 5:40. "I walked into the weight room," Aikman recalls, "and there he was. I just shook my head. He said, 'You s.o.b. You tried checking on me, didn't you?" "
Smith, friends say, wants to prove his career has not taken a downturn after a pedestrian 1996, when he was nagged by shoulder and ankle injuries. He gained 1,204 yards, but his 3.7-yard average was his lowest ever.
There are still potholes ahead for the Cowboys as they try to make their way back to the Super Bowl. One wheel could come off as a result of the power play Sanders pulled on them. After Dallas signed Sanders to a seven-year, $35 million deal in '95, the club assumed that football would be his priority for the rest of his career. But the Cowboys failed to include language in the contract that mandated Sanders's availability for every one of their games. Thus the team had no recourse after he signed with the Cincinnati Reds on Jan. 30.