With its lackluster receiving corps, Dallas is going nowhere fast
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was so desperate last winter to find quality wide receivers to complement Michael Irvin that he sought out Hall of Fame wide-out Paul Warfield for advice at the Super Bowl. After a breakfast meeting Jones put Warfield on the Cowboys' payroll and gave him the title of "independent wide receiver consultant." Warfield helps the Cowboys scout free-agent and college prospects and has weekly conversations with Jones about the state of the Dallas passing game.
The two men met again on Sunday, inside the RCA Dome, after the Colts beat the Cowboys 34-24. Because the game had exposed yet again the shortcomings of the Dallas air attack, the latest Jones-Warfield summit was not a happy occasion. "We've both put a lot of time into this," said a subdued Jones. "I'm sure he was as greatly disappointed as I was."
In the off-season Warfield pushed hard for Jones to sign speedy free agent Raghib Ismail, who had spent the previous three seasons with the Panthers. The team also traded a third-round pick to the Seahawks for James McKnight and drafted Wane McGarity out of Texas in the fourth round. Finally, the Cowboys seemed to have a full arsenal, which would allow second-year coach Chan Gailey to roll out his multidimensional offense.
Then lightning struck. Three times. In a training camp scrimmage McKnight tore the ACL in his left knee and was lost for the season; in an Oct. 10 loss to the Eagles, Irvin suffered a career-threatening neck injury; and eight days later McGarity dislocated his shoulder in a loss to the Giants. Last week an MRI revealed that Irvin has a genetically narrow spinal canal, which increases the potential for paralysis should he take another blow to his neck. After similar diagnoses in the mid-'80s, both Oilers linebacker Frank Bush and Packers cornerback Tim Lewis retired.
"The greatest level of freedom comes when you build a passing attack week by week with the same guys," says Gailey, who spent five minutes with his back to the field during the third quarter of Sunday's game, going over Polaroids of Indianapolis's pass coverage with Ismail and Troy Aikman. "Someday, when we're in a comfort zone with the same people and the same routes, we can expand the offense, but we aren't there yet."
In fact, they're not even close. Ismail, nine-year veteran Ernie Mills and inexperienced Jeff Ogden and Jason Tucker combined to make 10 catches for just 93 yards against a Colts defense that entered the game ranked 14th in the league against the pass. Indianapolis shut down the Dallas vertical attack by merely leaving a safety deep in the center of the field. His presence discouraged Aikman from going deep, while the corners had little trouble containing the Cowboys' receivers.
Aikman passed for only 31 yards in the first half and finished 19 of 25 for 159 yards. Without Irvin, who was one of the best receivers in the league for most of this decade, Aikman connected on only three passes of more than 14 yards, and his inability to pull the trigger led to two fumbles and five sacks. Aikman, who was knocked out of the game for one series in the fourth quarter after a blow to the head (still groggy afterward, he referred to the Eagles as the Phillies), must be chafing under a restrictive system that doesn't allow him to make big plays. Asked if the Colts had more weapons than the Cowboys, Aikman replied, "It appeared that way today."
With limited personnel at wideout, the Cowboys have had to scale back their offense by running the ball more and throwing even more often to backs and tight ends on short routes. Moving Ismail into Irvin's slot hasn't produced the results Warfield and others had hoped for; Ismail has amazing speed, but running routes is not his forte. Pushed off his patterns at the line of scrimmage, the 5'11", 190-pound Ismail—who was nearly knocked over by a game official on one play on Sunday—had one catch in the first 55:24. "Rocket and I have gotten more and more comfortable together, but we probably won't play 11 years together," says Aikman, a reference to his time with Irvin. "He's a different kind of receiver than Michael. You tend to have more rapport with a possession-type guy like Michael, as opposed to a big-play threat like Rocket."
In a desperate move two weeks ago, the Cowboys signed wideout Alvin Harper, who had been out of football for a year and working as an assistant golf pro at the Hilltop Golf Club in Alexandria, Va. In 1994 Harper and Irvin made up the Cowboys' most potent receiving threat of the '90s. Harper then left for the riches of free agency, but he was a bust with the Bucs, the Redskins and the Saints, picking up a bum knee and a nickname, Maxwell House (good to the last drop), along the way. When the Cowboys called, Harper was a stocky 218 pounds and, he says, had "no aspirations of playing football." He is nevertheless working himself back into shape and has played sparingly in the last two games.