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Peter King
September 18, 2000
Downturn In Dallas Injuries, old age and salary-cap woes have the Cowboys between a rock and a hard place
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September 18, 2000

The Nfl

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Downturn In Dallas
Injuries, old age and salary-cap woes have the Cowboys between a rock and a hard place

As he walked through his north Dallas mansion last Saturday morning, Jerry Jones paused in the library and pointed to a framed, faded document. "A land deed from Thomas Jefferson," Jones said of the paper, which was dated 1807. The library contains a large sampling of Jefferson's papers as well as books by and about him. "I really, really admire Jefferson," said Jones, the embattled but irrepressible Cowboys owner. "He was a man for all seasons. Great sportsman, too. In fact, I think if he had lived today, he'd be an NFL owner."

Jefferson helped write the Declaration of Independence and engineered the Louisiana Purchase. But how in the world would he have handled the task confronting Jones: how to keep a team he built for one last Super Bowl run from becoming an also-ran by the end of September. It appears that nothing can save this team now. Not after a 32-31 loss to the Cardinals in the Arizona desert, a defeat that dropped Dallas to 0-2 heading into a Monday night showdown at Washington.

"Excuse me if I'm a little sick right now," strong safety Dan-en Woodson said quietly after the game, in the sauna that was the Cowboys locker room. "We've been 0-2 before and come out O.K., but 0-2 with this team? Uh, I don't know."

How did Dallas get into this mess? After 10-6 and 8-8 seasons Jones fired offensively conservative coach Chan Gailey last January, promoted defensive coordinator Dave Campo to head coach and brought in offensive assistants to install a vertical passing attack. Jones then traded two first-round draft picks to the Seahawks for speedy wideout Joey Galloway and signed him to a seven-year, $42 million contract. Troy Aikman was excited at the prospect of throwing downfield again, as he had during the team's Super Bowl years in the mid-'90s. Jones wasn't even worried by the training-camp holdout of Pro Bowl right tackle Erik Williams (he claimed to be considering retirement), who is vital to the offense's success because Aikman would need more time to throw deep. Jones was so happy to have Williams back that he didn't fine the lineman a cent for his 29-day absence. Though it had a new scheme to learn, the first-team offense got little work during an 0-5 preseason, because the brain trust didn't want to put the starters at risk of injury.

Then the embarrassing 41-14 loss to the Eagles at Texas Stadium in Week 1 plunged the Cowboys into despair. Williams was awful, looking like a revolving door in the face of a Philadelphia pass rush that sacked Aikman three of the first four times he dropped back to throw. Early in the second quarter Aikman suffered the ninth concussion of his 12-year career, an injury that sidelined him for the rest of the Eagles game (as well as the Cardinals game). Philly rushed for more yards (306) than Dallas had given up on the ground in a game in its 41-year history. When a downcast Jones walked into the locker room with a minute left in the debacle, he learned that Galloway, injured in the closing minutes, was likely lost for the year with a torn ACL in his left knee.

"Joey stood for our commitment to the vertical passing game," Jones says. "So that news set me back as much as any thing since I've owned the Cowboys. In three hours I went from thinking how Troy and Joey were going to light it up for us all season to losing both for who knows how long."

Galloway is indeed out for the year, but Aikman is likely to play on Monday. Does it matter? Dallas may have the NFL's toughest closing schedule—its final six foes are a combined 10-2—and the defense has been steamrolled by a one-dimensional Eagles offense as well as a mistake-prone Cardinals attack. The Cowboys' cornerbacks, in particular, are killing them: Ahead 31-26 with four minutes left against Arizona, Dallas had the Cardinals pinned on the Arizona 15; quarterback Jake Plummer got corner Phillippi Sparks, a free-agent pickup six days before the Philly game, to bite on a pump fake and then threw a rainbow to wideout David Boston that went for 63 yards. Three plays later Plummer picked on reserve comer Duane Hawthorne, rifling a 17-yard touchdown pass to wideout Frank Sanders.

Jones can't even use his millions to help bail out his team. An examination of the NFL's salary-cap figures shows how much the "dead money"—dollars paid to players who are out for the year with injury or are no longer on the team—has handcuffed the Cowboys. They have an alarmingly high 64 such players, who are eating up $11.2 million of the team's $62.3 million cap. That's 18.1% of the cap figure wasted; most notable is the $2.2 million accelerated signing-bonus hit the team took for waiving cornerback Deion Sanders in June. (By comparison, the Super Bowl-champion Rams have only $2.6 million in dead money.) Now Jones is paying the price for trying to hold together a team that could make one last Super Bowl run with Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith still on the premises.

One of the new players on the roster, 37-year-old backup quarterback Randall Cunningham, came off the bench and almost single-handedly beat Arizona with three touchdown passes. However, with Dallas at the Arizona 43 in the final minute, he threw four straight incompletions. The last, a hasty throw to the right flat that was made with no pass rusher near him, would have been well short of a first down even if it had been caught. Cunningham, vibrant and feisty for 59 minutes, looked whipped at the end. As he walked up the tunnel toward the locker room amid the celebratory din at Sun Devil Stadium, Cunningham talked so quietly you had to strain to hear him. "I just didn't have anything left at the end," he said.

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