Things are looking up for the Cowboys, but their front office is still at least a man short
Strange as it may sound, there is a lot to like about the Cowboys. There's the $13 million they'll be under the salary cap when the free-agent signing period kicks off next March. There's the high school-like spirit among the players, 35 of whom are no older than 25. There's an energetic front seven, which hounded the Giants into six fumbles and two interceptions on Sunday.
There's also this: candor about the franchise's long road back to prominence. Coaches often use the media to fire up their team, but when Dallas coach Dave Campo told his team last week that New York writers had labeled Dallas a bad team, he reminded his guys, "They're right. We can't forget we're 2-4." Make that 2-5. After his team blew a 24-7 third-quarter lead and lost 27-24 to the Giants in overtime, Campo didn't sugarcoat his words, telling his players, "We're not ready to win a game like this."
However, each week can be a learning experience with an embryonic team like Dallas. On Sunday the Cowboys learned that Clint Stoerner isn't a quarterback they can build around; he imploded during a four-interception second half and lost the game almost single-handedly. They learned that defensive tackle Brandon Noble, an alum of NFL Europe, deserves a spot in the line rotation after a five-tackle, one-sack, one-fumble-recovery day. Ryan Leaf looked impressive enough in a late-game relief stint to tell Dallas that barring a return to the self-destructive attitude that characterized his three seasons in San Diego, he'll be a part of the quarterback derby at training camp next year.
Then there was the effort. "We don't have the guys with the talent to change the game," said safety Darren Woodson, one of only two Cowboys ( Emmitt Smith is the other) who played on all three title teams in the '90s, "but we do have a roster of guys who play very, very hard. That's what has made this season interesting."
What's tough to know is whether the front office can find the players who will change the game. In the five drafts presided over by coach Jimmy Johnson and owner Jerry Jones, beginning in 1989, Dallas picked nine players who went to the Pro Bowl a total of 33 times; they became the core of the team mat won the Super Bowl three times. In the seven drafts from 1994 through 2000, only two of the 57 players selected—guard Larry Allen and linebacker Dexter Coakley—have been to the Pro Bowl (a combined seven times). Give Dallas credit for finding outside linebacker Markus Steele in the fourth round this year; he's been a force from sideline to sideline.
Nonetheless, for the most part, recent drafts have been particularly grim. The team's top selection in 1999, defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban, has had nine sacks in two-plus underachieving years. As for the first two choices in 2000, both of them cornerbacks, Dwayne Goodrich is on injured reserve, and Kareem Larrimore has already been released. With its first selection last April, Dallas passed on the player the team's scouts wanted to take, linebacker Kendrell Bell—and he's having a standout season with the Steelers. Instead the Cowboys took quarterback Quincy Carter, a favorite of Jones's, who has been erratic at best and is out with a hamstring injury. "We should draft better," Jones admits.
Jones wants to run the show on both the business and personnel sides. That's an owner's right, but it's not working for this franchise. What Jones needs is a qualified talent evaluator—one without a huge ego, and one he will listen to—to give him better advice on players than he's been getting since Johnson left in 1994.
On Sunday, Jones repeated his mantra that no one pours more blood and sweat into the job than he does. Still, he also made clear that he has no intention of hiring someone to take over his personnel responsibilities. "No one should question the passion I have to spend whatever it takes in time, energy and money," he said. "I have my neck on the line with this franchise in every way you could stick it out there. The last time I was in a spot like this, we went on to win there Super Bowls and six division titles in 10 years. If I were a fan or a stockholder, that's what I'd be looking at." The last time he was in a spot like this, though, Jones had Johnson at his side.
Wisely, Jones says the Cowboys won't make headlines with free-agent signings in the offseason. That's because no head-liners are to be found among a crop led by Ravens cornerback Duane Starks, Giants safety Shaun Williams and Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon. Dallas has money, what is shaping up as a high draft pick next April and an enthusiastic core of youngsters. Now Jones must be careful not to squander such an opportunity.