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A Few Feet Short
Paul Zimmerman
September 20, 1993
Unable to fill holdout Emmitt Smith's shoes, the Cowboys stumbled again
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September 20, 1993

A Few Feet Short

Unable to fill holdout Emmitt Smith's shoes, the Cowboys stumbled again

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During the off-season Butler restructured quarterback Jim Kelly's contract to pay him $4.1 million this year, and he handed out $13.5 million, three-year extensions to defensive end Bruce Smith and running back Thurman Thomas. Butler also made sure that all of his rookies were signed on time.

"We're over the salary cap," Butler says, "and you'd assume that the perception would be, uh-oh, time to pull back. But Mr. Wilson told me, "We'll do everything we have to do to win. There will be no pulling back.' My thinking is, let's keep the core together and make a run at it, and our owner has allowed us to do that."

So, what happens next year to the Buffalo roster when the salary cap kicks in? "I keep figuring maybe they'll change the rules or something," Butler says. "I never made a fortune in business. I'm not a genius. When I went to college, I said I'd never take something I couldn't spell, so I took P.E. I just know that you can't lose your good players and expect to win."

And on Sunday, Buffalo stole a win from the Cowboys. The brutal Texas heat—97° at kickoff and much hotter on the field—had turned the Bills rubber-legged on both sides of the ball midway through the second half. The Buffalo offense, all of whose points were set up by turnovers, produced only 14 yards in the fourth quarter. The passing attack had shut down. Kelly went back to throw twice in the final period, once firing an incompletion and once getting sacked. The Dallas pass rushers were pouring in on him.

On defense things were just as grim. Leg cramps were running through the ranks like a plague, and strange faces were shuttling in and out of the lineup. There was no rush on Aikman; he was eating up the Bill secondary with square-ins and slants to wideout Michael Irvin and tight end Jay Novacek.

And yet it was the Bills who led, 10-3. The Cowboys had killed themselves with mistakes. At the end of the third quarter, for example, Aikman directed a 52-yard, 10-play march to the Buffalo 12, but Lin Elliott's 30-yard field goal attempt was wide to the right. It was his second miss of the afternoon.

But on Dallas's first possession of the last quarter, Aikman took the Cowboys on a 98-yard, 14-play drive that ended with a five-yard touchdown run by rookie wideout Kevin Williams and tied the score at 10. Plenty of time left, and the Dallas defense took over, forcing the Bills to punt after three running plays that netted seven yards. Williams fielded the kick on his 32, fought for five yards, then was swarmed and stripped of the ball. The Bills had a first down on the Dallas 34. Six running plays brought them to the 17, where Steve Christie kicked the field goal that put Buffalo over the top.

Williams's fumble was the second that Dallas had lost in the game and its sixth of the season. In 1992 the Cowboys lost nine fumbles all year. Williams had fumbled away a punt in the Redskin game too. And where was Kelvin Martin, the sure-handed returner who handled kicks last year? In Seattle, lost through free agency. And how many free agents did the Cowboys, with the third-lowest payroll in the league, sign during the off-season? Zilch. These numbers are not lost on Johnson.

One final shot remained for the Cowboys when they got the ball with 2:49 left. Nine plays carried them from their own 20 to a second-and-four at the Buffalo 11, and the only question seemed to be how much time Buffalo would have alter the score. With 12 seconds left Aikman passed to Novacek, slanting in from the right side, and reserve safety Matt Darby, a fifth-round choice in 1992, played through Novacek, baited the ball and intercepted it on the one-yard line.

"I saw Aikman looking at Novacek," Darby said, "I knew I had to get inside him. I hit him and the ball at the same time, and it just came up to me."

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