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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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Who would you rather be at this stage of the young season, Jimmy Johnson or Marv Levy?

Johnson is coaching the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, with their youth and speed, but he's playing shorthanded. Emmitt Smith, the Cowboys' two-time NFL rushing champ, is unsigned and watching the games at home in Pensacola, Fla., while the guy who handles the Dallas payroll, owner Jerry Jones, talks about the financial stability of his club. And Johnson is burning.

"What's the situation with Emmitt?" someone asked Johnson after Sunday's 13-10 loss to Levy's Buffalo Bills, the Cowboys' second defeat in as many games this season.

"Every time I hear that question I just get sick," he replied.

Levy has a three-year monkey on his back: three straight Super Bowl losses, including last January's 52-17 thrashing by Dallas. But the guys who handle the Bills' corporate decisions, new general manager John Butler and owner Ralph Wilson, made sure that all of their stars are in uniform. They gave Levy the people he needs to win with. And the Bills are 2-0.

You say you would rather be Johnson anyway, that the season is 16 games long and we've only scratched the surface? Don't be too sure. The Cowboys have now lost one game they should have won (Buffalo) and one game they should have lost (to the Washington Redskins, 35-16). It has been argued that Smith would not have helped much while the Redskins were putting together the 99-yard, third-quarter drive that broke Dallas's back, but the Smith holdout goes deeper than that.

The Cowboy locker room is a very jumpy place these days, and the mood will only get worse the longer Smith's holdout drags on. The organization's commitment to winning is being questioned by the players. There is nasty innuendo that the black running back is getting hardballed, while the white quarterback, Troy Aikman, will have his contract smoothly and lucratively upgraded when the time comes. At Texas Stadium on Sunday a banner hanging from the stands said DO THE RIGHT THING, NOT THE WHITE THING.

Johnson, who has run the football end of this organization with great purpose ever since coming to Dallas in 1989, doesn't need or deserve this sort of grief. But there it is, and he's ready to explode. On Saturday morning, the day before the game against Buffalo, he pointed to a copy of The Dallas Morning News sports section on his desk. "Look at this," he said. "The lead story's about Emmitt's holdout. The other front-page story is a rehash of our Redskin game. Does it say anywhere that we're playing the Buffalo Bills tomorrow? Oh, here it is, one line on the bottom. I'm telling you. I don't know how much more of this I can take." On Sunday he ended a lengthy postgame press conference with an awkward, sputtering silence as he was answering a routine question about the Cowboy defense.

Jones is haunted, too, by the realization that on Feb. 17, 1994, any team that is over the salary cap will have to start lopping off bodies or face penalties from the league. "It's terrifying," Jones says.

Call it naiveté, call it the very unsound business practice of spend now, worry later, but Butler and Wilson refuse to be terrified. Maybe it's because they have seen too much from the downside. Butler spent 14 months dodging mortar shells as a marine in Vietnam, and he supplemented his first coaching income, $3,500 as an assistant at the University of Evansville, by working nights at a 7-Eleven. Wilson is a charter member of the Foolish Club, the original owners of the old American Football League who spent millions battling the NFL.

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