Anywhere but here

1998 was a great year for sports...just not in Dallas

Early in the second quarter against the Washington Redskins on Sunday night, Emmitt Smith ran toward history, and this time he did not stumble, did not spin around and go backward. Two minutes and 22 seconds into the period, Smith ran for inches--inches that, finally, did not seem like miles--and set a National Football League record by posting his 124th rushing touchdown. Then, a mere five minutes later, Smith scored one more touchdown, breaking tackles, turning left and right all at once, eluding defenders as though he were smoke.

It was the exclamation mark at the end of a sentence that last season finished with a question mark. Now, no one in the history of the league has run for six points more often than Dallas' running back, who was only a few months ago deemed by the local press corps too old, too slow, too finished.

Only one season ago, Smith was left for dead on the Texas Stadium turf, asked every few minutes by the Valley Ranch locusts whether he was ready to concede that his legs were beginning to betray him. So often he heard the name Earl Campbell--symbolic of historic promise turned to early failure, a legend humbled by his own body--that perhaps Smith began to mistake it for his own. The same questions were often reiterated during training camp in Wichita Falls over the summer. After one practice on the frying-pan field at Midwestern State University, one TV reporter asked Smith, "What makes you think you can still play?" Smith, dripping with sweat as though he had just emerged from a swimming pool, turned to the reporter and said, "Because you think I can't." He flashed a screw-you smile, turned, then walked off.

If nothing else, 1998 proved that Smith and the Dallas Cowboys aren't at their end, at least not yet. The Cowboys finished the regular season accomplishing what no NFC East team has ever done: sweeping the division like a janitor on the last day of school. It is perhaps a meaningless distinction, one that should come with an asterisk next to it. After all, what are the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins, and the New York Giants but punch lines to the joke that has become the NFC Least? But there are still the playoffs to go, at least one more game yet to play on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Texas Stadium against division rivals, the Phoenix Cardinals. And there are those who will pick the Cardinals to win--the 9-7 Cards, who haven't seen a playoff game since 1982 and haven't won one in 50 God-forsaken years, when the Cardinals played in Chicago. Destiny, thy name is Jake Plummer?

The year ends for Dallas in a far different place than it began: with Barry Switzer on his way back to his still in Oklahoma, hat and pistol in hand. It ends with Dallas dreaming of Miami sunshine come late January; it ends with head coach Chan Gailey hailed as a genius, despite his team's tendency to play with the consistency of water. It ends with dreams of Super Bowls dancing in Jerry Jones' toupeed head. It ends with Daryl Johnston a resurrected hero, recovered from the sort of neck surgery that forever sidelines most men. It ends with Michael Irvin an emasculated disappointment. It ends with Patrick Jeffers emerging as the receiver of the future--or at least the Golden Richards of the 1990s. But thank God, it ends.

Against Washington during the first period on Sunday night--and so many other teams during recent weeks--Dallas looked so much like a mediocre team: driving, then stalling like an Edsel, until touchdowns became field goals, and sometimes not even that when Richie Cunningham couldn't convert. Throughout the first half, and so often against such woeful defenses as those fielded by New Orleans and Philadelphia, Dallas' offense was as effective as a castrated sperm donor; they didn't even shoot blanks (but they do shoot hobbled cornerbacks, don't they?). Still, Dallas continues playing after the game clock expired on Sunday night, and most likely Norv Turner will be out of a job come New Year's Day.

Yet in the end, Dallas sports in 1998 has provided nothing but disappointment, disgrace, defeat. The rest of the sporting world experienced unparalleled highs, prompting a breathless Sports Illustrated to insist this year was the Best in History. And indeed, from John Elway's finally-thank-God Super Bowl win to Mark McGwire's 70 historic homers to the Chicago Bulls' sixth NBA title (won on the shoulders of Michael Jordan), there has been much to cheer about, even from the press box, where such things aren't permitted. But in this town, not even the homers can spin 1998 into gold--even if you're sucker enough to believe it's not about winning or losing, but about how you play the game. Tell that nonsense to the ghost of the late, great Doak Walker, whose death hangs over 1998 like thick smog.

The Cowboys began the year going 6-10 under Barry Switzer, who,, was fired. It began with Jerry Jones fumbling his way through a coaching hire, misleading the media and his candidates (namely Green Bay Packers assistant Sherman Lewis) until he hired a former offensive coordinator who has appeared in a God-almighty four Super Bowls...oh, and never won one.

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