Sliding Downhill

Forget Cincy--our experts say the Boys will get a lot worse before they get better

From here, the star doesn't shine as brightly as it once did. The blue isn't as deep. The silver isn't as lustrous.

From here, the future seems less certain, the past more distant. The salary figures appear more daunting, the talent less talented, the injuries more overwhelming. From here, problems peek from around every corner, and that swagger, that confidence the Cowboys carried throughout most of the '90s, is merely a forgotten friend.

From here, the Pokes look to be ass-deep in trouble.

Troy Aikman played a great game Sunday. OK, that's one... against the Bengals.
AP/Wide World
Troy Aikman played a great game Sunday. OK, that's one... against the Bengals.

That's from here, through the tint of a 4-6 record and a slew of bad turns that have plagued the Boys since the Game 1 debacle against Philly. Forget the "what-ifs," the fantasies about being 6-4 if only OT games against the Eagles and Jaguars had gone their way (they could just as easily be 3-7 if the Carolina outcome hadn't swung in Dallas' favor). Forget the Cincy win, because with the remaining schedule (at Baltimore, vs. Minnesota, at Tampa Bay, vs. Washington, vs. N.Y. Giants, and at Tennessee), there is the distinct possibility--even probability--that you're looking at a 4-12 beat down here.

Realize only the truth: A once dominant franchise, poised for another run at the playoffs just a few months ago, is now resigned to the unenviable prospect of rebuilding from the ground up. It's bitter and ugly, like having your eyelids pinned back for a marathon viewing of The Rosie O'Donnell Show.

There are glaring issues. And, as with all things Cowboy, those issues start at the top. Despite some hedging by the experts, all of Dallas' shortcomings ultimately begin and end with Jerry Jones.

"Right now the Dallas Cowboys, anybody can say whatever they want about them, and it's right, because they're [4-6]," says one NFC East scout. "I have a lot of respect for them and what they've done. They have a lot of talent on their team. I'm not taking shots at them, I feel their pain. I know they work hard, it just didn't go their way. But it's unraveling a little bit."

Jones has been lauded in the past for his willingness to spend and take chances. When the Cowboys were busy winning three Super Bowls in four years, he was seen as ballsy and innovative. Now things are different. Now the losing--and the harsh fact Dallas hasn't won a playoff game since 1996--has people condemning his hands-on approach. These days, he's largely seen as meddlesome, even detrimental to the organization's growth.

"I think the business has gotten so big that, my position is, I think you bring someone in and let them run it," says Tom Modrak, Philadelphia Eagles director of football operations. "You obviously oversee it--marketing, merchandising, what-have-you--you want to be involved, but it's hard to be an owner and a General Manager and do all the other things.

"I equate the GM job to being the head football coach. You can't know everything about the linebackers, the quarterbacks, the linemen. You obviously oversee everything. I equate both jobs with that. But you can't be an expert in everything. That's for the position coaches."

In other cities, that may be true. In Dallas? The Maharajah knows all. Through a series of ill-advised moves, Jones has maneuvered the Cowboys into a precarious situation. The Cowboys began the year with 14 key players (guys who start or figured to play a prominent role) age 30 or older. And yet they have no first- or fourth-round picks in the upcoming draft. Part of that predicament is because of the Joey Galloway trade--the Boys gave up two first-rounders and surrendered a $42 million, seven-year deal to get the former Seahawks wideout. He was lost for the year after tearing his left ACL in the opener. The Boys are also without the services of other high-salary players such as Rocket Ismail (torn right ACL; done for the season) and Leon Lett (torn MCL in left knee; out 6 to 8 weeks).

"You won't know if [Jones] made the right decision with Galloway, but, to me, it just doesn't make sense, [him] picking coaches and players," says an NFC East front office higher-up. "Where's he getting this? How much tape is he looking at? That is still the biggest tool. How many times has he sat down? I mean, you can't be involved in everything and that's what he's trying to do."

To make matters worse, Dallas, which is dangerously close to this year's $62.17 million cap, is projected to exceed next season's cap--by a lot--according to a source in the NFL office. The source also confirmed 2001 salaries for some of the club's pricier parts: Emmitt Smith, $9 mil; Alonzo Spellman, $7.4 mil; Larry Allen, $5.7 mil; Darren Woodson, $5.3 mil; Troy Aikman, $5.3 mil; Joe Bowden, $4.1 mil; David LaFleur, $1.4 mil. These are not pittances, these are weigh-you-down, heavy-as-John Goodman contracts. Contracts that will have to be "fixed" if Dallas has any shot of spit-shining a dreary reality.

"They'll restructure a lot of those contracts," says our NFC East scout. "They have to. I mean, Ryan McNeil is on the books for a hunk of change, and he's awful. Awful. David LaFleur? You probably couldn't even get a seventh-rounder for him. Joe Bowden? He doesn't even play. But I don't think [the money] will cause them as many problems as most people think. A few years ago everyone was saying the 49ers would have to cut half their team to get under the cap. And nothing happened. They're hurting now, but it wasn't as bad as all that.

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