By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Midwestern State University's practice field is lined with the usual media types who chuckle and babble about nothing in particular. It's hot. Almost unbearably so. The heat index at Dallas Cowboys training camp is in triple digits again and will be for the rest of the summer--or until G.W.'s plan for the environment gives way to nuclear winter. Yee-haw.
Generally, at least in recent years, the Wichita Falls weather beatdown hadn't kept the natives from taking a time-out from their busy schedule of doing nothing all the time. Wichita Falls, if you've never been there, is a gross misappropriation of stoplights and churches. As if God would spend time in a town this dead. Religion, as you know, is for the living. (Bonus: The local Circle K smells like wet dog and urine. No. Seriously.) Generally, packs of aboriginals trickle in, mixing with those who made the trip north from Dallas for the day, filling the metal bleachers and screaming until they're hoarse. Got to support the Pokes, you know. This year is "diff'r'nt," to use the local vernacular. This year, the stands are mostly empty. It's an ominous, telling sign.
The Cowboys must have sensed this was coming. Two nights ago, in a transparent attempt to curry favor, the team held an autograph session on the practice fields. Set up tables. Plopped down a bunch of players. Allowed the fans unrestricted access. It didn't go over well. No one seemed thrilled, for some reason, about getting Brandon Noble or Michael Wiley to sign his memorabilia. Actually, the fans who showed should be commended for their restraint. Considering the fraud perpetrated on them--dressing up a bunch of nobodies and never-weres in a once-proud uniform--it's a wonder a riot didn't start or that Jerry Jones wasn't hanged in effigy.
If nothing else, Jones has stayed true to form, telling any fool who will listen that things aren't as bad as they seem. And he's right. They're worse.
"We didn't make the playoffs last year," Jones recalls through bright white teeth that shine like so many flashlights. The new chompers are part of the 58-year-old's "improved" appearance. He lost plenty of weight, to the point where he looks a bit emaciated. His chin no longer has a turkey's droop, and his face looks tighter. Plastic surgery perhaps, though he sidesteps that issue whenever it's broached. If he did go under the knife, he should sue the doctor--his eyes have a funky slant to the edges, and they look dark in the corner, like he applied mascara but forgot to wash it off. The whole package is a bit odd, as if he had undergone a sex change but halted the process in midstream. Someone ought to tell him he's a few years too late for the To Wong Foo... audition. "But we like our talent and our team. I don't back off from my prediction. I think we have the talent to potentially have 10 wins. We have some good, young players. My philosophy is that I don't intend to invest in any players, or any team aspect, that is not building for the future. I believe you can do both. You can have success now and build a foundation for the future. It may look like a hat trick. It may sound like I'm dreaming, but I just don't see it that way."
No. Of course not. Acknowledging the dire state of affairs would torpedo an operation that's all but sunk. Why poke more holes and accelerate the hypoxia? Someone asks Jones who these "young players with talent" happen to be, because no one outside the organization is quite sure they actually exist. He names 29-year-old Joey Galloway, who is entering his seventh year in the NFL and can hardly be listed as young talent. Realizing his mistake, Jones quickly launches into a lengthy dissertation about the glory years and how this 2001 team is similar in makeup, how it has a few unheralded players who could be the next Tony Tolbert or Nate Newton or Daryl Johnston--guys who weren't expected to excel but became stars anyway. Conveniently, Jones doesn't specifically identify these potential game breakers by name.
It's a fine bit of dancing, skilled as any performance by Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. Then, considering the rubble the once-proud Pokes have been reduced to, can you blame him for becoming proficient at the Texas two-step? Regardless of whether Jones wants to admit or address the situation, there are innumerable questions plaguing this team. Questions that won't vanish as the result of simple, or simple-minded, evasion.
Is Rocket healthy? Can Galloway come back from injury? Does Emmitt Smith have any life left in his legs? Can the defense stop anyone? With Troy Aikman gone, who assumes the leadership role? That's just the beginning, and, even in total, they hardly carry the weight or concern of the single biggest unknown: Tony Banks.
Right now, Banks moves the first team out of the huddle and to the line of scrimmage. He cuts an impressive swath--a tall, muscular man with striking looks. He would fit in well on Rodeo Drive or in Greenwich Village, but he's a long way from either. As he takes a snap and fades back, Banks surveys the field, looking for a target. He doesn't trip, either, so that's a start. Sets up in the pocket, pats the ball and unloads. It sails high and behind the intended target before falling to the ground and rolling to an unceremonious stop. There's lots of that today. And there will be more tomorrow. And the day after. Don't worry, though, he'll shake it. It's early, remember? That's what he says, what coach Dave Campo says, what Jones says. The company line here is easily distinguished. Still, it might be better if they tattooed it on their foreheads so the rest of us can stop asking why Banks is capable of bombing a 65-yarder but fails regularly with a slant across the middle.