Losing it

Editor's note: The Dallas Observer's regular sports column debuts this week.

Barry Switzer speaks in a soft, twangy growl. At first, you can barely hear him. He's like a crazy old grandfather scolding invisible ghosts that only he can see, and his sentences often blend into one very long word.

Standing behind the lectern in the Dallas Cowboys' team meeting room at Valley Ranch, where he holds his weekly Tuesday press conference with the local media, Switzer comes bearing bad news: Defensive tackle Chad Hennings will be out for six to eight weeks with a groin injury.

Then again, Switzer has relayed nothing but bad news for weeks now. An injury to yet one more essential piece of his crumbling team seems inevitable.

Switzer doesn't often look up as he addresses the cameras and tape recorders six days before the Cowboys are to celebrate Jerry Jones' birthday with a loss to the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. Dressed like an Oklahoma City insurance salesman in a blue blazer and brown pants, he radiates the demeanor of a man ashamed, a coach under siege. These days, Switzer always wears the countenance of a man who was just told that he has a week to live...and that he has to spend every second of it at Jerry Jones' house.

Though this press conference falls two days after the Cowboys threw the New York Giants a win--these guys are so bad they can gain more than 400 total yards and still find a way to lose--the reporters and radio hangers-on who cover the Cowboys do not blitz Barry. They do not knock him to the turf, where Troy Aikman has spent half the season, wondering where his offensive line has gone.

Leon Simon, a barber who's also one-half of KLIF-AM's Sports Brothers, asks whether Troy Aikman has "the capabilities of calling a play if a play is coming in late, as opposed to calling a time out." Someone asks if the team "scripts a series of plays" before the game begins. Radio...uh...legend?...Norm Hitzges asks if "whoever wins the ground war wins the game." They wonder if the Cowboys' offensive problems between the 20-yard line and the end zone are "mental."

They lob Switzer pathetic little screen passes, and he catches every one, weaving in and out of the details and the cliches on his way to the dead-end zone. "You people, don't look at NFL statistics and think they mean anything," he says. "We're all that close."

And, "The team that makes the fewest mistakes wins the football game."
And, "The team that rushes the ball and throws the ball is the one that wins the football game."

And, "You've got to stop the run."
Blah blah blah.
But, really, what is Barry Switzer going to say? What, really, is left to ask?

Barry Switzer must know what we all know: His team stinks.
He knows his players drop touchdown passes and commit deadly penalties when the Cowboys get to the opponent's 20-yard line. He knows his offensive line is aging and stumbling. He knows his star running back is running short on time. He knows his tight ends are question marks where once they were exclamation points.

Switzer knows his quarterback is frustrated. He knows Jerry Jones spent too much money trying to win yesterday instead of looking toward tomorrow. He knows his offense is on the defensive. He knows his assistant coaches, especially offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese and offensive line coach Hudson Houck, have assisted only utter and emphatic failure.

And he must know the end is near--for his Cowboys, for his job, for a lifetime spent coaching football. He hears the "Fire Barry" catcalls on sports radio, reads them in his morning papers, feels them when he takes the field at Texas Stadium.

If nothing else, Barry Switzer knows Dallas hates Barry Switzer.
And the fact is, the man doesn't give a damn 'bout none of it.
"Heeeeeeelllll, naw."

That's what he says when someone asks him--finally--whether he's worried about Jerry Jones firing him. "Heeeeeeelllll, naw."

Well, gawwww-lee.
Switzer has long since figured the best way to deflect criticism is to pretend it's invalid, that it's nothing but ignorant words spoken by people who've never played or coached the game. He often hears about how he's too soft with his players and too trusting in his coaches and too powerless to make any real changes. He hears the criticism about how he's too emotional on the sidelines (especially after he piled on to the players after a botched last-second kick gave the Cowboys an undeserved win over the Philadelphia Eagles) or not emotional enough (especially during the Giants game, when he watched his team fumble away a gimme win with all the excitement of a dead man).  

And he doesn't care what you say. If he's here tomorrow, swell.
If not, hell, he can always go back to Oklahoma and make a mint on the Rotary Club speaking circuit.

Which is exactly the problem: If it's indeed true that Barry Switzer doesn't motivate his team--as his detractors often point out--it's because the 60-year-old coach no longer burns with the fires of a man who cares about winning. He possesses enough championship gold, with the University of Oklahoma and the Dallas Cowboys, to satisfy any man. Perhaps Barry doesn't care about winning because he feels he has nothing left to prove.

Or, just maybe, Switzer is resigned to the fact that he doesn't have the talent to win the NFC East, much less the Super Bowl. A coach, after all, cannot will a team to victory; he can only push them so far, give them the proper training and the correct plays and hope they can make the catches, break for daylight, and beat holy hell out of the other team.

On the sidelines and during TV interviews, with the lights and microphones shoved into his round, tight face, Switzer looks like a man who knows his team isn't the same one that made Jimmy Johnson a legend in his own mind--or the one that stumbled into a Super Bowl two years ago, that won only when Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell proved he was a better Cowboys QB than Troy Aikman.

Switzer looks worn out, beat up, too tired to raise his head, too ashamed to meet anyone in the eyes. The man who used to grin like a teenager who stumbled onto his daddy's collection of Playboy magazines is now prone to expletive-ridden tirades, quick to bite off the heads of anyone he thinks is asking a stupid question.

During the press conference, he spends several minutes rambling on about the difference between the red zone ("it's the red zone on've got to stop's kind of simple when you think about it") and the green zone ("it's green zone on's go") areas between the 20-yard-line and the end zone. Switzer clearly doesn't enjoy talking about the game with outsiders.

Or maybe Switzer just thinks the Cowboys are so good he can beat any team with field goals instead of touchdowns.

Yet it's almost easy to pity Switzer. What must he have thought after the Chicago Bears game, when the local media excoriated the team...for winning by 24 points? What sane man would want to live in a world where people call for your skull after you beat the point spread? Switzer, you must know, is not the sole person to blame for the Cowboys' piss-poor performance this season: You need only to point to Ernie Zampese, whose idea of radical reconstruction is throwing a screen pass.

You need only to blame an offensive line getting older with every play. Just ask 37-year-old Mark Tuinei or Nate Newton, who will turn 36 this December. Newton used to break opponents in half; now, he's so soft and slow the only thing he can break is a sweat.

You need only to look to Anthony Miller, the off-season addition at wide receiver who's posted five 1,000-yard-plus seasons during his nine-year NFL career--and who has garnered a meager 148 yards through the first six games of this year. He's a deep suck.

And you need only to look to Emmitt Smith, the wary poster boy for this team's failures. He enters week eight at the number-11 spot on the list of league rushing leaders: With 487 yards, Smith is so far behind Detroit's Barry Sanders (788 yards) and Denver's Terrell Davis (776) and eight other up-and-comers that he can't see them with a telescope. It doesn't take a Bill Walsh or, for that matter, a Barry Switzer to realize Smith's no longer the bullet out of the backfield he was two years ago.

Injury and age have turned a future Hall of Famer into a current mortal, a 28-year-old whose body is far older. It's unfortunate Switzer and Zampese just decided to begin alternating Smith and Sherman "Hands" Williams during games--rest earlier in his career might have prolonged the onrushing finale. But Smith's arrogance demanded he play every down, no matter the injuries or score. He sacrificed his body for rushing titles, for MVP awards, for endorsement deals. Now, he can't understand why the media would question his talent, his dedication to the game and to his team.

"Let me ask you guys," he blasts back two days after Switzer's press conference. He's standing in front of his locker, glowering at the reporters and cameramen hovering over him. He wears a disgusted smirk. "Why are you guys so quick to push me to retirement?"  

Someone asks Smith if he's talked to former Houston Oilers great Earl Campbell about how to deal with the damage of a lifetime spent plowing through tackles. Smith says no, and you can hear the irritation in his voice. He doesn't want to talk to or about Campbell--a man whose career ended when he was only 29.

Still, it's interesting to note that after Monday night, Smith had amassed 487 yards on 121 carries, for a modest average of 4.0 yards per carry. In 1995, the year the team won its third Super Bowl in four years--and when Smith set the league record for most rushing touchdowns with 25--he averaged 4.7 yards per carry. Of course, he also ran for 25 touchdowns. This year, he still has a whopping zero.

But remember, Switzer says stats don't matter. You betcha.

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