They awaited his arrival as though he were a visiting king from a faraway land. The reporters set up their microphones, checked their tape recorders, focused their cameras, made sure their pads were empty and their pens filled with ink. A few even hurriedly inhaled some last puffs from cigarettes as they choked out words into their cellular phones, promising their bosses they would deliver the goods within moments.

"This doesn't happen every day," one veteran reporter said last Wednesday, suspense creeping into his voice. Behind him, the Valley Ranch parking lot overflowed with cars and TV trucks--far more than usual, so many they spilled into the long driveway leading to Cowboys Parkway.

A few moments later, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones emerged from the executive offices for this impromptu press conference--indeed, a rare occasion around these parts, only Jones' second appearance before the assembled media this season. Wearing a royal blue jacket, a black shirt, and black pants, he seemed eager to address a note in the Washington Post that morning insisting Barry Switzer was out as head coach and personnel chief Larry Lacewell was going to take his place.

No matter that Valley Ranch insiders and local beat writers who had been, well, beaten insisted that the story, which began in the Post as a single sentence and blossomed into a full-fledged Associated Press article, wasn't a story at all. No matter that the Cowboys staff dismissed it as mere potshots aimed at a stumbling team.

And no matter that the Post based its report on information from one unnamed source.

Jones still felt it necessary to respond to a rumor--even though he's insisted for months that Switzer will remain head coach of the Cowboys for years to come.

"The reason I am standing here with you is there have been quotes otherwise," Jones began, going on to deliver the same ol', same ol' in that Arkansas good-ol'-boy twang that somehow makes bullshit a lot easier to swallow.

Yes, he said, Barry Switzer is the coach of the Dallas Cowboys "for as far as I can see into the future." Yes, Barry and Jerry have regular meetings, but only to discuss "football matters." Yes, the owner's disappointed by the team's awful showing this season, but if you take away "a few mistakes," this team could easily be 7-2. Yes, he's still convinced that the Cowboys can make it to the Super Bowl. Yes, Switzer "enjoys a great relationship individually with his players."

And no, Jerry Jones is not concerned about reports that Switzer and Troy Aikman got into a screaming match after losing to the San Francisco 49ers. "Those are the kinds of things that bond people," Jones drawled as though he really meant it.

Rarely does an NFL team owner take time to field questions generated by hearsay reports, but Jones stood there for 20 minutes and hee-hawed the rumors into pieces.

And, for a moment, it seemed to work. ESPN, the Associated Press, and the local media all reported within hours that Jones had given Switzer a "vote of confidence"--more than one news outlet actually used this phrase.

But just a day after the Jones press conference, The Dallas Morning News ran a piece co-written by beat writers Bart Hubbuch and Jean-Jacques Taylor insisting that Jones was thinking--three weeks ago--of firing Switzer and replacing him with special teams coach Joe Avezzano. This, apparently, was news to Avezzano.

The Morning News felt compelled to run this story on the front page--no matter that the information was three weeks old. (Sort of puts the late in late-breaking.) No matter that Jones, who'd given Switzer his "vote of confidence" just hours earlier, was now "unavailable for comment."

And no matter that it was based on--once more now, with feeling--a single unnamed source.

Down at Valley Ranch, everyone--Cowboys management, sports writers, players--is covering more ass than Nate Newton's pants.

For the past month, if you've wanted to find out what's going on at Valley Ranch, you've had to look outside of Dallas. Several weeks ago, The New York Times reported that Jerry Jones was considering coaching the Cowboys himself. Then, on November 2, the Times revealed that Switzer had gone postal during a team meeting following the October 5 loss to the New York Giants, defending his party-all-the-time lifestyle and insisting he wasn't Jones' puppet. Then came the Washington Post item.

To make matters worse for the local dailies, safety Darren Woodson went on KTCK-AM (The Ticket) last week and blasted his teammates for not practicing hard enough, which gave the locker-room locusts a whole new batch of questions to ask over and over again.

One local beat writer insists his paper hasn't been scooped on a single story generated by an out-of-town paper, because there hasn't been a single real story generated by an out-of-town paper. Instead, he says, there have been exaggerated rumors and overblown whispers and, in the case of the Post piece last week, speculation printed as fact.

Defensive tackle Tony Casillas apparently agrees. "I'd like to know where the information is coming from," he said last Wednesday. "It seems like you guys know everything."

Rich Dalrymple, director of Cowboys media relations, says the Times story about Jones wanting to coach the Cowboys was very old news and something the Morning News didn't get scooped on. After all, hadn't Jones said much the same thing several times during Jimmy Johnson's tumultuous tenure as Cowboys coach?

He also insists that the Times' oft-reprinted tale of Switzer's whacked-out tirade after the loss to the Giants was "common knowledge" around Valley Ranch for weeks. One writer mentions that Switzer throws a tantrum more often than he breathes--which isn't surprising even to the most casual fan treated to TV appearances during which Switzer says ass and damn so often you'd think they were players' names.

"If you covered all the crazy shit that goes on out here," this writer says, "it'd be a story every day."

Which, of course, is precisely the point.
By ignoring all that "crazy shit," the Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram have allowed a couple of Yankee papers to take all the credit for opening the door at Valley Ranch and letting a little light shine on Switzer's coffin. Now, instead of breaking stories--no matter how insignificant, silly, or obvious they may seem on the surface--the local reporters who cover the Cowboys must shadow rumors and gossip. They have handed the franchise to out-of-towners.

The locals must follow instead of lead, chasing the tails of New York and Washington writers whose prestigious newspapers can turn minutiae into the stuff of headlines. For the time being, Cowboys beat writers have been turned into gossipmongers, running stories built around single unnamed sources who have axes to grind and territory to protect. Forget about checking sources. Forget about finding someone to corroborate a story. Forget about checking facts.

"This job has become rumor control," said the News' Hubbuch--the day before throwing his own rumor out there for the media hordes to feast upon.

According to two sources, one of whom is Washington Redskins director of communications Mike McCall, the Washington Post story began when one Dallas media, ah, insider spread some gossip to Richard Justice, a former Morning News and Dallas Times Herald writer now at the Post. McCall says that the day before the story hit, Justice was in the Redskins locker room telling everyone--including Washington head coach Norv Turner, a former offensive coordinator in Dallas under Jimmy Johnson--that Switzer was on his way out.

Justice, however, who claims he was "surprised by the shitstorm" he created, says his source was "absolutely not" a local writer. He says the tip "came from somebody that draws a check on an NFL team."

Says the Cowboys' Dalrymple: "Look, the only NFL source who decides whether the coach is going to be fired is Jerry Jones. And he isn't going to fire Barry Switzer."

But it's a foregone conclusion that even if Switzer manages to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg, he and the rest of his coaching staff will be gone before next season's training camp. When Jones says Switzer's his man "for as long as I can see into the future," he means until the end of the season. Jones insists he will not speculate on what will or will not happen by the end of the year.

And neither will the players, who must now endure reporters' endless streams of questions concerning Switzer's tenure--questions they're not about to answer on the basis of one unnamed source. Questions that obscure that small salient fact that Switzer isn't the one dropping passes, missing blocks, forgetting snap counts, running backwards, getting sacked, and losing football games.

During last week's locker-room interview session, Channel 8's Brian Jensen asked Woodson, "What's your opinion on the need to change the head coach?" The All-Pro safety, dressed in workout grays, smiled and shrugged off the question. "Any time you're 4-5, especially when you're the Dallas Cowboys, there's gonna be speculation."

Jensen then turned around and asked Tony Casillas whether he's been through a coaching change in the middle of the season. "Yeah," Casillas spat. "But I don't think that's something we need to worry about."

Michael Irvin, a diamond earring sparkling in his left earlobe, flashed that plea-bargain grin and insisted the Cowboys were as confident now--in their coach, in each other--as they were at the beginning of the season.

Emmitt Smith, who has managed to find religion but not the end zone, lost his cool when someone asked him about Switzer. "Barry?" he asked a female reporter who kept hammering him on the subject of the head coach. "Why are we on Barry? The Washington Post doesn't run the Cowboys. Jerry Jones does. Y'all don't run the Cowboys. Jerry Jones does."

And look, it doesn't take an unnamed source to tell you the Dallas Cowboys are lousy. Now--and three weeks ago.


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