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

Sliding Downhill

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.

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.

"The biggest thing [with the Cowboys] is, 'Who's making the decisions?' I always used to say this to the coaches: 'Who you choose to listen to will determine your success.' And somebody obviously has Jerry's ear and has been giving him bad advice. Whoever it is, because you don't make all those decisions without listening to somebody, whoever it is that Jerry's listening to isn't telling him the right things. They can't be making the right decisions over there. They can't. They have a lot of talent, but they don't have the right people on the field."

Right. The right people. The Boys have had some debilitating injuries--Galloway and Ismail--but that doesn't quite explain this mess. It's been said before, right here, that the Cowboys don't utilize their best players. How long did it take to rediscover Emmitt Smith, who's still their top offensive option most Sundays even if he has slowed a step? And still, the starting linebackers are a problem. Case in point: When Dat Nguyen went down with an injury, Barron Wortham filed in. Since being inserted into the lineup, the former Titan has played better than anyone on the defense, so why wasn't he out there from jump? Of a similar, though not completely comparable, vein, Brandon Noble has filled in well for Chad Hennings, who's out with a bad neck. Then there's Aikman, who's suffered through a number of ailments and played poorly for much of the season as a result (don't be too excited about his 308-yard performance against the Bengals--it was his first 300-yard outing in 24 games and it came against, again, the Bengals).

"Wortham is much better than Nguyen, but you could say that about a lot of their players," the NFC East scout replies. "I mean, Troy is hurt, and Randall was scoring points for a while, but Jerry pushed to get Troy back. Why? He doesn't have the velocity on the ball he used to have. Look at how many balls he's underthrown. And he's got a bad back, too. Randall could have bought Troy some time. That's called teamwork. But they kept letting Troy back in. Are they trying to force him into retirement? 'Cause that's the way it looks.

"A lot of their decisions don't make sense. Tight end is their biggest problem right now. Jackie Harris is better for what they're trying to do, know what I mean? I just don't think LaFleur is the player they think he is. And then they went and gave up [fourth and seventh round] picks to get O.J. Santiago, and he's not even playing. It's kind of befuddling. I have lots of respect for Dave Campo...but I'm not so sure he's even the one making the decisions over there."

Therein lies another pratfall for the Pokes. Since the departure of Jimmy Johnson, it's been widely believed that no coach has had complete autonomy regarding who plays and who doesn't. And if the head coach is merely a figurehead, don't you think the players have a little less respect, don't you think that makes them more prone to second-guessing?

So where does all this leave them? They have an overbearing owner, an aging core group, salary cap constraints, a dearth of talent--albeit, in a lot of cases it's unused talent--and a qualified coach who has less control than he likely should. Again, where does that leave them? At least in a division that woke up recently--the Giants, Redskins, and Eagles are two games over .500 or better--it leaves your Boys way behind. Like, Arizona Cardinals behind. Like, "Shit, can this be happening?" behind.

Regardless of the pall that shrouds Texas Stadium, not everyone believes the Cowboys are forever lost.

"Look at what they've done," Modrak counters. "History is the best predictor, and Jerry's done it before. If my theory is right, it won't be long. I don't see it being one of those things where the people in Dallas have to suffer for a long time."

Perhaps. He could be right, you know. Modrak could prove to be prophetic, because the NFL has fluctuated often and strangely in recent years, and the Cowboys do have an unparalleled pedigree.

From here, though, it doesn't look as easy as all that, doesn't appear things will change for the better so quickly. From here, this looks to be a mammoth undertaking.

Rags, then. Rags for now, rather than riches.


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