Falling Stars

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.

At times, Quincy Carter and Anthony Wright look better--even Clint Stoerner throwing practice balls to an inanimate goalpost after workouts looks better--but that has little to do with how the season will open. Banks will be the quarterback. He has to be. There really isn't anyone else. If he flutters a few now, in Wichita Falls, so be it. If he misses high, or behind, or high and behind, that's OK, too. Provided he works out the kinks. Campo and the lot are sure he'll work out the kinks. As he goes, they keep saying, the team will go.

"C'mon guys," Campo hollers in his best coach speak, reminding everyone to be diligent and pay attention to detail. "We've got to win the turnover war. We have to. C'mon."

Banks drops back again. Among other problems, he must be hard of hearing. Oops. This time he forgets the ball. Leaves it on the ground underneath his center. The play is over before it's begun. It's early. It's August. It's going to be a long season.

Maestro, if you would, a little music. Something somber and foreboding would be appropriate.

The clock wound down to zero, just as linebacker Mike Jones made an ultimate, fantastic tackle of Titans wideout Kevin Dyson only inches from the goal line. Just like that, and with a final, deserved sigh, the St. Louis Rams had gone from Perennial Losers to Super Bowl Champions. Balloons were released, fans cheered, Dick Vermeil, then-coach of the Rams, sobbed, as he is wont to do. The scene played itself out again this past January, only without comparable drama. The Baltimore Ravens were never in danger of losing the season's most important game to the New York Giants, but that didn't stop them from celebrating the victory with commensurate zeal, if not with an equivalent amount of tears. Large men with evil stares were reduced to babbling, bubbling children--overwhelmed by being on top, by what they had accomplished.

What binds the two teams--the Rams and Ravens--is the similarity in the path chosen. That is, both went on to win the Super Bowl after making a change. After dumping your new quarterback who, in another life, served as each team's albatross.

"It's going to be a challenge," Jones offers in an unusual moment of candor. It comes as a surprise because, for much of the offseason, and most of camp, the man has been shameless in dispensing propaganda. Even went so far as to tell the press corps he was going to "be sweet" and then launched into how much he loves Wichita Falls, the mayor, the president of MSU, the locals, your mother, his whore, green M&M's and most of the original cast of Cheers, excluding, naturally, Shelley Long. Strange, but when the Cowboys were winning, he didn't gush compliments. The hunch here is that he took too much anesthetic during his makeover. "Anybody understands that, without being set at quarterback, we'll have a difficult time. If we can have Tony Banks be the quarterback here, or any of these guys--Quincy Carter or Anthony Wright--if he can play and establish himself for the next six or seven years, that would be a major happening for this team. We think Tony has the ability. Now he has to show us. He has to evolve."

In St. Louis, the Rams and Vermeil said the same. Gave him every opportunity, but Banks didn't come through. He never realized the potential everyone was so certain he possessed coming out of Michigan State six years ago. A change of pace, his backers trumpeted. That's what he needed. All he needed. Banks' lack of production (he managed only 14 wins in three seasons in St. Louis) had less to do with him than it did the situation. Yeah. That was it.

For a time, after arriving in Baltimore, it seemed as if that might actually be the case. Banks flourished under head coach Brian Billick--who had earned a reputation as an offensive guru by molding Minnesota into the league's premiere passing attack during his stint there as coordinator. In 10 games as a starter, Banks threw for 17 touchdowns against eight interceptions for an 81.2 quarterback rating. It was, and still is, the best QB rating of his career, and it gave hope to legions of purple people who were very nearly suicidal when they learned Banks would command the Ravens. Too bad for them their fears weren't assuaged for long.

Last year, Banks "guided" Baltimore through five dreadful weeks without a touchdown. Billick finally gave up, gave in and turned to much-maligned Trent Dilfer. Most coaches would rather submit to a hot-sauce enema than start Dilfer, which is why he only recently signed with Seattle, even after winning a Super Bowl ring. But, then, with the way Banks was playing, there wasn't any other option.

Today, it's the same tired story for Banks. He has another chance to start, and start anew, despite consistent blundering at previous stops. It's the strong arm and handsome build. It has to be. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, and with an able right arm that can unleash long passes to the outer reaches of a field, Banks has the makeup and the mettle, if not the talent, of an NFL passer. At 28 years old, even Banks wonders how long the "potential" tag will last--or how far it can carry him.

"I'm not sure that works anymore," Banks says, encircled by a throng of reporters and cameras and tape recorders. Luckily, he looks his best. Large diamond studs light each ear, sparkling when they catch the afternoon sun, which hangs high overhead and beats down mercilessly. An expensive-looking necklace bling-blings from his neck with similar shimmer. "I think I'm almost past my limit with the 'potential' label. I've got to produce. With this team, if I don't play well, we won't win games. Simple as that."

Uh-oh. During the past five years, he's averaged a paltry five wins per season. That's Cincinnati Bengals territory. At first, when he was brought in with the understanding that the starting position would be his to lose, it didn't make sense. Until salary cap constraints were factored in. The Cowboys still owe money to half the free world (and, perhaps, some communist overlords) but managed to ink Banks for the low-low-how-low-can-you-go price of $500,000. In the NFL, nickel backs make 500 G's, not starting quarterbacks. If nothing else, Jones can use the money he saved--ESPN called the pickup "bargain basement shopping"--to hire a getaway driver when this scheme of his collapses.

"[Banks] has fumble problems, and he makes poor decisions with the ball," opines ESPN television analyst Mike Golic. "He throws the ball well down the field, but you need to be able to make consistent plays across the middle and on out patterns. I'm not sure he's the answer the Cowboys are looking for. If he could play, wouldn't everyone know by now?"

That was one of the more gentle evaluations. The gravity of the quarterback situation isn't lost on the coaching staff. If Banks doesn't play better--that is, if he doesn't play well, if he leads this team into the shitter the way he did during his last two gigs--the result could be cataclysmic for Campo and Company. They need Banks the way the rest of us need a stiff drink on Friday night. Both Campo and Jones, predictably, deny anyone's job is at stake.

"The first thing, from the start, we looked at was experience," Campo says during one of his daily press gatherings that bridge the gap between two-a-day practices. "Tony is here because of that, because of his experience. I think his strengths complement our receivers. He can go down the field. Now, we need him to be more consistent. But I like his chances if he does what we think he can."

Right. Which is why the team took Quincy Carter, inexplicably, in the second round of the draft--because they have faith in Tony Banks. Then again, what else is Campo supposed to say, that he thinks Banks is a stiff who should be working the docks somewhere for minimum wage? It's a shame that someone like Campo, someone so affable and loyal to his organization, should be forced to cast his lot with the likes of No. 3.

Anyone else wonder if Campo is a religious man?

"I think Tony knows there's pressure," Campo continues, "because he's been in two situations where he hasn't done it. But we're not looking at him as a replacement for Aikman. We're looking at him as the next guy. With him, we are not going to be quite so sophisticated. We asked Troy to win games. We're asking [Banks] to manage the game, do what he does best and get the ball to the guys who have a chance to get the ball into the end zone."

It made all the sense in the world, Jerry Jones told us, smiling like the Grinch, when he traded two first-round draft picks for then-Seattle Seahawk Joey Galloway. Made sense because Galloway is a first-round-caliber talent, and they knew what they were getting. That was the logic. Turned out the reasoning was a bit specious.

The media guide reads that "while his first season in Dallas was cut short because of injury, the 2001 season should see Galloway return as one of the league's most explosive offensive threats." You've got to love the PR guys. With one sentence, they dismissed, or tried to dismiss, one of the biggest disasters from last year. In the fourth quarter of the season opener against Philadelphia--a game that was never in doubt and one the Cowboys lost 41-14--Galloway was, for some reason, still in the game, trying his best, but trying in vain. That's when he went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Over a chattering, disbelieving crowd, you could almost hear everyone's hopes for the season drifting away on a muggy September wind.

Not long after, in week 10, Galloway's running mate in patterns and off-field excursions, Rocket Ismail, suffered the same affliction, but to his right knee. He, too, was lost for the season--placed on injured reserve.

That's what you're looking at, what you'll be rooting for, what Banks and Campo and Jones are counting on. Two gimps, morning-fresh from career-threatening injuries. You'll be relieved to know, however, that each of them is doing just fine and should be world-beaters. This from Campo and the Boys, who have obviously been indoctrinated in the business of misinformation and distraction. ("Pay no attention to the transvestite behind the curtain!") What is puzzling to most is, if Galloway and Ismail are indeed healthy, why are they being coddled? This is football, right? Big men doling out punishment for our amusement?

Campo doesn't care. Makes it clear to everyone that he's taking no chances. "Joey and Rocket will be on one-a-day practice schedules to be determined by the coaching staff. They'll either practice in the morning or the afternoon, but not both."

Interesting considering the team isn't wearing pads or hitting yet. But it's probably nothing. Why worry? So what if Galloway hasn't played a full season in more than two years (he held out during his last year with the Seahawks) or that Rocket has proved, over his career, to be as sturdy as porcelain? No big deal. They're just the focal point of an offense that already had to cope with countless unknowns. And now has a few more.

It's true. And you're bitter. No matter how it's couched. These aren't your Cowboys but rather some anathema dressed up to play the part. These aren't the Pokes you like to remember. Not the ass-kickers with the sullen attitudes and the tendency for decisive victory.

That's a big thing with these Cowboys--the lack of stars. It's a dilemma for the brass, how to proceed in the wake of Troy Aikman's retirement, how to continue in the absence of the names you knew and loved, how to forge ahead with the pall covering them all. It is, however unpleasant, a living wake. The Cowboys, your Cowboys circa the mid-1990s, are dead.

"You know, when you see a guy throw the ball down the field and a receiver catches the ball, at some point in time you might look around and say, 'Man, Michael Irvin's not here. Man, Troy Aikman's not throwing the ball,'" says Emmitt Smith, one of the remaining survivors, sparking up nostalgia. "Most of the time that I'm out here, my mind is far away from that. My mind is totally concentrated on what I have to do here in order to help this ball club get better. Yeah, it's nice to reflect and all, but reflecting ain't gonna get you nowhere right now."

Somehow, maybe while you were at the fridge getting a beer or down the block talking with neighbors, the team, your team, got old. So did Emmitt. He's entering his 12th season. He's 31. But, unlike some of his collaborators, there is still life left in his legs. There will be more records and accolades. Barring some unforeseen tragedy, Smith likely will pass Walter Payton as the NFL's all-time leading rusher before he retires, before he goes off to play golf or sit in some broadcast booth or whatever it is he's planning to do with his Denture Days. In the interim, as in the past, he's the team's last, best weapon.

Last year, with no one to help, and all but abandoned on the field, Smith churned along. It was the 10th consecutive season in which he's passed the 1,000-yard plateau. He's only the second back in history to do so. The other is Barry Sanders. Clearly, with this cast of characters, he'll be called upon for more of the same. Handoff left, right, center. Over and over.

"Emmitt is a very important part of this team," Campo says while hitching up shorts that already ride too high. Frighteningly too high. Like he might wear them as a hat later. "Look, he's somebody that everyone looks up to. There aren't a lot of other guys around."

No. There aren't. And that won't make it any easier on the assembly. From Smith's lofty lead and what he figures to produce, the falloff could be grand. There are questions, but they don't stop with Banks and Galloway and Ismail. Or even with the offensive side of the ball.

Darren Woodson, long the most capable of defenders in Cowboy Blue, is still the meat, though there doesn't appear to be many trimmings to complement the dish. Last season, the Boys proved inept, finishing 19th overall in the league in defense. Stopping the run, in particular, was a daunting problem--one that was never solved. Dallas was woeful, finishing dead last against the run.

"We plan on playing a little more of a zone scheme from the safeties dropping down and playing the run," Campo says, without trying to give away the keys to the car by divulging too much information. "We won't go into the season thinking we can't stop the run. We have to force first-down stops so we move [the opposition] into long second downs. Certainly, we're going to ask the safeties to help out on the run. We can't expect to be successful when we're giving up chunks--four, five yards--on first down."

Essentially, they'll be double-dog daring the competition to pass, which is fine and good. Provided the run-stopping plan works first. What's the old axiom about the sum of parts and their relation to the whole? Now tweak it a bit to accommodate purchasing those parts from a five-and-dime.

Right now, the Cowboys work through sets, preparing the players to be meaner and better than they were last season. The linebackers--constantly and justly criticized for lackluster play--garner particular attention from the staff. Without some improvement there, Campo may as well knock off and go drinking, because all will be lost, and he'll be unemployed.

No doubt, it works both ways, and the players are likely as skeptical of the game plan as the coaches are in those implementing it.

"It can't be like that," counters linebacker Dexter Coakley, wiping sweat from an oily brow. "We have to trust the coaches just like they have to trust us. I mean, when we're out on the field, we're a reflection of them. What we do is a reflection on them, so we want to do the best we can for the coaches, just like they want to do the best they can for us. That, or we'll all be out on the street."

Anyone have the Help Wanted ads?

Darren Hambrick--the same Darren Hambrick who bitched about not making enough money and didn't show up for "voluntary" minicamp--is getting a good earful during 7-on-7 drills, but not without reason. He not only missed a tackle on running back John Avery in the flat but failed to strip the ball and ended up on his face. Punked.

Now, this is only camp, and there's time yet before everything starts to matter, but miscues abound here. Not just with the rookies--the unnamed ones J.J. was so sure would become stars--but with all of them. They drop balls or miss blocks or short-arm tackles. They look tight. They look ugly.

They press because they know. If they can't make it in Dallas, where the reality of the matter--despite what Jones is dishing--is rebuilding, then how are they going to stay in a league where more is being demanded in other outposts?

"There is no tomorrow for a lot of us," says tight end Jackie Harris, who, at the advanced age of 33, is nearing the end of his career but has a shot to be a starter because of a depleted and unproven roster. "And I'm not just talking about us older guys. I'm talking about the younger guys, too. Because they have work to do, and if they don't, if they miss that train, the train may never come around again."

The other day, the man with the most to prove, the guy who has to watch the train coming before it's left the station--Tony Banks--begged out of practice. He had a pulled groin. But that's not the interesting part. Apparently, the injury, according to your "leader," stemmed from the new system he's learning, which caused his footwork to be out of whack when dropping back and resulted in that special pain. That was a new one to Campo. To the rest of us, too.

It's early. It's August. It's starting already.

Think it's too late to get Trent Dilfer to change his mind about Seattle?


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