|The Last of the Elites|
January 28, 1996
celebration, of course, was different from the first two. This time it
was Barry Switzer, not Jimmy Johnson, who received the Gatorade bath.
This time it was Switzer, not Johnson, who touched the Lombardi Trophy
and who could proclaim the Cowboys the best damn football team in the
Yet these three
Super Bowl triumphs by Dallas over the past four seasons are linked by a
common bond. They are the building blocks that established these Cowboys
as an elite modern-era team, raising them into that rarefied atmosphere
already occupied by Vince Lombardi's Packers, Chuck Noll's Steelers and
the rest of the legendary clubs since the late 1940s. An unprecedented
three rings in four years is the resume of a dynasty. No debate needed.
"They are," says
Noll, who knows something about these things, "a great, great team.
People think it is easy to do what they have done. But it isn't. Or more
would have done it."
But as we watched
the Cowboys strut their stuff, as only Deion and friends can do, there
also was a sad sense of finality about what was happening on the turf of
Sun Devil Stadium.
For Dallas also is
the last elite team the NFL will see.
effects of free agency, gnawing away at the best and improving the
weakest, will see to that. "Free agency is the great equalizer," says
Tom Flores, who coached the Raiders to two Super Bowl rings. "It can
close the talent gap faster than you could do in the past. And it is too
hard now to keep great teams together. That is why I don't think you
will ever see dynasties anymore."
Even this last
dynasty is hanging on now. Far from dominating the Steelers in Super
Bowl XXX, the Cowboys needed two timely takeaways to survive the 27-17
triumph. It was a game they should have lost but didn't. They won't be
so fortunate in the future.
"We won't be as
good next year as we are this year," Switzer says, realistically. Free
agency likewise will make sure of that.
moment in the cool Arizona night stands as the peak moment for an
historical team. It never will be the same for this franchise or for
this league. For the gap between the Cowboys and the rest of the NFL
closed noticeably this season; the Steelers' magnificent effort last
Sunday served to accentuate what losses to the Redskins and Eagles
already had exposed. Remember, Dallas had to struggle to secure
home-field advantage in these playoffs. And the gap in 1996 will
diminish even further, so much so that the Cowboys won't make it four
out of five.
"We'd like to
think we have positioned ourselves to continue to challenge for the
Super Bowl," says Owner Jerry Jones, who gained sweet satisfaction
winning this game with Switzer instead of Johnson, who was cast aside
after championship No. 2. "But we know we will have to suffer some
hits." By now, it is obvious Jones knows something about building and
maintaining teams. But he has paid a terrible salary-cap price to
continue the Cowboy greatness, and it is that overwhelming debt to the
future that will return his franchise to a lower level. And the crowning
irony is that a defense that bailed out the Cowboys against the Steelers
will be so ravaged by free agency in the offseason it no longer will be
of championship caliber.
could come this close to a ring, then why shouldn't teams such as Green
Bay, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Kansas City, San Diego and even
Philadelphia and Miami suddenly feel more optimistic in 1996 about their
championship chances? Combine that hope with the blows the Cowboys will
take in free agency, and this next season could prove to be one of the
most wide-open and electrifying in years. And possibly even the NFC's
domination of the Super Bowl, now 12 seasons long, finally will end.
"You don't feel
Dallas and San Francisco are invincible anymore," Packers quarterback
Brett Favre says. "What happened to both of them during the season gave
everyone else the feeling they were now vulnerable. You look at it like,
"If we can get just a little better, we could catch up and overcome
The 49ers need a
running back; the Packers some defensive help. Both are possible
offseason improvements. Still, the Steelers are obvious first choices to
jump on top. But they have a major problem of their own. Quarterback
Neil O'Donnell, whose two poorly thrown passes led to two Cowboy
touchdowns and decided the game's outcome, is a free agent who wants to
return to Pittsburgh. But he will be a popular prospect for other teams,
particularly the Eagles, who need to upgrade a position now occupied by
Rodney Peete. Without O'Donnell, the Steelers will tumble considerably.
With him, and with a defense that should be healthier and better, they
are formidable. Remember, they lost only two of their last 12 games, and
both could have just as easily been victories.
underappreciated," says Phil Simms, the former Giants quarterback who
now is a TV commentator. "He is a hell of a quarterback who still is
young (29). He's going to get better. I have the same feeling about him
that I had about Brett Favre two years ago."
moments of brilliance against the Cowboys. But when compared to the
steadiness of Troy Aikman, his inexperience in big games showed
glaringly. "As long as you stay under control and don't make mistakes,
you can win games like this even if it looks like you are struggling,"
says Aikman, who threw only one interception in three playoff games this
postseason. That postseason experience was the only major difference
between the Cowboys and Steelers this time around -- "our nucleus
carries us because they know how to win," Jones says -- but even that
edge is dissipating.
Three years ago,
when Dallas won its first title under the Jones regime, league
executives forecast the Cowboys' eventual salary-cap headaches. He was
caught in a Catch-22. If he signed his best players, particularly the
magnificent trio of Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, then he
would tie up so much of his available money he couldn't afford other
quality players. But if he worried about the long-term implications of
the cap and didn't continue to sign his stars, then he would reduce his
chances of winning multiple championships. He chose the first route, and
now the implications of that decision will kick in dramatically.
"But he did the
right thing," says Charley Casserly, general manager of the Redskins.
"You have to win it while you can, when you have a shot. These chances
don't come around very often and you can't blow them. You have to keep
those three guys around for whatever it takes."
A few numbers best
illustrate what Dallas and Jones now face. His top 15 players will earn
$32.8 million of next year's expected $40-million to $41-million cap
maximum. Teams can carry 53 players. If he pays each of the 38 players
needed to fill out the roster the minimum salary of $200,000, then he
must fork out another $7.6 million. That would meet cap requirements but
it would leave him with a bunch of stars surrounded by mediocrity. Call
it the Price of Deion; signing Sanders to his $35-million contract last
fall removed Jones' future flexibility even as it served as the final
piece in this year's Super Bowl puzzle.
"Dallas was better
than the rest of us in part because they had the depth," says Mike
Allman, the Seahawks' player-personnel director, who has been scouting
in the NFL for 31 years. "But free agency is killing their depth, which
makes them more vulnerable to injuries and gets them more even with the
rest of us. That's one of the reasons you will never build a dynasty
from scratch now that we have free agency. You can't maintain depth. If
a backup is any good, he will leave after his first three years for
someplace he can play."
teams will suffer from the same problem Jones is encountering. They
can't afford to keep a huge nucleus of stars around for their entire
careers. "When we had our good teams," says Joe Gibbs, the former
Redskins coach who was selected to the Hall of Fame Saturday, "we had a
nucleus of 12 players we could rely on. Now if you can keep eight you
would be lucky. That is a major difference. That spreads out the talent
more evenly around the league, so it becomes more difficult to
The chipping away
of the Dallas colossus actually began soon after its first title. If
that club, composed mostly of young stars, had remained intact, goodness
knows how good it might have become. Says Allman: "You'd be considering
this year's team in the same breath with the '70 Steelers, teams like
Key losses from
that Dallas club were linebacker Ken Norton Jr. and receiver Alvin
Harper; star offensive linemen Kevin Gogan and Mark Stepnoski; defensive
back James Washington and defensive linemen Jim Jeffcoat and Tony
Casillas. "You think about those guys and you shake your head," fullback
Daryl Johnston says. "But that is what happens in free agency. You know
guys are going to leave. You can't blame them. You have to do what is
right for your future. But the old teams never had to worry about free
agency. I mean, the old Steelers stayed together."
It was a franchise
that, in another era, might have looked at a string of titles
unchallenged in history. Instead, now that the giddiness surrounding
this championship begins to erode, it is a team about to watch even more
of its parts leave.
To put it simply,
Jones doesn't have enough money anymore to keep every star on this
roster. He has 35 players under contract for next season, tying up $40.8
million. And that is before he decides what to do with seven key
unrestricted or restricted free agents (see chart on Page 16). Jones'
starting linebacking corps, half of his secondary and a star lineman are
defensive scenario is this: Of all the current linebackers, only reserve
Godfrey Myles returns next season, meaning the Cowboys will have to find
two starters and the money to pay them; cornerback Larry Brown, whose
market value improved off Sunday's MVP effort, doesn't come back;
outstanding safety Darren Woodson doesn't get the franchise designation
and is not re-signed; corner Deion Sanders plays baseball again and
misses half the NFL season; and injured cornerback Kevin Smith, who tore
an Achilles' in September, doesn't come back fully from his injury and
leaves the secondary in a mess. And defensive tackle Russell Maryland,
an unrestricted free agent, signs with another team, eliminating what
once was incredible depth along the line.
"No matter how
good your offense is, you still win championships with defense," Flores
said a few days before this Super Bowl. And this Dallas defense, which
Switzer rightfully credited for the victory, won't be close to title
caliber by September.
Woodson probably will be back and Kevin Smith will be healthy enough to
play, keeping the secondary together until Sanders rejoins the team in
October. But Prime Time is a baseball free agent and won't say if he
will continue his two-sport life. "I may play baseball, but it is
something I will deal with later," he says. Still, the linebacking
situation will be dreadful -- unrestricted free agents Robert Jones and
Dixon Edwards at least are endangered -- and Maryland won't re-sign. So
that is a minimum of three starters gone from a unit that was not nearly
as strong as three seasons ago and at times seemed helpless against
O'Donnell and Pittsburgh's four-and five-receiver sets.
"We once had a
defense that didn't give up big plays and didn't allow a lot of points,"
Woodson says. "We had a lot of mental lapses this year and weren't
nearly as strong." The Cowboys gave up 27 points to Green Bay in the
playoffs and frequently had problems defending medium-range passes and
runs up their gut. They suffered through a midseason adjustment when
Sanders showed up, but never were overpowering at any stage.
concerned," defensive coordinator Dave Campo says. "We have a lot of
guys up for free agency and that could be a problem. Not only because
you lose them physically, but you lose a little character with each one.
Ken Norton ... James Washington ... Tony Casillas. You lose something
when guys like that leave."
If the Cowboys had
drafted better the last few years, then they possibly could have some
young replacements ready to step in. But their stockpiling has been
inadequate -- defensive end Shante Carver, a No. 1 draft pick in 1994
from Arizona State, is not going to make anyone forget Charles Haley --
and where is Jerry Jones getting the salary-cap room to bring in veteran
free agents to fill the holes? He already is drafting last in April's
first round and can't afford to pay a No. 1 choice anyway, so he
probably will trade down to the second round, not the ideal way to
maintain a championship team.
In addition, Jones
might be faced with Haley's retirement, which would leave a huge
pass-rush gap. Haley, who now has five title rings, is under contract
for 1996 but has ongoing back problems (he needed midseason surgery and
didn't return until the Super Bowl) and his status is shaky at best. He
says he will have his back evaluated before deciding his future. Carver
is his projected replacement but is far less talented.
outcome of this defensive reshuffling, there is no question the Cowboys
must rely more heavily than ever on their offense. The offense carried
them this season, simply overpowering teams at times with the most
balanced attack in the league. But even though this is an era in which
rules and offensive innovations have opened things up dramatically --
making it easier to win despite defensive weaknesses -- even Aikman,
Smith and Irvin won't be enough anymore.
superiority also will be depleted in the offseason. Jones faces the
immediate challenge of making cuts before February 15 to keep his roster
under the projected cap figure. He will have 35 players under contract
for $40.8 million and likely would have to fork out a few more million
to retain rights to his restricted free agents. He will have to consider
releasing a number of players from a pool of starters such as tackle
Erik Williams (he's due a $5-million signing bonus February 1 or he
becomes a free agent), Johnston, center Derek Kennard and cornerback
Clayton Holmes, who is under a league-ordered suspension because of
would renegotiate the huge contracts of his major stars to help his cap
problem, but he re-did eight contracts, including Aikman's and Irvin's,
to make room to sign Sanders. Under league rules, he can't change any of
those deals for a year, leaving him with little immediate leeway. And he
already has said he will work with Smith, who has a year left on his
contract, to rewrite and extend his pact.
Smith, not Aikman,
is considered the Cowboys' MVP by opponents -- "everything starts with
him when you want to defend the Cowboys," says Pittsburgh defensive
coordinator Dick LeBeau -- and he surely will want a contract that
reflects the same neighborhood now occupied by Aikman and Sanders. Smith
probably will seek a $10-million signing bonus within a
multi-million-dollar agreement. "I'd like to be a Cowboy the rest of my
life, but sometimes what we want and what we get are not the same," he
says. "But I respect (Jones') ability to take care of the people who
matter to him. We'll just have to see what happens down the road."
The offensive line
also is showing age -- guard Nate Newton and Mark Tuinei are near the
end of their careers, and center Ray Donaldson, who broke an ankle this
season, will be 38 in May -- and what about the long-term attitude of
Aikman, who doesn't hide his displeasure with the disciplinary
philosophies of Switzer?
The only serious
flap of Super Bowl week -- all the hoopla over the Cowboys riding around
in limos and Switzer referring to the game as the Orange Bowl was
unimportant and affected the outcome not one whit -- involved Aikman,
who had hinted for weeks that, in his words, "unnecessary internal"
problems had made this season particularly distasteful for him. Turns
out he was referring to complaints by defensive-line coach John Blake
that Aikman was more apt to criticize African American rather than white
players. Blake, who was named coach at Oklahoma and left the team before
the playoffs started, talked to Switzer about the situation, and Aikman
was not pleased the coach didn't handle the difficulties more
dramatically. His teammates dismissed Blake's charges, saying Aikman was
a fine fellow. But the quarterback and head coach rarely talk; nor will
Aikman ever agree with Switzer's lackadaisical attitude toward
discipline. It makes for an unpleasant atmosphere.
Aikman and Switzer
will be back next season. But Aikman, who admits he was banged up more
this season than at any point in his career -- he will have offseason
elbow surgery, and his knees ache -- talks frequently about retiring
early, which puts a cloud over his long-term tenure with the Cowboys.
"As long as we can
keep our nucleus together, we will continue to be a factor in deciding
who wins the Super Bowl," says Aikman, who earlier acknowledged that in
the second half of this latest title game, he could feel things
It is an emotion
that will visit him and his teammates frequently next season.
Paul Attner is a senior writer for The Sporting News.
The Sporting News
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