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After titles, Cowboys' fortunes are plunging

Dallas, which opens Sunday against Tampa Bay, has not sustained the level of success it had in the 1990s.

By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 5, 2001


DALLAS -- There's a new ride at Six Flags over Texas called the Titan, and it might be the wildest roller coaster in the state. Second on the list easily could be the Dallas Cowboys.

Few elite NFL franchises have been as herky-jerky as the Cowboys the past few seasons. One year they win the Super Bowl. The next they go 8-8. And the next they're back in the playoffs.

After winning Super Bowls in 1992, 1993 and 1995 and reaching the playoffs in 1996, Dallas slumped to 6-10 in 1997, reached the playoffs again in 1998 and 1999, then fell back last season to 5-11.

This season, Cowboys fans are buckled in for what figures to be another steep plunge that is sure to leave some a little light-headed. Virtually all the big names from those Super Bowl seasons are gone, forcing Dallas into a rebuilding mode. The squad that will host Tampa Bay in the opener Sunday has 11 rookies, including its starter at quarterback.

That has many experts predicting a last-place finish for the Cowboys in the NFC East, including some putting them among the worst in the league. The Cowboys, though, are trying to put a happy face on their situation.

"It's not unusual for there to be a cycle in sports, whether you're the Yankees; whether you're the Cowboys; whether you're the Celtics, the Packers. All the great teams of the past have had cycles of success and then periods when they were less successful than they expected of themselves," said special-teams coach Joe Avezzano, entering his 12th season with Dallas. "You deal with the success and you deal with the down times, too. And I think that's what makes for a good organization."

Gone are stars such as Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Charles Haley and Kevin Smith, who left through a combination of free agency and retirement. The only remaining marquee name is running back Emmitt Smith.

In their place are young unknowns still learning what it means to wear that blue star on their helmets. Leading the group is rookie quarterback Quincy Carter, who became the starter only after veteran free agent Tony Banks was released during training camp.

The last time the Cowboys started a rookie quarterback -- Aikman in 1989 -- they went 1-15 and Aikman threw 18 interceptions to nine touchdowns. A season after his retirement, the Cowboys are bracing for what could be a similar season. "It's hard when you're used to winning," veteran offensive lineman Larry Allen said. "You know, I came here and we went to the NFC championship my first year (in 1994) and won the Super Bowl the next year. So, it's hard. It's frustrating."

As with other top teams, free agency has made it tougher for the Cowboys to hang on to some of their best players. Erik Williams, Chad Hennings, Leon Lett, Alonzo Spellman, Kevin Smith, Sanders and Russell Maryland have been free-agency losses in recent years. The summer after the Cowboys' last Super Bowl, they lost 11 players to free agency.

Throw in career-ending injuries to key players such as Jay Novacek and Daryl Johnston, plus the retirements of Aikman and Irvin, and it's easy to see why Dallas is in its predicament.

"We've lost more players to free agency or retirement probably than any team," safety Darren Woodson said. "When you lose guys like the Michael Irvins and the Charles Haleys over the years and the Kevin Smiths, you're not going to be the same team."

For the Cowboys, that means much of the glamour is gone, along with the swagger from years past. This is a more humble squad, one that lacks star power and craves a return to the good old days.

"It's been different the last couple of years. I think the last three years our image has changed," Woodson said. "When you have guys like a Troy Aikman or an Emmitt Smith or Deion Sanders and these big name guys, guys who are Hall of Famers; when they leave you have to have guys fill those roles.

"Well, we don't have that type of player that we had back then to fill those roles, so it's like starting all over again and creating something new. But right now it's just going to take time for guys to jell together and for us to find the guys to step up and take those spots."

* * *

SUNDAY'S GAME: Bucs at Cowboys, 1, Texas Stadium. TV: Ch. 13

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