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It's time Aikman put Aikman first

By ERNEST HOOPER and Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 17, 2000

Troy Aikman should be admired for being hardy, and admonished for being foolhardy, at the same time.

Aikman, after the worst game of his career, stood before the media and answered every question about the five interceptions he threw against the New York Giants on Sunday. In the season opener, he sustained the ninth concussion of his career. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Aikman has a herniated disc.

But Aikman wouldn't use those problems to explain his horrendous performance. Instead, he talked about the cumulative effect of being knocked out of service Sept.3 and going 1-2 since his comeback Sept.24.

"You tend to get down on yourself, no question about that," Aikman said. "You're disappointed in yourself. You're frustrated. I expect more out of myself than that. But as far as losing confidence as far as what I can do, that won't ever happen."

No one wants Aikman to lose his confidence, but would it be so bad if he lost a job that is bringing him more pain than joy? The physical pounding is excruciatingly unnecessary, the mental toll is unfairly taxing.

And for what?

Aikman already has solidified his place in NFL lore with three Super Bowl rings, 158 career touchdowns and nearly 32,000 career passing yards. What is there left to accomplish? Why should he subject himself to more punishment when he already has been sacked more than 250 times?

Surely, it is passion that fuels his drive. In recent weeks, Aikman has talked about how much he wants to get back to the Super Bowl, and how he wishes every player could experience the exhilaration of winning the ultimate game.

In an age in which some are playing just for paychecks, you have to revel over Aikman's motivation. In an era in which players are treated more like property than people, you have to embrace the loyalty of Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who refuses to bench Aikman even though Randall Cunningham is better suited to play behind the Cowboys' porous offensive line.

At a time when players can be incredibly selfish, you have to respect the fierce loyalty being displayed by Aikman's teammates.

"Don't ask me to participate in a quarterback controversy because I won't do it," running back Emmitt Smith said. "I won't do it. I've seen him make too many plays and win too many games. I've still got confidence in him.

"You guys want us to doubt so bad. You guys want us to be like the fans back in Dallas. We don't play like that. That's what you call family. When things like this happen, you draw closer together."

There is so much to admire about Aikman and his team. But the only way those traits will carry this story to a happy ending is if Aikman returns to glory one final time. Any fan of the game should want that for Aikman, but what every fan wants more is to avoid seeing Aikman limp off into the sunset or carted off into retirement.

"I want what's best for this team," Aikman said. "I'd like to think I'm the guy that gives this team the best chance to win. But if the staff decides that's not the case, then I would expect them to do something, not out of anything that I've accomplished or anything I've done for this organization, or for any of those reasons."

Therein lies the problem. Aikman appears to be putting the team first, as he probably has done all his life. For once, he should think of what's best for him instead of what's best for the Cowboys.

RUN, RICKY, RUN: Don't look now, but the New Orleans Saints are 3-3, the same record as a nearby team that was supposed to host the Super Bowl. The Saints' modest two-game winning streak (Chicago, Carolina) is built on defense and the running of Ricky Williams, the Heisman Trophy winner who turned scapegoat in his rookie season.

Now in his second year, Williams has run for more than 100 yards in a team-record four consecutive games, and he scored his first career touchdowns at the Superdome on Sunday. If he can maintain that pace against the next four opponents (all under .500), New Orleans easily could be 7-3 when it hosts Oakland on Nov.19.

It also would mean Williams would be closer to buying Rolexes for his offensive line. Williams made the promise contingent on his running for more than 1,600 yards. With 616, he's on pace for 1,664.

"That's a very nice gesture on Ricky's part," center Jerry Fontenot said. "The least we can do is help him get all of his incentive clauses, so he can afford it."

PAY UP: Three buses carrying Ravens officials, including owner Art Modell, to Sunday's game had to pay $40 each to drop off their passengers. I guess when your team is playing at FedEx Field, you have to pay for guaranteed delivery.

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