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The Texas sun had already made its presence felt on this early
June morning when Sherman Williams, the Dallas Cowboys' top
draft pick, came strutting onto the team's Valley Ranch practice
field. Williams, an unsigned rookie running back, had skipped
the first day of this three-day minicamp to have his picture
taken by a trading-card company in Los Angeles, and now he was
ready to meet some of the icons who would be his new teammates.
Quarterback Troy Aikman, defensive end Charles Haley and running
back Emmitt Smith, superstars all, went about their business
without saying a word. Then Michael Irvin, the Cowboys' All-Pro
receiver, spiritual leader and motormouth, came over and broke
the ice.

"Hey, Sherman," Irvin said, eyeballing the diminutive Williams
with a stare right out of the Mike Tyson handbook. "Don't you
ever pull that ---- again. The people in the NFC East don't give a
damn about card shows. The big boys in San Francisco don't care
about that crap. You better get your head on straight, because
we don't tolerate that here."

Williams muttered a meek "O.K.," and swallowed hard.

America's Team? This was more like America's Most Wanted.

Tempers ran as high as the temperatures at the Cowboys' next to
last off-season gathering before training camp, as a team that
once seemed destined to dominate the 1990s tried to preserve
what was left of its core. In the last 17 months -- or since
Dallas won its second consecutive Super Bowl -- the Cowboys have
taken more hits than Cheech and Chong while doing little to
counter those losses.

During the last five months alone, Dallas has lost a defensive
coordinator (Butch Davis), three key starters (Alvin Harper,
Mark Stepnoski and James Washington) and three valuable backups
(Kenneth Gant, Jim Jeffcoat and Rodney Peete). All 10 of the
Cowboys' 1995 draft picks -- including the 5'7", 196-pound
Williams, the 46th overall pick in the draft, out of Alabama --
are projected as backups, at best. And their biggest free-agent
acquisition, center Ray Donaldson, is a lesser version of his
Pro Bowl predecessor, Stepnoski, who signed with the Houston

Dallas was a 38-28 loser to the San Francisco 49ers in January's
NFC Championship Game, and on paper the gap between the two
teams has widened. No wonder Irvin gave Williams such a rude
introduction. No wonder second-year coach Barry Switzer went on
a 13-minute, profanity-laced tirade at the start of the
minicamp, at one point saying, "I told you a year ago at this
time that it was your team. What I'm telling you today is now
it's my team." According to The Dallas Morning News, Switzer
went on to single out two Cowboys who were not present: Williams
and guard Nate Newton, who subsequently got a lecture from
Switzer after showing up 50 minutes late. It didn't help that
Newton looked as though he'd spent his off-season frolicking in
a pool of marshmallow creme -- he weighed 368 pounds, 40 over
his playing weight. Switzer also dispelled locker-room talk that
he would appoint an assistant head coach.

The next day, as he sat in his office with his 25-year-old
daughter, Kathy, and her frisky Akita, Oskie, Switzer sounded as
much like Frank Sinatra as a football coach: "I told them this
year we'll do it my way. They won't look to anybody else --
coordinators, assistants, whoever -- for answers or decisions.
I'm going to pull the reins in."

Last year, after riding into town in the wake of the celebrated
split between Cowboy owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson,
Switzer strove to be unobtrusive, figuring a rookie NFL coach
would have trouble bullying the two-time defending Super Bowl
champs. The formula worked for a while, as Dallas won the NFC
East and, for a third consecutive year, met the 49ers for the
NFC title. But when the Cowboys lost to the Niners, Switzer's
style came under intense scrutiny, and even he concedes that
some of his players viewed him as aloof and uninvolved.

One Cowboy veteran says Switzer, who coached for 16 years at
Oklahoma, "came in thinking that pro coaching couldn't possibly
be any more pressure-packed. I think it might have jolted him a
little, but now he has a better understanding of how demanding
the NFL is." Switzer's apparent lack of involvement became a
topic in the Cowboy locker room. "People couldn't help but talk
about it," Irvin says. "Some guys let the poison seep in, and it
spread like a disease. We lost some people in the shuffle. Now
we've got them back."

There is speculation that Switzer, who was plagued last year by
chronic neck pain -- "There wasn't a minute all season I didn't
think about it," he says -- might leave coaching after this
year. But his pain has been relieved by more than a dozen
cortisone injections in his spine over the past few months, and
he points to the $500,000 house he's having built two miles from
the Valley Ranch facility as a sign he plans to stick around.

The Cowboy players see Switzer's fiery speech as a sign of
progress. Seldom has a chewing-out session been met with such
bliss. "It was long overdue," cornerback Kevin Smith says. "Some
guys are self-motivators, but others need authority."

If Switzer is getting his house in order, however, there remains
a great deal of static from the outside. Many observers still
consider the Cowboys and the 49ers to be the NFL's best teams,
but while San Francisco continues to take risks in search of
improvement -- witness the draft-day trade that netted UCLA
receiver J.J. Stokes with the 10th pick of the first round --
Dallas has come under attack for merely trying to mitigate its
losses. At least two years have passed since the Cowboys have
made a move that substantially upgraded their roster. Not even
Rambo goes that long without reloading.

"I think the 49ers had to do something last year because Dallas
had a superior team, so they upgraded," says former San
Francisco coach Bill Walsh. "Whatever the Cowboys have done or
failed to do, they've probably eroded to the point where the
49ers now are the superior team."

Dallas goes into the 1995 season without Davis, who became the
coach at the University of Miami and is the third Cowboy
coordinator, along with current NFL coaches Norv Turner
(Washington Redskins) and Dave Wannstedt (Chicago Bears), to
leave since the end of '92. The fact that the Cowboys are still
formidable is a testament to Johnson's Super Bowl teams, which
may have been among the best ensembles of all time.

Where is the strong new blood? Dallas may have found at least
one young addition last year by drafting offensive lineman Larry
Allen in the second round, but first-round pick Shante Carver, a
pass-rushing defensive end, was a bust. And this year's draft
strategy -- trading out of the first round for extra picks in
later rounds -- was scorned in most NFL circles. "Their last two
drafts have been garbage," says Washington, who signed with the
Redskins in March. "I think they're in trouble."

Even Aikman says he was puzzled. "I'll be honest with you," he
says. "When I saw we took a backup player with our first pick,
it was a concern to me."

The plan, as with all recent Cowboy plans, was dictated by the
salary cap. The organization, says Jones, wanted to come away
with players who could "play on special teams and fit into
favorable salary slots in their second, third and fourth years
while we groom them." Dallas, with the 28th selection in the
first round, would have drafted Florida State safety Devin Bush
to replace Washington, but the Atlanta Falcons took him two
spots earlier. Jones then decided to trade down, leaving
untested veteran Brock Marion as Washington's heir.

In helping Johnson build the Cowboys from the ground up, Jones
distinguished himself by having the guts to take risks. But
since Johnson's departure, Jones has been more conservative than
Strom Thurmond. His strategy has been based on holding on to
what he has -- "Keeping your powder dry," in Jones's words. The
Cowboys' only significant achievements this off-season were
re-signing Irvin, tight end Jay Novacek and defensive end Tony
Tolbert to long-term deals and talking Haley out of retiring.

Jones is a brilliant businessman -- since he purchased the
Cowboys in 1989, the value of the franchise has increased from
$130 million to $238 million -- yet he has been less creative at
salary-cap management than 49er president Carmen Policy, who
freed up money by restructuring the long-term contracts of key
players. Jones thinks Policy's policies will come back to haunt
the 49ers, but he now seems willing to consider playing San
Francisco's game.

Though Jones says he won't sign any high-profile free agents
before the upcoming season, there is one potential exception:
All-Pro cornerback Deion Sanders, whose brilliant pass coverage
helped the Niners overtake the Cowboys in 1994. It is generally
assumed that Sanders will re-sign with San Francisco after his
baseball season ends, but Jones says he'll make a run at Prime
Time and denies he's entering the Deion Derby simply to jack up
the price the 49ers must pay for Sanders.

"It's a very serious consideration for us," Jones says. "It
could make a lot of sense." Jones will make this pitch: By
joining the Cowboys and winning it all, Sanders could define
himself as the ultimate difference-maker. Aikman has already
told Jones he would be willing to restructure his contract,
which runs through 2000, to help fit Neon Deion under the cap.
Boasts Jones: "We have more room available to rework contracts
than anyone in the league." Sanders's agent, Eugene Parker,
believes Prime Time could get the same endorsement income as a
Cowboy as he could as a 49er and says a Dallas offer "could be
intriguing; the door is open."

If the Cowboys don't get Sanders, they'll still take the field
believing they are the best team in the NFL.

Switzer: "We lost some people, but I've got to believe we kept
the best base of talent."

Aikman: "I just think deep in my heart we're a better football
team" than the 49ers.

Irvin: "We know we're the best team. We're so stacked that our
front office doesn't need to be desperate."

Jones: "What happened to us last January was three turnovers in
five minutes. Just let us line up again with the same personnel
on both sides, in San Francisco, and four out of five times
we'll go to the Super Bowl."

Dallas lost to the 49ers with two of its best players hobbled by
injuries: All-Pro tackle Erik Williams, who was sidelined after
a car accident last October and is still recovering from two
knee operations, and Emmitt Smith, who entered the NFC title
game with a pulled left hamstring and exited in the fourth
quarter with a pulled right hamstring. The Cowboys believe a new
workout program has strengthened Smith's hamstrings. They also
plan to reduce his workload by giving Sherman Williams five to
six carries a game.

Erik Williams is a trickier matter. Probably the game's best
offensive tackle before his accident, Williams began jogging
only last month and isn't likely to return until October. In
April he was charged with sexually assaulting a 17-year-old
topless dancer. The case was scheduled to go before a grand jury
on June 13, and Williams isn't talking about it. But Jones says,
"I have no reason to believe that those charges in any way are
going to affect him for the 1995 season or the future."

Another concern is receiver, where either Kevin Williams or Cory
Fleming will replace Harper. The Cowboys are high on Fleming,
whom they signed last year after the 49ers drafted him in the
third round and then inexplicably renounced his rights. But
Fleming ran a 4.78 40-yard dash during the May minicamp, slower
than the clockings of two thirds of the White House press corps.
Look for Williams to start and for Irvin to pick up some of the

"People say we didn't improve," Irvin fumes. "I say that's a
lie. Maybe we didn't improve in personnel, but we improved our
off-season work, and we improved our focus. But that's O.K. -- I
want the whole world to think we didn't improve, so people walk
in here half-stepping, and we can give them a whole new insight."

At the very least, a certain rookie running back has already
been enlightened.

COLOR PHOTO:PETER READ MILLER Switzer, who was loath to come on strong as an NFL rookie in '94, doesn't mince words these days. [Barry Switzer yelling at Dallas players]

COLOR PHOTO:PETER READ MILLER As long as Aikman's arm and Smith's legs don't give out, Dallas should contend for the NFL title. [Emmitt Smith]

COLOR PHOTO:AL TIELEMANS[see caption above--Troy Aikman]TWO COLOR PHOTOS:PETER READ MILLERDallas hopes that Erik Williams will get back on his feet and that the unproven Fleming (left) and Carver will develop. [Erik Williams sitting; Cory Fleming catching pass]

COLOR PHOTO:AL TIELEMANS [see caption above--Shante Carver]

COLOR PHOTO:AL TIELEMANS Newton's weight problems -- he is now about 368 pounds -- have taken on a whole new gravity. [Nate Newton jogging during practice]