The final pass of the Dallas Cowboys' final minicamp floated
perfectly toward the left corner of the end zone, and Deion
Sanders, Dallas's latest project at wide receiver, broke on the
football like paparazzi on Princess Diana. Sanders, who is used
to playing defense on such plays, soared over rookie free-agent
cornerback Buster Owens and slid across the wet grass at the
Cowboys' Valley Ranch practice facility. It was grime time for
Prime Time, and when Sanders failed to hold on to the pass, he
punched the ground in disgust. "Dammit!" he screamed into the
muggy Texas air on June 5 as Dallas's three-day quarterback
school came to an emphatic end.
Many observers would have viewed the incompletion as
insignificant, but not Sanders. He's serious about his bid to
become a full-time receiver as well as a full-time cornerback,
and apparently so are the Cowboys. Already the league's premier
cornerback, Neon Deion is devoting the energy he once spent on
baseball to developing his receiving skills. He has been a
regular at Valley Ranch during the off-season, and he will work
exclusively on offense through the end of the exhibition season
in late August.
By then Dallas should have answers to some pressing questions,
most notably whether Pro Bowl wideout Michael Irvin will be
barred from playing for part or all of next season.
Indisputably, Irvin, who caught a club-record 111 passes in
1995, and Sanders, who drew considerable defensive attention on
the five dozen or so occasions when he lined up at wide receiver
last year, could team to create one of the league's most potent
pass-catching tandems. Irvin, however, has more off-the-field
problems than Courtney Love, including a drug-possession trial
that is scheduled to begin on June 24 in state district court in
Dallas. If he's found guilty, Irvin faces up to 20 years in
jail, though as a first-time offender he would more likely be
put on probation. Depending on the outcome of the trial, the NFL
could slap Irvin with as much as a one-year suspension. However,
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is optimistic that the matter will be
resolved before the start of the regular season and that Irvin
won't miss any time in '96.
Regardless of what happens with Irvin, Dallas has big plans for
Sanders. The Cowboys' coaches are so excited about the prospects
of his lining up at wide receiver that they have hinted that
Sanders could be reduced to a part-time defensive player. "I
know a lot of coaches and offensive coordinators in this league
will be sitting back and smiling because of what we're doing,"
says Dallas coach Barry Switzer. "But Deion was drawing double
teams last year, and that frees up Michael and our running game."
Ever since Alvin Harper signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as
a free agent in March 1995, the Cowboys have been looking for a
big-play receiver to take some of the heat off Irvin. They
thought it would be Kevin Williams, a '93 second-round pick, and
other than Irvin, the only Dallas wideout with any real NFL
experience. But last season the 5'9" Williams was shut out in
four games and caught only one pass in each of three others. He
did catch nine passes for 203 yards in the regular-season finale
against the Arizona Cardinals and had six more receptions for
124 yards in a playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Still, for the most part, opponents found they could
single-cover Williams, double up on Irvin and commit more
defenders to containing the Cowboys' other major threats, namely
running back Emmitt Smith and tight end Jay Novacek.
Enter Deion. In his cameo appearances on offense last season he
caught five passes for 120 yards. The plan was for Sanders to
have a larger role on offense, but when he joined the Cowboys'
lineup last October, he was still bothered by an ankle he
severely sprained while playing baseball for the Cincinnati
Reds. It hampered him throughout the NFL season. "That's the
only reason my role on offense was so limited," he says. "I was
so banged up, I couldn't do the things they wanted me to do."
By the Super Bowl, Sanders was moving well enough to be penciled
in as a significant part of Dallas's offensive game plan. He had
one spectacular moment against the Pittsburgh Steelers, catching
a 47-yard pass from quarterback Troy Aikman to set up a
first-quarter touchdown. "This year I plan on getting sick with
it," he says of playing receiver. His translation, for the
nonstreetwise: He plans to "get down, do my thing, get busy, do
the ultimate. They're going to have to put seat belts in the
The person most excited about the experiment is Jones, who last
September shelled out $35 million to nab Sanders. The Cowboys
won the sweepstakes over the San Francisco 49ers, the team with
whom Deion had won his first Super Bowl the previous January,
and the Oakland Raiders, who Sanders says, in an 11th-hour bid,
offered "significantly more money" than Dallas. "I see him
adding a fourth dimension to a potent offensive team," says Jones.
Switzer and Jones believe Sanders could become the modern-day
equivalent of Hall of Fame wideout Lance Alworth, whose speed
and leaping ability made him the AFL's dominant receiver of the
'60s. "If we find out he's Lance Sanders," Switzer says, "then
he plays offense, and we can play him at selective times on
defense. Obviously, he can always play the nickel. How much more
he plays on defense would depend on a lot of variables: the
score, how much we have to play him to take a receiver out of
the game, whether Michael is getting open."
A typical game includes 120 plays, and Switzer believes Sanders
can play about 90. If the coaches are less enthusiastic about
Sanders's offensive skills come September, he will still see
spot duty as a replacement for Williams and in three-receiver
Can Sanders become a star receiver? "That comes with balls," he
says, pausing to laugh at his double entendre. "I mean, it comes
from balls thrown your way. I like getting the ball in my hands,
and I can throw the hell out of it too. We're going to do a lot
of fun things this year."
Sanders would love to assume the triple-threat role--passer,
receiver, runner--that Kordell Stewart had with the Steelers
last season, and Switzer is warm to the idea. But given the
reaction of the organization's true power broker, it's a safe
bet that Sanders will not be taking many snaps from center this
fall. "I'm not here to be a part-time player," Aikman says
coldly. "If they want to do that, I can go somewhere else and
play." Aikman also dislikes the notion of Sanders's becoming a
part-time defender, saying, "There's not a quarterback in this
league who wouldn't love to hear that."
A dispute over Sanders's role is the last thing the already
strained Aikman-Switzer relationship needs. Since Switzer came
on board before the 1994 season, Aikman has been bothered by
Switzer's laissez-faire approach and by his failure to support
him last year when then Cowboys defensive line coach John Blake,
now the coach at Oklahoma, suggested that Aikman singled out
black players for criticism. Aikman aired his gripes during a
March 29 meeting with Switzer, and though the gap between them
remains as wide as a Dallas offensive lineman's rear end, they
at least seem to have agreed to disagree.
Of course, Aikman's concerns about Sanders might be moot if
Dallas cornerback Kevin Smith doesn't fully heal from the
Achilles tendon injury he suffered in the 1995 season opener.
Before the injury, Smith had emerged as one of the league's best
coverage men, but if he struggles, the Cowboys' secondary,
already depleted by the free-agent departure of Super Bowl MVP
Larry Brown, may need Sanders full time. Smith recently ran a
40-yard dash in just under 4.5 seconds--good for most players
but well off the 4.3 he could run before his injury. He
estimates that he is 90% of his former self and plans to be at
full speed by the end of training camp, which would increase
Sanders's chances of seeing a lot of action at wide receiver.
"I really believe we'll be a better team than we were a year
ago," says Aikman, "and that's the first time I've said that
since before the '92 season. Obviously, a lot has gone on during
the off-season, and it's been suggested that the image of the
Cowboys has been tarnished. People tend to look at us and see
our talent, but there is also a lot of character on this team,
and many people don't realize how powerful that is."
Or how serious Sanders and the Cowboys are about their $35
COLOR PHOTO: LOUIS DELUCA Dallas coaches say that if Sanders catches on as a receiver, he could become another Lance Alworth. [Deion Sanders]