With its lackluster receiving corps, Dallas is going nowhere fast
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was so desperate last winter to find
quality wide receivers to complement Michael Irvin that he
sought out Hall of Fame wideout Paul Warfield for advice at the
Super Bowl. After a breakfast meeting Jones put Warfield on the
Cowboys' payroll and gave him the title of "independent wide
receiver consultant." Warfield helps the Cowboys scout
free-agent and college prospects and has weekly conversations
with Jones about the state of the Dallas passing game.
The two men met again on Sunday, inside the RCA Dome, after the
Colts beat the Cowboys 34-24. Because the game had exposed yet
again the shortcomings of the Dallas air attack, the latest
Jones-Warfield summit was not a happy occasion. "We've both put
a lot of time into this," said a subdued Jones. "I'm sure he was
as greatly disappointed as I was."
In the off-season Warfield pushed hard for Jones to sign speedy
free agent Raghib Ismail, who had spent the previous three
seasons with the Panthers. The team also traded a third-round
pick to the Seahawks for James McKnight and drafted Wane
McGarity out of Texas in the fourth round. Finally, the Cowboys
seemed to have a full arsenal, which would allow second-year
coach Chan Gailey to roll out his multidimensional offense.
Then lightning struck. Three times. In a training camp scrimmage
McKnight tore the ACL in his left knee and was lost for the
season; in an Oct. 10 loss to the Eagles, Irvin suffered a
career-threatening neck injury; and eight days later McGarity
dislocated his shoulder in a loss to the Giants. Last week an
MRI revealed that Irvin has a genetically narrow spinal canal,
which increases the potential for paralysis should he take
another blow to his neck. After similar diagnoses in the
mid-'80s, both Oilers linebacker Frank Bush and Packers
cornerback Tim Lewis retired.
"The greatest level of freedom comes when you build a passing
attack week by week with the same guys," says Gailey, who spent
five minutes with his back to the field during the third quarter
of Sunday's game, going over Polaroids of Indianapolis's pass
coverage with Ismail and Troy Aikman. "Someday, when we're in a
comfort zone with the same people and the same routes, we can
expand the offense, but we aren't there yet."
In fact, they're not even close. Ismail, nine-year veteran Ernie
Mills and inexperienced Jeff Ogden and Jason Tucker combined to
make 10 catches for just 93 yards against a Colts defense that
entered the game ranked 14th in the league against the pass.
Indianapolis shut down the Dallas vertical attack by merely
leaving a safety deep in the center of the field. His presence
discouraged Aikman from going deep, while the corners had little
trouble containing the Cowboys' receivers.
Aikman passed for only 31 yards in the first half and finished
19 of 25 for 159 yards. Without Irvin, who was one of the best
receivers in the league for most of this decade, Aikman
connected on only three passes of more than 14 yards, and his
inability to pull the trigger led to two fumbles and five sacks.
Aikman, who was knocked out of the game for one series in the
fourth quarter after a blow to the head (still groggy afterward,
he referred to the Eagles as the Phillies), must be chafing
under a restrictive system that doesn't allow him to make big
plays. Asked if the Colts had more weapons than the Cowboys,
Aikman replied, "It appeared that way today."
With limited personnel at wideout, the Cowboys have had to scale
back their offense by running the ball more and throwing even
more often to backs and tight ends on short routes. Moving
Ismail into Irvin's slot hasn't produced the results Warfield
and others had hoped for; Ismail has amazing speed, but running
routes is not his forte. Pushed off his patterns at the line of
scrimmage, the 5'11", 190-pound Ismail--who was nearly knocked
over by a game official on one play on Sunday--had one catch in
the first 55:24. "Rocket and I have gotten more and more
comfortable together, but we probably won't play 11 years
together," says Aikman, a reference to his time with Irvin.
"He's a different kind of receiver than Michael. You tend to
have more rapport with a possession-type guy like Michael, as
opposed to a big-play threat like Rocket."
In a desperate move two weeks ago, the Cowboys signed wideout
Alvin Harper, who had been out of football for a year and
working as an assistant golf pro at the Hilltop Golf Club in
Alexandria, Va. In 1994 Harper and Irvin made up the Cowboys'
most potent receiving threat of the '90s. Harper then left for
the riches of free agency, but he was a bust with the Bucs, the
Redskins and the Saints, picking up a bum knee and a nickname,
Maxwell House (good to the last drop), along the way. When the
Cowboys called, Harper was a stocky 218 pounds and, he says, had
"no aspirations of playing football." He is nevertheless working
himself back into shape and has played sparingly in the last two
Last Friday, Harper and the rest of the wideouts stayed after
practice to work on timing routes with Aikman. But the drill
ended after only a handful of throws, when Harper dropped a
seven-yard sideline pass, then punted the ball 20 yards in
Bucs' Struggling Offense
CAN ZEIER MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Maybe he's just clueless, but when Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer
was informed of his benching on Oct. 25, he thought someone was
playing a practical joke on him. After making 70 consecutive
starts for Tampa Bay, Dilfer, 27, had a career quarterback rating
of 68.3 and had developed a strong tendency to make ill-advised
throws. What's more, he had completed just one of his last 18
passes of 10 or more yards, with three interceptions. So after
contemplating the move for more than a week, coach Tony Dungy
named Eric Zeier his starter. (Rookie second-round pick Shaun
King remains the third-stringer.)
Zeier, 27, is three inches shorter and has a weaker arm than the
6'4", 229-pound Dilfer. But Zeier plays with more fire than his
predecessor and with an eye down the field, the very elements
that had been missing from the Bucs' air attack. On April 17,
Tampa Bay traded a sixth-round draft choice to the Ravens for
Zeier, who, despite his 4-7 career record as a starter, had put
together stretches of 175 and 115 straight attempts without
throwing an interception.
"Eric brings us accuracy, smarts, energy and emotion but without
the turnovers that put us in a hole," says Dungy. "We are not a
team that is going to throw 15 times down the field or 38 times
in a game, so our quarterback has to make the most of his
limited opportunities. If Eric can do that, it will help--a lot."
True to form, Zeier didn't throw an interception against the
Lions on Sunday. He was particularly sharp early on, completing
nine of his first 10 passes for 96 yards, and, trying to play
catch-up, he finished 29 for 44 with 256 yards. But his
third-quarter fumble was returned for a touchdown, and he failed
to get the Bucs into the end zone in a 20-3 Detroit win.
Since coming to Tampa Bay before the 1996 season, Dungy has
become more and more inclined to run the ball; the idea is to
control the clock and let a swarming defense try to dictate the
outcome. "We do have a great defense," says Zeier. "But that
doesn't mean we can sit back and do nothing on offense. We have
to start scoring some points."
En route to an 8-8 finish last season, the Bucs rushed a
league-high 52.3% of the time. With bruising fullback Mike
Alstott elevated to featured back, they have run 60% of the time
on first down. Tampa Bay has completed two passes longer than 26
yards and is awful on third-down conversions of seven to 10
yards (15.2%); the Bucs are also terrible in the red zone,
ranking 30th in the league in the number of touchdowns scored
from the 20 and in. "The pressure increases when everyone knows
you're going to pass," says wideout Reidel Anthony, who is
second on the team with only 21 catches. "People are just
waiting to tee off on us."
If the Bucs' offense continues to struggle, Dungy will have to
look higher up the ladder, perhaps at offensive coordinator Mike
Shula. Dungy seems prepared to do that. "If this doesn't work,
you go down the line," he says, "and maybe change some other
COATES GETS FRUSTRATED
The Patriots are off to a 6-2 start, but that isn't good enough
for tight end Ben Coates. With only 16 catches for 184 yards,
he's on track for career lows in both categories and recently
blasted offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese's play-calling.
Coates, 30, doesn't want to admit that he's lost a step and is
no longer a downfield threat. He's headed home to the Carolinas
during New England's bye week and has threatened not to come
back if the team doesn't promise to start getting him the ball
The Packers' Brett Favre tied Ron Jaworski's NFL record for
consecutive starts by a quarterback (116) when he stepped under
center against the Seahawks on Monday night. Who's second to
Favre among active quarterbacks? With the Bucs' benching of
Trent Dilfer, that honor now goes to the Steelers' Kordell
Stewart, with 39 in a row....
Sign of the times: The 49ers are one of five teams who still
haven't had a 100-yard game from a receiver this season. Last
year San Francisco had eight such performances.
The End Zone
Last Friday, Denver defensive tackle Cyron Brown was suspended
four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
Word of the suspension came too late for the Broncos to make any
changes to their Sunday game program, the cover of which teased
an inside story with the headline: PLAY A WINNING HAND--CYRON
Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Mills is a capable possession receiver, but he doesn't have the speed to stretch a defense.
1. He said/He said
The Hail Mary that gave the Browns their first win, a 21-16
triumph over New Orleans, didn't come without a little help from
the bumbling Saints, who used a timeout with 26 seconds left
rather than run down the clock before attempting a go-ahead
field goal. "The quarterback called a timeout," Saints coach
Mike Ditka said of Billy Joe Tolliver. "Please ask him [why]."
Replied Tolliver, "I was told to call a timeout."
2. Happy Days
"Sorry I was late," Washington coach Norv Turner quipped at the
start of his press conference after the Redskins' 48-22 win over
the Bears. "I was meeting with Mr. Snyder." Turner was alluding
to a 40-minute postgame "discussion" owner Daniel Snyder had
with him after the Redskins lost to the Cowboys on Oct. 24.
Greg Hill carried 16 times for 123 yards in the Lions' 20-3 win
over the Bucs, who entered the game ranked first in the league
against the run (69.5-yard average yield) and hadn't allowed a
100-yard rushing performance. At 5-2, Detroit has matched its
win total of last year.