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Original Issue

Still Starry-Eyed

Though their fortunes are fading as their in-state rivals rise, the Cowboys maintain a weird hold on football nation

Houston may have the best football team in America, but it does not have America's Team. It has the Texans but not the team for most Texans. That will make some people happy and make others roll their eyes. This is what the Dallas Cowboys do.

America's Team is not an official designation—NFL Films came up with the nickname in 1978—and it may not be deserved. But like it or not, it is accurate. According to the Harris Poll, the Cowboys were the league's most popular team in each of the last five years, and this cuts across demographics. They are ranked No. 1 among women and No. 1 among Hispanics. If a pollster tries to find the most popular team among lefthanded bald men of Eastern European heritage who drive hybrids, smart money is on the Cowboys.

This would all make perfect sense if the Cowboys were, you know, winning. They are not—or at least not nearly as much as America's Team should. They are 3--4 after Sunday's 29--24 loss to the Giants, to which they have ceded the spotlight in their own division. Dallas has won one playoff game since 1996. Yet the Cowboys remain an enormous television draw and a persistent topic of national conversation.

A lot of teams are popular. The Bears. The Packers. The Steelers. The difference with Dallas is that, as Hall of Fame quarterback and Fox analyst Troy Aikman says, "the Cowboys are both hated and loved." This means that when they win, people watch, and when they lose, people watch.

Why is that? Cowboys history can be broken down into three eras. The first was the Tom Landry era, from 1960 to '88, which featured 20 straight winning seasons and coincided with the rise of the NFL's popularity as a TV sport. Landry took the Cowboys to five Super Bowls. Then came the Aikman--Emmitt Smith--Michael Irvin era. That trio won three Super Bowls in the '90s and reestablished the Cowboys as a team fans could admire or loathe, but had to watch.

The third era is the one that is most interesting. It's the Jerry Jones era. Though he bought the team in 1989, for the first few years the players (and coach Jimmy Johnson) were more prominent than the owner. That changed as the team declined. Now Jones is a bigger star than Tony Romo.

Jones's recent teams have never been great and have occasionally been lousy. But Jones is a constant presence. In terms of recognition and media chatter, no owner in the NFL can touch him. "He makes the Cowboys relevant," Aikman says. "He is masterful in that regard. Even in down times, I think he relishes that people are talking about them." And while Jones, for all his salesmanship, doesn't really brandish the America's Team label, you get the sense that he doesn't mind it either.

Jones's marketing skills work for two reasons. One is the Cowboys' history: Fans already have intense feelings about this team. The other is that fans want to have intense feelings about a team. This is one of the Texans' problems. As much as any franchise in the NFL, they epitomize the cold capitalist winds of the modern sports climate. The Houston Oilers couldn't get taxpayers to build them a stadium, so they left for Tennessee. Then the city built a stadium and got a team again. They are the Houston Tenants.

Through every era, the Cowboys look the same: simple star on the helmets, blue-and-silver uniforms—instantly recognizable. Even if you can't stand them, you can't ignore them. Especially this week: The Cowboys play the Falcons on Sunday night, in prime time.



FALL OF ROMO A four-pick performance by the Cowboys QB against the Giants makes it unlikely he'll get a shot at ending the playoff-win drought soon.