Dallas' Emmitt Smith scored twice in the Cowboys' victory over Pittsburgh.

The Last of the Elites
January 28, 1996

By Paul Attner, The Sporting News

Originally printed in The Sporting News, February 5, 1996

This victory celebration, of course, was different from the first two. This time it was Barry Switzer, not Jimmy Johnson, who received the Gatorade bath. This time it was Switzer, not Johnson, who touched the Lombardi Trophy and who could proclaim the Cowboys the best damn football team in the land.

Yet these three Super Bowl triumphs by Dallas over the past four seasons are linked by a common bond. They are the building blocks that established these Cowboys as an elite modern-era team, raising them into that rarefied atmosphere already occupied by Vince Lombardi's Packers, Chuck Noll's Steelers and the rest of the legendary clubs since the late 1940s. An unprecedented three rings in four years is the resume of a dynasty. No debate needed.

"They are," says Noll, who knows something about these things, "a great, great team. People think it is easy to do what they have done. But it isn't. Or more would have done it."

But as we watched the Cowboys strut their stuff, as only Deion and friends can do, there also was a sad sense of finality about what was happening on the turf of Sun Devil Stadium.

For Dallas also is the last elite team the NFL will see.

The destructive effects of free agency, gnawing away at the best and improving the weakest, will see to that. "Free agency is the great equalizer," says Tom Flores, who coached the Raiders to two Super Bowl rings. "It can close the talent gap faster than you could do in the past. And it is too hard now to keep great teams together. That is why I don't think you will ever see dynasties anymore."

Even this last dynasty is hanging on now. Far from dominating the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, the Cowboys needed two timely takeaways to survive the 27-17 triumph. It was a game they should have lost but didn't. They won't be so fortunate in the future.

"We won't be as good next year as we are this year," Switzer says, realistically. Free agency likewise will make sure of that.

This glowing moment in the cool Arizona night stands as the peak moment for an historical team. It never will be the same for this franchise or for this league. For the gap between the Cowboys and the rest of the NFL closed noticeably this season; the Steelers' magnificent effort last Sunday served to accentuate what losses to the Redskins and Eagles already had exposed. Remember, Dallas had to struggle to secure home-field advantage in these playoffs. And the gap in 1996 will diminish even further, so much so that the Cowboys won't make it four out of five.

"We'd like to think we have positioned ourselves to continue to challenge for the Super Bowl," says Owner Jerry Jones, who gained sweet satisfaction winning this game with Switzer instead of Johnson, who was cast aside after championship No. 2. "But we know we will have to suffer some hits." By now, it is obvious Jones knows something about building and maintaining teams. But he has paid a terrible salary-cap price to continue the Cowboy greatness, and it is that overwhelming debt to the future that will return his franchise to a lower level. And the crowning irony is that a defense that bailed out the Cowboys against the Steelers will be so ravaged by free agency in the offseason it no longer will be of championship caliber.

If Pittsburgh could come this close to a ring, then why shouldn't teams such as Green Bay, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Kansas City, San Diego and even Philadelphia and Miami suddenly feel more optimistic in 1996 about their championship chances? Combine that hope with the blows the Cowboys will take in free agency, and this next season could prove to be one of the most wide-open and electrifying in years. And possibly even the NFC's domination of the Super Bowl, now 12 seasons long, finally will end.

"You don't feel Dallas and San Francisco are invincible anymore," Packers quarterback Brett Favre says. "What happened to both of them during the season gave everyone else the feeling they were now vulnerable. You look at it like, "If we can get just a little better, we could catch up and overcome them.' "

The 49ers need a running back; the Packers some defensive help. Both are possible offseason improvements. Still, the Steelers are obvious first choices to jump on top. But they have a major problem of their own. Quarterback Neil O'Donnell, whose two poorly thrown passes led to two Cowboy touchdowns and decided the game's outcome, is a free agent who wants to return to Pittsburgh. But he will be a popular prospect for other teams, particularly the Eagles, who need to upgrade a position now occupied by Rodney Peete. Without O'Donnell, the Steelers will tumble considerably. With him, and with a defense that should be healthier and better, they are formidable. Remember, they lost only two of their last 12 games, and both could have just as easily been victories.

"O'Donnell is underappreciated," says Phil Simms, the former Giants quarterback who now is a TV commentator. "He is a hell of a quarterback who still is young (29). He's going to get better. I have the same feeling about him that I had about Brett Favre two years ago."

O'Donnell had moments of brilliance against the Cowboys. But when compared to the steadiness of Troy Aikman, his inexperience in big games showed glaringly. "As long as you stay under control and don't make mistakes, you can win games like this even if it looks like you are struggling," says Aikman, who threw only one interception in three playoff games this postseason. That postseason experience was the only major difference between the Cowboys and Steelers this time around -- "our nucleus carries us because they know how to win," Jones says -- but even that edge is dissipating.

Three years ago, when Dallas won its first title under the Jones regime, league executives forecast the Cowboys' eventual salary-cap headaches. He was caught in a Catch-22. If he signed his best players, particularly the magnificent trio of Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, then he would tie up so much of his available money he couldn't afford other quality players. But if he worried about the long-term implications of the cap and didn't continue to sign his stars, then he would reduce his chances of winning multiple championships. He chose the first route, and now the implications of that decision will kick in dramatically.

"But he did the right thing," says Charley Casserly, general manager of the Redskins. "You have to win it while you can, when you have a shot. These chances don't come around very often and you can't blow them. You have to keep those three guys around for whatever it takes."

A few numbers best illustrate what Dallas and Jones now face. His top 15 players will earn $32.8 million of next year's expected $40-million to $41-million cap maximum. Teams can carry 53 players. If he pays each of the 38 players needed to fill out the roster the minimum salary of $200,000, then he must fork out another $7.6 million. That would meet cap requirements but it would leave him with a bunch of stars surrounded by mediocrity. Call it the Price of Deion; signing Sanders to his $35-million contract last fall removed Jones' future flexibility even as it served as the final piece in this year's Super Bowl puzzle.

"Dallas was better than the rest of us in part because they had the depth," says Mike Allman, the Seahawks' player-personnel director, who has been scouting in the NFL for 31 years. "But free agency is killing their depth, which makes them more vulnerable to injuries and gets them more even with the rest of us. That's one of the reasons you will never build a dynasty from scratch now that we have free agency. You can't maintain depth. If a backup is any good, he will leave after his first three years for someplace he can play."

Future strong teams will suffer from the same problem Jones is encountering. They can't afford to keep a huge nucleus of stars around for their entire careers. "When we had our good teams," says Joe Gibbs, the former Redskins coach who was selected to the Hall of Fame Saturday, "we had a nucleus of 12 players we could rely on. Now if you can keep eight you would be lucky. That is a major difference. That spreads out the talent more evenly around the league, so it becomes more difficult to dominate."

The chipping away of the Dallas colossus actually began soon after its first title. If that club, composed mostly of young stars, had remained intact, goodness knows how good it might have become. Says Allman: "You'd be considering this year's team in the same breath with the '70 Steelers, teams like that."

Key losses from that Dallas club were linebacker Ken Norton Jr. and receiver Alvin Harper; star offensive linemen Kevin Gogan and Mark Stepnoski; defensive back James Washington and defensive linemen Jim Jeffcoat and Tony Casillas. "You think about those guys and you shake your head," fullback Daryl Johnston says. "But that is what happens in free agency. You know guys are going to leave. You can't blame them. You have to do what is right for your future. But the old teams never had to worry about free agency. I mean, the old Steelers stayed together."

It was a franchise that, in another era, might have looked at a string of titles unchallenged in history. Instead, now that the giddiness surrounding this championship begins to erode, it is a team about to watch even more of its parts leave.

To put it simply, Jones doesn't have enough money anymore to keep every star on this roster. He has 35 players under contract for next season, tying up $40.8 million. And that is before he decides what to do with seven key unrestricted or restricted free agents (see chart on Page 16). Jones' starting linebacking corps, half of his secondary and a star lineman are contract liabilities.

The worst-case defensive scenario is this: Of all the current linebackers, only reserve Godfrey Myles returns next season, meaning the Cowboys will have to find two starters and the money to pay them; cornerback Larry Brown, whose market value improved off Sunday's MVP effort, doesn't come back; outstanding safety Darren Woodson doesn't get the franchise designation and is not re-signed; corner Deion Sanders plays baseball again and misses half the NFL season; and injured cornerback Kevin Smith, who tore an Achilles' in September, doesn't come back fully from his injury and leaves the secondary in a mess. And defensive tackle Russell Maryland, an unrestricted free agent, signs with another team, eliminating what once was incredible depth along the line.

"No matter how good your offense is, you still win championships with defense," Flores said a few days before this Super Bowl. And this Dallas defense, which Switzer rightfully credited for the victory, won't be close to title caliber by September.

More likely, Woodson probably will be back and Kevin Smith will be healthy enough to play, keeping the secondary together until Sanders rejoins the team in October. But Prime Time is a baseball free agent and won't say if he will continue his two-sport life. "I may play baseball, but it is something I will deal with later," he says. Still, the linebacking situation will be dreadful -- unrestricted free agents Robert Jones and Dixon Edwards at least are endangered -- and Maryland won't re-sign. So that is a minimum of three starters gone from a unit that was not nearly as strong as three seasons ago and at times seemed helpless against O'Donnell and Pittsburgh's four-and five-receiver sets.

"We once had a defense that didn't give up big plays and didn't allow a lot of points," Woodson says. "We had a lot of mental lapses this year and weren't nearly as strong." The Cowboys gave up 27 points to Green Bay in the playoffs and frequently had problems defending medium-range passes and runs up their gut. They suffered through a midseason adjustment when Sanders showed up, but never were overpowering at any stage.

"I'm very concerned," defensive coordinator Dave Campo says. "We have a lot of guys up for free agency and that could be a problem. Not only because you lose them physically, but you lose a little character with each one. Ken Norton ... James Washington ... Tony Casillas. You lose something when guys like that leave."

If the Cowboys had drafted better the last few years, then they possibly could have some young replacements ready to step in. But their stockpiling has been inadequate -- defensive end Shante Carver, a No. 1 draft pick in 1994 from Arizona State, is not going to make anyone forget Charles Haley -- and where is Jerry Jones getting the salary-cap room to bring in veteran free agents to fill the holes? He already is drafting last in April's first round and can't afford to pay a No. 1 choice anyway, so he probably will trade down to the second round, not the ideal way to maintain a championship team.

In addition, Jones might be faced with Haley's retirement, which would leave a huge pass-rush gap. Haley, who now has five title rings, is under contract for 1996 but has ongoing back problems (he needed midseason surgery and didn't return until the Super Bowl) and his status is shaky at best. He says he will have his back evaluated before deciding his future. Carver is his projected replacement but is far less talented.

Whatever the outcome of this defensive reshuffling, there is no question the Cowboys must rely more heavily than ever on their offense. The offense carried them this season, simply overpowering teams at times with the most balanced attack in the league. But even though this is an era in which rules and offensive innovations have opened things up dramatically -- making it easier to win despite defensive weaknesses -- even Aikman, Smith and Irvin won't be enough anymore.

Their offensive superiority also will be depleted in the offseason. Jones faces the immediate challenge of making cuts before February 15 to keep his roster under the projected cap figure. He will have 35 players under contract for $40.8 million and likely would have to fork out a few more million to retain rights to his restricted free agents. He will have to consider releasing a number of players from a pool of starters such as tackle Erik Williams (he's due a $5-million signing bonus February 1 or he becomes a free agent), Johnston, center Derek Kennard and cornerback Clayton Holmes, who is under a league-ordered suspension because of substance-abuse violations.

Normally, Jones would renegotiate the huge contracts of his major stars to help his cap problem, but he re-did eight contracts, including Aikman's and Irvin's, to make room to sign Sanders. Under league rules, he can't change any of those deals for a year, leaving him with little immediate leeway. And he already has said he will work with Smith, who has a year left on his contract, to rewrite and extend his pact.

Smith, not Aikman, is considered the Cowboys' MVP by opponents -- "everything starts with him when you want to defend the Cowboys," says Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau -- and he surely will want a contract that reflects the same neighborhood now occupied by Aikman and Sanders. Smith probably will seek a $10-million signing bonus within a multi-million-dollar agreement. "I'd like to be a Cowboy the rest of my life, but sometimes what we want and what we get are not the same," he says. "But I respect (Jones') ability to take care of the people who matter to him. We'll just have to see what happens down the road."

The offensive line also is showing age -- guard Nate Newton and Mark Tuinei are near the end of their careers, and center Ray Donaldson, who broke an ankle this season, will be 38 in May -- and what about the long-term attitude of Aikman, who doesn't hide his displeasure with the disciplinary philosophies of Switzer?

The only serious flap of Super Bowl week -- all the hoopla over the Cowboys riding around in limos and Switzer referring to the game as the Orange Bowl was unimportant and affected the outcome not one whit -- involved Aikman, who had hinted for weeks that, in his words, "unnecessary internal" problems had made this season particularly distasteful for him. Turns out he was referring to complaints by defensive-line coach John Blake that Aikman was more apt to criticize African American rather than white players. Blake, who was named coach at Oklahoma and left the team before the playoffs started, talked to Switzer about the situation, and Aikman was not pleased the coach didn't handle the difficulties more dramatically. His teammates dismissed Blake's charges, saying Aikman was a fine fellow. But the quarterback and head coach rarely talk; nor will Aikman ever agree with Switzer's lackadaisical attitude toward discipline. It makes for an unpleasant atmosphere.

Aikman and Switzer will be back next season. But Aikman, who admits he was banged up more this season than at any point in his career -- he will have offseason elbow surgery, and his knees ache -- talks frequently about retiring early, which puts a cloud over his long-term tenure with the Cowboys.

"As long as we can keep our nucleus together, we will continue to be a factor in deciding who wins the Super Bowl," says Aikman, who earlier acknowledged that in the second half of this latest title game, he could feel things "slipping away."

It is an emotion that will visit him and his teammates frequently next season.