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Conundrum for Cowboys : Dallas Tried to Change Image, but It Lasted Only Two Weeks


After last season, Jerry Jones did everything he could to ensure no more Dallas Cowboys would get in trouble with the law.

He didn't count on his coach.

After three weeks of training camp, the jokes about America's (Most Wanted) Team began again. First it was coach Barry Switzer, who was caught at the Dallas airport going through security with a loaded .38 pistol, then it was players trashing a dorm at St. Edward's University as camp ended.

What it proved was that Cowboys will be Cowboys--a team that can't shake its reputation for bad behavior no matter what the players say. In fact, even some of its oldest and wisest players don't seem to see much wrong.

"A lot of men and a lot of testosterone is running around," said 35-year-old guard Nate Newton, himself the subject of rape allegations by a woman with whom he had a relationship. "Shirts off, feeling good, beating your chest. They've been cooped up for the last five weeks. Man against material, that's all it is. Just having fun."

The sideshows reached a peak last season, when the Cowboys fell to 10-6 after winning their third Super Bowl in four years and lost in the playoffs to Carolina. This year, they seem dedicated--they can tie Pittsburgh's mark of four Super Bowl titles in six seasons and jump ahead of San Francisco with six overall.

The major reason for the dedication is quarterback Troy Aikman, who maintains that the team's attitude has changed. Its image is another issue.

"Nationally, what this thing does is give credence to the perception that is already out there," Aikman acknowledged after the players trashed the dorm. "That's what is unfortunate. It gives us a black eye and sets us back further."

Still, it doesn't undo the quarterback's impact on the 1997 Cowboys.

It was Aikman who spent the offseason making sure key free agents were re-signed. It was Aikman who certified the team's No. 1 draft pick.

And it was Aikman who made it clear that he wanted out unless there was an end to the impression that drugs, drinking and women often transcended football.

"You could argue that this is Troy's team, although I still have the ultimate call on everything " says team owner Jones.

"But he's only the most vocal of the players who wanted it all to end. You could say it was Daryl Johnston's team and Emmit Smith's and Tony Tolbert's and Chad Hennings' and Darren Woodson's too. None of them were happy about what was going on."

What WAS going on is why what's going on now looms so large.

In the 1995 and 1996 seasons, five players were suspended for violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy--Leon Lett twice (he's serving a year's suspension that won't end until late November).

Michael Irvin, the star wide receiver, pleaded no contest to cocaine charges, getting off with probation and public service.

Then, the Dallas police said they were investigating claims that a woman was sexually assaulted by Irvin and offensive tackle Erik Williams. The claims proved unfounded and Irvin and Williams subsequently received more than $2 million from the TV station that first aired the story in an out-of-court settlement.

But that didn't assuage Aikman's concerns.

"We brought it all on ourselves," he said. "We acted like we were being victimized, but we weren't. Last year we were an organization that thought it was pretty damn good--so good it could just show up and win the game. This place was like a three-ring circus."

Aikman considered quitting after last season--more likely he might have demanded a trade. Instead, he made sure the Cowboys signed their key free agents--notably fullback Daryl "Moose" Johnston, his good friend and fellow critic of the atmosphere around the team headquarters at Valley Ranch in Irving.

Then, before the April draft, he worked out wide receivers Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony of Florida, tight ends Tony Gonzalez of Cal and David LaFleur of LSU. The first three were gone when Dallas drafted, but Aikman strongly urged the Cowboys to get LaFleur and they traded up to draft him.

Jones also spent the offseason polishing his team's image.

He made much of hiring Calvin Hill, the former Cowboys' running back as a consultant and player adviser. Hill's son Grant is a star on the Detroit Pistons and his behavior and demeanor are often cited as examples for young athletes.

But Calvin Hill is more an adornment.

What was real was the training camp, although one of the steps may have backfired.

Hidden away at the dorms at St. Edwards were security cameras, monitored by guards who knew who left after curfew. During the last-day trashing, the cameras were among the items trashed.

Switzer also was different.

The man whose laid-back coaching style was one of Aikman's targets, ran drills with linebackers and halted practice one day to scream at his team, even pushing Williams, the right offensive tackle, who outweighs Switzer by at least 125 pounds.

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