Like a Texas twister, the war of attrition has finally touched down in Dallas, whose Cowboys once seemed impervious to injury, player defection and red-zone futility.
It actually has been coming for some time now; since those gold-mine drafts turned dry, since the Cowboys' offensive line turned old, since Barry Switzer turned up coach.
The Cowboys should have recognized the symptoms. Remember when Tony Dorsett lost a step and Tom Landry's flex defense lost two? Almost overnight, the Cowboys went from a 10-6 playoff team in 1985 to an aging, 7-9 also-ran in 1986.
By 1988, Dorsett was gone and the Cowboys skidded to 3-13. They paid the piper for all their draft washouts from the 26th, 27th and 28th position. The vault was almost empty.
History is not repeating itself these days because this is a different era of football and entirely different circumstances. But the scenery should look familiar to the Texans who lived through it. The Cowboys are staring at potentially their first non-playoff season since Jimmy Johnson brought them out of the malaise that spilled into the early 1990s.
When they journey to San Francisco for another big game against the 49ers on Sunday, the Cowboys will try to resolve a season-long offensive quandary in which running back Emmitt Smith has become the focal point.
Like Dorsett before him, Smith, an eight-year veteran, has lost a step. Because the offensive line is crumbling around him, the Cowboys have run into a stone wall at the goal line.
It shows up prominently in red-zone statistics. The Cowboys have scored nine touchdowns in 32 trips inside the opponent's 20. That's a paltry 28 percent success rate. And that's next to last in the NFL.
"We're not making plays to put the ball in the end zone," wide receiver Michael Irvin said. "That's the bottom line. You've got to score touchdowns in this league, and we're not scoring touchdowns."
Not enough, anyway. The Cowboys have scored just eight offensive touchdowns in the past 29 quarters, lost three of their past four games and dropped to 4-4 in the NFC East. At 1-4 in their division, they are on the fringe of the playoff picture.
Once, the Dallas-San Francisco matchup was played for NFC supremacy and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Now the Cowboys are fighting for their playoff lives.
-- The running game is impotent -- at least when it counts. Smith ran for 126 yards and averaged 5.0 yards a carry last week in Philadelphia. But he couldn't dent the goal line in a 13-12 loss. And the Cowboys, even with quarterback Troy Aikman, have traditionally won by giving the ball to Smith in the red zone. But he has dropped from a record 25 touchdowns in 1995 to 12 in 1996 to one in eight games this season. It's not all his fault, though.
-- The offensive line can't handle the blitz. A year ago, the Cowboys allowed 19 sacks, fewest in the league. Through eight games this year, they've given up 20, six coming in Philadelphia.
On the sack that knocked Aikman out of the Eagles game, Smith missed a block that allowed William Thomas to grab Aikman. Then Jimmie Jones came from the other side to hit Aikman as he fell. The net results: mild concussion, sprained neck and critical loss.
Things got so bad, the Cowboys moved right guard Larry Allen to left tackle for George Hegamin in obvious passing situations. And this week, they talked of recycling ex-Cowboys linemen Ray Donaldson, 39, and Derek Kennard, 35.
-- Anthony Miller is bombing as a deep threat. Signed to a two-year, $3.5 million free agent contract, the five-time Pro Bowl receiver was expected to take the heat off Irvin, the team's big-play receiver. It hasn't happened. Miller has just one catch over 25 yards and can't get any separation from cornerbacks. Teams cover him with just one defender and double up on Irvin. Miller, by the way, is not likely to collect the $2 million he is due in 1998 from the Cowboys. He'll be gone.
-- The draft has not produced enough reinforcements. Johnson had the luxury of high draft picks and plenty of them during his five-year reign in Dallas. But he produced -- to the tune of nine Pro Bowl players. Since then, the Cowboys have drafted just one Pro Bowl pick, Allen. From the four drafts since Johnson was fired, the Cowboys have culled eight starters and 17 roster spots out of 34 picks. And two of those starting jobs are injury-induced.
-- Injuries are taking a toll. Two weeks ago, fullback Daryl Johnston missed the first game of his nine-year Cowboys career with a herniated disk in his neck. Last Sunday, strong safety Darren Woodson missed the first game in his six-year Cowboys career with a bone bruise in his right knee. Johnston is done for the year -- and maybe for good, pending surgery -- but Woodson expects to play Sunday.