Monday, January 6, 1997
One obstacle too many for Cowboys

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Michael Irvin after the game, with his right arm in a sling.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Michael Irvin's suit was the color of mustard, the perfect springboard for hot dog jokes. Against an overcast sky, his eyes were shielded by sunglasses. The prodigal pass receiver stood on the sideline Sunday afternoon with a fractured collarbone, but his sense of style was intact.

Defeat does not change the Dallas Cowboys. Nor does scandal. The defending champions of professional football might have seen Sunday afternoon as a reckoning - a payback for all the problems they have caused themselves this season - but contrition is not in their playbook. Eliminated from the National Football League playoffs by the improbable Carolina Panthers 26-17, the Cowboys resolved mainly to maintain the status quo.

''There will be no changes in the coaching staff at all,'' said Jerry Jones, the owner who oversees football's most talented and temperamental team. ''I'm certainly down. I'm certainly disappointed right now. But generally speaking, I'm very encouraged about the future the Dallas Cowboys have.''

What's not to like? Irvin and tackle Erik Williams, each a previous offender, have been implicated (though not charged) in a sordid sexcapade. Defensive tackle Leon Lett is serving a drug suspension. The Cowboys have become football's poster boys for the pitfalls of fame.

Almost good enough

And they are almost good enough to get away with it.

Sunday's loss might have been viewed as a morality play. The Cowboys probably lost their chance at a home-field playoff advantage during Irvin's start-of-the season suspension. Without Lett, Dallas' run defense suffered. In a close game, these factors may have been enough to make the difference.

Irvin hurt
Irvin grimaces after breaking his collarbone early in the game.
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Yet after a season of unceasing distractions, the Cowboys might still have been able to advance Sunday had Irvin not been injured on their second play from scrimmage. Panthers linebacker Lamar Lathon smashed Irvin's right shoulder into the ground in making a tackle, and the Dallas offense spent the rest of the afternoon in a sling.

''We lose Mike and everyone had to flip positions,'' said Cowboys coach Barry Switzer. ''We had not practiced that. It definitely affected our offensive performance.''

Rather than replace Irvin and leave his other skill players in place, Switzer chose to overhaul his offense in the middle of the game. This dubious decision put several players out of position and led to some missed assignments and, perhaps, some dropped passes. Cornerback Deion Sanders, promoted from offensive curiosity to key component in Irvin's absence, was knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter on a reverse.

''Other teams can lose one player and they've got an excuse,'' said Cowboys guard Nate Newton. ''We lose three or four and it seems that it just gets worse for us ... It's not like we marched in here ready to kill.''

Not last year's Cowboys

Despite their resounding rout of the Minnesota Vikings last week, these Cowboys were not the same team that won Super Bowl XXX.

Emmitt Smith, the superb running back, has lost either a step or some of his blocking since last season. Pro Bowl tight end Jay Novacek, who missed much of the year because of injuries, has given way to the unexceptional Eric Bjornson. Bjornson forced the Cowboys to settle for a field goal late in the fourth quarter Sunday when he dropped a third-down pass in the end zone.

''We haven't played consistent the whole year,'' said safety Darren Woodson. ''And I'm not talking about the off-the-field incidents ...If everything had been great this week, they (the Panthers) probably still would have beat us. They played a great game. It's all about home-field in the playoffs. We didn't work hard enough to get home-field advantage.''

The Cowboys conveyed a prevailing boredom most of this season, as if they expected to make a Super Bowl run from memory. They have since discovered that their margin for error was smaller than previously suspected, that their dominance depends on one of their most undependable players.

It is too soon to say if the Cowboys have seen the light. In their darkest hours, they wear sunglasses.