ALTERED OR REBUILT? Cowboys change via draft, trade, but may have far to go

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson assumed control of the fading Dallas Cowboys in February 1989, they moved quickly and decisively into the transitional mode.

As rookie owner and general manager, Jones didn't just send legendary Tom Landry on his way, he cashiered the front office, too.

As rookie coach, Johnson didn't use a revolving door to change players; he used a revolving floor.

Three years after the revitalization began, Jones and Johnson have orchestrated 33 trades, collected 39 draft picks and counted 14 victories. For now, those numbers represent progress.

What remains unclear, though, as the Cowboys (6-5) visit the Washington Redskins (11-0) today at RFK Stadium, is just how far the transition has brought them. With 15 more draft choices next spring, are the Cowboys close to restoration as one of the NFL's marquee franchises? Or are they on a .500 treadmill, having missed a golden opportunity with too many marginal picks already?

When Jones talks about progress, he talks about improving the Cowboys' talent level, about heightened expectations, about bolstered player confidence.

"Our talent level has improved dramatically," Jones said from Dallas. "We're eons away from where we were three years ago. When we go to Washington Sunday, I'll be disappointed if we don't come out a winner. It was no surprise to me when we did not come out of games a winner three years ago.

"Now, we've got weapons. We've got a team that believes it can compete. We've got a team that almost beat the Redskins in that Monday night game. Our team believes it can win [today's] game. . . We really believe that."

Bob Ackles, director of player personnel for the Cowboys, said the team has done a good job restocking the shelves since the 1-15 disaster of 1989.

"Jimmy didn't realize the talent level was so low when he came here," Ackles said. "We're winning games now because we're well-coached and guys are working their butts off. In two years, I think the Cowboys will be where you expect to see them in the playoffs all the time."

Maybe that perspective is too rosy. The Cowboys obtained the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, but miscalculated in thinking they could sign Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, who instead defected to the Canadian Football League. They then took defensive tackle Russell Maryland at No. 1, though he probably would have been available later in the round. Through three drafts, the Cowboys have failed to improve the offensive line and defense significantly.

But the 1989 trade of Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for seven draft picks and five players has been management's brightest moment. What the Cowboys got in return -- after another flurry of trades -- is running back Emmitt Smith, cornerback Issaic Holt and Maryland, with three more draft picks due in '92. Coupled with quarterback Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin, Smith gives a potent offense its ground legs.

The Cowboys' 1989 supplemental choice of quarterback Steve Walsh cost them the top pick in the 1990 draft. But they traded Walsh to the New Orleans Saints last season for two picks in '90 (which became linebacker Dixon Edwards and offensive tackle Erik Williams) and a second-rounder in '92.

Last summer, they also traded for Atlanta Falcons malcontent Tony Casillas, and he's become a key figure in the defensive line.

From their three drafts, the Cowboys have gotten nine players who will start in today's game. But three of them -- Maryland, wide receiver Alvin Harper and offensive tackle Williams -- have started only two games apiece.

"Even at this stage, the drafting we've done is in the eyes of the beholder," Jones said. "We don't have the performance and games under our belt to make a judgment. The verdict is still out on our picks. But, at this stage, we're very pleased."

Maryland did not respond well to the No. 1 spotlight initially, but with increased playing time he has performed better. In his two starts against the Houston Oilers and the New York Giants the past two weeks, the rookie right tackle has accounted for 11 tackles, three for losses, two forced fumbles and a sack.

"Basically, I look at myself as another player picked in the draft who needs time to develop," Maryland said. "There has been a lot of criticism locally, but I try not to let it get to me. I know what I'm capable of doing, and I know I'll get better."

Still, the Cowboys don't have much of a pass rush, and in the stretch run they'll have to play a lot of young players because of injuries. Although they started the season 5-2, they have lost three of their past four, putting a crimp in their playoff hopes. They must win three remaining home games -- including one against New Orleans -- or else beat Washington or the Philadelphia Eagles on the road to get to 9-7.

"As young as the team is, you realistically don't expect to go in leaps and bounds," said center Mark Stepnoski, a third-year veteran. "With eight rookies on the roster, we're going to be a young team the next few years. So any progress is going to be gradual."

And progress, gradual or otherwise, is what the Cowboys are about at this point.

"The difference now is that players have much more confidence in what we're trying to do," Jones said. "Make no mistake. We're a lot better team than we were. A lot better. And we will have a lot better chance, if we get in the playoffs, of doing well."

Jimmy Johnson and the draft

1991 (Total picks: 17) Pos..Players still with team..Round.. ..Status

Russell Maryland.. .. .. 1A.. .. ..starter

Alvin Harper.. .. .. .. .1B.. .. ..starter

LB.. Dixon Edwards.. .. .. .. 2.. .. .. backup

LB.. Godfrey Myles.. .. .. .. 3A.. .. ..injured reserve

OG.. James Richards.. .. .. ..3B.. .. ..practice squad

OT.. Erik Williams.. .. .. .. 3D.. .. ..*starter

RB.. Curvin Richards.. .. .. .4A.. .. ..injured reserve

DE.. Tony Hill.. .. .. .. .. .4C.. .. ..backup

LB.. Darrick Brownlow.. .. .. 5B.. .. ..backup

Leon Lett.. .. .. .. .. .7A.. .. ..backup

WR.. Damon Mays.. .. .. .. .. 9.. .. .. practice squad

CB.. Larry Brown.. .. .. .. ..12.. .. ..starter

1990 (Total picks: 6) RB.. Emmitt Smith.. .. .. .. .1B.. .. ..starter

Alexander Wright.. .. .. 2.. .. .. backup

DE.. Jimmie Jones.. .. .. .. .3B.. .. ..backup

FS.. Stan Smagala.. .. .. .. .5B.. .. ..backup

CB.. Kenneth Gant.. .. .. .. .9.. .. .. backup

1989 (Total picks: 16) QB.. Troy Aikman.. .. .. .. ..1.. .. .. starter

Daryl Johnston.. .. .. ..2B.. .. ..starter

.Mark Stepnoski.. .. .. ..3A.. .. ..starter

Tony Tolbert.. .. .. .. .4.. .. .. starter

* Starting because of injury.

Letters denote which position in round player was taken.

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