CHAMPING AT THE BIT Despite problems, pressure, Cowboys confident of repeat


Austin, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' first meeting of the 1993 football season was only five minutes old when coach Jimmy Johnson walked in.

There were handshakes, some hugs and quite a few laughs. And then Johnson cleared his throat.

Time for business.

"Gentleman, you were good last year, and you won a Super Bowl," Johnson said. "But if you win two in a row, we will be considered great. We want to be a great football team."

The Cowboys have a chance to become the fifth franchise to win consecutive Super Bowls. Dallas made it look relatively easy last year in Super Bowl XXVII, routing the Buffalo Bills, 52-17. The Cowboys still have all their stars -- Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Ken Norton, Jay Novacek -- but there are critics who say it's nearly impossible to win consecutive Super Bowls.


"The new free-agent system, contract negotiations, injuries, egos, kiss-and-tell books," said wide receiver Irvin.

Dallas has some of those problems, but Irvin says it's nothing to worry about.

"You hear it all the time, about teams self-destructing," said Irvin. "But look around here, we've had virtually none of that. Sure, Troy has a back problem, Emmitt is holding out and there reportedly are differences between owner and coach.

"But Troy is in camp, and the coach seems happy. We're a close-knit team. We really like each other. We really do. So NFL, watch out. It's a year later, and the Dallas Cowboys are backkk."

Who's worried?

Troy Aikman stands on the sidelines wearing gray, team-issued shorts and a matching shirt. The baseball cap is on backward. He smiles a lot. Has a great tan.

Does this look like a guy who is worried about playing in the season opener?

"When it comes to injuries, I've always been ahead of the timschedule," said Aikman. "I'll be ready for the season opener [Sept. 6] against the Redskins."

Aikman, the Super Bowl MVP who threw for 3,445 yards last season, suffered a herniated disk in May while lifting weights, and underwent surgery in June.

An early prognosis had Aikman not throwing for six weeksAikman threw in four. Doctors said he would be out 12 weeks. Aikman plans to play in the team's Aug. 27 exhibition game against the Chicago Bears. That would make it 10 weeks.

"I was probably looking forward to this season more than anybecause I wanted to get us back where we left off," said Aikman. "Then the injury came, and I found myself wishing the season wasn't coming so fast."

Aikman takes part in most of the team's non-contact drills anhas two daily stretching sessions with assistant trainer Jim Maurer.

"Sometimes he does so much I have to back him off a little," saiMaurer. "As long as he shows no signs of discomfort, we let him do as much as he wants."

If Aikman can't play in the opener, the Cowboys will turn to Hugh Millen, who was with the New England Patriots last season.

But bet on Aikman.

"I've always been able to come back from injuries real well," saiAikman. "I might not play up to my potential, but I'll play against the Redskins."

Missing piece

Where's Emmitt Smith?

"I bet you he's at his home in Florida with his satellite dish, sittinin a room watching us sweat," said linebacker Norton. "He's probably sipping one of those drinks with the umbrella stuck between his fingers."

When workouts began July 15, Dallas owner Jerry Jones said hwas optimistic that Smith, the two-time defending NFL rushing champion, would have a contract before the season started.

Now, Jones has ordered his staff to prepare for the seasowithout Smith.

Negotiations reportedly came to a standstill last month, wheBills running back Thurman Thomas signed a four-year, $13.4 million contract.

Thomas's new deal is $4.4 million more than the Cowboys' four-year offer to Smith and apparently $2.5 million less than Smith wants.

"Obviously, you miss someone of that talent," said Johnson, whose team is 20-1 when Smith rushes for more than 100 yards. "I don't know what it will mean to our offense. But my job is to prepare the players I have the best I can. The main thing is to be ready to play with whoever is on the field."

There are candidates. Fullback Derrick Gainer, who has playefor several teams, has been moved to tailback. The other tailbacks in camp -- Michael Beasley (a former Maryland running back who played on the practice squad last season), Judd Garrett, Derrick Lassic, Tony Kennedy and E. D. Jackson -- have no NFL carries.

There have been reports that the Cowboys are interested in unsigned Los Angeles Rams running back Cleveland Gary.

So far, no Gary.

Irvin stays in contact with Smith daily and said Smith will stay out as long as necessary.

Norton says Smith will report when "it counts."

Whatever happens, Smith's contract will set a precedent for next season. Most of the offensive linemen and Aikman have to sign new contracts.

"We said back-to-back championships, not dynasty," said Beasley, smiling.

Championship pressure

Robert and Melba Jegstrup drove three hours from Dallas recently just to watch the Cowboys practice in Austin.

"We don't get to see them in person too often anymore because we're too old," said Robert Jegstrup, 54. "We get too excited when we see them in person, and we're sick for three days afterward."

There is no such thing as just a Dallas practice. It's an event. There's a park-and-ride to shuttle fans. The Cowboys are averaging 3,200 fans per session, and about 54,000 have attended camp, braving temperatures that stay around 98 degrees. The Red Cross has a tent nearby for heat victims.

"It's nice to be champions again in Texas," said James Smith, 33, from Dallas. "This team has so much tradition, and so much pride."

And maybe some pressure, too?

"We have that title to live up to as America's Team," said offensive guard Nate Newton. "Look at them, fans not just from Texas, but from all over the country. That's impressive. Everybody wants to beat the world champions. We've got to put on a good show this season."

Johnson, according to local observers, has not pushed the Cowboys hard in camp.

But he hasn't needed to. The defense, No. 1 against the run last season by allowing 77.8 yards per game, has played well and held the Houston Oilers to 32 yards in a recent scrimmage. The offense has made progress even without Aikman and Smith.

Johnson has given the team an extra day and night off from camp.

"Camp has been intense, and we're working real hard," said Johnson. "This team has a chance to be real special, and they know it. There aren't a lot of questions to be answered about this team."

Well, maybe one or two.

How about that alleged feud between Jones and Johnson?

"Nothing there. Next question," said Johnson.

Pressure? How much is there?

"I think Michael Irvin summed it up the other day when he said, 'There is nothing wrong with pressure. It either busts pipes or makes water move faster.' "


This season, the Cowboys will try to become the fifth to repeat as Super Bowl champion (years indicate dates of Super Bowl):

Team .. .. .. .. .. .. Years

Packers .. .. .. .. .. 1967, '68

Dolphins.. .. .. .. ..1973, '74

Steelers .. .. .. .. 1975, '76

Steelers.. .. .. .. ..1979, '80

49ers.. .. .. .. .. ..1989, '90

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