ASHBURN, Va. -- The plot keeps thickening in the Emmitt Smith mystery.
Nobody knows, but it was the main topic of conversation both in Washington and Dallas.
Dallas owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson said they think it's 50-50 Smith will play while coach Richie Petitbon of the Redskins and quarterback Troy Aikman of the Cowboys said they expect Smith to end his holdout in time to play the game. Smith was home in Florida and not available for comment.
The only certain thing is that he'll play as long as he signs before the 9 p.m. kickoff.
"If he comes in later in the week, we'll play him. I hope he's in pretty good shape," Johnson said.
If Smith doesn't sign, the Cowboys will start rookie Derrick Lassic at running back.
Petitbon said he still thinks Smith will sign because wide receiver Michael Irvin signed a few days before last year's opener against the Redskins and caught five passes.
"History has a way of repeating itself," he said.
Aikman said, "I'm confident something will be ironed out this week. We players feel that way. I think he will play Monday night."
Aikman said Smith's absence has already become a distraction and said, "Emmitt's a strong-willed person and he's not coming in until he's satisfied with the offer."
Jones spent an hour on the phone from his office with reporters at Redskin Park yesterday explaining why he doesn't plan to match the $3.375 million deal the Buffalo Bills gave Thurman Thomas.
Jones said there's no point in using the franchise player designation on Aikman because the going rate for a franchise quarterback (the average of the top five highest paid quarterbacks) will be over $4 million. He said he will have to pay Aikman that to keep him.
"Troy's going to get his," Jones said. Since the franchise rate for the top five running backs is less than $3 million, he's willing to use the designation on Smith and force him to play for less than Thomas.
"Emmitt's going to have to make some sacrifices," he said. "It's like telling a player he's not a starter. He doesn't like it. He doesn't want it. It makes him sad."
Jones said he needs the money he'll save on Smith to pay the other players to keep the Super Bowl team together when the salary cap kicks in next year.
"Any extra dollars I'm paying Emmitt, only a small percentage comes from my pocket. They are the players' dollars. What I'm legitimately pushing for here is several hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to pay the other players," he said.
He said the other players eventually will appreciate the fact he held the line on Smith.
"When reality [salary cap] sets in, which is only four or five months from now, these players will look and say, 'Boy, I'm glad you've got an extra $400,000-$500,000 or $700,000 because we need somebody to block and tackle,' " he said.
Jones doesn't think it's unfair to pay Aikman and use the new franchise designation to put a cap on Smith's salary and keep him from becoming a free agent.
"I have no guilt about putting the restriction on Emmitt. The system was set up to restrict players, to restrict the market place. I don't intend to pitch that option out the door. We're going to have him or he's not going to play," he said.
The only flaw in Jones' argument is that Smith is holding out.
"I don't know that any of us have made the kind of money that has made us happy," Jones said.
Jones said he spent over four hours on the phone Tuesday with Smith's agents, Richard Howell and Pat Dye Jr., and said no progress was made.
But he's willing to wait Smith out even if it means losing a few games. He is offering Smith $9.1 million for four years and has indicated he'll go up to $10 million to $12 million.
"There's no way he'll retire and forgo $10 million-$11 million over the next four years. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't bring Emmitt in for as little money as I can," Jones said.
Meanwhile, Johnson has to try to prepare to beat the Redskins without Smith.
"I would love to have Emmitt Smith, but there's nothing I can do about it. If I sit here and pull my hair out, it won't help the team," he said.
Will he pull it out after the game?
"My hair will be fine after the game," Johnson said.
NOTES: Petitbon is getting into the traditional paranoia before a Dallas game: He closed practice to reporters yesterday. He said he'll close practice for "every game against Dallas." . . . Linebacker Andre Collins (knee) was listed as doubtful for the game and didn't practice, but Petitbon is no longer ruling him out.