IRVING, Texas -- Welcome to Jerry's World, a three-ring circus where the Dallas Cowboys are supposed to be the main attraction but are often overshadowed by their flamboyant owner.
After a turbulent season featuring drug suspensions, allegations womanizing, disappointing play on the field and owner Jerry Jones' legal battle with the NFL, the Cowboys open the playoffs today against the Minnesota Vikings at Texas Stadium.
Jones hopes the players are as good as his lawyers, who recently won a legal victory over the NFL when the league settled its lawsuit over Jones' marketing deals in which he doesn't share the revenue with other teams.
However, Jones' team hasn't been as successful this season as the owner's deal-making.
The drug suspensions of Michael Irvin, who's back after missing the first five games, and Leon Lett, who's out for a year, and injuries have sapped the Cowboys as they begin their bid to become the first team to win four Super Bowls in five years.
There's even been much speculation that coach Barry Switzer may be forced out or may decide to step down at the end of this season because he's tired of being in the midst of the circus.
Switzer, though, doesn't sound like a man ready to quit. "We've been good at doing things the hard way," he said.
Although they won the NFC East, the Cowboys (10-6) are playing a wild-card game because the other division champions, Green Bay and Carolina, have better records.
It hasn't helped that their offense has scored just five touchdowns in the past six games and that teams are taking away their passing game by double-teaming Michael Irvin.
Because it has been virtually impossible to win the Super Bowl without a first-round bye -- since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only Oakland has done it, in January 1981 -- Switzer created his own bye by resting Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith last week in Washington.
The Dallas fans, though, don't seem to be too enthused about the idea of a wild-card game.
The game didn't sell out until Thursday, sparking talk that the fans are taking it for granted or that they're annoyed at the team's off-the-field problems.
"I think people in Dallas may be a little bit spoiled," said defensive end Tony Casillas.
Smith said, "Maybe it's the Christmas holidays, and maybe everybody wants to spend their money elsewhere."
Smith has been nagged by injuries all year and didn't make the Pro Bowl, but the Cowboys hope they can overwhelm the Vikings' undersized front seven.
"It's been a long, difficult road this season," Smith said. "It all boils down to execution, and we haven't been executing. We've been pressing. We haven't done the job inside the red zone. We've been good from the 20 to the 50."
The most intriguing part of the game may come when Minnesota has the ball and pits its two wide receivers, Jake Reed and Cris Carter, against Cowboys cornerbacks Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith.
The other key may be how successful Brad Johnson is in getting them the ball. He recently signed a four-year, $15.5 million deal, but he has to prove he can live up to it.
The Vikings have nothing to lose. Just getting to the playoffs made the season a success for them, although they were routed in Green Bay last Sunday.
In midseason, there was much speculation that coach Dennis Green, who had two years left on his contract, could be fired if the team failed to make the playoffs. It didn't help that he had some well-publicized personal problems and that some members of the team's board of directors wanted to bring in former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz.
The Vikings, though, are just the sideshow here.
This game is all about the Cowboys' rebound from a 2-3 start, when Irvin was out, as they make a run for the Super Bowl the hard way.
"We just have to relax and make it happen," Smith said. "We've been through a lot this year and now we've made the playoffs. It's usually when we are at our best."
Pub Date: 12/28/96