Cowboys must block Panthers, distractions Off-the-field turmoil dogs Dallas' bid for Super repeat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They have been called America's Team.

They also have been called America's Most Wanted.

Whatever the label, the Dallas Cowboys are usually the main attraction wherever they play, and that will be no different today when they meet the Carolina Panthers in an NFC semifinal game.

Carolina is a second-year expansion team that won its division and is playing its first playoff game -- a great story.

But the Cowboys were the team leading off the sports -- and national -- news all week, and not because they're trying to become the first team to win four Super Bowls in five years.

Again, it was off-the-field controversy that brought the spotlight back to Dallas.

The latest surfaced last week, when a woman alleged that Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin held a gun to her head last Sunday night while offensive tackle Erik Williams and another man sexually assaulted her.

A television station broke the story and the Dallas police department confirmed the allegations Tuesday.

Although the investigation was just beginning, ABC led with the story on its national evening news Tuesday night. Thursday night, all three networks featured it. And CNN International broadcast the allegations to 210 countries.

By then, the players had denied the accusations -- Irvin said he wasn't at Williams' house that night, and a police source said that Irvin doesn't appear on a videotape of the alleged incident -- and the police were saying their investigation might take weeks.

The allegations overshadowed the team's preparation for the Carolina game.

These kinds of distractions might haunt a normal team during the week of a big playoff game, but the Cowboys aren't normal.

They thrive on controversy.

"We have tunnel vision," defensive tackle Tony Casillas said. "You can say we're focused. We'll let you guys do the circus act. We can't get caught up in this tabloid journalism. We're here to play football and get to the Super Bowl."

Coach Barry Switzer said: "I really don't think these things bother our football team. It's just another day around the block."

The Panthers provide a fascinating contrast to the Cowboys.

Their coach, Dom Capers, is a detail man who sleeps in his office the way Joe Gibbs used to. He runs a tight ship. He suspended a player, reserve defensive end Shawn King, for the rest of the season last week for being late to meetings.

Tardy for a meeting?

It's hard to imagine Switzer suspending a player for being late to meetings. Or even noticing.

Panthers cornerback Toi Cook said that Dallas owner Jerry Jones and Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who had dinner together last night, are "diametrically opposed" from a "morality standpoint."

Cook added: "That's not saying Jerry Jones doesn't have morals. I just think Jerry Richardson is striving to put together a team you could take home to mom."

The Cowboys, by contrast, are a team you might take home to mom if she were Ma Barker.

Switzer runs a loose ship, but insists he's not responsible for all the team's off-the-field problems.

"I'm 60 years old and I've raised three children that I'm so proud of," Switzer said. "They're all extremely intelligent. They don't drink. They don't smoke and they've never done drugs. I've had more impact on those three than anyone I've been associated with, so if people want to think I'm part of the overall problem that people think starts at the top and comes down, they're full of it."

Even if Switzer isn't responsible, the NFL isn't a morality play. The good guys don't always win. The best team usually wins.

The Cowboys have the edge at critical positions in today's games. Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman is 11-1 in the playoffs, an NFL record. In those games, the Cowboys have never scored fewer than 27 points. The Panthers' Kerry Collins is starting his first playoff game.

At running back, the Cowboys have Emmitt Smith. The Panthers have somebody named Anthony Johnson.

Smith struggled much of the season, but broke out for 116 yards against the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 28 in the team's 40-15 wild-card playoff victory and doesn't seem worried about the latest controversy.

"We'll just shake it off and keep on moving," Smith said.

Not that the Panthers' defense will be a pushover. This is not a callow expansion team. It resembles George Allen's "Over The Hill Gang" in Washington in the 1970s, when Allen made an instant winner out of a bunch of veterans.

The Panthers have six defensive starters over the age of 31, seven Pro Bowl players and 12 who have played in Super Bowls.

Linebacker Sam Mills, who once played for the U.S. Football League's Baltimore Stars, said, "This team is good enough to win the Super Bowl."

To get there Carolina will have to overcome the defending champions, who are trying to show they can overcome one more distraction.

"We're the living dead," said Cowboys guard Nate Newton. "We've been written off as dead at least seven times."

Pub Date: 1/05/97

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