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Old Cowboys on last legs?


The team of the 1990s is old and battered and appearing as though it may spend a major portion of this decade attempting to rebuild its roster. The Dallas Cowboys as we''ve known them since Jerry Jones became the team's owner, is in danger of falling into the lower level of the NFL, and the outlook for the future is even worse.

Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith are the last true vestiges of the Cowboys'' three Super Bowl titles, and there are no young candidates to replace either Aikman or Smith. This Sunday, in Texas Stadium, the Jaguars (2-6) will attempt to dig themselves out of their own rut and, in the process, deepen the Cowboys (3-4).

This will be a game between two teams with severe salary-cap problems and questions about the future. In Dallas, those questions begin with Aikman, a three-time Super Bowl champion and a certain Hall of Famer, who is showing signs of having lost the arm strength and accuracy that made him the best big-game quarterback of his day.

"It''s tough because I've been through the wars and the fires with him and I know what he can do," Smith said of Aikman, whose present-day abilities came into question two weeks ago when he threw five interceptions in a loss to the New York Giants.

There are concerns that Aikman has experienced too many concussions during his playing days, and that his chronic back problems have eroded his physical skills. He is no longer the tower of strength in the pass pocket that he was during his glory days.

"It''s tough to watch and be around because you hear people talk about him from a fan's perspective, not from knowing the nuances of the game," Smith added of Aikman.

Jones has rushed to his quarterback's defense. After all, Aikman's contract has the Cowboys facing a tough near-future decision. At the end of the 2001 season, the Cowboys can either pay Aikman $7 million to extend his contract, or pay him $7 million to buy him out of it. Jones says the plan is to proceed with Aikman at the helm, at least for the near future.

"When you are fortunate enough to have a quarterback that has played at the elite level, and when he is at the latter part of his career, one of the assets he brings to the team is his stature. It's an asset that's effective against your opposition, and it's effective with your team," Jones said.

"I'm concerned about his health, but I always have been. But that still doesn't diminish his value. We'll have to see how he deals with (the injuries)," Jones added of Aikman.

Smith continues to post impressive numbers, though not of the caliber of his glorious past. Through week-seven games, he was averaging 3.9 yards per carry and had scored four rushing touchdowns.

However, the Cowboys'' problem is they don't have a young player behind Smith. Eleven-year veteran Chris Warren is Smith's backup.

Dallas media have suggested that, considering the age of the Cowboys roster and the severity of their salary-cap problems, now would be a good time to begin a youth movement. Unfortunately, recent drafts have not yielded much in the way of young talent.

"It isn''t the thing to do with our team, to basically give up on competing for the playoffs and competing for the Super Bowl, while at the same time adding young players," Jones said.

The Cowboys mortgaged much of their draft future and future salary caps in acquiring wide receiver Joey Galloway in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks. Then, Galloway was lost for the season in week one.

"I get up in the morning, frankly, thinking about a productive Joey Galloway for several years to come and that causes me to keep on taking risks. It''s a risky business," Jones said.

"My reply back to anybody who says we've mortgaged the future is we have. But have we mortgaged it in an unmanageable way? No. We''re going to be able to manage and we''re going to be able to compete," Jones said.

Most doubt the Cowboys will be able to do either.

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