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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Super Bowl Champs Limp Through Pre-Season

WASHINGTON -- Barry Switzer knows that no one around the NFL is shedding many tears for his beleaguered football team these days, not after the Dallas Cowboys won their third Super Bowl in the past four years in January and again must be considered among the favorites for the Lombardi Trophy.


He also knows that August's woes don't necessarily translate into disaster in December, when teams make their playoff stretch runs. And so, despite a plethora of problems, Switzer insists there's no panic quite yet in Dallas, and that the Cowboys still will be a force to contend with this season.


"Around here, we say it's a long season," Switzer said in a telephone interview this week. "We'll do the best we can right now, play the hand we're dealt. But it's a marathon. Everyone knows that. And we'll be coming after people, just like they'll be coming after us. We know we've got a lot to overcome, but you better not count us out."


In the beginning, it's going to be difficult. Consider Switzer's laundry list of laments:


?Emmitt Smith, the most valuable running back in the league, is out two to four weeks with a sprained knee and ankle and could miss the season opener, a Monday night game at Chicago on Sept. 2.


?Michael Irvin, the five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, will miss the first five games of the season, suspended by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue following a plea of no-contest to felony cocaine possession and a sentence of probation and community service. He can't practice with the team in the regular season until the suspension ends.


?Tight end Jay Novacek, the Cowboys' most important third-down receiver, hasn't been able to practice since the start of training camp as he tries to recover from a recurring back problem. He has promised to be ready for the opener, but Switzer said he is not counting on Novacek against the Bears, and is concerned he may miss the entire season.


?Veteran offensive tackle Mark Tuinei likely will miss the opener with a bad knee, further weakening a shaky and aging offensive line that also must plug in 37-year-old center Ray Donaldson, trying to come back from a serious knee injury.


?Veteran pass-rushing specialist Charles Haley is suffering with a sore back that was operated on during last season. He may be available only for spot duty this season.


?During the past three years, the Cowboys have lost 22 players to free agency, including two starting linebackers from last season's team -- Robert Jones and Dixon Edwards -- Super Bowl MVP cornerback Larry Brown and run-stopping defensive tackle Russell Maryland. In addition, 10 of their projected 22 starters are 30 or older.


"We've definitely taken some hits," quarterback Troy Aikman told reporters last week. "There has to be some concern coming out of training camp with the injuries and how thin we are offensively and defensively."


When the regular season opens, Switzer will probably start Deion Sanders at wide receiver and cornerback. If Smith can't play, Switzer will have second-year Sherman Williams filling in at running back, with off-season free-agent acquisition Herschel Walker available to be back-up at fullback and tailback.


"We're beat up pretty good," Switzer said. "A couple months ago, we were actually feeling pretty good about ourselves. Now, with Michael and Jay out, that's about 80 percent of our passing offense right there. With Emmitt out, that's about 99 percent of our running game. Obviously, we're not the same offensive team we have been."


In the Cowboys' first three preseason games, the offense could manage only one field goal in each contest. They've been outscored, 117-51, and have three losses in four games.


"We thought our biggest problems would be on defense," Switzer said, alluding to the loss of the free-agent starters and a six-game suspension to defensive lineman Shante Carver for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. "But with all those guys out, we've got to find a way to move the football again."


Is there any good news coming out of Dallas?


Switzer said Sanders has made significant strides at wide receiver, particularly as a deep threat, and is still planning on playing a lot at cornerback.


"He's an amazing guy," Switzer said. "He starts the game thinking, `I can play all offense and all defense.' But he's smart enough to know when to take himself out. He'll spend a hell of a lot of time out there, I know that."


Switzer also has regained the services of cornerback Kevin Smith, who tore his Achilles' tendon in the 95' opener and missed the season. He's been able to regain most of his speed and quickness and probably will start. Dallas also re-acquired defensive lineman Tony Casillas to take Maryland's spot.


"We've got a lot of ifs," Switzer said. "But these guys have worked real hard, and no one's giving up. I've never bought into that stuff about distractions messing up your team.


"These guys are pros. They know what they've got to do."