Head Coach Dave Campo has been around this team many years, but never has he seen such dark days in Dallas. Campo, a longtime defensive coach, is in his second year at the helm, and he brings a young and inexperienced group of players searching for their own identity. Make no mistake – Campo's team plays hard and aggressive, but there just isn't enough talent on either side of the ball to make a difference.
The Cowboys entered the season with the idea of developing a rookie quarterback as the team tries to rebuild from the ground up. Owner Jerry Jones handpicked QB Quincy Carter from Georgia in the second round of the draft as a vision of hope in replacing Troy Aikman. But Jones hasn't seen much of Carter, whose injury-plagued season has seen him mostly watching from the sideline. The offense was then handed to QB Anthony Wright, the third-year veteran who finished out the 2000 season when Aikman suffered the last of his many concussions.
But now Wright is all wrong, as a swollen knee has hampered his playing time. Enter QBs Clint Stoerner and Ryan Leaf. Stoerner, a third-string afterthought during training camp, and Leaf, unemployed until just a few weeks ago, are now running the highest-profile position in football.
When the Cowboys signed Leaf a few weeks ago, he was viewed as a cheap experiment to be studied over a long period of time. But now it appears Head Coach Dave Campo needs Leaf sooner than he ever imagined. Leaf is playing with a damaged wrist, but has taken a crash course on learning the Cowboys offense and could see plenty of action until Carter returns, which may be on Thanksgiving. Stoerner is a second-year player out of Arkansas who was expected to make his first NFL start last Sunday against Arizona.
But regardless of who's calling the signals, opposing defenses will always attack Dallas by stacking the line of scrimmage, ready to gang up on the Cowboys' only threat, RB Emmitt Smith. The 12th-year veteran notched his first 100-yard game of the season against Washington on that Monday night Battle of Losers a few weeks ago, but continues to struggle in reaching the end zone. FB Robert Thomas, a converted linebacker who was doing a fine job blocking for Smith, is lost for the season with torn ligaments in his ankle.
That leaves Dallas with TE Johnny Huggins, signed last week off the practice squad, and backup RB Troy Hambrick as Smith's protection. Hambrick, who can burst through the offensive line, has potential to be Smith's successor in time. At WR, Joey Galloway (sprained foot) and Reggie Swinton (hamstring) are trying to shake off injuries, while Darrin Chiaverini and Raghib Ismail are also banged up, but shouldn't miss any playing time. Guard Larry Allen is the pride of the offensive line; still one of the best the league has to offer.
The Cowboys have two young tackles in Flozell Adams and Solomon Page, who are trying to mold themselves after Allen, a perennial Pro Bowler. They have plenty of potential and should be around for years to come.
Key Match-up: CB Jason Sehorn vs. WR Joey Galloway.
Galloway is working through a sprained left foot, but he's still a playmaker. With his blazing speed, Galloway is the Cowboys' "home run" threat. He can change a game with one play if Dallas keeps it close. Sehorn has been asked to cover the opponent's best receiver during most of the games this year, whether in the base defense, or as a nickel corner. Look for him to try and rough up Galloway a little.
The Way to Win: It's elementary. Snuff the one flickering candle of hope the Cowboys have – that's RB Emmitt Smith. If the Giants don't allow Smith to gain any momentum Sunday, they'll pressure the Cowboys into throwing the football – something Dallas doesn't do very well. If Smith is grounded, so are the Cowboys.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH RB Emmitt Smith
With Walter Payton's all-time rushing record in sight, all eyes are focused on Smith. The 12th-year veteran, who has 145 career rushing TDs and is pushing 16,000 career yards, remains the centerpiece to the Cowboys offense. But make no mistake; these aren't the glory days. Smith's numbers have been on the decline in recent years, and reaching the end zone, which used to be a walk in the park, has become increasingly difficult. Smith is struggling just to average four yards per carry and, entering last Sunday's game vs. Arizona, he had not scored a touchdown yet this season.
Smith, who is signed for megabucks through the 2005 season, wants to finish his career in Dallas, and you can bet Owner Jerry Jones wants the same. Despite any rumors or reports, Jones would never deal Smith in order to rebuild his team. Smith, who was the major force on three Super Bowl championship teams in the 1990s, is the Cowboys' heart and soul, not to mention the biggest star and only marketing draw in Dallas. He plans to remain in Dallas as long as Jones wants him, and his goal is to finish out the contract, meaning four more seasons on the field. Look for Emmitt to break Payton's record early next season.
The Cowboys could not afford to get steamrolled the way they did last year. In 2000, the defense allowed three different running backs to burn them for 200-plus yards apiece. It was especially difficult for Campo to see. Campo served as the team's defensive coordinator before being promoted before the 2000 season. The Cowboys desperately needed to cut down the number of rushing yards allowed in order to give the defense a chance to stay fresh through four quarters. Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer has succeeded in that department.
The Cowboys are allowing 107.2 rushing yards per game (before Sunday's game vs. Arizona), moving from the dregs of the league in rush defense to 17th. DE Greg Ellis is the leader of a very thin defensive line, which is missing its other bookend rusher to injury, DE Ebenezer Ekuban. Peppi Zellner is starting in place of Ekuban, with help from Demetric Evans, while Brandon Noble, Michael Myers and rookie John Nix work at tackles. Ellis and Zellner were tied for the team lead with two sacks apiece through five games. DT Dimitrius Underwood, the second-year player who suffers from bipolar disorder, has been out of action again following a relapse several weeks ago. His future remains uncertain.
The Cowboys' pass rush hasn't pressured the quarterback at all, totaling just eight sacks in their first five games. Even Donovan McNabb, the Eagles quarterback who takes to foot as often as he can, was able to stand in the pocket all night long in burying the Cowboys earlier this year. Dallas always brings speedy linebackers with them, and this year is no exception.
At middle linebacker, Dat Nguyen has been healthy this season and is leading the team in tackles. On the outside, Dexter Coakley is the Pro Bowler who can fly and make a play from anywhere on the field. The Cowboys released LB Darren Hambrick and CB Kareem Larrimore last week. Hambrick, a three-year starter, had been upset with the team's one-year contract offer during the off-season, and Larrimore had been fined up to a dozen times for various curfew violations. Rookie LB Markus Steele, a fourth-round pick from USC, is expected to take over the strong side for Hambrick, while Izell Reese, a converted safety, and Duane Hawthorne will share time at Larrimore's spot opposite CB Mario Edwards.
For Dallas, it's a good thing that SS Darren Woodson and FS George Teague are back in the secondary. Woodson and Teague are reliable veterans who have the speed to help the corners. Woodson, who ranks second on the team in tackles, has been with the Cowboys throughout their championship years, providing all the leadership in the secondary.
Key Match-up: RT Luke Petitgout vs. LDE Greg Ellis.
Ellis returned last season from a 1999 leg fracture and reemerged as the Cowboys' top defensive lineman. He isn't off to a great start, posting two sacks in his first five games this season, but Ellis is the Cowboys' best pass rusher and has a knack for making a big play at the right time. Petitgout has been mostly good this season, and often rises to the challenge when facing top-flight opposition.
The Way to Win: Kerry Collins doesn't need his ‘A' game this week. A steady diet of Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber should do the trick. The Cowboys defense is better at stopping the run this year, but their defensive line will weaken as time wears on. As long as Barber and Dayne do their thing, the Giants will control the line of scrimmage.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH MLB Dat Nguyen At 5-11, 243 pounds, Nguyen has been tackling naysayers in addition to wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. The third-year middle linebacker from Texas A&M defied the odds of being an undersized player throughout his collegiate career and has emerged as one of the key players on the Cowboys defense. He set high standards in college with 517 career tackles (10.7 per game) and carried that promise into the NFL, where he became an impact player on special teams during his rookie season in 1999.
Nguyen led the team with 18 special teams tackles that year, and had a sack and an interception while playing on nickel defense. In 2000, Nguyen became the starting middle linebacker, but was beset by shoulder injuries that cost him games and limited his playing time. But he is back this season, leading the Cowboys with 31 total tackles entering Sunday's game vs. Arizona. Nguyen is a fearless competitor who uses his speed and aggressiveness on each down. He can fly to the football and has excellent hands, making him a threat to pick off a pass coming his way.
SPECIAL TEAMS As long as he can avoid the riding horses during pre-game warm-ups, K Tim Seder should do all right in Dallas. Seder, who bumped into a show horse at midfield before the Cowboys' game vs. the Redskins, came back to boot three field goals, including the game-winner in the final seconds of a 9-7 victory. Seder has converted all of his extra points in his two seasons with Dallas, and also scored an 8-yard touchdown this year on a fake field goal against the Raiders. P Micah Knorr, meanwhile, has been a busy man these days.
With the Dallas offense struggling to sustain drives, Knorr has been summoned to the field quite frequently. He has an average of 39.6 yards per punt with a long of 52 and has downed 10 punts inside the 20-yard line. Reggie Swinton, in his first year with the Cowboys, has made his presence known on kickoff returns. Before Sunday, Swinton was averaging 27.4 yards per kickoff return with a long of 77. He was also averaging 21.0 yards per punt return with a long of 49. Swinton, who is working through a hamstring pull, took over the punt return duties when Wane McGarity was released last month. If Swinton is unable to go, Ken-Yon Rambo is next in line.