Salaries may cap Bills-Cowboys run Free agency may prove toughest foe to a Dallas dynasty

January 26, 1994|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

ATLANTA -- The Super Bowl isn't the biggest game the Dallas Cowboys will play this year.

They'll line up for an even bigger one on Feb. 18 when they meet a much more dangerous foe than the Buffalo Bills -- the start of the free-agency signing period.

The Cowboys' fate in free agency may determine whether the era of the dynasties is over in the NFL.

If the Cowboys win a second straight Super Bowl on Sunday, they could be on the verge of a dynasty reminiscent of the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s and the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s.

The Packers won five titles, including the first two Super Bowls, and the 49ers and Steelers each won four Super Bowls.

Those teams, though, never had to face free agency. Their players didn't have a chance to shop themselves to the highest bidder.

The Cowboys do. Their toughest task will be to keep their players from leaving for better deals.

Even though they have Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith signed to long-term deals, several members of the supporting cast -- including four of the top six offensive linemen, fullback Daryl Johnston and defensive standouts Ken Norton and Tony Casillas -- could leave when the free-agency signing period starts Feb. 18.

That's why when football season ends for Jerry Jones on Sunday, he'll immediately start the selling season.

"I'm going to do some selling. I'm going to do some hustling," the flamboyant Cowboys owner said yesterday as his team started the Super Bowl week festivities for the second straight year.

What Jones will be selling is the idea that players should stay with the Cowboys and try to keep going to Super Bowls, even if they're offered more money by other teams.

"I'm going to remind them that they don't have to pay state income taxes in Texas. I'm going to remind them that if they get one endorsement because they're playing for the Cowboys, they can make up the difference,"he said.

It may be a tough sell, though.

Defensive lineman Charles Haley, who's signed through 1995 seems skeptical Jones can be successful.

"With free agency, guys are going to realize that all they care about is the bottom line. Guys are not going to want to just stay in the area and create a loyalty to the team," he said.

The Cowboys are most vulnerable in the offensive line. Three of their five starters, center Mark Stepnoski, a Pro Bowl player who's injured, and both guards, Nate Newton and Kevin Gogan, along with Stepnoski's backup, John Gesek, will be free agents.

So will Johnston, linebacker Norton and defensive linemen Casillas and Jimmie Jones. Wide receiver Alvin Harper is a restricted free agent, which means the Cowboys can match his best offer to keep him.

A year from now, the contract of wide receiver Michael Irvin expires, and he'll be due for a big contract.

Newton seems more optimistic than Haley that the Cowboys can keep the line together.

"I think Mr. Jones will find a way to keep us together. The way he ditched CBS, he'll find a way." Newton, though, was quick to add, "Money is how much you're worth."

Referring to Aikman's $50 million deal, he said: "It won't take $50 million, but it'll take a million." Newton is making $600,000.

Gogan said he wants to focus on the Super Bowl this week, but he'd said in the past that he rejected an offer that would have doubled his $450,000 salary.

"The offer wasn't close to what I suggested for a starting offensive lineman," he said, indicating he thought $1.5 million was a good range.

A million here, a million there and it won't be long before the Cowboys are over the projected salary cap in the $34 million range and won't be able to match offers from teams who have more money to spend under the cap.

Jerry Jones structured the Aikman and Smith contracts with up-front money this year to save room under the cap. Aikman will count for $3.125 million and Smith $3.2 million under the cap for 1994. Jones said he still has $7 million to spend.

It's also obvious that any team that has Aikman and Smith signed up long-term isn't on the verge of collapse.

But it's still difficult to figure out how Jones is going to avoid losing some depth. The Cowboys could afford to lose one of their starting linemen, but two would hurt.

In the end, the players figure to take the best deals, regardless of how much selling Jones does.

As Harper said: "If they don't want to take care of Alvin Harper, fine, I know somebody else will."

OUT OF THE SADDLE?

Three Cowboys who may leave via free agency:

* C Mark Stepnoski: Even though he's on injured reserve, he's a Pro Bowl player who figures to triple his $600,000 salary.

* LB Ken Norton: He's played well with a bad arm and should have no trouble getting a big raise over his $565,000 salary.

* G Nate Newton: A Pro Bowl player, he figures to at least double his $600,000 salary.

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