Here, there, everywhere, Deion pays off for Cowboys

January 08, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

IRVING, Texas -- The pizza commercial finally came true yesterday at Texas Stadium.

Did Deion Sanders play offense or defense for the Dallas Cowboys?

Both.

Did he score touchdowns or save them?

Both.

Was he worth $15 million or $20 million?

Both.

"Deion was huge," Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman said after his team's 30-11 defeat of the Eagles in the NFC divisional playoffs.

What is huge by Deion's standards? Yesterday, it was scoring a touchdown on a reverse, dancing in the end zone, almost breaking a punt return for a 90-yard touchdown, almost catching a 65-yard pass for a touchdown, intercepting a pass, playing 25 plays at receiver and 50 at cornerback, intimidating the Eagles on both sides of the ball, showering, dressing and leaving in a silver limousine stretching almost to Louisiana.

"It felt great to finally have a large impact on a game," Deion said.

As if he hasn't had a large impact on every game this season. Cowboys coaches say he has allowed fewer than 10 pass receptions in a half-season at cornerback. His smothering presence has convinced most opponents to cut their passing games in half.

Such was certainly the case yesterday; the Eagles threw only three of their first 31 passes at him, completing one.

But Deion doesn't care about that stuff, of course. Excelling on defense? That's boring.

Deion wants to stand in the end zone. With the ball in his hands.

"All I've heard him say this year is, 'Man, I've got to get into the end zone,' " teammate Michael Irvin said. "I'm glad he finally got in there so I could see him dance."

The moment came early in the second quarter, with the score tied 3-3. On a first down at the Eagles' 21-yard line, Aikman handed off to Deion on a reverse. Finding his path blocked, he reversed his field, turned the corner and sprinted to the end zone.

"When I heard the call in the huddle I said, 'OK, touchdown,' " Sanders said. "I was so psyched up. And the [offensive] line here is unbelievable. When I cut back, they had the whole defense sealed off."

It was an improvised play that few other players in football, if any, could have made.

"He don't have any moves," the Cowboys' Emmitt Smith said, "but he's fast."

Fast enough to play halfback, Smith's position?

"He doesn't want to go there," Smith said.

Deion agreed. "I can't get into the Emmitt zone," he said.

The touchdown dance was Deion's familiar two-step.

"I was a little rusty," he said.

The touchdown, Deion's first as a Cowboy, also basically cooked the Eagles.

"From then on, everything was accelerated for us," Smith said. "The touchdown lifted us up."

The Cowboys had hoped for more of such electric moments when they signed Deion to a $35 million contract in October. Owner Jerry Jones had promised Deion that increased time on offense was forthcoming.

But Deion underwent ankle surgery in October, then pulled a hamstring in his first game as a Cowboy. Unwilling to risk his strong presence on defense, the Cowboys gave him little time on offense through November and December.

When Deion finally proclaimed himself healthy recently, Jones sent word to Cowboys coach Barry Switzer: Get the man's hands on the ball. Just do it.

Suddenly, Deion was everywhere yesterday. Returning punts. Running pass routes. You name it.

Returning a punt in the second quarter, he burst through three coverage men and came within a shoestring of a 90-yard score. He was open on a long pass down the sideline late in the game, but Aikman overthrew him.

"It was nice to be utilized like I know I can be utilized," he said. "But then, this was one of the first times that I've been healthy enough to be utilized like that."

His semi-regular presence on offense discombobulated the Eagles defense.

"They put two coverage men on him," Aikman said, "so with two men on him and two men on Irvin, the tight end and the running game were left wide open."

Deion said it was time for him to make that kind of difference.

"This is the playoffs," he said. "Your big players, your stars, we're supposed to set the tone in these games. That's why we get paid all that money. If we don't do it, you just say we're overpaid. Right?"

Right.

But there was no way Deion was overpaid yesterday, not even at his high rates. He was decisive in putting his team within one win of the Super Bowl, just one day after his former team, the 49ers, was eliminated.

"I had a dream that it wasn't going to be the Cowboys and 49ers [in the NFC title game] this year," Deion said. "I predicted to my teammates that one of us was going to slip. I just hoped it wasn't us."

It wasn't.

"Now, one of us is still playing and one is home watching," he said.

He smiled, big, as he headed for his limo.

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