The smoke signals have been sent out that the Dallas Cowboys are in decline.

Some observers see a divisive quarterback controversy, a running back in financial turmoil and a frightening lack of team depth and figure the Cowboys' 9-7 nonplayoff mark in 1984 may shrink even more.

"Maybe it is that way. But to predict that is asinine," figures Everson Walls, the Cowboys' all-pro cornerback. "That's just the critics trying to make a name for themselves."

The fact is, the Dallas Cowboys have made a name for themselves in their 25-year history by having that vaunted computer smarts. Draft day, it was said, was Dallas day.

If you check the facts, though, it hasn't worked out that way ever since the Cowboys used the second pick of the 1977 draft -- which they acquired in a trade with Seattle -- to select running back Tony Dorsett. There have been bad breaks and bad picks and, likely, even some bad raps under that shiny silver and blue reputation.

"When you are drafting in the 20s every year, you have to gamble," says Tom Landry, the only coach in the Cowboys' 223-126-6 history. "Usually, if a player is good and productive, he'll go in the first 12 picks. So if you (pick low) and don't get the first guy you want, you're in trouble."

Surely the Cowboys have paid a price for their success. But then again, parity never did quite fit right in Texas Stadium. In the drafts following the 1977 selection of Dorsett, the Cowboys have picked 28th, 27th, 23rd, 25th, 26th, 23rd, 25th and 17th in the league draft.

"When you have to gamble," says Gil Brandt, vice president/personnel and the Cowboys' draft mastermind, "sometimes you get a Calvin Hill and sometimes you get a Rod Hill."

Let's examine the Cowboys' top picks after Dorsett:

1978 -- Larry Bethea (defensive end, Michigan State): He played with Cowboys from 1978-83, but never started an entire season and jumped to the U.S. Football League after the 1983 season.

1979 -- Robert Shaw (center, Tennessee): He became a starter toward the end of the 1980 season and excelled in the playoffs. He suffered a knee injury early in the 1981 season and failed in a comeback attempt several weeks later. After missing the 1982 season, he retired.

1980 -- Bill Roe (linebacker, Colorado): He was selected in the third round, after Dallas had traded its top two picks to Baltimore for defensive tackle John Dutton. Roe played as a reserve for one season, then was released.

1981 -- Howard Richards (tackle, Missouri): He started all eight games in 1982 and a total of six more the next two seasons as he alternated with veteran Herb Scott as play-messenger. He now is on the physically-unable-to-perform list after suffering a knee injury late last season.

1982 -- Rod Hill (cornerback, Kentucky State): He never started in two seasons with the team. He was traded to Buffalo before the 1984 season in exchange for a 1985 fifth-round pick.

1983 -- Jim Jeffcoat (defensive end, Arizona State): He replaced Harvey Martin and started all 16 games last season. His 11 1/2 quarterback sacks rated second on the team to the 12 by all-pro tackle Randy White.

1984 -- Billy Cannon Jr. (linebacker, Texas A&M): He was a situation player, alternating with now-traded Anthony Dickerson, until he suffered a spinal injury tackling Wayne Wilson of New Orleans in Week 8 last season. He has retired from football after doctors advised that further collisions might cause more severe damage, such as paralysis.

1985 -- Kevin Brooks (defensive end, Michigan): Along with No. 2 pick Jesse Penn (linebacker, Virginia Tech), he is expected to provide depth for the defense. He has a big-play future, coaches say.

"We got to the point in our drafts over the last five years, where the players we were were looking for were the players who had the potential of becoming great Super Bowl performers, players who had tremendous potential," says Tex Schramm, Dallas team president. "We were overlooking the reality of what these players had really accomplished and what they would have to do to become great players.

"We would draft a player who had not accomplished a great deal or had accomplished things, but in a different position, or a player who had great athletic ability.

"We were hoping to change their position or that they would develop into a great football player. As a result (of this philosophy), we may not have gotten a number of basic players we needed. Somewhere along the line, we might have lost our depth because of that."

Brandt says there are several reasons for the Cowboys' recent drafting difficulties. "Everybody around the league, starting in the 1976-77-78 era, started hiring people who were more competent . . . People looked at two of the dominant teams of the '70s -- the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys -- and believed that scouting was it," Brandt said.

"The second thing is that when the draft was moved back from the week after the Super Bowl (to early April), it allowed teams that had had coaching changes and teams that hadn't put much money into the draft before the time to catch up."

Brandt also said the loss of scouting director Dick Mansperger, who left for Seattle and later returned, also hurt the Cowboys. "We never replaced him like we should have," Brandt says.

"We made some choices that were speculation choices. Such as when we drafted Calvin Hill in the first round (24th pick overall in 1969) and people said, 'Gosh, how can you draft that guy?' Or when we drafted Thomas Henderson (second round in 1975) and people said, 'Gosh, how can you pick a guy from Langston?'

"Thomas Henderson would have gone on to become one of the outstanding football players of all time if he had kept his head on straight.

"The other thing that happened," Brandt continued, "is that when your team is contending for a championship, sometimes you release a player who may help you more later on. For example, we waived (wide receiver) Mike Wilson. Mike Wilson went on to catch eight passes and score two touchdowns (for the 49ers) in that 24-21 game (NFC title game loss to Redskins in 1983).

"If, for example, we had kept Mike Wilson and traded Butch Johnson, it would have made some of our drafts look better. Or maybe if we had kept (tight end) Todd Christensen instead of Jay Saldi. But what happens is you have a hard time justifying to your team, keeping Todd Christensen and Mike Wilson because your team is a contender.

"Todd Christensen has gone on to become an all-pro (with the Raiders) and he's not on our team. Is that a mistake of the scouting department?" Brandt asks rhetorically. He answers the question himself: "Yes."

Christensen remains bitter about his experience with the Cowboys. He was drafted in the second round in 1978 out of Brigham Young as a running back/tight end, one pick after Bethea.

Christensen says pointedly, "You know, if you take away three picks that the Cowboys made in the 1970s -- Randy White, Tony Dorsett and (defensive end Ed) 'Too Tall' Jones, all of whom were taken in the first or second pick of the entire draft and were obvious talents and not picks that took great thought -- the Cowboys would be a very ordinary team."

Brandt admits mistakes were made on Bethea ("He wouldn't work hard to realize his potential") and on Rod Hill. Of Hill, he says, "If you could figure the ability of an individual like you can when you go in to buy a two-pound steak or 10 pounds of apples, Rod Hill would be in the top 10 percent of all players in the NFL . . . I'm still not convinced that Rod Hill is not a football player."

Brandt also says, with justifiable cause, that injuries to Shaw and Cannon stole young talent that could have become Pro Bowl talent if given the chance. Now, that potential won't be reached and recent Dallas drafts are made to look all the more fruitless.

So now it's whispered in many football quarters that the Cowboys are in decline. Of course, baseball people said the same thing about the Los Angeles Dodgers, specifically criticizing their slack production of quality minor league players in recent years. These whispers stopped about the same time the Dodgers started building that mountainous lead in the National League West.

Some organizations have this habit of winning. Brandt says, "I'm not pleased with the way we've drafted in some spots. Maybe we could have gotten someone better than Bethea or Rod Hill. But we didn't, so that's the thing we live with."