On the surface, the Dallas Cowboys would appear to be getting older, but not necessarily better.
Quarterback Troy Aikman, who once said he planned to retire at 30, is now 33 and says he wants to play another three to five years, barring further concussions. Running back Emmitt Smith is 30 and in his 10th season with a body that has endured more carries, 2,914, than any other active back in the NFL. Wide receiver Michael Irvin, 33, had only one touchdown catch among his 74 receptions last season.
Twelve Cowboys are 30 or older, nine of them starters. Still, as far as second-year coach Chan Gailey is concerned, an aging football team on a downward spiral is hardly what he'll be fielding Sunday when the Cowboys come to town to meet the Washington Redskins in the regular season opener for both teams.
"I'm comfortable, or they shouldn't be here," Gailey said yesterday. "I'm comfortable that they can make plays. That's the name of the game. You look back at last year's Super Bowl and those teams were some of the oldest in the league. You need a good balance of experience and youth, and we think we've got that."
The Cowboys also have a full year of experience under Gailey, the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator who took over a 6-10 team and pushed Dallas to a 10-6 record in 1998. That included an 8-0 mark in the NFC East, a feat that had never been accomplished by any team in the division.
Still, the Cowboys' season ended rather ignominiously with a 20-7 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the wild-card round of the playoffs. That humiliating defeat remains very much on the minds of many of the Cowboys, and one former Cowboy, current Redskins linebacker Fred Strickland.
"It was definitely a shocker," said Strickland, Dallas's starting middle linebacker last season who came to Washington via free agency. "I think a lot of guys overlooked Arizona because we'd beaten every team in the division twice. I think guys were looking down the road to who we were going to play in the playoffs."
"It left a bad taste in everyone's mouth," Aikman said yesterday. "We did some good things last year. We turned the corner and got back on the right track, and then exiting the playoffs the way we did last year. . . . It was embarrassing."
The Cowboys didn't play particularly well in the preseason, finishing 1-4, including a 20-point loss to New England and a 21-point defeat against Jacksonville last week. But they were 0-5 in the preseason a year ago, and Dallas has been missing several key players with various injuries for all or part of camp.
The biggest absence is all-pro cornerback Deion Sanders, who had offseason surgery in April to repair his injured left big toe. Sanders practiced Monday for the first time this year, and Gailey said yesterday he'll make a game day decision on whether he starts.
"I've quit guessing on Deion," Gailey said. "He does some phenomenal things. If you have a Deion Sanders, it makes a pretty big difference. Is he doing everything completely without favoring his toe? No, not everything. But he is doing quite a bit of stuff. He didn't practice two years ago when they came to Pittsburgh. I said there was no way he could play without practicing. I decided we were going to throw at him. They beat us 37-7."
The Cowboys definitely will miss left cornerback Kevin Williams, out for the next four to six weeks with a bulging disk in his back. If Sanders can't play, Dallas will start third-year pro Kevin Mathis and six-year pro Charlie Williams at the corners, clearly an advantage for the Redskins. And all-pro defensive tackle Leon Lett is out while serving a suspension for drug use.
The Redskins are favored by three points, and Strickland called it "the Deion and Leon point spread."
The Cowboys' offense also will have something of a new look -- a quality speed receiver, Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, to complement Irvin. Dallas invested $21 million over the next seven years for Ismail, who played with Carolina last season, to be the deep threat the team hasn't had since Alvin Harper left following the 1994 season.
"The other guys didn't force defenses to change their schemes, but they're going to have to do it with Rocket because he can change a game," Irvin, in the last year of his contract, told the Dallas Morning News. "With Rocket, you better change. There is fast, faster and fastest -- then there's Rocket speed. He's the best complementary receiver I've seen on this team in a long time, and I'm excited. It's going to be great."
Ismail has played only in parts of two preseason games because of a sprained left shoulder, but will start Sunday for an offense that ranked eighth in the NFL last year, despite a late-season swoon both Aikman and Gailey attributed mostly to injuries.
As usual, Smith will the focal point of the running game after a season when he had seven 100-yard games and 1,332 yards. He averaged 5.4 yards a carry in the preseason, and with the retirement of Barry Sanders, he is the leading active rusher in the league with 12,566 yards and an all-time league record 125 rushing touchdowns.
"He is still very effective," Aikman said. "He hasn't shown that many signs of wear and tear. He still runs every play out like he always has. He takes care of his body. A couple of years ago, people were saying the end was near. Last year, he proved a lot of people wrong."
Aikman remains among the game's most dangerous and productive quarterbacks. He's also far more comfortable with Gailey's offense than he was a year ago at this time.
"I think we're more confident at this time than we were last year," he said. "Even though we felt we were a better team [than 6-10 in 1997] we still had some uneasiness on how it would all come together. We enjoyed some success last year, and we're a better group. We made some changes in the offseason that made us a better team.
"It's no secret that when we won three Super Bowls, we were raided pretty good by other teams. We definitely were affected by all that. We went through a period when we didn't draft real well. I think we've weathered that. I think this team is in good hands. I see us getting better. We're still one of the best teams in the league. We're very competitive and will be for a long time."