- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2002

HOUSTON They've been absent from the postseason as long as all but one NFC team. Only three of their players have ever celebrated a playoff victory in a Dallas uniform. And with the NFL's return to Houston, they don't even own all of Texas anymore.
But just when it could be time to count out "America's Team," the Cowboys look like they might be back.
Their defense, which ranked fourth last season, has added Pro Bowl performers in tackle La'Roi Glover and linebacker Kevin Hardy, a former No.1 draft pick in cornerback Bryant Westbrook, and a hellacious hitter in rookie safety Roy Williams.
Offensively, the retirement of future Hall of Famers Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman two years ago left plenty of questions. Quarterback Quincy Carter failed to answer most of the questions last season. Carter, who struggled as a rookie, has looked much improved. And halfback Emmitt Smith, who ran for 1,021 yards last year, is still productive at 33 and needs 540 yards to surpass Walter Payton and become the NFL's all-time rushing leader.
So despite back-to-back 5-11 regular season records, there are smiles again on the faces of the men who wear the star even though three of the first four games are on the road, where they were a horrific 4-20 the past three seasons.
"Position by position, we're much better than we were last year," said Dallas coach Dave Campo, who moved up in 2000 after 11 years as a defensive assistant, after a recent practice with the Texans in Houston. "We're fast on defense. We think Kevin and Bryant [both coming off surgery] can be their old selves. Roy [Williams is] the real deal. We're more disciplined on offense with Bruce [Coslet, the former Cincinnati and New York Jets coach who's the coordinator]. We've got to step it up on that side of the ball. A lot of that ties in with Quincy's development."
Carter led Dallas to a 3-3 record down the stretch last season after being on the shelf for eight weeks with thumb and hamstring injuries. Anthony Wright, Clint Stoerner and the since-waived Ryan Leaf were found wanting in Carter's absence. Former Michigan starter Chad Hutchinson looked rusty this summer after spending four years as a minor league pitcher. So the job is clearly Carter's despite his woeful statistics in 2001 (five touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 63.0 quarterback rating).
Carter is surrounded by such veterans as Smith, perennial Pro Bowl guard Larry Allen, speedy receiver Joey Galloway and tight end Tony McGee. The offense took a hit literally on Monday when Rocket Ismail injured his neck in practice and was lost for the season.
In contrast to a veteran offense, all of the defensive starters except Glover, Hardy, Pro Bowl linebacker Dexter Coakley and Pro Bowl safety Darren Woodson are 27 or younger.
"Young is in with the Cowboys now," said Dallas owner Jerry Jones. "We're a lot better because we're a lot faster. We have more size. And our quarterback has more experience. This is our best chance we've had to get back to the playoffs in three years."
Woodson along with Smith and Allen the only Cowboys left from the 1995 team that won Dallas' third Super Bowl in four years agrees to a point.
"Our confidence is higher and rightfully so," Woodson said. "I'm real excited right now because I see the talent we have, but I'm skeptical until I see how we react in game situations. We weren't as talented on defense last year as we are now, but we had great chemistry. This group has to show it can have the same kind of bond. We have some concerns. Can our corners [Westbrook and youngsters Mario Edwards and Pat Dennis] hold up? Can we play a full game without giving up big plays? Quincy is the guy, but he has only started eight games. How is he going to react to different defenses? Is he mature enough?"
With Smith coming off his least productive season since his rookie year of 1990, some wonder if he is too mature, so to speak. Backup Troy Hambrick outperformed him last year, but Smith doesn't sound like he plans on leaving until he accomplishes his mission. And that's not the now-inevitable record.
"The record doesn't feel like the finish line, although some people would like it to be," Smith said. "My love for the game doesn't end with the record. I want to help these guys win a championship so I can see the joy in their eyes when they get their first ring and they can see the joy in my eyes when I get another one."


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