American Football: Will the Cowboys bounce back from their turbulent year, or is this the end of an era?

And six other questions and answers that arise out of the 1996 season. By Matt Tench

As Troy Aikman faced the press for the final time this season, it was an effort to remember that less than a year earlier he was celebrating a third Super Bowl victory.

Aikman looked tired, disappointed and distracted, which was natural as the Dallas Cowboys had just failed to reach the NFC Championship game for the first time in four years, but more than anything he looked fed up. There were many problems his team had to address, he said and, without being specific, the clear hint was that some of them were not in the public domain.

There are enough of those, of course. The whiff of scandal clung to the Cowboys for much of the year, and a season that began with Michael Irvin serving one drug suspension ended with Leon Lett beginning another.

Then there were the injuries. Jay Novacek, the tight end to whom Aikman so often liked to direct his passes as the team closed in on the end zone, did not play at all, while Charles Haley, whose destructive abilities have been such a feature of Cowboy play-off runs, was on the sidelines from December onwards.

Most of all, perhaps, there is the leadership question, and whether the Cowboys can continue with Barry Switzer as their head coach. Switzer was appointed by Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner, when Jimmy Johnson left for Miami, and as Jones has gone out of his way to endorse Switzer, his tenure is presumably secure.

However Switzer's laissez-faire regime has attracted widespread criticism and it is not at all clear whether he enjoys the full respect of his players, Aikman especially. For all the problems Switzer has endured, there are many in Texas who feel that one Super Bowl appearance in three seasons in Dallas is not a sufficient return, given the calibre of the side Switzer inherited.

Yet when the Cowboys regroup in the summer it will be their strengths as much as their weaknesses that will be striking. In Aikman, Irvin, running back Emmitt Smith and cornerback Deion Sanders they have four of the best players in their positions, not to mention what may still be the best offensive line and some richly promising young players.

The key questions would seem to be whether Smith can shrug off the serious ankle injury that made this season his worst as a professional (he had surgery last week) and whether the Cowboys can return to their pre-eminence at the tight end position, thanks either to a rejuvenated Novacek or through a similarly gifted replacement. If they can do both, then they can match the best in the league in terms of potential and it is only a question of the head coach utilising it.

Who will do best out of the coaching merry-go-round?

Ten of the head coaches who went into the 1996 season have moved on. With many clubs still to make appointments, it is too early to make definitive judgements - the Jets, for instance, are likely to woo Bill Parcells but will have to wait until the Super Bowl is over to start doing do - but the Detroit Lions already appear to have stolen a march on their rivals.

In the last few seasons the departed Wayne Fontes presided over a fin de siecle regime which consistently failed to make the most of a talented roster. The Lions can only get better with Bobby Ross, who walked out on San Diego because he was unable to work with his general manager, Bobby Beathard. Ross took a side less gifted than the Lions to the Super Bowl and his arrival in the Motor City is probably the worst news the Packers will get all January.

What on earth is going on in San Francisco?

For the San Francisco 49ers the 1996 season posed some naggingly familiar questions. What the 1996 off-season has delivered is a shockingly different answer. Just as the Bay Area fans were wondering who would be their running back, and how the offensive line could be strengthened, George Seifert dropped a bombshell. He was leaving the team.

After eight years he was, statistically at least, the 49ers' most successful head coach, and had guided them to two Super Bowl victories. There have been rumours that his job was under threat for a year or two now, but Carmen Policy, the 49ers president, insisted it was Seifert's decision. He felt a change was needed, but did not rule out working elsewhere.

In his place the 49ers appointed the 41-year-old Steve Mariucci, whose head coaching experience amounts to one year with the University of California. His record of 6-6 hardly inspires confidence, but the appointment probably has more to do with his work at Green Bay with Mike Holmgren, the arch exponent of the West Coast offense.

Mariucci was originally courted as the side's offensive co-ordinator, but, when Seifert opted to go, Policy and owner Eddie DeBartolo felt that Mariucci should come straight in as the head man. "The 49ers organisation is in desperate need of psychotherapy," Policy said. "Perhaps the standards we set are ludicrous. Perhaps what we need to do is develop a more pragmatic approach to winning in the NFL without losing our edge."

There will be no shortage of problems for Mariucci to address. The search for a serious running threat proved frustratingly futile all season, with Terry Kirby no more dominating in the Bay Area than he had been in Miami, while a newly porous offensive line is allowing its quarterback to take a beating on a regular basis.

These flaws will take some ironing out, as will the quarterback situation. A season of extraordinary courage from Steve Young ends with his position still under threat from Elvis Grbac who has age, if nothing else, on his side and a contract that has just run out. With youth the flavour of the month, though, it would now be a surprise if the 49ers allow Grbac to move on.

What happened to Jimmy Johnson's miracle in Miami?

When asked around the half-way point, what would constitute an acceptable season for the Dolphins, a beat writer for the Miami Herald replied, "Getting knocked out in the second round of the play-offs". Which suggests that finishing fourth in the AFC East and not getting close to the play-offs is clearly unacceptable. Still there is no sign of discontent in south Florida, nor should there be.

Johnson brought with him such an aura of invincibility from the Cowboys that when his new team sped to a 3-0 start (including a first-day trouncing of the Patriots) it was tempting to believe anything was possible. But given Johnson's modus operandi - the wholesale ditching of expensive veterans and the extensive use of rookies - reality was bound to set in sooner or later. "I knew what I was in for when I got here," he said as the season drifted to a disappointing close. "I can't make all the changes I need to in a year. And I can't fix every bad contract this year."

So what will he do next? Continue in the same vein, ditching the old and infirm and scouring the draft for more Zach Thomases, the fifth-rounder who now anchors his defense. He may also make partial use of free agency, with Darrin Smith, the Cowboys linebacker, an old friend with whom he may be reunited.

Will he continue with Dan Marino, or engage in a huge trade to acquire some extra draft picks, as has been recently mooted again? Stick with Marino. Despite the emergence of Craig Erickson as a very capable back- up, Marino remains the Man in Miami, and will continue to be so for another year or two at least, despite his increasing problem with injuries. As Erickson himself put it, "Dan is better with a cast on his leg than half the quarterbacks in the league, including me."

Will the Dolphins do better next year? Almost certainly, though they probably won't have a realistic chance of making the Super Bowl until '98

Who was the most exciting player to emerge in '96?

Mark Brunell of Jacksonville. For those of us still mourning the passing of Randall Cunningham, the development of Brunell, who is as dangerous running out of the pocket as passing from it, quickened the pulse again. Actually Brunell, who is less graceful than Cunningham but probably a better quarterback, is more reminiscent of Steve Young, and worthy of the comparison. By the season's finish he had run for more yards and passed for more yards than anyone else, an extraordinary double. He got better as the season progressed and produced a dazzling display at the Mile High Stadium to oust Denver from the play-offs. When it was put to John Elway that Brunell had looked like him, Elway - graciously but accurately - said, "He's faster than me." He is also a hidden benefit of the NFL's recent expansion. But for the creation of the Jacksonville franchise, Brunell would probably still be backing up Brett Favre at Green Bay.

Who is Orlando Pace?

Almost certainly the first pick in the 1997 draft, and perhaps the most significant linemen to emerge from college for a long time. "Pace is the best offensive lineman I've ever seen in college football," a personnel director for one NFL team said recently. "There's nothing he can't do." Predictions of future greatness have to be treated with a certain scepticism following Tommy Mandarich's spectacular demise, but after the impact Jacksonville's Tony Boselli has made in his two years in the league, it will be do surprise if Pace does even better.

What will happen in Super Bowl XXXII?

Green Bay will beat Pittsburgh.

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