Originally created 11/10/99

Without triplets, Cowboys' woes multiply



IRVING, Texas -- What will the Dallas Cowboys be like without their three big stars on offense.

They'll find out Sunday when Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin will miss the same game for the first time since becoming teammates in 1990.

Injuries ranging from fluky to career-threatening will force the so-called triplets to be in street clothes when Dallas plays Green Bay at Texas Stadium.

With Deion Sanders hobbling, too, the Cowboys (4-4) could be headed toward a lost season. They've already lost four of their last five games, blowing leads of 17, 14 and 10 points.

"Nobody wants to hear about injuries," center Mark Stepnoski said. "But when you look around the huddle -- Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Mike Irvin, Daryl Johnston aren't there. That's a lot of weapons and with those guys out, we are kind of shooting blanks."

Irvin, Aikman and Smith were consecutive first-round picks from 1988-90 who became the nucleus of the team that won an unprecedented three Super Bowls in four years.

Since Smith arrived, at least two of them have been on the field for 151 of Dallas' 152 regular-season games. The only exception was a meaningless finale in 1996 that Aikman and Smith skipped to rest for the playoffs.

No other combination of quarterback, receiver and running back has remained together as long.

Irvin has been out for a month with a neck injury that led to the discovery of a genetic condition that could force him to retire. Aikman and Smith were injured Monday night in a 27-17 loss to Minnesota.

A third-quarter sack left Aikman with a concussion, his second head injury in eight days and his sixth concussion in 11 seasons.

Aikman, the NFL's highest-paid player, had headaches most of last week and there's concern he could end up like Steve Young. The San Francisco quarterback is being advised to retire following his most recent concussion. A generation ago, Roger Staubach left the Cowboys because concussions were coming easier and lasting longer.

Smith broke the bone behind the big knuckle on his right ring finger on a long second-quarter touchdown run. His hand got stuck in the mask of a player he was stiff-arming.

Smith played another snap and scored another touchdown before getting examined. He says he'll be out two to three weeks, but the team said it could be as many as five.

"I said to myself, this is unbelievable," said Smith, who might have been on his way to a career night after gaining 140 yards on 13 carries. "I've been carrying the ball all my life and I can't ever remember breaking a bone."

Dallas led 17-0 when Smith left and was still up by 10 when Aikman went out. But Minnesota began to rally and a Cowboys offense led by quarterback Jason Garrett and running back Chris Warren couldn't keep the Vikings offense off the field.

Sanders wasn't able to stop the onslaught because of a sore hamstring that hurt more as the game went along. He needs time off for the injury to fully heal.

The injuries to Dallas is part of an already troubling season across the NFL. Vinny Testaverde, Jamal Anderson, Terrell Davis and Dan Marino are among other headliners who have missed many games because of injuries.

The Cowboys also are missing Johnston, a fullback who joined the team with Aikman in 1989. His battering blocks helped make the triplets so successful, but also led to a neck injury that probably will end his career. He's been out since the opener.