In pro sports, when a team appears close to winning it all, those calling the shots often become infatuated with the off-season trade. Sometimes a team is able to swing a deal for a player with an established reputation who is still in his prime. Such trades are rare, however, and more often it's for the fading superstar whose best years are behind him, but who might have enough left to make the difference in the next couple of seasons. Is that what the Denver Broncos, coming off back-to-back Super Bowl losses to the Giants and Redskins, got when they traded a future draft choice to the Dallas Cowboys for running back Tony Dorsett? Or is Tony still a franchise player who can get outside against defenses geared to hem him in; sneak into the secondary and catch passes; and force the defense to commit to him even when he might just be a decoy?
At this point, after 11 years with Dallas during which he carried the ball more than 2,700 times, a little of each is probably true.
No one would argue the point that Dorsett has seen a lot of heavy traffic and has probably exposed his 189 pounds to more hits than all the tennis balls in Flushing, N.Y.
On the other hand, Tony doesn't seem to have any more wear and tear on him than one of those kids' pop-up dolls with the round, weighted bottoms. There must be dozens of defensive linemen who have played in the National Football League for years and still haven't gotten a hand on him. Writing on the wall
So why did the Cowboys even think of trading Dorsett, who has scored a total of 83 NFL touchdowns, 71 by land and 12 by air?
Ordinarily they wouldn't. But when you have a racehorse like 6 ft., 1 in., 225-pound Herschel Walker in your stable, you want to give him the football somewhere between 20 and 30 times a game. There simply wasn't room in the same backfield for both of them, and Dorsett had made it known that he wasn't happy in this situation.
The writing was on the wall last Nov. 15, when Dallas played the New England Patriots. Walker carried 28 times for 173 yards, while Dorsett was in for only six plays. The following week, against the Miami Dolphins, Tony never got off the bench.
This fact did not go unnoticed in the front offices of various teams around the league that were looking to improve their running games. Exactly when the Broncos and the Cowboys started to talk trade isn't clear, but there is speculation that they began discussions the day after last January's Super Bowl.
If Dorsett is indeed the breakaway runner the Broncos need to make quarterback John Elway even more effective, it won't be the first time someone has been wrong about Tony. Overlooked before
Even though Dorsett had the kind of eye-catching high school statistics that attract scholarships by the carload, most college scouts rated him too small, too fragile, and too run-oriented to be much of a blocker.
The University of Pittsburgh, however, took a chance on him and wound up with a pile of victories it never expected, plus the top rusher in the country and the Heisman Trophy winner. The Panthers also won the national championship, with a 12-0 record, in Tony's senior year of 1976.
The following spring, the first two picks in the NFL draft belonged to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks.
Tampa Bay went for Heisman runner-up Ricky Bell, whose tanklike body appeared perhaps more suited to the pro game, and who did, in fact, go on to have a reasonably good NFL career.
Dallas, which had its eye on Dorsett, swung a trade with the Seahawks to get the second position and selected Tony.
It took only one workout for everybody in camp to know Dorsett was something special, but coach Tom Landry was not impressed with his cockiness. Tony didn't exactly fit the Cowboys' button-down image. Although Landry never did quite succeed in taking all of the feistiness out of Dorsett, he did get him to conform to Tom's blueprints on the field of play.
What Dorsett can do for the Broncos, who are already established winners, is to increase their Super Bowl chances (if indeed they make it there a third consecutive time) by giving them another offensive dimension.
Dorsett hadn't been in Denver's training camp for a week this year before rumors started that he had run 40 yards in 4.3 seconds, a spectacular time for someone with so much NFL mileage.
When Tony was asked for a confirmation of that time, though, he simply smiled and told reporters: ``Yeah, something like that!''