Until recently, any insinuation that the Dallas Cowboys were a dime-store operation would have been taken as slander and grounds for deportation, from Texas, if not the Union. But for now the dime is reputable legal tender down in Dallas. On Sunday at Texas Stadium the Cowboys turned a defense led by Cornerback Dennis Thurman which involved six defensive backs (a dime in NFL argot because it employs twice as many extra pass defenders as the five-back "nickel") into the difference between them and the Green Bay Packers in a 37-26 NFC playoff win.
The Packers played into Thurman's hands until the end, when he trotted off the field with the last of his three interceptions. Thurman had returned the first for a touchdown and had ensured Dallas' win with this final one. It was yeoman work, gratifying for a player of good reputation who lately had been talked of as a weak link. As a cornerback, the 5'11", 183-pound Thurman seems undersized. He's fast, but not fast. Just a 10-cent defensive back.
Thurman admitted after the game that the book on him—beat Thurman, kill Cowboys—is accurate in a way: "I knew I was the marked man." Thurman left a mark instead. The Packers gained 466 yards (91 more than Dallas), 363 of them in the second half, and a good measure of them came courtesy of Thurman. But in the end, he was where the ball was more often than John Jefferson, whom he had shadowed for just long enough, or James Lofton, who spun Thurman around like a top but never threw him for a loop.
Thurman, a fifth-year player from USC, was an 11th-round draft pick. He was primarily a safety until 1981, when he was pressed into the position of cornerback and emerged as leader of the secondary. The night before the Packer game, Gil Brandt, Dallas' director of personnel development, had stumped in Thurman's defense. "It's like basketball out there now," said Brandt. "What chance do defensive backs have since the rule changes? In 1977 [the last season before the five-yard bump rule] there weren't any 300-yard passing games in the NFC. Now it's a turkey shoot. How can people knock a Dennis Thurman? He's been a big-play player."
Thurman's big plays included nine interceptions in 1981. But then Strong Safety Charlie Waters retired and a former cornerback, Benny Barnes, 31, took Waters' spot. Michael Downs, who had pulled in seven interceptions as a rookie safety in '81, wasn't about to be moved out, so there was Thurman on the corner opposite All-Pro Everson Walls. Almost by default, Thurman became the Cowboys' designated turkey. "With Everson [18 interceptions in two years] on the other side, where would you attack?" Thurman asked.
Thurman was beaten this year, and early. In the season opener, Pittsburgh's John Stallworth scored twice over him on outside patterns. "So [Cowboy Coach Tom] Landry told me to protect outside more," Thurman said. The Packers got their first score Sunday when Quarterback Lynn Dickey found James Lofton on a—surprise!—down-and-in move for a six-yard touchdown with 9:06 left in the first half. Embarrassingly, Thurman had turned outside just before Lofton's break inside.
But luck, long a residue of Cowboy design, was ultimately with Thurman. The Cowboys scored on a two-yard run by Timmy Newsome with 1:18 left in the first half. That made the score 13-7, hardly indicative of Dallas' early dominance. The Packers would surely try to get back in front before intermission.
Landry bet his dime—bringing in two fresh defensive backs to replace two of the Cowboy linebackers. Dickey faded to throw from his own 25-yard line, felt pressure and released early on a short pass for Jefferson at the right sideline. Thurman recognized the play and wanted to draw the throw. Bingo! He leaped to intercept and sprinted 39 yards for a 20-7 Cowboy lead.
"I just underthrew JJ," said the battered Dickey, who finished gallantly, completing 19 of 36 for 332 yards and the one touchdown to Lofton. Thurman intercepted Dickey again with :16 left in the half, on a pass he threw to the inside while Jefferson cut outside at the Dallas 29. "JJ just ran the wrong pattern," offered Lofton.
Dallas had to make big plays to stay out front in the second half. With Lofton, Jefferson and Tight End Paul Coffman, 1983 Pro Bowlers all, the Packers had a multiple-warhead system. The key for the Cowboys, besides the extra defenders, was making sure Dickey couldn't take his own sweet time while deciding which was the right button to push.
At the start of the second half, to avoid the dime, Dickey threw on first down four straight times and the Pack reached the Dallas 10. The dime never had a chance to enter the game, because the Cowboys stay in a 4-3-4 defense on first down. But the Pack had to be satisfied with a 30-yard field goal by the venerable Jan Stenerud. On their next possession, the Packers again threw on first down. This time Jefferson and Dickey failed to mesh on an end-zone throw that would have closed the gap to 20-17 with seven minutes left in the third quarter. From the Dallas 15, Jefferson broke outside and was open. Dickey threw inside again and the ball fell incomplete. The Pack settled for another field goal, of 33 yards.
On Green Bay's next possession Lofton caught a 50-yard post on Thurman, faking him into a knot. But on the following play Running Back Eddie Lee Ivery fumbled and Mike Hegman recovered. Lofton was having himself a day. He pulled the Packers back into contention in the fourth quarter with a play he should patent, the split end reverse. "We had just talked about it in the huddle, how they'd have to use something like that on us," Thurman said. Forewarned was disarmed. Dickey handed to Ivery, who handed to Lofton going right. Dickey roll-blocked Hegman; Lofton turned the corner, cut back across the field and even cameras could barely catch him as he went 71 yards for a touchdown.
The Cowboys, however, trumped each Packer ace. Earlier, after Stenerud's second field goal had made it 20-13, rookie Rod Hill had returned the ensuing kick-off 89 yards to set up a 24-yard Rafael Septien field goal. Now, after Lofton's run he blocked Stenerud's extra point.
Dallas immediately went 80 yards in eight plays, including five Danny White (23 of 36, 225 yards on the day) completions, the last for seven yards and a touchdown to Tight End Doug Cosbie.
After Cosbie's TD made the score 30-19, the Packers were forced to punt and White began to look for more from his own 15. He threw outside to Newsome, but the ball was wide and glanced off Newsome's right hand into the eager mitts of Cornerback Mark Lee, who returned it 22 yards—30-26, Dallas.
"We were excited after that," said Jefferson. "Then Dallas comes back with a play that's been in our playbook all year." The Packers had earlier tried to free Tight End Gary Lewis to throw a pass off a lateral, but Safety Dextor Clinkscale closed quickly on Lewis, who had to tuck the ball away and take a sack. Now, White threw a lateral to Wide Receiver Drew Pearson near the sideline and Pearson lofted the ball 49 yards to Tony (Thrill) Hill at the Packer one. Robert Newhouse scored on the next play.
All that remained was the excitement of watching the Pack sweep downfield once more, only to have Thurman make his third interception, in the middle of the end zone with 1:04 left. On this occasion, Dickey threw where he hoped Jefferson would be, while Jefferson was busy finding an open space amid all that loose change.
"The Washington fans wanted us and we are happy to oblige," said Landry. "I'm not worried a bit about Washington," said Pearson. Note that neither one of them has to play man-to-man defense. Somewhere, Brandt is moaning, "It's just impossible to be a defensive back these days. It's cowboys and Indians." Dennis Thurman isn't laughing.