Dallas Cowboy defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt has a chart on the wall of his office, and when people ask him, as they often do these days, "What do you have to do to be really known as a dominating defense?" he points to it and says, "That's what you have to do."
Wannstedt, 40, is from Pittsburgh. The chart shows the record of the hometown Steelers of 1976, a between-Super Bowls year for them, but a season that students of Steeler history consider the greatest ever for Pittsburgh's defense. Terry Bradshaw was out for much of the year. The defense had to carry the club, and it rose up with a fury, pitching five shutouts and holding two teams to a field goal apiece and another team to a pair of them.
"Eight games without allowing a touchdown," Wannstedt says, with a touch of awe in his voice. "Now, that's a dominating defense."
His Cowboy defenders aren't up there with the '76 Steelers yet. Maybe nobody ever will be in this era of frenzied offensive football, but Dallas is working on it. Look at the numbers: The Cowboys, 8-1 and alone atop the NFL after Sunday's 37-3 victory over the Detroit Lions at the Silverdome, lead the league in fewest yards given up (238.1 a game); they have allowed a total of four touchdowns while winning five straight games since the Philadelphia Eagles embarrassed them in a Monday-nighter on Oct. 5; and they're especially nasty on third-down plays.
The Eagles are the only team among Dallas's three most recent opponents to have converted a third-down play against the Cowboys, and Philly did it only once—in 10 tries—when Dallas won their rematch 20-10 on Nov. 1. The Los Angeles Raiders were 0 for 8 on third down on Oct. 25, the Lions 0 for 7 on Sunday. And away we go into the world of fancy statistics that look as pretty as the blue stars on the Dallas helmets but have yet to make believers out of the rest of the league. Oh, yes, the Cowboy defense is impressive—young, fast, smart, well coached—but it's not dominating. Not yet.
"You can tell by the way people prepare for us," says Dallas tight end Alfredo Roberts. "The Eagles, the Giants, the Redskins—they all came out figuring they could pound us. Everyone figures that. I don't know why."
The Lions figured that way, too. In the cat-and-mouse, you-prepare-for-this-and-we'll-give-you-that game that coaches like to play with each other, Detroit started the game with a two-tight-end set and went right at Dallas. In the playoffs last year the Cowboys had committed themselves to stopping Barry Sanders. So the Lions spread the field, and Erik Kramer threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns in leading Detroit to a 38-6 rout at the Silverdome. Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson bit down hard and vowed that no run-and-shoot team would ever do that to his guys again. Dallas had lost three of four games against run-and-shoot teams during the year.
So on draft day Johnson used four of his first five choices—those high-round picks he had stockpiled, some of them holdovers from the 1989 Herschel Walker trade—to take defensive players. Not big guys, but speed people: three defensive backs and a linebacker. All of them figured in the package that Dallas threw at the Lions on Sunday.
A trade with the San Francisco 49ers in August brought in Charles Haley, one of the NFL's premier outside pass rushers. Trouble in the locker room was the rap on Haley, trouble getting along within the organization. But he could come around the corner at 90 mph, and guys like that are very scarce. To assure Haley that he had found a home in Dallas, Jerry Jones, the Cowboy owner, personally drove him in from the airport.
What other owner would do that? Only one, Al Davis, but the Cowboys have replaced the Raiders as the No. 1 practitioners of the art of making malcontents content. Hadn't Dallas worked a trade with the Atlanta Falcons to get troublesome Tony Casillas the year before? Hasn't he proved to be a terrific team guy, an anchor at defensive left tackle? And when Pittsburgh couldn't meet free safety Thomas Everett's salary demands, wasn't it the Cowboys who stepped in with a fifth-round draft choice for him? An undersized strong safety at 5'9", 183 pounds, Everett is a ferocious hitter, just the guy to infuse the toughness into the secondary that Johnson dearly wanted.
In the week leading to the game in Detroit, with a No. 1 defensive ranking to protect and memories of last season's humiliation still fresh, Wannstedt went to the drawing board, cast a glance at the chart of his beloved '76 Steelers and devised an exotic set of schemes to bring the Lions' run-and-shoot down to earth. Some 19 players would be interchanged—seven linemen, four linebackers, eight defensive backs. The base defense would be a dime package, with four linemen, one linebacker and six men in the secondary.
In certain situations Wannstedt would switch to a regular 4-3, or to a 4-2 nickel. He would bring in 242-pound Godfrey Myles, who swears that he ran a 4.36 40 in college at Florida, as a special-coverage linebacker. And on long-yardage downs he would go to a speed package, featuring four cornerbacks strung across the field in coverage, the regular free safety, James Washington, at middle linebacker, and two more safeties blitzing from the outside. There would be no 341-yard passing performance this Sunday.
To combat this marvel of space-age defensive football, the Lions, with a patchwork line and the league's 26th-ranked rushing attack, came out running. They made things interesting for a while, putting together a first-quarter drive that Everett stopped with an interception at the Dallas 25 and another march that ended with a 36-yard field goal early in the second quarter. After that the Cowboys shut Detroit down.
With Troy Aikman working a neat, ball-control offense and occasionally popping a big gainer to a wideout, Dallas scored on five consecutive possessions, which included three touchdown runs by Emmitt Smith, to go up 27-3 early in the third quarter. The Lions were forced into a catch-up game, and that played right into the hands of Wannstedt's exotic schemes. Casillas got a sack; Haley pressured the outside; rookie safety Darren Woodson, a 215-pounder with 4.44 speed, created all sorts of havoc with blitzes.
After their second-quarter field goal, the Lions ran only one play in Cowboy territory. On that play, left end Tony Tolbert and right tackle Russell Maryland knocked quarterback Rodney Peete out of the game with a nasty high-low sandwich as he released a pass, and Everett picked off the ball for his second interception. Kramer took over on Detroit's next series, but the game was over by then.
Sanders gained 108 of the Lions' 124 yards on the ground, while the Detroit passing attack produced only 77 net yards. The total yardage (201) allowed by the Dallas defense kept it ranked No. 1 for another week, thanks to the Kansas City Chiefs' last-minute 49-yard drive against the San Diego Chargers, who are the Cowboys' closest pursuers.
"If you want to capsule our defense, you could say it's in the same mode as the one we had at the University of Miami," says Wannstedt, who was Johnson's defensive coordinator with the Hurricanes. "Quick tackles, converted linebackers at the ends, hard-hitting DBs who can make quick decisions and linebackers who can run down anything with a heartbeat."
Is this Cowboy defense dominating, the way the ones he had at Miami were? "We'll get to that point," says Wannstedt. "Right now all we care about is making plays and going hard. Don't forget we're awfully young."
Surprisingly so. Of the 19 defenders who saw the most action on Sunday, only two are 30 or older. Ten of them haven't reached their 26th birthday, which is no knock. Twenty years ago a young, opportunistic defense called the No Names helped the Miami Dolphins put an unbeaten season together. "They were no-names for a year," says Johnson, "and a year later they became names. With us it might take two years."
"To become a dominating defense in this league, one that's really feared," said Hank Bullough, a longtime NFL defensive coach who was an observer at the Silverdome, "you need two or more really dominating players to set the tone. Then the other guys have to be damn good."
The Cowboys have Haley, who can set up and defeat almost any offensive tackle. They have Casillas, who was a two-time Pro Bowl selection for Atlanta. However, you have to go back to 1985 and the Randy White era to find a home-grown Dallas defensive player who has been to a Pro Bowl. "I'd compare the Cowboy defense to Denver's," says Detroit guard Dennis McKnight, an 11-year veteran who spent eight seasons with San Diego and one with Philadelphia. "Quick and sound, with few mistakes. A defense like that can be very good but not dominating."
If you want to talk about dominating teams.... "Years ago when we'd get ready to play the Raiders, we knew that we were going to be hard pressed to get points, hard pressed to get yards, and that we'd wind up with a headache," says McKnight. "And being with the Eagles for a year, I truly felt if we kicked a field goal, we were going to win. It's that allure, when you look at a defense on film and say, 'Man, we've got to get a big play to score a point.' "
"The domination is coming, believe me, it's coming," Wannstedt says. "But right now I'm very thankful for what we've got."