Fifteen minutes after the Dallas Cowboys had beaten the Philadelphia Eagles 24-13 in rain-drenched Texas Stadium on Sunday, James Washington, the Cowboy free safety, spread his hands in front of him and asked, "Have we beaten someone now? Do we get some respect?"
The "we," you have to understand, is not the entire Dallas team. Everyone respects the marquee players who put the points on the board—Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and, on the line, big Nate Newton. Hell, even in Mexico City the fans at an exhibition game were yelling "Moose!" when fullback Daryl (Moose) Johnston carried the ball.
No, Washington's "we" was the defense, fast as a heartbeat, integrated in a smooth, corporate way, with everyone pulling his weight and no one putting himself ahead of the organization. The D from Big D was very effective on Sunday against the Eagles, possessors of the NFC's No. 1-ranked offense. The Cowboys held Philly to 294 yards, intercepted quarterback Randall Cunningham four times, sacked him the same number of times and, on a day when the Dallas attack struggled, rose up with a stalwart goal line stand at the end of the game.
Dallas's defense has been atop the NFL, statistically, for three weeks, but the only people who were impressed were the opposing offensive players. The world has not tuned in. This is not a unit that quickens the pulse. Buddy Ryan football, vintage Eagle style—now, that's defense. Rise up with a monstrous front four and smack 'em dead, blitz their lights out, send 'em off the field on a cart: That's what commands respect.
Another way that a defense can get respect is by sending half a dozen people to the Pro Bowl. Give the fans some identifiable faces, and they'll reward you with some catchy nicknames: Steel Curtain, Doomsday, Purple People Eaters. So far, no one has come up with a name for the Cowboy defense.
But someone should because there are players in this unit whom Dallas defensive coordinator Butch Davis wouldn't trade for anyone else at the same position: his safeties, Washington and Darren Woodson; his left cornerback, Kevin Smith: and his outside linebackers, Dixon Edwards and Darrin Smith. Their reputation for being able to run down anything that breathes was a big reason why Cunningham stayed home on Sunday and ran for a modest 12 yards.
Still, the Cowboy defenders remain largely unknown. Except for Charles Haley, the right end. He is the closest thing to a marquee name the Dallas defense has, but in the off-season he was probably closer to being an ex-Cowboy than anyone else on the roster.
Haley's locker-room tirades may have cost him a job in San Francisco. By the end of last season, then Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson's patience was also wearing thin. Haley had given the Cowboys one productive year, 1992, as their most serious pass-rush threat, and one heroic year, '93, during which he dragged himself into combat with a severely ailing back. But he constantly challenged the coaches' authority. But then Johnson departed, and in came Barry Switzer.
"Everyone was being evaluated," says Ernie Zampese, Dallas's new offensive coordinator. "We were going through different scenarios—let Haley go and use his salary to try to keep Ken Norton or Tony Casillas, let them go and keep Haley. Finally, I said, 'When I was coaching with the Rams, we faced Haley twice a year. All I know is, we've got to have him. I don't want to go into the season without him.' "
The day before the game against the Eagles, Haley was sitting in the Cowboy offices when Irvin came by with a newspaper item he had underlined. In the article. Bernard Williams. Philadelphia's 6'8", 317-pound rookie left tackle, was saying he welcomed the challenge of blocking Haley and wanted coach Rich Kotite to let him try it solo. Kotite admired Williams's pluck but said he planned to have somebody help him out.
"The guy is practically begging the coach, Let me take him by myself," Irvin said gleefully. "This I want to see. I told my wife, 'Keep an eye on that matchup, don't watch anything else and report back to me, in case I have to go out for a glass of water.' "
Haley dismissed Williams's comments with a wave. No rookie, no matter how gifted, would be assigned solo duty on him. On Sunday rotating fullbacks Herschel Walker and James Joseph stationed themselves behind Williams to take a shot at whatever part of Haley's anatomy got by. Haley went without a sack—he is among the league leaders with 5½—but he had four quarterback pressures.
The odd thing about Haley is that as erratic as he is in the locker room, as much as he likes to challenge coaches and even his teammates, he remains the most unifying player on the field. His knowledge of game situations and his feel for reads and tendencies border on the uncanny.
The 49ers brought in Richard Dent and Rickey Jackson to try to fill the gaping hole left by Haley's departure, and they haven't really succeeded. "You can't just put a defense together by bringing in guys," Haley says. "It takes time for people to get used to each other, to get comfortable in the scheme. What we've got here is something that takes time to put together. It doesn't look flashy, but that's the best kind of defense to have."
Against the Eagles, who came into the game sharing the division lead with Dallas, that defense faced its most critical challenge with two minutes to go and Philly, down by 11, sitting on a first-and-goal on the one-yard line. It had been a nutty kind of game. The Cowboy offense was herky-jerky after a terrible start. Cunningham, who keeps both teams in the game, had done his usual thing by not only pulling completions out of his back pocket and quick-kicking for an astounding 80 yards but also throwing two interceptions that set up Cowboy touchdowns.
The Eagles cut the score to 24-13 with 5:27 left and then, for some reason, went for the two-point conversion. ("I must have read my [conversion] chart wrong," Kotite said later. "It must have gotten wet.") They missed it when Dallas middle linebacker Robert Jones cut down Cunningham as he tried to roll out. But the Eagles then recovered an onside kick and put together a 68-yard drive that carried them to the one. A quick score, another onside-kick recovery with the wet, slippery ball, and—who knows?
Charlie Garner, Philly's brilliant rookie halfback, carried on first down, and Jones stopped him for no gain. On second-and-goal Garner got the call again, wide right, and Jones slid through and spilled him for a six-yard loss. "Played my reads," Jones said. "Let my instincts take over."
On the next play the Eagles drew a motion penalty. They were on the 12-yard line and coming apart, and when Cunningham's end-zone pass was intercepted by Larry Brown, the hunt was over.
Jones, who had been a rookie starter on Johnson's first Super Bowl team but wound up deep in the doghouse last season—he was even deactivated for three games—was the key on Sunday. He is not yet Norton, but he has the potential to be. Davis likes to remind people, "I told you in the preseason that Robert Jones was going to be the biggest surprise this year."
But in the preseason one last piece of the Cowboys' defensive puzzle was still missing. Free agency had claimed tackles Casillas and Jimmie Jones, breaking up the four-man rotation that Dallas loved to run. Left behind was 6'6", 290-pound Chad Hennings. Strong? Oh, my, yes. "The guy can bench-press a Buick." Washington says. But Hennings was a bit stiff. His rèsumè—Outland Trophy winner in his senior year at Air Force, four years flying planes, including a stint in the Persian Gulf war—looked lovely, but it did not help him get to the quarterback. Now, in his third year as a Cowboy, Hennings is putting it all together. On Sunday he sacked Cunningham twice, giving him four sacks for the season, which is four more than he had in his first two years.
"When I first got here, I had two pass-rush moves, rip and bull-rush." Hennings says. "Now I've got five or six I use regularly. I'm getting my football instincts back."
It makes for a very comfortable three-man DT rotation, which in turn helps keep that highly efficient defensive machine functioning. It ain't terrifying, but it's awfully good.