Lost in the never-ending turbulence surrounding the
Cowboys--Troy Aikman's and Emmitt Smith's and Michael Irvin's
miseries last year, the imported consultants, the extra security
measures in camp--is the fact that the one area of the team that
has never really cracked is the defense.

It never gets much credit--or publicity. How can it, when three
potential Hall of Famers are putting up the big numbers on
offense, working behind a line that sent three players to the
Pro Bowl last season? But defensive coordinator Dave Campo's
unit has been awfully good, No. 1 in the NFL for 11 weeks last

It doesn't look so good now. There's too much missing, too many
question marks.

Former coach Jimmy Johnson built his defense with a bunch of
no-names who had speed. He converted linebackers to down linemen
and defensive backs to linebackers; everyone ran and pursued,
and the formula worked. When Dallas lost, it was usually because
it got outmuscled up front, but that didn't happen often.

Maybe things will work out, but I get the feeling that this is
the year the defense cracks. The biggest off-season loss was
weakside linebacker Darrin Smith, 230 pounds, fast and a player
with great cover instincts. But the Cowboys don't believe in
paying big bucks to linebackers--eight have left since 1994--so
free agency took Smith to Philadelphia.

Star tackle Leon Lett will miss at least 13 games while he
serves the remainder of his one-year suspension for violating
the league's substance-abuse policy. Chad Hennings, a power
rusher, was a decent complement to Lett, but he'll be teamed
with 33-year-old Tony Casillas, whose best days are behind him.
Until Lett returns, the interior will be a target, meaning
31-year-old middle linebacker Fred Strickland will earn his

With the recently retired Charles Haley out for all but five
games last year, the outside rush fell to Tony Tolbert. He came
through with 12 sacks, but he's operating on bad knees, and his
playing time will be limited. No one else on this team is in his

The strength of the Dallas defense is the secondary, but what if
Deion Sanders can't make it? Under the terms of his contract
with the Cincinnati Reds, he can leave on weekends to play
cornerback, then return to the Reds. In August, however, he was
getting cortisone injections for a bulging disc in his lower
back and was sitting out games. "I'm going to be playing
football in two weeks, and I can't even run," he said last
month. Plus, at 30 he's no youngster anymore.

Darren Woodson is an exceptional strong safety, and the Cowboys
were lucky to keep free safety Brock Marion when it appeared he
would sign with the Ravens. The other corner is Kevin Smith, who
tied Woodson for the team lead in interceptions last year, with
five. But without Sanders, this isn't a unit that can carry a

Rookies? Well, the fourth-round draft pick, 6'6", 318-pound
tackle Antonio Anderson, could be starting by late September.
Then there's 5'9", 215-pound Dexter Coakley, a third-round pick
out of Appalachian State who's the new weakside linebacker. He's
a shrimp, but with 4.47 speed in the 40, he's a fast shrimp. "He
can run down anything that moves," Campo says. "Plus he's a
sharp kid. He's eager to learn. You see him sitting there in the
meetings, all bright-eyed, with his notebook open, and it gives
you a good feeling."

Coakley will see a lot of screens and flood patterns. And the
defense will be put to the test early. It's a well-coached unit,
but it won't be the dominating force we've grown accustomed to


COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Marion (31) plays for one of the league's best secondaries, which on a defense with a suspect front will be under added pressure. [Brock Marion]

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