Publish date:

A Puzzle of Many Pieces

Wholesale substitution gives the Cowboys a defense that opponents have been unable to solve

Early in the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game two weeks ago, the San Francisco 49ers had a 7-3 lead over the Dallas Cowboys, and Niner quarterback Steve Young was driving his team for another score. On first-and-10 at the Dallas 32, Cowboy rookie cornerback Kevin Smith broke up a pass spiraling toward Jerry Rice—and on came fresh troops.

Out of the Dallas lineup went starting tackle Russell Maryland; in went pass-rushing tackle Jimmie Jones. Out went linebackers Robert Jones and Vinson Smith; in went nickel linebacker Godfrey Myles and nickelback Kenny Gant. Weakside linebacker Ken Norton Jr. moved to middle linebacker. San Francisco called a running play against this pass defense, and right end Charles Haley collared San Francisco running back Ricky Watters for no gain.

Third-and-10, and on came more fresh troops to clog the passing lanes. Defensive backs Ike Holt and Darren Woodson replaced Myles and tackle Tony Casillas, and pass-rushing left end Jim Jeffcoat spelled Tony Tolbert. Seeing that Dallas had six defensive backs in the game. Young audibled to a quarterback draw, and Jimmie Jones snuffed it after a four-yard gain.

The 49ers sent in kicker Mike Cofer, who missed a 47-yard field goal attempt. Dallas's defensive jigsaw puzzle had done its job.

"Everyone's happy, everybody's playing, everybody's winning," Norton said last week as the Cowboys prepared for Super Bowl XXVII. "We're all links in a chain, and we're only as strong as our weakest link. I don't think we have any weak links."

In the last 36 months, through a whirlwind of trades, draft picks and free-agent signings, Dallas has forged a defense that was top-rated in the NFL this year. With 14 of the team's top 19 tacklers having joined the Cowboys since the dawn of the '90s, Dallas has flouted NFL wisdom, which says that a quality offensive or defensive unit must be homegrown and that it matures into greatness over time. The terrific Chicago Bear defense of the mid-'80s, built almost entirely of high draft choices, took years to construct. Heck, in 1989 Dallas finished 1-15. Every key defensive player except Norton, Jeff coat and Tolbert has arrived since 1990.

"We've got a melting-pot defense," says free safety James Washington. "We've got high picks, and we've got low picks. We've got Plan B guys, and we've got guys that teams were trying to dump on us through trades. The key is, every guy's willing to accept his role. Maybe no one knows who James Washington is, but I'm a part of the number one defense in the league, and I'm going to the Super Bowl. That's how we all feel."

They came to Dallas from all over the NFL, happy to be let out of personal prisons. Casillas escaped from the Atlanta Falcons' doghouse, safety Thomas Everett from a contract stalemate with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Haley from a deteriorating relationship with the 49ers. "When we trade, we want a deal," says Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson. "We want a good player for value. When the Steelers wanted a second-round pick for Everett, we weren't interested. When we knew we could get him for a fifth-rounder, we got interested."

Same with Casillas, a former Oklahoma nosetackle, who was the second player selected in the '86 draft. In '88 he walked out of Atlanta's training camp for three weeks, suffering, he said, from the stress of playing in the pros, in particular the pressure to play hurt. Nosetackles are supposed to be mean, ripsnorting men oblivious to pain. Casillas was not of that ilk, and his teammates questioned his toughness. In '90 he held out from coach Jerry Glanville's first Atlanta training camp in a contract dispute, and Glanville gave his job to a rookie, Tory Epps.

Glanville buried Casillas, not giving him a chance to win back his job. Then when Casillas didn't show for a team plane to the West Coast for a regular-season game, the Falcons suspended him for two weeks without pay. "I said I was sick, but I never was," Casillas says. "Well, I was sick—sick of Glanville. They didn't understand me in Atlanta. I think more or less they thought I was a problem child."

Johnson figured that the Falcons would unload Casillas before the start of the '91 season and that there wouldn't be much competition to sign him because most of the league thought Casillas was a fruitcake. Johnson wanted to move him to tackle in a 4-3 scheme, which would enable Casillas to lose a few pounds and become the quick upfield rusher Johnson wanted for his speedy defense.

At the start of the '91 preseason, the Cowboys got Casillas for low second-and eighth-round picks, and he has become part of a defensive-line rotation that's the envy of the NFL. On most first and second downs the Cowboys play, left to right, Tolbert, Casillas, Maryland and Haley. On obvious passing downs, maybe 35% of the plays, the line becomes Jeffcoat, Jimmie Jones, Leon Lett and Haley.

In the wake of his three-sack performance in the NFC title game, Casillas said, "I'd like to thank Jerry Glanville for putting me in his doghouse. I need to be in a system where I can get upheld and create havoc. Coming here has rejuvenated my career."

They came to Dallas after having been abandoned by other teams under Plan B, the league's now defunct four-year experiment with limited free agency. Backup free safety Ray Horton, who was left unprotected by the Cincinnati Bengals after he was beaten by 49er wideout John Taylor for the winning touchdown catch in Super Bowl XXIII, was a Plan B signee in '89. A year later, coming off 1-15, "we used a fishnet approach," Johnson says. "We gathered 15 guys from Plan B and hoped a few would be good enough to make it." On defense Washington and Vinson Smith were good enough.

But the stigma of being a Plan B player stung Washington. After the Los Angeles Rams had drafted him in 1989, his nightmare of a life suddenly turned into a dreamworld—or so he thought. Washington grew up in South Central Los Angeles, somehow staying out of serious trouble while friends fell dead all around him. "My best friend, Keith Solomon, who kept me straight throughout my school years, was shot in the head and killed after getting into an argument with some guy," Washington says. "Another guy I knew, a running back on my high school team, got involved in drugs, and one day they found him with his head chopped off."

Washington, however, made it through UCLA, graduating with a degree in history. And he thought he was earning his keep with the Rams until the morning of Feb. 1, 1990, when a phone call woke him from a sound sleep. The Phoenix Cardinals were calling, and they wanted Washington to come work out for them. Classy people, those Rams. They hadn't even told Washington that they had made him a Plan B free agent.

"I was very depressed," Washington says. "I had given my all, and getting put on Plan B was like being cut. It was like, Was I that bad? I'm still not over it."

Dallas turned out to be the land of opportunity for Washington, as well as for Vinson Smith, tight end Jay Novacek and running back Tommie Agee—all Plan B signings by Dallas that year—and they haven't forgotten. After the NFC title game, Smith bear-hugged Washington and whispered in his car, "How 'bout those Plan B guys?"

They came—after the firing of coach Tom Landry, in '89—from a Cowboy regime that has conveniently been forgotten around Dallas. Jeffcoat, drafted in the first round in '83, had a team-high 10½ sacks this season, despite playing part-time. "This is the best thing that could have happened to my career," he says. "I'm fresh when I come in, and the guys who come out can stay fresh." Norton, Dallas's second-round draft pick in 1988, led them in tackles this year with 120.

Another UCLA product, Norton feels as if he has been around the Cowboys for 50 years, not five. He spent most of his one year under Landry on injured reserve with a broken thumb. After the Herschel Walker trade brought linebacker Jesse Solomon to Dallas in October 1989, Norton and Solomon split time at weakside linebacker; Norton played the first and third quarters, Solomon the second and fourth. "Every down I played was crucial," says Norton, "because you always felt you were one play away from losing your job."

Norton became a full-time player in 1990 when Solomon held out and was eventually traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But a serious knee injury sidelined Norton for the last two games of the '90 season, and the following spring Dallas drafted Michigan State linebacker Dixon Edwards in the second round, in case Norton did not bounce back from knee surgery.

Norton, however, returned for the '91 season—faster than ever, shaving his 40-yard dash time from 4.58 seconds to 4.54. "I knew I could have lost it all with the knee injury," he says. "I came back grateful that I just could play the game." Norton was used at strongside linebacker and middle linebacker during that season, when Dallas was still experimenting, still trying to find the right combination of players that would form its front seven on defense.

Norton's father, Ken Sr., once decisioned Muhammad Ali, and he wore the WBC heavyweight championship belt for two months in 1978. But there's no boxing bravado in Ken Jr., only a work ethic that Johnson suggests his younger players emulate. "My dad didn't like the boxing business, and he definitely wanted me to keep away from it," Norton says. "I've always had the feeling that you get nowhere without hard work. When I was in high school, even though I was better than everybody else athletically, I still ran on the beach every morning in combat boots. I guess the apple didn't fall far from the tree."

They came to Dallas from the netherworld that is the late rounds of the NFL draft. Gant (ninth round, Albany State, 1990), Lett (seventh round, Emporia State, 1991) and starting cornerback Larry Brown (12th round, Texas Christian, 1991) all sweated out the selection process and turned out to be terrific finds by the Cowboys. Lett's story is a typical one.

After a middling career at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss., Lett got one scholarship offer to a four-year school—tiny Emporia State, in Emporia, Kans. Although he earned All-NAIA District 10 recognition as a senior, pro scouts lost interest when he missed his last three games with a leg injury. "After I got hurt, I thought my pro football dream was over," Lett says.

But Cowboy scout Jeff Smith, who was at Emporia State that winter reviewing films of NAIA games, happened to sec Lett dominating a pickup basketball game. Knowing that Johnson loved big athletes—Lett was a spindly-legged 6'6" and 260 pounds—Smith filed a report on Lett, and Dallas defensive-line coach Butch Davis followed up on the report by looking at Emporia game film himself. It was a grainy and shadow-filled film, but Davis could see Lett get one sack, make nine tackles and force a fumble against Kearney (Neb.) State.

Lett had never eaten well at Emporia State, but at the Dallas training camp he dug in with both hands. The Cowboys were stunned to see a rookie, practicing twice a day in the Texas heat, gain nine pounds in one week. By the end of his rookie year, Lett had put on 16 more pounds, to 285, and now he goes about 290—a power forward with great quickness who muscled through offensive lines this season for 3½ sacks and 19 quarterback pressures. Johnson thinks Lett might someday become one of the league's premier defensive linemen.

Right now, though, that's too much for Lett, a shy giant, to contemplate. "I'm still in awe, playing on a line with Jim Jeffcoat and Charles Haley," he says. "Me playing with them—it's pretty amazing."

They came to Dallas as the cream of the college crop: third-round picks Jimmie Jones ('90) and Myles ('91), second-round choices Edwards ('91) and Woodson ('92), and first-round picks Robert Jones ('92), Kevin Smith ('92) and Maryland, who was the first selection in the '91 draft. "I may have been the top pick in the draft, but I wasn't really the top pick, if you know what I mean," Maryland says. "Rocket Ismail should have been the first pick, but he went to Canada."

A pretty humble attitude. "I came up humble," he says. "That's the way Coach Johnson likes his players. Humble. Blue-collar. No egos."

The last scholarship in Miami's 1985 recruiting season had the name of all-Chicago high school defensive lineman Mel Agee on it. But on the morning of national letter-of-intent day, Agee told Hurricane assistant coach Hubbard Alexander that he had changed his mind and was signing with Illinois. The next unsigned defensive lineman on Alexander's list was the 6'1", 317-pound Maryland, whose best scholarship offer had come from Indiana State. Miami, however, needed a defensive lineman, and when Alexander called Johnson, who was Miami's coach at the time, to tell him he had lost Agee but had a quick-footed, heavy kid in reserve, Johnson barked, "Sign him."

Last week Maryland reflected on how remarkable it was that he was on his way to the Super Bowl, that he was a Mel Agee change of mind away from being part of this big dream. "If I hadn't signed with Miami, I wouldn't have gone to Indiana State, because it just wasn't for mc," said Maryland. "I'd have gone to Illinois, or some other school, and gotten a degree. Maybe I'd be flipping hamburgers right now, but I'd be successful at it. I bet I'd be manager right now. But there's no way I'd have been one of the guys playing for the number one defense in football, playing in the Super Bowl."

The Cowboys knew right away that Maryland would fit in with their selfless style of defense. Players selected in the draft can't report to their new teams until June 1. even if they sign on draft day in April, as Maryland had. At 6:15 a.m. on June 1, he had rapped on the front door of Cowboys Center in Irving, Texas, and a security guard had let him in. By the time the coaches got to work 45 minutes later, Maryland was already lifting weights. "I was just going to work," he says with a shrug.

That's a good motto for all the players on the Dallas defense.



After dogging it with the Falcons, Casillas has more than held his own in Dallas.



Former top pick Maryland used his blue-collar approach on Young in the NFC title game.



Still stung by the stigma of Plan B, Washington has focused his anger.



Dallas mined nuggets like Lett in the late rounds of the draft.



A holdover from the Landry era, Norton held on to his job by going all out all the time.