In Dallas, ever the epicenter of off-season NFL intrigue, the questions have started to seem all too familiar: Can Tony Romo deliver a playoff win? Will Dez Bryant grow up? Nothing appears all that new in Big D—until you see All-Pro outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware with his hand on the ground
WHEN DEMARCUS WARE was in grade school in Auburn, Ala., his mother, Brenda, bought him a pair of cowboy boots. She made sure that they were two or three sizes too big, because even then there was a sense of how quickly young DeMarcus could grow into things. And sure enough, his feet filled them in no time. He wore the daylights out of those boots. Before long, people around town weren't calling him by his name anymore. He was known simply as Boot.
Those who knew Ware back then tell that story to illustrate how the little cowboy was destined to become a big Cowboy, which is what happened when Dallas, also sensing how quickly he could grow into something big, drafted Ware in the first round out of Troy in 2005. Not only has the skinny, unrecruited high school wide receiver morphed into a ferocious outside linebacker—Ware's 111 sacks since he entered the league are the most in that eight-year period—but the quiet, small-town kid has also become a smooth talker who can charm a roomful of corporate sponsors. "Part of what makes him great is his ability to learn, to process things, to adapt and become better," says Rod Marinelli, Dallas's first-year defensive line coach. "You don't have to be around DeMarcus very long to see that."
Now, at 30, the 6'4", 250-pound Ware is being asked to transform himself yet again, this time from a hybrid linebacker--pass rusher in the base 3--4 defense the Cowboys had run since his rookie year, to a more traditional down lineman, at right defensive end, as they switch to a 4--3 under new coordinator Monte Kiffin. Ware hasn't had the chance to try out the new defensive principles on the field yet; he only took part in individual drills during the three-day minicamp last month while recovering from off-season surgery on a torn right labrum. But he welcomes taking the role on fully at training camp, to which he reported last week. Reinvention, after all, is what he does best. "I'm not an old dog yet," Ware says. "I can learn some new tricks."
To be clear: He was doing just fine with the old tricks. In the 3--4, Ware was so devastating as to elicit praise from Patriots coach Bill Belichick—he of little flattery—who two years ago complimented Ware's pass-rushing technique, run-stopping ability, coverage skills and brute strength. Then Belichick added, "I'd say all those same things about Lawrence Taylor." Using advanced metrics, some analysts believe that Ware's career might ultimately be superior to that of Taylor, the gold standard at the position.
In the 2011 season opener against the Jets, one of the best games of Ware's career, he lined up in his familiar stand-up linebacker position and sacked quarterback Mark Sanchez on the Jets' first play by feigning an outside rush, then knifing inside against tackle Wayne Hunter. Later, he lined up in the middle and bull-rushed center Nick Mangold to get to Sanchez again. In between, he dropped back into pass coverage, blanketing would-be receivers coming out of the backfield. That season he finished with an outstanding 19½ sacks. Rob Ryan, his coordinator at the time, said he couldn't think of anyone worthy of comparison—then suggested that might be because he hadn't seen all of the Superman movies.
It might seem counterproductive to ask a player performing at that level to change anything at all—but the Cowboys' defensive brain trust believes Ware can be just as much of a headache to opponents as an end. At least he isn't so much learning new tricks as he is resurrecting old ones, since he used a classic three-point stance as a defensive end in college. Ware is familiar with the duties he'll have in the 4--3, as well as the ones he won't. "I don't have to worry about receivers anymore," he says. "I don't have to stick with Wes Welker in the slot or reroute Calvin Johnson as he's coming across my zone. That's good news.
"The transition going the other way, from defensive end to outside linebacker, is harder because your new responsibilities can change so much from play to play. You're in coverage one minute and trying to get to the quarterback the next. Now I'm a defensive end: Hand on the ground. Play the run. Rush the passer. Very simple."
Every year there are several Wares—players who make the switch from outside linebacker to defensive end, or the other way around. The reasons vary: The Cowboys, for one, ranked 16th and then 24th in points allowed using Ryan's blitz-heavy 3--4 the past two years; the man brought in to remedy that defensive deficiency, the 73-year-old Kiffin, is a 4--3 lifer. Being only one of 11 players on defense, Ware will be asked to fall into place accordingly.
The 3--4 defense gained traction in the NFL in the late 1970s, and as it has become roughly equal in popularity to the 4--3 (14 of the 32 teams will use a 3--4 base in 2013), it is increasingly common for players to travel back and forth along the OLB-DE highway. "If you're a left tackle, you're not likely to come in one day and get switched to right guard," says the Ravens' Terrell Suggs, who rotates from down lineman to stand-up 'backer from snap to snap. "But guys like us, nobody hesitates to move us around."
When a defense lines up, there's little superficial difference between the two positions. The end gets down in a three-point stance while the outside linebacker stakes out roughly the same area, just standing up. As a linebacker, Ware, for example, often resembles a wide receiver plotting a route straight to the quarterback. But after the snap the 'backer's responsibilities are several times that of the end, requiring a quickness of mind as well as body. Sometimes the transition—adding or dropping such duties—is smooth. Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake became a defensive end last season and had the best year of his career, with 15 sacks. Other times it doesn't work at all. The Vikings tried to convert defensive end Everson Griffen to a linebacker last year, and the experiment ended in failure two weeks into training camp. Many college defensive ends transition seamlessly into NFL linebackers—the 49ers' Aldon Smith, the Steelers' Lamarr Woodley. Others never figure it out. Vernon Gholston, the Jets' 2008 first-round draft choice out of Ohio State, where he played end, famously failed to record a single sack during his three seasons in New York, the first two at linebacker.
"Some guys just want to line up with their hand on the ground and do their work at the line of scrimmage," says Ware. "Playing in space and dropping into pass coverage isn't for everybody. Other guys are exactly the opposite. Sometimes you don't know which one you are until you try to switch."
Among those players, alongside Ware, who will find out which they are this season: the Jets' Quinton Coples and the Saints' Will Smith, who will both move from DE to OLB, and the Broncos' Shaun Phillips, who'll go from OLB to DE. The Bills' Mario Williams—who previously went from end to linebacker during his tenure with the Texans, then moved back to end when he joined Buffalo as a free agent last year—is switching yet again, to a position even he has trouble defining. He'll be a stand-up linebacker at times, a hand-on-the-ground lineman at others. "I'd probably be labeled a defensive end because of my size," he says, "but I don't really have a position."
Rarely do these moving parts complain about traveling the OLB-DE highway; rather, there's a sense of pride at being versatile enough to make the trip. "It's a compliment," says Ware, "because you have to be a great athlete to make the switch, no matter which way you're going. I'm glad to have the challenge."
That makes him an ideal student for Marinelli, who has coached elite defensive ends Julius Peppers and Simeon Rice. "The guys who are standing up at outside linebacker see everything that's going on in the backfield," says Marinelli. "If you've got your hand on the ground at end, you're really just concentrating on the man across from you. The biggest transition is with your eyes; then it's just meticulous repetition—refining moves and countermoves to take on that man and beat him."
Even though outside linebacker has been such a good fit for Ware, he welcomes a return to life in the trenches. "You're taking on bigger guys—tackles and guards—on every play, but it's much more instinctive," he says. "There's less thinking involved." Also: less glory. Those speedy, edge-rushing linebackers—the Packers' Clay Matthews, the Broncos' Von Miller, the 49ers' Aldon Smith—seem to get noticed more, though that doesn't concern Ware at all. "I'm not hunting for fame," he says. "Even my sack dance is chill."
That's not to say that Ware is uncomfortable with attention. He's one of the most active Cowboys in the community, and that intense football glare morphs into a baby-faced smile away from the field. Last month he livened up a dreary press conference announcing the team's corporate partnership with an insurance company by singing the "Nationwide is on your side" jingle in a surprisingly fine tenor. As his stature has grown, he has also become more willing to be candid about issues concerning the team's performance. After quarterback Tony Romo signed a seven-year, $119.5 million extension in March, Ware said in a radio interview that it was time for Romo—who has only one playoff win in his seven years starting in Dallas—"to put up or shut up." He later clarified that he didn't mean it as harshly as he sounded, and both he and Romo have since said there's no ill will between them. "One of the hazards of being in the public eye," Ware says of the minicontroversy.
Of course, Ware never dreamed of such fame or fortune—he's four years into a six-year, $78 million contract—when he was growing up in Auburn with his mother and his grandfather John Henry Ware, a retired city employee. "From where they lived, you couldn't throw two footballs without hitting Jordan-Hare Stadium," says Larry Blakeney, Ware's coach at Troy. But the only action Ware ever saw at that stadium was selling sodas in the stands during games. Although he was right under the Tigers' nose, they never gave him a recruiting sniff.
Not that Ware was on any list of blue-chip recruits. He started playing football only as an Auburn High junior, mostly at receiver, and though he was fast—he would run a 4.51 40-yard dash at Troy—he hadn't shown many hints of what he would become. Osi Umenyiora, his friend and high school teammate, had gone to Troy two years earlier, and he recommended Ware to the Trojans' coaching staff. Blakeney liked him enough to offer a scholarship.
"DeMarcus came in my office as a freshman at about 6'4", 196 pounds," says Blakeney. "He left [that office] four years later at 6' 5½", 255 pounds. He did everything he could in the weight room, at the training table, on the field. It was not just out of his desire to get better but also his desire to please, to do what was asked of him. He really transformed his body during the time he was here."
Blakeney had planned to redshirt the teen, but even at a slight 215 pounds, Ware played his way onto the field as a freshman. Umenyiora—who would go on to win two Super Bowls in 11 seasons as a Giants defensive end before signing with the Falcons in March—remembers Ware's first college game, when he flashed some of the raw talent that would one day make him a four-time All-Pro. "On the first snap the play goes away from him, and he runs about 50 yards to chase the guy down on the opposite sideline," Umenyiora recalls. "I was looking around, like, Did anybody see what he just did? That's when I knew he'd be special."
Still, it takes something extra to be special at Troy, where media attention is scant and there's no big-man-on-campus coddling or cushy summer jobs. Ware spent one off-season working in a chicken barn, walking through bird droppings to collect hundreds of eggs a day for 10 cents apiece. "Where there is slow growth, there is also humility," he says. "It was the best thing for me that I never got star treatment from the time I was young. It helped me realize that, when you've had to work for something, you feel like you deserve it more. You have to know what second feels like to appreciate first."
The Cowboys, of course, haven't been first too often lately. They last won the NFC East in 2009, and they have just that one playoff win in the last 15 years, four seasons ago. But Ware believes that's about to change. "It's easy to say at this time of year," he says, "but it feels like everything's in place. The talent, the attitude—it's all there for us to do something special. We just have to develop it." If the Cowboys are about to grow into something big, well, Boot would know.
"I'm not hunting for fame," says Ware, who gets less attention than, say, Clay Matthews. "Even my sack dance is chill."
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Photograph by ROBERT SEALE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
A BRAVE FACE The Cowboys' switch from a 3--4 to a 4--3 scheme means that Ware, at 30, must learn a new position—a challenge he has eagerly embraced.
TIM HEITMAN/US PRESSWIRE (AT LINEBACKER)
IFS, HANDS AND BUTS If Ware successfully shifts from stand-up outside linebacker to hand-on-the-ground end, new coordinator Monte Kiffin will get a lot of the credit. But if he doesn't ... well, only owner Jerry Jones knows what happens then.
ROBERT SEALE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (AT END)
TODD ROSENBERG FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KING)
MANNY FLORES/CAL SPORT MEDIA (WARE)
WAREWITHAL In Week 12, Ware decleated Robert Griffin III—the sort of hit that Cowboys coaches hope to see even more often in 2013, when he's free to focus fully on rushing the passer.