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.