"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 5�—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 r�sum�—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.