Fifteen minutes after the Dallas Cowboys had beaten the Philadelphia Eagles 24-13 in rain-drenched Texas Stadium on Sunday, James Washington, the Cowboy free safety, spread his hands in front of him and asked, "Have we beaten someone now? Do we get some respect?"
The "we," you have to understand, is not the entire Dallas team. Everyone respects the marquee players who put the points on the board—Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and, on the line, big Nate Newton. Hell, even in Mexico City the fans at an exhibition game were yelling "Moose!" when fullback Daryl (Moose) Johnston carried the ball.
No, Washington's "we" was the defense, fast as a heartbeat, integrated in a smooth, corporate way, with everyone pulling his weight and no one putting himself ahead of the organization. The D from Big D was very effective on Sunday against the Eagles, possessors of the NFC's No. 1-ranked offense. The Cowboys held Philly to 294 yards, intercepted quarterback Randall Cunningham four times, sacked him the same number of times and, on a day when the Dallas attack struggled, rose up with a stalwart goal line stand at the end of the game.
Dallas's defense has been atop the NFL, statistically, for three weeks, but the only people who were impressed were the opposing offensive players. The world has not tuned in. This is not a unit that quickens the pulse. Buddy Ryan football, vintage Eagle style—now, that's defense. Rise up with a monstrous front four and smack 'em dead, blitz their lights out, send 'em off the field on a cart: That's what commands respect.
Another way that a defense can get respect is by sending half a dozen people to the Pro Bowl. Give the fans some identifiable faces, and they'll reward you with some catchy nicknames: Steel Curtain, Doomsday, Purple People Eaters. So far, no one has come up with a name for the Cowboy defense.
But someone should because there are players in this unit whom Dallas defensive coordinator Butch Davis wouldn't trade for anyone else at the same position: his safeties, Washington and Darren Woodson; his left cornerback, Kevin Smith: and his outside linebackers, Dixon Edwards and Darrin Smith. Their reputation for being able to run down anything that breathes was a big reason why Cunningham stayed home on Sunday and ran for a modest 12 yards.
Still, the Cowboy defenders remain largely unknown. Except for Charles Haley, the right end. He is the closest thing to a marquee name the Dallas defense has, but in the off-season he was probably closer to being an ex-Cowboy than anyone else on the roster.
Haley's locker-room tirades may have cost him a job in San Francisco. By the end of last season, then Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson's patience was also wearing thin. Haley had given the Cowboys one productive year, 1992, as their most serious pass-rush threat, and one heroic year, '93, during which he dragged himself into combat with a severely ailing back. But he constantly challenged the coaches' authority. But then Johnson departed, and in came Barry Switzer.
"Everyone was being evaluated," says Ernie Zampese, Dallas's new offensive coordinator. "We were going through different scenarios—let Haley go and use his salary to try to keep Ken Norton or Tony Casillas, let them go and keep Haley. Finally, I said, 'When I was coaching with the Rams, we faced Haley twice a year. All I know is, we've got to have him. I don't want to go into the season without him.' "
The day before the game against the Eagles, Haley was sitting in the Cowboy offices when Irvin came by with a newspaper item he had underlined. In the article. Bernard Williams. Philadelphia's 6'8", 317-pound rookie left tackle, was saying he welcomed the challenge of blocking Haley and wanted coach Rich Kotite to let him try it solo. Kotite admired Williams's pluck but said he planned to have somebody help him out.