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Until recently, any insinuation that the Dallas Cowboys were a dime-store operation would have been taken as slander and grounds for deportation, from Texas, if not the Union. But for now the dime is reputable legal tender down in Dallas. On Sunday at Texas Stadium the Cowboys turned a defense led by Cornerback Dennis Thurman which involved six defensive backs (a dime in NFL argot because it employs twice as many extra pass defenders as the five-back "nickel") into the difference between them and the Green Bay Packers in a 37-26 NFC playoff win.
The Packers played into Thurman's hands until the end, when he trotted off the field with the last of his three interceptions. Thurman had returned the first for a touchdown and had ensured Dallas' win with this final one. It was yeoman work, gratifying for a player of good reputation who lately had been talked of as a weak link. As a cornerback, the 5'11", 183-pound Thurman seems undersized. He's fast, but not fast. Just a 10-cent defensive back.
Thurman admitted after the game that the book on him—beat Thurman, kill Cowboys—is accurate in a way: "I knew I was the marked man." Thurman left a mark instead. The Packers gained 466 yards (91 more than Dallas), 363 of them in the second half, and a good measure of them came courtesy of Thurman. But in the end, he was where the ball was more often than John Jefferson, whom he had shadowed for just long enough, or James Lofton, who spun Thurman around like a top but never threw him for a loop.
Thurman, a fifth-year player from USC, was an 11th-round draft pick. He was primarily a safety until 1981, when he was pressed into the position of cornerback and emerged as leader of the secondary. The night before the Packer game, Gil Brandt, Dallas' director of personnel development, had stumped in Thurman's defense. "It's like basketball out there now," said Brandt. "What chance do defensive backs have since the rule changes? In 1977 [the last season before the five-yard bump rule] there weren't any 300-yard passing games in the NFC. Now it's a turkey shoot. How can people knock a Dennis Thurman? He's been a big-play player."
Thurman's big plays included nine interceptions in 1981. But then Strong Safety Charlie Waters retired and a former cornerback, Benny Barnes, 31, took Waters' spot. Michael Downs, who had pulled in seven interceptions as a rookie safety in '81, wasn't about to be moved out, so there was Thurman on the corner opposite All-Pro Everson Walls. Almost by default, Thurman became the Cowboys' designated turkey. "With Everson [18 interceptions in two years] on the other side, where would you attack?" Thurman asked.
Thurman was beaten this year, and early. In the season opener, Pittsburgh's John Stallworth scored twice over him on outside patterns. "So [Cowboy Coach Tom] Landry told me to protect outside more," Thurman said. The Packers got their first score Sunday when Quarterback Lynn Dickey found James Lofton on a—surprise!—down-and-in move for a six-yard touchdown with 9:06 left in the first half. Embarrassingly, Thurman had turned outside just before Lofton's break inside.
But luck, long a residue of Cowboy design, was ultimately with Thurman. The Cowboys scored on a two-yard run by Timmy Newsome with 1:18 left in the first half. That made the score 13-7, hardly indicative of Dallas' early dominance. The Packers would surely try to get back in front before intermission.
Landry bet his dime—bringing in two fresh defensive backs to replace two of the Cowboy linebackers. Dickey faded to throw from his own 25-yard line, felt pressure and released early on a short pass for Jefferson at the right sideline. Thurman recognized the play and wanted to draw the throw. Bingo! He leaped to intercept and sprinted 39 yards for a 20-7 Cowboy lead.
"I just underthrew JJ," said the battered Dickey, who finished gallantly, completing 19 of 36 for 332 yards and the one touchdown to Lofton. Thurman intercepted Dickey again with :16 left in the half, on a pass he threw to the inside while Jefferson cut outside at the Dallas 29. "JJ just ran the wrong pattern," offered Lofton.
Dallas had to make big plays to stay out front in the second half. With Lofton, Jefferson and Tight End Paul Coffman, 1983 Pro Bowlers all, the Packers had a multiple-warhead system. The key for the Cowboys, besides the extra defenders, was making sure Dickey couldn't take his own sweet time while deciding which was the right button to push.