All day long Tampa Bay Quarterback Doug Williams had seen the hands coming at him, the big swaddled paws of the Dallas Cowboys' front four, their fingers outstretched against the sky as if to bring retributive thunder crashing down on him. Whenever Williams thought he had a receiver open, the hands would wave in his face and his moment of opportunity would slip by. To Williams, these outstretched hands became a nightmarish symbol of the larger, unseen fist of the Dallas flex defense. By the time that muscular defense had finished flexing itself all over the Bucs at Texas Stadium last Saturday, the Central Division champions had been crushed 38-0. So much for parity.
It could have been worse. Dallas Defensive End Ed (Too Tall) Jones, who spent nearly as much of his afternoon in the Bucs' backfield as Williams did, says the Cowboys haven't really got the hang of the flex yet. "It takes you four years to play it well," Jones says, "and you never master it."
The Buccaneers had lived and died with their strong-armed young quarterback, for when Williams was good he could carry his whole team along with him, and when he was bad the Bucs were, too. Williams had his finest year as a pro this season, finishing sixth in the NFC's quarterback rankings and completing more than 50% of his passes for the first time in his four-year NFL career. The Cowboys hoped to unsettle him early and make him revert to the erratic style he had once displayed. "If the day isn't going the way he likes it to," said Dallas rookie Cornerback Everson Walls, who played for a year with Williams at Grambling and whose 11 interceptions led the NFL this season, "that's going to rattle him. If we can get good pressure on Doug, we expect him to have a long day."
The Bucs, meanwhile, were eager to take on the Cowboys. Tampa Bay had won its division by taking four of its last five games, including a decisive season-ending 20-17 victory over Detroit in the Silverdome, where the Lions hadn't lost all season. That left Tampa Bay with a 9-7 record, a fact that produced such an outpouring of civic pride that 10,000 fans showed up at the Bucs' training complex that night to welcome the team home from Detroit. At one point during this demonstration of affection, a fan tried singlehandedly to launch the Buccaneers' playoff ship by hitting Free Safety Cedric Brown over the head with a bottle of champagne.
The young Bucs seemed to relish their role as upstarts. "It doesn't hurt to be a little bit of an underdog," said Tampa Bay Coach John McKay, "as long as you don't turn out to be a complete dog."
Funny he should have mentioned that. Whether the Buccaneers are truly awful, or merely had a dog-day afternoon against what may well be the best team in pro football, is debatable. After all, the Dallas defense has now allowed its last six opponents an average of fewer than 10 points a game. It didn't take long for the Cowboys' class to tell. On Williams' first passing attempt, he was sacked by outside linebackers Mike Hegman and D.D. Lewis for a loss of nine yards. On the Bucs' second offensive series, Williams had to scramble for his life to elude Defensive Tackle John Dutton on one play, and later had a pass intended for Wide Receiver Kevin House intercepted by Cornerback Dennis Thurman.
The Bucs' problems were only made worse by hideous field position almost every time they got the ball. While the average Dallas drive began only 51 yards from Tampa Bay's goal line, the Buccaneers started each of their first-half drives an average of 81 yards from the Cowboy end zone. In fact, the Bucs got beyond midfield only four times all day, once at the end of the first half with no time showing on the clock.
The third time Tampa Bay got the ball, Williams dropped back from his own eight-yard line into the end zone, only to find 270 pounds of Too Tall steaming in at him from his left end position, 252-pound Harvey Martin bearing down on him from his right end position, and both of them intent on putting Williams on his end position. "We wanted to just keep coming at him," said Martin. "Every time he stopped and turned around he had somebody in his face. That kind of took his mind off what was happening in the secondary." Williams got the pass off, which was incomplete, and then was clobbered. For a moment, Martin and Jones stood over their prey, pawing at each other with their bandaged arms in celebration. "They'll eat you apart if you give them the chance," said the Bucs' Cedric Brown.
Two plays later, Williams was again intercepted by Thurman, this turnover leading to the Cowboys' first score, a nine-yard touchdown pass from Danny White to Wide Receiver Tony Hill. Later that day the beleaguered Williams was asked if, on those occasions when he had had time to pass, his receivers had been open. "When I had time to pass," Williams said evenly. "When was that?"
The interceptions were Thurman's 10th and 11th of the season, matching the total amassed by Walls at the other corner. It is a young but gifted defensive backfield—the free safety is another rookie, Michael Downs, who also had an interception Saturday, his eighth—and one that has been a surprise to the Dallas organization because the Cowboys' sophisticated scouting system didn't rate either rookie worth a draft choice. Both were signed as free agents. Strong Safety Charlie Waters, the 11-year veteran with bad knees, anchors the unit, but it is Thurman, an 11th-round 1978 draft pick out of USC, who has become the team's most aggressive hitter. During his rookie season, Thurman, a cutup, didn't always behave like a model Dallas Cowboy. He once so provoked Lewis—the quintessential Cowboy—that Lewis shoved him against a wall on the day of a game and told him to shape up.