The secondary suffered from what Johnson's defensive coordinator, Dave Wannstedt, says was "80 to 85 percent man coverage. We'll protect them in zones." Right cornerback Robert Williams was a sleeper, a second-year free agent who blossomed. Everson Walls, an eight-year veteran, is smart, and he still breaks to the ball well. Interestingly, one of the Cowboy coaches Johnson retained was Dick Nolan, who handles the DBs.
Dallas is in much worse shape at safety. Bill Bates is John Madden's favorite character, and 15 years ago he would have fit in. But NFL offenses have a way of dealing with slow, tough-guy strong safeties these days. They put a fast back on the wing and let the safety try to stay with him. Bates would be a fine linebacker in the nickel, in which he has less ground to cover, but his lack of speed hurts him in the base defense. The new Dallas coaches can't understand why Vince Albritton, an aggressive strong safety, was left unprotected in the current free-agency period. He'll probably be signed by someone else. Free safety Michael Downs is an erratic tackler. He, too, is unprotected.
In short, this defense has one blue-chipper, Williams. Last year it could mount pressure on the passer only sporadically without all-out blitzing that left it vulnerable to big plays. Dallas's most pressing need on defense is a situation rusher. The Cowboys will probably try to find one with their second-round draft pick. With the first selection in the draft, they likely will select UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman.
Which brings us to the offense. The wideouts, plus Herschel Walker, are the primary strengths. Michael Irvin, who averaged a team-high 20.4 yards per catch in 1988, will be a star. The rest of the wide receivers are capable if unspectacular. We'll know whether Mike Sherrard has recovered from two years of leg injuries if another team signs him off the unprotected list. The tight ends don't include a first-rate pass catcher. But then, few teams have one.
The guards—Crawford Ker and Nate Newton, if he chops 30 pounds off his most recent weight of 338, as Johnson wants him to do—are strong. But center Tom Rafferty is 34 and about ready to pack it in, and the two 300-pound tackles, Dave Widell and Kevin Gogan, are both best suited to the strong side.
Walker, of course, is the Cowboys' most potent weapon. "Just write down 1,500 yards for him," says Hackett. He would be even better if, like San Francisco's Roger Craig, he had a booming Tom Rathman-type fullback in front of him. Timmy Newsome, who will be 31 this season, has been a fine all-purpose utility back, but he's less suited to playing the role of a classic fullback.
So how do the Cowboys fill all these needs? By shifting current personnel? Maybe, in a spot or two. The unprotected free-agent list? Johnson says he has checked it out, and "so far I haven't found anything that excites me." The draft? Well, sure. You take Aikman first, followed, if you can find them, by a 250-pound linebacker to get the passer, a Big Eight fullback, a free safety, a center and a tight end. Then you're about out of picks, and you look to next year's draft.
Now the big one: quarterback. Before considering the choices, let's back up a bit and look at three franchises that were floundering until a new coach came in and turned them around. Each went about the job in his own way, but all had one thing in common: They came up with a terrific quarterback in a hurry.
In 1959, Vince Lombardi took over a Green Bay Packer team that hadn't had a winning record in 11 years and was coming off a 1-10-1 season. But he also inherited some remarkable, if misused, talent. Six members of that squad—Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo and Ray Nitschke—are in the Hall of Fame. Seven others were past or future All-Pros. Green Bay needed a fire, and Lombardi lit it. But his most telling move was to change quarterbacks after a five-game losing streak in his first season, replacing Lamar McHan with Starr. The Packers won their last four games, to finish with a winning record. They went to the the title game the next year, and in Lombardi's third season they became NFL champs.
When Chuck Noll arrived in Pittsburgh in 1969, the Steelers had just gone 2-11-1. Within four years he had them in the playoffs. Two years after that, he led Pittsburgh to the first of four Super Bowl triumphs. Between '69 and '74 Noll put together the finest six-year run in the history of the NFL draft. In the second year he landed his future Hall of Fame quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.