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Early in the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game two weeks ago, the San Francisco 49ers had a 7-3 lead over the Dallas Cowboys, and Niner quarterback Steve Young was driving his team for another score. On first-and-10 at the Dallas 32, Cowboy rookie cornerback Kevin Smith broke up a pass spiraling toward Jerry Rice—and on came fresh troops.
Out of the Dallas lineup went starting tackle Russell Maryland; in went pass-rushing tackle Jimmie Jones. Out went linebackers Robert Jones and Vinson Smith; in went nickel linebacker Godfrey Myles and nickelback Kenny Gant. Weakside linebacker Ken Norton Jr. moved to middle linebacker. San Francisco called a running play against this pass defense, and right end Charles Haley collared San Francisco running back Ricky Watters for no gain.
Third-and-10, and on came more fresh troops to clog the passing lanes. Defensive backs Ike Holt and Darren Woodson replaced Myles and tackle Tony Casillas, and pass-rushing left end Jim Jeffcoat spelled Tony Tolbert. Seeing that Dallas had six defensive backs in the game. Young audibled to a quarterback draw, and Jimmie Jones snuffed it after a four-yard gain.
The 49ers sent in kicker Mike Cofer, who missed a 47-yard field goal attempt. Dallas's defensive jigsaw puzzle had done its job.
"Everyone's happy, everybody's playing, everybody's winning," Norton said last week as the Cowboys prepared for Super Bowl XXVII. "We're all links in a chain, and we're only as strong as our weakest link. I don't think we have any weak links."
In the last 36 months, through a whirlwind of trades, draft picks and free-agent signings, Dallas has forged a defense that was top-rated in the NFL this year. With 14 of the team's top 19 tacklers having joined the Cowboys since the dawn of the '90s, Dallas has flouted NFL wisdom, which says that a quality offensive or defensive unit must be homegrown and that it matures into greatness over time. The terrific Chicago Bear defense of the mid-'80s, built almost entirely of high draft choices, took years to construct. Heck, in 1989 Dallas finished 1-15. Every key defensive player except Norton, Jeff coat and Tolbert has arrived since 1990.
"We've got a melting-pot defense," says free safety James Washington. "We've got high picks, and we've got low picks. We've got Plan B guys, and we've got guys that teams were trying to dump on us through trades. The key is, every guy's willing to accept his role. Maybe no one knows who James Washington is, but I'm a part of the number one defense in the league, and I'm going to the Super Bowl. That's how we all feel."
They came to Dallas from all over the NFL, happy to be let out of personal prisons. Casillas escaped from the Atlanta Falcons' doghouse, safety Thomas Everett from a contract stalemate with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Haley from a deteriorating relationship with the 49ers. "When we trade, we want a deal," says Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson. "We want a good player for value. When the Steelers wanted a second-round pick for Everett, we weren't interested. When we knew we could get him for a fifth-rounder, we got interested."
Same with Casillas, a former Oklahoma nosetackle, who was the second player selected in the '86 draft. In '88 he walked out of Atlanta's training camp for three weeks, suffering, he said, from the stress of playing in the pros, in particular the pressure to play hurt. Nosetackles are supposed to be mean, ripsnorting men oblivious to pain. Casillas was not of that ilk, and his teammates questioned his toughness. In '90 he held out from coach Jerry Glanville's first Atlanta training camp in a contract dispute, and Glanville gave his job to a rookie, Tory Epps.
Glanville buried Casillas, not giving him a chance to win back his job. Then when Casillas didn't show for a team plane to the West Coast for a regular-season game, the Falcons suspended him for two weeks without pay. "I said I was sick, but I never was," Casillas says. "Well, I was sick—sick of Glanville. They didn't understand me in Atlanta. I think more or less they thought I was a problem child."