Sports Outside the Beltway

Dallas Cowboys Defense Finally in Parcells Mold

It has taken three years and four drafts but, finally, the Dallas Cowboys defense has all the makings of a Bill Parcells D.

Len Pasquarelli:

Smart enough to know he didn’t have the appropriate personnel for a 3-4 defense when he took over the Dallas Cowboys in 2003, Bill Parcells didn’t force the issue with ill-fitting players, but knew that he would one day have the right pieces to allow him to switch away from a 4-3 front and to his preferred scheme.

Now entering his fourth season, Parcells has all but completed the overhaul, with square pegs filling the square defensive holes, thanks in large part to the Cowboys’ two most recent draft classes.

There are a lot of ways a team can remake a unit over time and Parcells has basically utilized all of them. The result is a defense that likely will start only two veterans, safeties Roy Williams and Keith Davis, who were on the Dallas roster before Parcells arrived. More than any other acquisition mechanism, however, Parcells has used the draft to get the right kind of players into place for the 3-4, to add youth to the defense, and to create a potentially deep unit for the long-term.

In his four drafts with the Cowboys, Parcells has exercised four first-round selections — none in 2004, one each in 2003 and 2006, and two in 2004 — and all were invested in defensive players. The fresh blood from the first round brought cornerback Terence Newman (2003), defensive end Marcus Spears (2005) and linebackers DeMarcus Ware (2005) and Bobby Carpenter (2006) to the roster. All four first-rounders are projected as starters for this season.

But the infusion of youth and talent to the Cowboys’ roster was hardly limited to the first round, and that is particularly true of the last two Dallas draft classes. Of the 16 choices the Cowboys made in the 2005 and 2006 lotteries, 10 of them were for defensive players. Those two drafts added five defensive linemen, three linebackers and a pair of safeties.

Years from now, perhaps even long after Parcells retires, the 2005 draft might be recalled not only as the one that permitted “The Tuna” to switch to the 3-4 front full-time, but that brought terrific quantity and quality to Dallas’ defensive depth chart. A pure pass-rusher, Ware struggled at times as a rookie in the transition from college end to NFL linebacker, but still managed eight sacks and looks to be a future Pro Bowl performer. Spears started 10 games in 2005 and, while not a spectacular defender, has the kind of size and selfless mentality to be a solid player for many years.

Defensive linemen Chris Canty and Jay Ratliff are also well-suited to the 3-4 defense and the former of the two, whose draft stock plummeted last year because of injuries, might eventually be regarded as one of the biggest steals in the ’05 lottery. Two players who missed much or all of their rookie campaigns because of injuries, linebacker Kevin Burnett and safety Justin Beriault, are worth watching this season.

From this year’s draft class, Carpenter, whose father once played for Parcells, figures to start. Fifth-round safety Pat Watkins might, in time, prove to be the kind of rangy centerfielder who would make the perfect complement to Roy Williams, who is most effective playing close to the line of scrimmage. And third-round defensive end Jason Hatcher possesses natural pass-rush skills.

Dallas probably will start three players acquired as unrestricted free agents — nose tackle Jason Ferguson, inside linebacker Akin Ayodele and cornerback Anthony Henry — in the past two springs. But because of savvy drafting, and a systematic and effective strategy for adding young, home-grown talent, Dallas will rely far less on free agency in coming seasons.

The Cowboys, over the past two seasons, have morphed into a much greener unit. But in so doing, the club has grown quicker and added versatility, become more athletic, and more able to play the 3-4 front.

He’s especially intrigued by DeMarcus Ware.

During a rookie season that was about as perplexing at times as it was productive, DeMarcus Ware let everyone else talk the talk because the Dallas Cowboys linebacker, the earlier of the team’s two choices in the first round of the 2005 draft, usually was too inundated trying to, well, you know. Quit crawling and get up, no matter how unsteadily, on his two feet.

The coaches talked to him about the nuances of making the switch from college defensive end to weakside linebacker as the Cowboys made the transition to the 3-4 alignment that coach Bill Parcells always has preferred. Friends talked to him about what it was like to have so much money, after a fairly challenging upbringing, and how he felt tooling around town in his new BMW 750Li after having spent so many years driving his beaten-down 1993 Mercury Grand Marquis. And the skeptics spoke of how the Cowboys might have been better off had they chosen Maryland linebacker Shawne Merriman, a prospect Dallas seriously considered, in the first round.


As a defensive end at Division I-A Troy, Ware was a fierce speed rusher, recording 25½ sacks in his final three seasons and displaying tremendous explosiveness off the edge of the defense. His rare ability to compress the pocket, his dynamic closing speed and the eye-opening auditions for scouts in the weeks that preceded the ’05 lottery catapulted him up most draft boards. “You couldn’t ignore that twitch he had coming off the ball,” said Jeff Ireland, the Cowboys’ vice president of college and pro scouting. “He’s got a suddenness to him. He just shoots out of the blocks.”

That special brand of quickness netted Ware eight sacks in 2005, and Merriman — who had 10 sacks and won defensive rookie of the year honors — was the only first-year player with more. Ware registered 65 tackles, seventh-most among all NFL rookie linebackers in 2005 and fourth-best among rookie outside linebackers. Yet his maiden season, to Ware, was a little like a doughnut, with a conspicuous hole in the middle.

Of his eight sacks, four came in his first six games, then Ware went a frustrating eight contests without a quarterback takedown. The discouraging drought ended after Ware watched a videotape of former star Kansas City sacker Derrick Thomas, and when Dallas owner Jerry Jones challenged Ware to show critics he was the equal of Merriman and he responded with a three-sack performance against Carolina on Christmas Eve. Ware added another sack in the season finale, giving him four in his final two outings.

Ware learned a lot about himself, he said, in the last two games of the season. But he learned even more, he acknowledged, during the eight-week stretch with zero sacks.

“Rushing the quarterback, putting a guy on his back, it’s what everybody wants to do, and it was a skill that I always seemed to have,” Ware said. “But at this level, you aren’t going to beat the tackles off the edge with just speed alone. I mean, don’t get me wrong, speed is a great starting point. But the good tackles are going to stone you if that’s all you’ve got in the [arsenal]. And during those eight weeks without a sack, that’s exactly what happened to me. Guys caught up to me. They knew my game. I didn’t have a lot of stuff to counter with. Basically, it told me, ‘DeMarcus, you’ve got to take it up a notch or two because doing the same stuff that got you by in college isn’t going to cut it.’ So I’ve spent a lot of time this offseason trying to refine some new moves.”

In addition to watching video of Thomas, he has devoted hours to scrutinizing the peerless countermoves of Indianapolis standout right end Dwight Freeney, a relentless pass rusher who regularly beats double- and even triple-team blocking, frequently with his trademark spin technique. Ware also has pored over tapes of star Tampa Bay rusher Simeon Rice, who arguably uses his hands better than any end in the league. Last month, in an effort to improve his hand speed and upgrade the quickness with which he takes on tackles and redirects them, before disengaging, Ware began karate classes.

He feels that, with the fresh techniques gained even with his brief introduction to the martial arts, he will be better able to slap away tackles’ hands. Ware isn’t yet into chopping wooden boards in half or dissecting cinder blocks, but he is confident his new skill set will help him break into backfields more easily. “I know it’s called football,” Ware said, “but hands are just so important to your success.”

So is handling the mental part of the game, and even Ware’s teammates suggested in recent weeks that his recognition skills have improved dramatically. Ware conceded that, a year ago, his head was spinning with all the adjustments for which he was responsible and that he had problems identifying what the opposition offenses were planning when they used motion. There were plenty of occasions, he allowed, when he was uncertain whether he was supposed to rush the passer or drop off into coverage.

The latter technique was one that was totally anathema to him because he always had played moving forward at Troy and never had to play in reverse. How difficult was it for Ware to drop into the flat zone or patrol the short hook area? He was credited with just one pass defensed in 16 games.

“You can sense he’s got a better feel for it [this spring],” veteran linebacker Al Singleton said. “DeMarcus is always going to be thought of as a pass rusher first. But he wants to be a great player, and that means being able to do everything, even the little stuff, well.”

A player who displays almost no pretense — he sports no tattoos, no earrings and very little bling — Ware is a defender poised to turn mastery of the little stuff into a big-time career. He has been able to keep his weight at 260 pounds, after battling at times to maintain bulk as a rookie, and has not sacrificed any of his quickness to the ball. So maybe, in his second season, Ware will walk the walk. Even if he isn’t quite ready yet to talk the talk.

Well-spoken, thoughtful and engaging on a variety of topics, Ware is wary of making predictions about his football future. He prefers reading offensive formations to reading tea leaves and assigns the crystal ball deciphering to teammates, many of whom are anxious to take up the task. “He’s got special skills, no doubt, and they just keep growing,” said second-year defensive end Marcus Spears, the Cowboys’ other first-round choice in 2005 and a close friend. “He’s the kind of guy who lets his play do the talking for him, and it sure looks like he’s ready for a big season.”

As a Cowboys fan, I certainly hope so.

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