Wannstedt's departure would break up superb young staff

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DALLAS -- Defense wins championships and championship teams sometimes lose defensive coordinators. Dave Wannstedt currently leads Dallas Cowboys assistant coaches in titles with three and hopes not to leave without first securing a fourth -- as Super Bowl winners.

This has all been discussed by the two football coaches who stick cigars in their mouths before leaving work at least once each week of the season. Wannstedt, who is one of the top head coaching prospects in the NFL, and offensive line coach Tony Wise take long walks around the team practice complex to reduce the stress and pressure of their occupations.

"I need those to neutralize my mind," said Wannstedt, who has emerged as a candidate for the New York Giants head coaching position. "They give me balance."

Wannstedt and Wise reflect the close bond between Jimmy Johnson's coaches, most of whom accompany the boss on daily jogs through the neighborhood that surrounds the team's practice facility and office complex.

Wannstedt is Johnson's assistant head coach, the defensive coordinator and linebacker coach. He also is Johnson's top adviser, his closest personal friend and the coach who turned limited talent into the NFL's top-ranked defense this season, the first time the Cowboys have finished there since their last world championship.

He also happens to represent the most unspeakable subject at Valley Ranch. The kind best left for cigar walks. Wannstedt has made himself a candidate to become a head coach, a possibility that when realized could dismember perhaps the closest group of coaches in the NFL.

The playoffs are important to all Cowboys assistant coaches, some of whom could as much as double their salaries with post-season checks. But the playoffs are doubly important to Wannstedt because of his ambition to one day have his own team, a promotion that could lead to advancement opportunities for Wise and defensive line coach Butch Davis, a hopeful defensive coordinator. It also could send shock waves through the Cowboys' infrastructure.

"If they're second to anybody, it's a split-hair second to the Redskins staff," said Philadelphia Eagles scout John Wooten, a former Cowboys personnel director for Johnson. "They have a tremendous group of teachers there, people who motivate and do a fantastic job. I honestly believe Wannstedt would have done the same job for the Steelers as Bill Cowher.

"Unless [Giants general manager] George Young has already made up his mind, he'll have a hot hand for the Giants. You're getting a guy who knows your top competitor inside out. If I'm the Giants, I don't hesitate to make this guy a contender.

"I think if Butch stays with Jimmy and becomes the defensive coordinator, Jimmy is covered," continued Wooten. "If he lost both of them, I think they'd be damaged. If they lost Dave, Butch and Tony, it would knock them back a little bit."

Johnson seems prepared with contingency options. He might consider Davis as defensive coordinator, make special-teams coach Joe Avezzano the offensive line coach and perhaps use Steve Hoffman or Bill Bates in a special teams capacity.

Still, the whole scenario prompts discomfort.

"We've got a good thing going, and we're different from other staffs, because there are no egos with this bunch," Wise said. "Some groups might think with Dave being a high-profile assistant, everybody knows he's going, and they're thinking, 'Good riddance,' when he goes. Around here, none of the other guys on the staff want him to leave. That's the reason nobody wants to talk about it. The thing is, we have yet to lose a guy. We believe that is one of Washington's strengths is that their coaching staff, for whatever reason, has remained in place."

Which is one reason Wannstedt has made the Giants' short list of prospective replacements for the fired Ray Handley. It appears, after all, the Giants must primarily compete with two teams for the NFC East championship: the Cowboys and Washington Redskins.

Wannstedt may know more about the Cowboys than Jerry Jones, and he has owned the Redskins almost as much as Jack Kent Cooke. Furthermore, the Giants have defensive problems Wannstedt might be able to correct.

Cowher's success in leading the Steelers to the AFC Central title as a rookie and Mike Holmgren's strong performance in making the Green Bay Packers contenders should help. Both of them were coordinators without head-coaching experience.

The only thing that could benefit the Cowboys is the lack of

openings and the fact Dan Reeves' dismissal from the Denver Broncos appears to drop Wannstedt a spot.

But Wannstedt interviewed twice last year with the Steelers, and the University of Pittsburgh pursued him last month. However, Wannstedt, who blocked there for freshman runner Tony Dorsett, chose to remain with the Cowboys despite the potential for a long-term contract and the possible financial windfall of $1.25 million, triple his current contract. For now, at least, he remains intently focused on the immediate future.

"If money or titles were the things that motivated Dave Wannstedt, I'd have done everything I could have to win that job," he said. "But that's not it for me. What motivates me is taking this as far as we can take it, for as many years as we can take it. You build something up and then see how far you can take it. To me, nothing is worth anything unless there's hard work, sweat, blood and all that stuff put into it."

Wannstedt, 40, is from around Pittsburgh, an area that produced Mike Ditka, Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer and Los Angeles Rams coach Chuck Knox. A multi-dimensional man who attends mass twice a week and spends 15 minutes talking with each of his two daughters immediately upon his return home, Wannstedt is confident there will be other opportunities.

He concedes Pitt would have been a difficult compromise. He came so close to coaching the Steelers it could have been impossible to find fulfillment with a lower profile in a lesser position.

Johnson, who acted as an intermediary in the discussions between Pitt and Wannstedt, has attempted to prepare Wannstedt for a head-coaching position. He has provided him access to privileged information, told him the rationale behind decisions and made him the only assistant coach permitted in the draft room.

"When I look at someone who's going to be an outstanding head coach, the X's and O's are probably the last thing that concern me," Johnson said. "I think motivating players, being a good judge of people, being organized and prepared is more important."

Wannstedt performed remarkably this season, perhaps overcoming last year's poor playoff performance. His defense led the league without having a player chosen for the Pro Bowl. That hasn't happened in nine years.

The Cowboys have a lack of impact linebackers and a potentially leaky secondary. They have changed the entire starting lineup except for linebacker Ken Norton the past two seasons. They have a rookie at cornerback and another at middle linebacker. Still, the Cowboys led the NFL in four of 17 defensive categories.

Dallas led in total yards allowed, fewest rushing yards, fewest first downs and third-down percentage. They were fourth in scoring defense.

"The phrase we use in a very facetious way when someone gets to his level is we say he's a guru," Johnson said.

Wannstedt, 6-5 and 225 pounds, has a physical presence that players respect. He also has the unusual ability to accept responsibility when something bad happens, while dispensing credit to his players and assistants.

He says the Cowboys are better defensively for three principle reasons: The players are performing better at each position. Players like Tony Casillas, Charles Haley and Norton have become vocal leaders. And assistants Davis, Dave Campo and Bob Slowik have been able to develop the team's young talent.

But Wannstedt was been unintimidated. He has played young players such as Kevin Smith, Robert Jones, Kenneth Gant and Darren Woodson and improved the unit's overall athleticism. He also has taken more risks, called more blitzes and used personnel differently.

"This year, we've dropped both tackles, we've dropped one tackle; we've dropped both ends, one end; we've fired strong safeties, we've fired free safeties; we've rushed three, we've rushed seven," he said. "We've done more this year than in the past because the players understand more.

"On my board in the office, I've got the '76 Steeler season record. They had five shutouts, an NFL record. That's defense. We'll get there. We know we're a good enough defense to line up with anybody. We know that."

The Cowboys use package defenses. Wannstedt has incorporated player strengths into his schemes and covered up their weaknesses. That's the reason the Cowboys substitute six players in passing situations, an area where veteran Jim Jeffcoat and Woodson and Gant have been superb.

Those can present difficult challenges for a coach because of the potential for sore egos. But it was Wannstedt's ability to relate to players in those situations that impressed Johnson most when he made Wannstedt, then 26, a first-time defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State.

"A lot of guys can coach but can't be coordinators," said Cowboys director of scouting Larry Lacewell, a former college defensive coordinator. "You've got to pull the trigger every 30 seconds. You have to make quick decisions, and it's gut-wrenching. You can line up on offense and not be able to think of anything and call fullback-up-the-middle. You can't do that on defense. They can score on any play. You're constantly living with the fear of that happening."

Wannstedt smoked cigarettes in the coaches' box at Miami. It was a nervous habit that manifests itself as frantic gum-chewing now.

Perhaps what should most concern Wannstedt is the somewhat false perception Johnson has charge of the defense. The fact is, Wannstedt has responsibility for most of the play-calling.

There are times when Johnson intervenes, normally in critical situations late in close games. The most recent happened in the loss to the Redskins at RFK Stadium. On a fourth-and-goal, Wannstedt relayed to Johnson the Redskins' offensive tendencies, told him the Cowboys' best blitz and let him decide. Johnson wanted pressure on Mark Rypien. So the Cowboys sent Woodson on a backside blitz, dropped Haley into coverage on Earnest Byner from his defensive end position, and forced an incompletion.

"I always want it that way," Wannstedt said. "When, and if, I become a head coach, that's how I'll do it. The head coach needs to be involved in everything. I think that's the way to do it whether we're going to block a kick, go for it on fourth down or blitz them on the goal line on fourth down in the Super Bowl."

L Those decisions, perhaps, are topics for future cigar walks.

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