Once you got past the Barry Switzer question, the trouble in Big D this year was supposed to be the D.
Gone from the Cowboys' defense were free agents Ken Norton Jr., Tony Casillas and Jimmie Jones. Elevated into a role that some doubted he could handle was third-year linebacker Robert Jones. Then, of course, there was the motivational void created by Jimmy Johnson's unceremonious departure.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the dismantling. Like nothing. Heading into today's game at Arizona, Dallas' defense is No. 1 overall (244.8 yards per game), ranks second in sacks (22), second in scoring defense (69 points) and fourth in turnovers (16). No team since the 1970 merger has led the NFL in all four categories in the same season, but the Cowboys have a shot to be the first.
"The popular conception around here and probably every place else was that we'd be significantly worse on defense," said defensive coordinator Butch Davis, whose charges also top the league in passing yards allowed per game (144.3). "Obviously, the exact opposite has come true. Last year, people failed to realize just how injury-riddled we were. It sounds like a broken record, but the fact is that Leon Lett was out six weeks with a broken ankle, Charles Haley was probably around 60 percent healthy (back problems), Kenny Norton had a torn bicep, and Russell Maryland missed six games (toe)."
Dallas finished 10th defensively last season, after its No.
1 showing in 1992. But both performances were good enough to win Super Bowl titles. This year, Dallas' young players like linebacker Darrin Smith, cornerback Kevin Smith and safety Darren Woodson are producing at Pro Bowl levels. The Cowboys have 14 takeaways in the past three games.
"Great defensive line, great linebacking play, great secondary," said safety James Washington. "All I know is that a lot of opponents take us as a soft defense. Then they're surprised at what they see."
We are family: So much for the theory that winning locker rooms are always harmonious. On Monday, at least three Vikings were involved in a brawl that apparently centered on the use of a treatment table in the trainer's room. Tight end Adrian Cooper was using the table and began arguing with defensive tackle Henry Thomas. Defensive tackle John Randle got involved and exchanged punches with Cooper.
Vikings coach Dennis Green later slapped a gag order on his players, but none were fined. "You always have incidents in football," he said. "I think we're a happy football team. We always have been."
Favorite sons: File this one under the heading of what's good for General Motors is good for the country. The 49ers unwittingly created a mini-flap last week by asking for and receiving league permission to wear their Throwbacks 1955-style uniforms two extra games. Atlanta coach June Jones complained of special treatment for the 49ers, saying: "They're the 49ers and we're not."
Always sensitive to cries of favoritism, commissioner Paul Tagliabue this week issued a memo allowing teams to wear their Throwback garb two more games. The 49ers, by the way, are 4-0 in their old uniforms, or as many victories as the 1955 team (4-8) garnered all season.
Timely exit: After two concussions in 41 days, Bears running back Merril Hoge retired Monday on the advice of doctors. It is one of the most common football injuries, but the concussion and its chilling aftereffects are getting more attention than ever in light of Hoge's decision. The former Steeler, who signed a $2.4-million deal with Chica-go in the off-season, is still experiencing memory lapses, sleepiness and lethargy.
"If I lay down, I'd go to sleep right now," said Hoge, 29. "My entire body is completely numb right now. I don't function or think very well, and they can't say in two weeks you're going to get better like with a knee injury."
He's everywhere: He's got way too much time on his hands, so it was no surprise to hear Jimmy Johnson was a caller on Buddy Ryan's weekly radio show Tuesday night. Ryan, who was not informed of his guest in advance, said he didn't know who he was talking to until "he said he was from Fox, then I kind of recognized his voice. They fooled me one time, that's okay."
Asked if he was going to get back into coaching, Johnson grew evasive. But Ryan answered for him: "There's no question he's going to get back into coaching," Ryan said. "He can't live his life without beating Buddy Ryan."
Dome-field disadvantage: With the final push for division realignment scheduled for the Nov. 1-2 owners meeting in Chicago, Green Bay says its priorities are to keep the traditional four NFC Central teams together, and to fight the flopping of Tampa Bay and AFC East member Indianapolis, because it would add a third dome to the division.
"Our people would just as soon not be on a lot of turf if they can help it," Packers team president Bob Harlan said. "(We) didn't think it was fair."
The long shot: If you love the little guy, the underdog, the unsung type, pull your heart out today for Redskins starting quarterback Gus Frerotte, a seventh-round pick (just 194 spots behind No. 3 pick Heath Shuler) this year out of Tulsa. With Shuler on crutches with a sprained ankle, former starter John Friesz seemed to be the obvious choice. But Washington coach Norv Turner is turning to Frerotte at Indianapolis.
Not him again: Pardon the Colts, however, if they're not giddy with anticipation about facing the Redskins' rookie. Here's a review of the Colts' recent luck against no-name passers:
Buffalo's Joe Dufek garnered his only NFL win by beating the Colts in 1984; New England's Tom Ramsey downed the Colts in his 1987 starting debut; Tommy Hodson beat the Colts in 1991 and finished 1-11 as a Patriots starter; Seattle's Dan McGwire played the first half in his initial start and the Seahawks won in Ron Meyer's last game as head coach of the Colts, in 1991; and in 1992, New England's Scott Zolak debuted as a starter against the Colts, winning 37-34 in overtime.
Quote of the week: Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston, on Ryan: "Nobody could quite replace Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker, but Buddy could do him justice."
_ Information from other news organizations was used in compiling this report.
Throwbacks to victory
The San Francisco 49ers lead the way in victories in the throwback uniforms that celebrate the NFLs 75th year. Who's undefeated in their outdated duds:
Record in 1994 Overall Throwback
throwback uniforms record year record
49ers 4-0 1-2 5-2 1955: 4-8
Chargers 3-0 3-0 6-0 1961: 12-2
Bills 2-0 2-3 4-3 1965: 10-3-1
Vikings 2-0 3-2 5-2 1961: 3-11