Where's the Love?

Have you hugged your defensive lineman today?

Warren Sapp is a large, loud man who is hated by some, loved by others. He is also a truth-teller. A few weeks back, the Tampa Bay Bucs defensive tackle went on national television and outlined a gross injustice that's gone on far too long: the subjugation of the NFL player.

I know, it's horrible. Many of them make millions of dollars; none of them earns less than hundreds of thousands. That's awfully cush, but only if you ignore what had/has Sapp so pissed off in the first place--the fact that no one knows who they are. That is, they are mismanaged. Or, more accurately, poorly marketed. They're forced to run around in bulky pads and helmets, which may safeguard them from head trauma, but it also guarantees anonymity. And what kind of bullshit trade-off is that? What good is a functioning noggin when no one can see it? That was Sapp's argument, and it's hard to fault his logic. Sure, he used some unfortunate--some might even say inappropriate--references to slavery to drive home his point, but sometimes you have to get a little radical to right the greater wrong. The man is a hero, and I refuse to listen to contradictory views on the matter.

But the NFL's answer to Al Sharpton has work to do. His is an ongoing struggle. His peers need him, particularly in these parts. I mean, if a guy who hawks video games and deodorant thinks he's underexposed, what would he make of the Dallas Cowboys defensive linemen? They are an invisible lot. Sure, they spearhead the league's premiere defense, but they're largely, if not completely, unknown. Even the press corps ignores them, and we're paid to be attentive.

Today, just hours after playing admirably against an AFC East opponent (yeah, they lost to the Pats, but you can't blame that on the defense), the linemen come and go without so much as a boom mike or a tape recorder being thrust their way. Meanwhile, only feet away, the media pack surrounds Quincy Carter, who has never said anything interesting in his life, and Mario Edwards, who looks pretty enough, I suppose, to be on camera. Both of them have played well this season, that's true, but neither has been the dominant force that the defensive line has combined to be. It's a sad, sad state of affairs. Sapp needs to organize a march on Valley Ranch, and quick.

"This is old-school football over here," says Pro Bowl tackle La'Roi Glover. He looks tired, tenderized from all that hard work in yesterday's game. He's lying down, half in his locker, half out of it as though he's a piece of equipment that someone forgot to put away. His eyes are droopy. Now and then, he scratches his nuts. This stuff is pure gold. The TV half-wits ought to be running this shit at 11, but instead they're hugged up with Adrian Murrell...whatever. "We go to work, we bust our ass, then we do it again," Glover says. "Typically, this is what happens with linemen. We don't really get a whole lot of publicity unless we're putting up big sack numbers. You know, we do all the dirty work instead. We're OK with that. We're winning. If that's the trade-off, that we win but no one pays attention to us, we'll take that."

That's easy for him to say. He is the name among the no-names, the one fellow you really know. Sure, you've heard of the rest--Greg Ellis and Ebenezer Ekuban, Eric Ogbogu and Leonardo Carson, Willie Blade and Daleroy Stewart and Kenyon Coleman--but mainly they're just names floating in the ether, the Carol Moseley Brauns of the Dallas Cowboys. That's a shame, really, because their play has been an integral part of the Pokes' renaissance.

On the whole, Mike Zimmer's defense has been outstanding, which is an obvious statement, I guess, since it's ranked No. 1 in the NFL. The linebackers have been tenacious, and the d-backs, especially Roy Williams, have unleashed punishing hits while patrolling down the field. But football men, people who really know the game--like Eudora Welty and I--know that everything starts up front. It is a football truism, as much an absolute as Jim Fassel's hyperbole. The Cowboys d-line has worked overtime, helping hold opponents to just 83 rushing yards per game (first in the NFL) while pressuring opposing quarterbacks. They've been instrumental in forcing turnovers this year, amassing 15. They are good--damn good. (Now if only the offense could get around to scoring.)

It hasn't been all Glover, either. Ellis has four sacks, and Ekuban, who was dreadful last season, has 2.5. It's been one of those TTEs--a total team effort (that's my favorite of the retread phrases beloved by athletes, and I can rest easy now that I've finally worked it into a column). The defensive line rotation stands at eight players strong, and rightly so. You're just as likely to see Ogbogu fall on a fumble as any of the others. The depth there is a main reason why guys like Zuriel Smith, the lithe, slender return man, were shelved for a time. Head coach Bill Parcells still likes him and his speed, but he likes the idea of a fresh, unrepentant line better. You can dress only so many players, so why not suit up a host of linemen and use them in a productive, revolving swarm?

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