Small Soldiers


That's what you're thinking, and you know it. You've been thinking it for days, letting it rattle around like some awful 'N Sync song you just can't get out of your head. It's festering up there right now, causing you brain pain.

And there's nothing you can do.

More to the point, there's nothing the Cowboys can do. What's done is done, and it's no one's fault but their own. If they didn't expect Sunday's 41-14 shellacking, they should have. Hell, it's been staring them right in the face for months. Well, maybe not right in the face, maybe chest level.

Simply, Dallas can't stop the run. More simply, its linebackers can't stop the run. Most simply, they stink.

They're small, frightfully small. They could serve as stunt doubles on a Smurfs reunion show--among the starters, not one is taller than 6-foot-2, not one is beefier than 231 pounds. In a league where the towel guys are bigger, that screams trouble--unless you're Dallas, or, more accurately, Jerry Jones. Then, for some reason, it doesn't scream anything. Then, a would-be disaster gets lost in the din of complimenting yourself.

Kissy faces and back pats, it would seem, make a lot of noise.

For some reason, some unexplainable, unallowable reason, Jones and the Pokes didn't think the linebackers would be an issue, thought it would be OK to enter the season with this crew. Thought they'd be just fine. Big, huge, fat-as-Larry Allen mistake. It's one that's going to cost them this season. It's one that already has cost them, in fact.

Lots of bad stuff came out of Sunday's beatdown--particularly the season ending injury to Joey Galloway--but perhaps none of it casts a pall like the porous run defense. Eagles halfback Duce Staley juked and sprinted and crashed his way to a career-high 201 yards. It was the best day by a Philadelphia rusher since Steve "Not the Prez" Van Buren eclipsed the 200-yard barrier in 1949.

"We were embarrassed with our performance today," Dallas head coach Dave Campo says, his brow laden with sweat, moments after the debacle. "Obviously, we weren't prepared and that begins with me.

"We really got hurt on the perimeter of our run defense. The Eagles had a couple of chances to take it all the way, and then, later, they put a couple up the gut. They blocked us. We didn't get off our blocks and they whipped our butt."

That's what happens when you're small at 'backer--you get bowled over. Up front, the Cowboys defensive line was just outplayed, simple as that. That's what made so many Wyoming-sized holes for Staley to sashay through. Thing is, once he made it into the open field, he should have been stopped by what is literally the next line of defense--the linebackers.

Except for one thing. They couldn't have stopped Fox 4's Nita Wiggins if she were hopping backward on one foot.

I'm not going to insult you by trying to X-and-O the game. I'm not going to pretend that I fully understand stunts and zone blitzes and the like. But I do know that 306 yards allowed on the ground--a total amassed by five Eagles ballcarriers--is unacceptable. I do know that the linebackers can't let the opposition's running game saunter about like it's taking a stroll down Lower Greenville. They just can't. I know that, and I know why it went down that way against Philly. And so do you.

Again, they're too small. They don't have the mass to fight off a blocker, even a fullback who should be their physical inferior. Stack starters Dat Nguyen, Dexter Coakley, and Darren Hambrick on each other's shoulders and they'd be hard-pressed to make the "you must be this tall" requirement at Six Flags.

"You get 200 yards on the ground [with one runner], and you're obviously doing something right," says Eagles tackle Jon Runyan from a locker room so jubilant, I was shocked there weren't kegs and strippers about. "If you're getting hats on people, just covering them up, no one's going to bring [Staley] down with an arm tackle."

No, probably not, but we're also not talking Paul Bunyon here, folks. Staley packs a solid 220 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame, but he's not a huge back like Jerome Bettis. They shouldn't have had as much trouble as they did wrestling him to the scorched Texas Stadium turf. And what happens when legitimate bruisers come to town? Remember, the Giants, Cardinals, and Redskins all employ running backs bigger in stature than Staley.

So what does this mean? It means the Boys are in a lot of trouble. In this league, in this division, you have to stop the run. If you don't, you have about as much chance at success as Troy Aikman does of winning one of those Tough Man contests. Because if teams can run against you, and run consistently, they can control the ball and the clock and keep their defense fresh. Even now, even with teams passing a lot more, that's the surest, safest way to victory.

Ultimately, the blame here comes down on Jones. He's the one who sent Campo into the season with an unloaded gun. He's the one who let Randall Godfrey escape for Tennessee in the offseason. He's the one who thought quickness--and that's one thing, if not the only thing, the Pokes linebackers do have--would overcome glaring girth deficiencies at a position that, these days, demands both from its charges. The new QB for the Vikings, Daunte Culpepper, outweighs the heaviest Cowboys linebacker by more than 30 pounds, for godsakes.

"They had a good day and we missed a lot of tackles," Nguyen says somberly, and with gross understatement. "We knew coming in that [Staley] is good. We knew he'd make a lot of plays, it's just one of those things. We felt prepared, but we obviously weren't. It's embarrassing to lose like we did, on opening day, at home, against a division opponent. It's a tough loss, but it's one of those things where we have to move on, evaluate the tapes and get ready for our game next week. We have a long season ahead of us we have to prepare for."

Face it, regardless of how much prep work they do, it's not going to help them. Because making the postseason with a corps of linebackers that look incompetent against the run will be damn near impossible. Why? Because of the 12 playoff teams from a year ago, eight were ranked in the top 12 against the run and 10 were in the top 20.

No, unless they convince Dick Butkus to strap on the pads again and join the cause, you're resigned to frequent sighs and shoulder shrugs. They're your only consolation now because it'll likely get worse. Much worse. Because if you and I and the little birdies know where the weak link is, don't you think the rest of the NFL knows?

Yeah. I don't even have to ask. I know what you're thinking.


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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez