Sad Sacks

As Tony Dixon walked into the locker room, taking care to avoid the knot of reporters who were gathered near one entrance, he passed by defensive end Marcellus Wiley. They nodded at one another, and while they were doing so you got a good feel for how much bigger Wiley is. He stands 6-foot-4 and weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 280 pounds. He has these massive, muscled shoulders, and his shaved head looks as big as a bowling ball. If you attached him to a crane and swung him at a building, the building would lose. By comparison, at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, Dixon--a safety who's been playing about as well as anyone could expect in place of the injured Darren Woodson--looks like he could fit in Wiley's pocket.

It made me wonder about something that you've probably talked about at length with other fans. It made me wonder what the hell is wrong with the defensive line in general and Marcellus Wiley in particular. Because Dixon--little-bitty defensive back Tony Dixon, who plays way off the ball most of the time--has three sacks this year. Three. Meanwhile, Wiley--big, hulking defensive lineman Marcellus Wiley, who plays right in the face of the opposition all of the time--has no sacks. None.

Now it's great for the Cowboys that Dixon has been able to blitz and pick up sacks. He gets paid to defend passes and offer help to the corners, but if he can grab a sack here and there, then the Boys are getting more for their money, and good for them. But Wiley is something altogether different. He gets paid to rush the quarterback. He gets paid to sack the quarterback. He gets paid to tackle running backs. And if he's not doing any of that, then the Boys aren't much of anything for their money, are they?

I decided to ask Wiley about it, about not having any sacks and just nine tackles this season. I decided to ask him politely, because, again, he's a very large man, and even if he's not performing all that well this season, odds are that he could crush me between his bicep and his forearm if he chose to do so.

"It's been something--I don't know if it's taken me time to adjust to a new team or what--but it's been frustrating," Wiley said, pleasant as can be and without indicating that he planned on beating me senseless. But I've probably misrepresented Wiley. While he certainly could beat a reporter stupid(er), I doubt he would. With the media, he's gentle and funny, every bit as gregarious as he is strong. He makes jokes and shoots straight. That's why I wouldn't mind seeing him snap out of this funk; because, unlike some of the rest, he's not half-bad as a person. "I think...sooner or later, something is going to give. For sacks, I hope it's sooner. Hopefully sooner.

"But we all could do better. We all could max out our performance. We went through the first little stretch there, and we could have done better. Now we just have to get moving. We can't expect any more breaks between now and the Super Bowl, and if we want to make the Super Bowl, we're going to have to do better. That's me. That's everyone."

He's right about that. They are 2-3 after the Steelers loss, and their unimpressive record has a lot to do with the defensive line's lack of production. Everyone on the line, save Greg Ellis (who leads the team with a respectable six sacks this season) could stand to get after the opposing quarterback a little more. Or actually a lot more. After Ellis, the aforementioned Tony Dixon is tied with La'Roi Glover for second on the team with three sacks. Worse still, no other lineman has recorded even one sack this year. It is part of the reason the Cowboys went from being the No. 1-ranked defense in the league last year to being No. 15 this year. On a team that has piled uninspired play on top of injuries in the defensive backfield, the fact that Dallas can't get any type of real pass rush from its front four only makes matters that much worse.

"You're right, we haven't played well," Glover admitted. "This is our time. What the hell are we saving it for?"

I cut Glover off and asked him if he felt as though he, or the rest of the d-line, had been saving something or not going balls-out. That's how I put it--balls-out. He didn't miss a beat.

"No, I'm not saying that," Glover said. "I'm not saying that at all. I'm saying, from this point forward, we need to step up. All of us. When the line is playing well, that sets the tone for the rest of the defense. We can't expect the [defensive] backs to shut guys down forever. We have to give them some help. We have to get to the quarterback."

It's an old refrain for the Cowboys. They said the same thing last year, which is why, in the off-season, they went out and got Wiley to replace Ebenezer Ekuban at defensive end. Ekuban played five years in Dallas and totaled just 12 1/2 sacks. Two years ago he had only one sack over 16 games. One of the local radio guys took to calling him Uno after that.

So they signed Wiley to a four-year deal worth $16 million in the hopes that he'd be better than Ekuban. Nearly everyone, including me, thought it was a good value. Because even if Wiley didn't return to the form that netted him 13 sacks with the Chargers in 2001, he was still a better bet than Ekuban. Or so we all thought.

So far, he hasn't done much of anything. None of the defensive linemen (with the exception of Ellis and Glover) have. We're five games into the season, and the only thing you can say about that group is that they've been inconsistent. And that's putting it kindly. Without an improved effort from the lot of them, and especially Wiley, won't it be awfully hard for Dallas to reach the playoffs? And is this who they are, or are they in some kind of prolonged funk that they might be able to break out of before things get dire?

"Pretty much no one gets a sack every game," Wiley said in an attempt to assuage my alarmism. "You look at the leader board at the beginning of the season, and there aren't too many guys who will be on it at the end of the season. They tend to come in bunches. You get a whole bunch in one game or a stretch of games, or you don't. You got to think about it in the long term. Over the whole season, that's when you can see if things were working on the line or not. It's like you try to roll the dice. But if you bet your house on every roll, you're not gonna have nowhere to live."

OK, getting a sack is hard. I get that. You don't want to bet your house on them and end up homeless. I get that too. But right now they're playing like a bunch of squatters. Which makes me wonder how long before the owners come home and kick those guys in the ass.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez

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