In 1991 the Dallas Cowboys had the league’s 17th-ranked defense. They went 11-5 and won a playoff game. In 1992, the Cowboys had the league’s top-ranked defense and won the Super Bowl. No one really saw that coming at the time.
No one sees it coming this year either, but there are similarities. The Cowboys went 12-4 and won a playoff game last year with the league’s 19th-ranked defense. This offseason the team invested heavily in the defensive side of the ball and appears poised to have a devastating rotation of rushmen to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
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The 1991 Cowboys got 22 sacks from their defensive line. The 1992 Cowboys got 38 sacks. Pressuring the quarterback was the principle difference in going from 17th in total defense to No. 1 overall.
The acquisition of defensive end Charles Haley, an All Pro in 1990, during the 1992 offseason has long been cited as the key to the team’s historic defensive turnaround. That may be true in some respects, but not from a production standpoint. Haley logged just six sacks in 1992.
In fact, the starting front four on the first ‘90s Super Bowl team was Haley and Tony Tolbert at defensive end, and Tony Casillas and Russell Maryland at defensive tackle. None of them led the team in sacks that season. Casillas and Maryland would finish with fewer sacks than their backups.
Head coach Jimmy Johnson and defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt liked to employ a defensive line rotation similar to current defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. As a result, only one 1992 Cowboy finished with double digit sacks, but as a whole the group increased its sack output by more than 70 percent over the previous season.
Here’s how it broke down in 1992, all figures courtesy Pro Football Reference:
This line rotation led a No. 1-ranked defense with a secondary comprised principally of James Washington, Thomas Everett and Ray Horton at safety, and Larry Brown, Issiac Holt, and Kevin Smith at cornerback.
Those six defensive backs would accrue a combined 51 seasons of NFL service for eight different teams, and boast one Pro Bowl between them (Everett, 1993). Where was future Ring of Honor safety Darren Woodson in 1992? He made two starts as a rookie and contributed chiefly on special teams.
Only Brown and Smith were drafted by the Cowboys. The rest of the defensive backfield were free agent journeymen or reclamation projects. All would have their best seasons as part of a Cowboys defense with a dominant line that could get to the quarterback.
A defensive line that can consistently pressure the quarterback makes everyone behind them play better.
The 1992 Cowboys gave up 243 points (15.2 ppg) on 4.5 yards per play. By comparison the 2014 Seattle Seahawks, also ranked No. 1, gave up 254 points (15.9 ppg) on 4.6 yards per play. Very similar in terms of production, even if the game has changed a lot in the past 20 or so years.
The Cowboys in 1992 got 44 sacks, 38 of which came from defensive linemen. The 2014 Seahawks got 36 sacks, 31 of which came from the defensive line. The year before Seattle’s No. 1 defense had 43 sacks, 34.5 coming from the defensive line.
What these numbers suggest is if the Dallas rushmen can get to around 35 sacks this season, this defense has a chance to be special. Now that the roster has been cut to 53 men, and we have an idea of what the 2015 Cowboys defensive line rotation will look like, let’s make some conservative projections for sack totals:
We can all agree this is conservative, right? Look how easy it would be for this group to get to 38 sacks, matching the 1992 team.
I know it’s early. I know injuries and turnovers will play their customary role in this team’s fortunes. But who else is ready for some football?