The Dallas Cowboys often seem obsessed with winning the hard way. This season they allowed their placekicker statistically the best in the NFC, to escape. Then they built an offensive line largely with players who had seldom blocked in college.
Because of the coordination and timing the offensive line is supposed to be the toughest phase for a football team to master. Yet the Cowboys won the Super Bowl last season with two converted defensive line-men on their offensive line. This year, they have three. And Rayfield Wright, the former All-pro who's now a reserve, was a safety in college.
"Very seldom do you get a guy, particularly late in the first round and beyond, who can come in and start right anyway," said the Cowboys' vice president for personnel, Gil Brandt, Guys like R. C. Thielemann and Marvin Powell and Chris Ward simply don't come along very often.
"The big reason is pass blocking. Most of them haven't had the experience there. And also they haven't had the experience blocking somebody like a Coy Bacon, who's big and fast and strong.
"So we try and get great athletes rather than marginal college blockers, and hope our coaches can make a player out of them."
The left tackle, Pat Donovan, who was the right tackle last season, was a defensive end at Stanford; the center, John Fitzgerald, was a defensive tackle at Boston College; the right tackle, Andy Frederick, was a defensive tackle at New Mexico.
This is another example of the Cowboys having the courage to try something unconventional - and then keeping after it once success has been realized. Wright did play some light end in college, but another of their standout blockers, Blaine Nye, was strictly a defensive player at Stanford.
Which leads to another special Cowboy habit. They have a flair for getting exceptional players from Stanford, relatively low-round draftees who bossom into All-Pros. Donovan already is being mentioned among the elite tackles in the NFC; the next great receiver, the Cowboys believe, will be Tony Hill.
Hill is the second-year player who beat out one of the heroes of last season's Super Bowl, Golden Richards. The Cowboys traded Richards to the Bears for draft choices believed to be in the third and fifth round.
"I feel like a cure for a disease that hasn't been discovered," Hill said even before he took over Richard's position a month ago. "You're right on top of it but you're afraid to use it."
The Cowboys aren't afraid to use young players. With the exception of quarterback Roger Staubach, most of their dominant players are quite young by usual championship standards.
"Hill is a very explosive player," Coach Tom Landry said, "the type who can turn a short play into a big play in a hurry, because he has excellent running ability and speed. Those are things that make a team more explosive, too."
Why was Hill still available in the third around last year?
"It was a big year for linemen," Brandt said. "There were something like 19 picked very early. What happened was the big linemen tended to be over rated and the flankers tended to be under rated."
Historically, the Cowboys seems to have underrated placekicking. And when they has solid consistency for two seasons from Efren Herrera they traded him rather than meet his salary demands.
Dallas almost never losses a player it values highly. When quality replacements are needed, out comes the checkbook and in comes a Jackie Smith as a reserve tight end this week against the Redskins.
Smith retired rather than play backup to J.V. Cain with the Cardinals. And Joe Sullivan, Cardinal director of operations, said Smith was not contacted when Cain was injured and lost for the season.
"If nobody contacted me," Smith said, "Why would I get 15 sets of X-rays" My gosh, I don't need that kind of aggravation. Of course, the Cardinals contacted me."
What they apparently did not want to do was pay the $100,000 or so Smith was asking.
"If they just would have said they didn't want to pay that kind of money to a guy who might get hurt," he said. "I wouldn't have minded. Instead, they made it seem like I was begging to get back."
Brandt recalled making contact with Smith during the dinner hour this week and giving him a schedule of early-morning flights from St. Louis to Dallas. Said Smith: "Let's try andfind something tonight."