Everson Walls is the major curiosity of this NFL season, a Cowboy who has gone from oblivion to stardom faster than perhaps anyone in his sport. Still, nobody is quite certain whether he really merits lavish praise, for Walls plays the most vexing position of all: cornerback.
Numbers leave us groggy. This rookie free agent from down the street where the Cowboys practice must be special, because he leads the NFL in interceptions with 10. Nobody else has more than eight. And there must be two other gazelles in that secondary, because Dennis Thurman and Michael Downs each has six interceptions.
If this is so, why are the Cowboys last in the NFC in pass defense, 14th best of 14 teams?
Walls also is uncertain about all the whys involved in his career blastoff, although he is certain four of them are named Randy White, Harvey Martin, John Dutton and Too Tall Jones.
"Our front four is the factor in what I've done," he said. "The first one I got Monday night against the Patriots, (quarterback Matt) Cavanaugh was not pressured. We had a blitz on, but he still had time and I got the ball he wanted to get to Stanley Morgan. That's one I can take credit for.
"But that's the only one (of the 10) I can vaguely remember not having any help (from the pass rush) on. It all evolves from the pressure they put on sometime in the game. Joe Ferguson just threw one, the last one (two games ago), right into my hands. The receiver was open behind me."
It is not quite true that Nancy Reagan could intercept some passes playing behind the Cowboy front four, although Jones and Martin crashing from both ends and White from the inside often make quarterbacks act as though what they are holding is a live grenade rather than a football.
They throw and duck in the same motion.
"But I do think that if a quarterback was to complete a pass on me now," Walls says, "it would be because of the weakness of the defense. I'm comfortable back there now. Other times (earlier) I was getting beat in the strength of the defense."
The greater the corners become the less attention they tend to receive. They establish their reputations with a Walls-like burst of interceptions. That gains the respect of quarterbacks, who then usually look elsewhere for defensive pigeons.
Which means that in many cases the cornerback with the most interceptions actually is not as good as his statistics suggest. Often, a teammate is better and thus ignored.
Lately, Walls seems to have gained respect.
"Last week, the Lions only threw about seven balls near me," he said. "The four-game stretch before that they were averaging about 15 balls a game."
Walls is confident enough to have expected NFL success sometime, even though every NFL team failed to draft him despite 11 interceptions in 11 games for Grambling last season. The Cowboys almost could have called him without using a telephone, so close is his Dallas home to their training facility. He still lives with his mother and usually goes home for lunch.
"Growing up," he said, "I'd come by and watch practice sometimes. I'd come home from track practice with a friend who had a car, and we'd park it outside the (walled-off) field. I'd stand on the hood and look inside."
Mel Renfro and Cornell Green were his cornerback heroes, the reasons he signed with Dallas before scouts from Buffalo and New Orleans had a chance to offer free-agent contracts after the '81 draft.
"Always had Cowboy blood in me," he said.
Cowboy blood or not, it sometimes boiled at the wrong times and the wrong places in his youth. His reputation as a rebel and malcontent was not undeserved, Walls has admitted. Possibly, that is why Grambling was the only football factory that offered him a scholarship.
"He's got the temperament for the position," said Gil Brandt, the Cowboy vice president for personnel. "He's cocky, smart, aggressive. You could very easily grow to dislike Everson. After that Monday night game (against the Patriots), for example, he was saying how he didn't think Cavanaugh threw with a lot of velocity and that (Steve) Grogan could have done better.
"Two years from now, I don't think he'll be making those statements. Just like in high school, you do things you don't do two years from then."
Scout John Wooten spotted Walls in an all-star game last year.
"One of those players who kept drawing your attention to him," he said. Walls was similar to the Redskins' Joe Jacoby, an obvious prospect to some scouts but assumed not good enough to be drafted. Like Jacoby, Walls has been valuable much sooner than expected.
Walls and free safety Downs are rookie free-agent finds from Dallas. Right corner Thurman is a converted safety judged good enough for regular Aaron Mitchell to be traded before the season. Only safety Charlie Waters had experience at his position before the season began.
The Cowboys' defense has been spectacular, if hardly consistent, intercepting 28 passes, recovering 11 fumbles and sacking quarterbacks 33 times in 11 games. Dutton is injured and considered doubtful Sunday against the Redskins here.
Except for two ill-advised passes that were intercepted, Joe Theismann threw well against Dallas in the opener at RFK Stadium. Walls grabbed one of them, that across-the-body, almost-impossible-to-complete prayer from just inside the Cowboy 30.
In truth, it was a tough pass not to catch for Walls, who was playing only in five-back situations then. It got Washington's attention. Three more interceptions in the next three games and he became a starter. He still is not a rhinestone Cowboy yet, but cards, letters and offers over the phone are coming his way.
"Maybe three letters a day," he said.
Walls figured fame and fortune should have come sooner. After all, he has averaged nearly an interception a game since his senior year in high school. So that is an overrated stat, Walls huffs. Again and again, he shows us it does mean something.