By: Chad Wilson – All Eyes DB Camp
I am kicking off a new series here on All Eyes DB Camp where I talk about some of the best secondaries in NFL history. Like Know Your DB History and Dynamic Duos, this series is designed to teach you the history of secondary play as I think it is important to know these things if you are trying to reach your full potential. Knowing history can put you on a straighter path to your future.
Kicking off this new series “Boss Units” is none other than the 1981 Dallas Cowboys. No other secondary in the modern era of pro football turned the ball over like this unit did in 1981. As a whole defense, the Cowboys intercepted 37 passes. 30 of those 37 interceptions came from the four starting members of their defensive secondary. That is an extra-ordinary number. What’s even more extra-ordinary is that none of the four members of this pick making party was a first round pick. Let’s take a look at the make up of this boss unit.
CB – Everson Walls
Walls led the unit and the NFL in 1981 with 11 interceptions. What’s crazy about that is that Walls was a rookie that year. Doubling down on the crazy is that Everson Walls was an undrafted rookie in a year when the NFL had 12 rounds in their draft. In 1981, NFL teams chose 332 players from college football and none of them were Walls. The Cowboys themselves picked 12 players including three defensive backs but none of them were greater than the free agent out of Grambling St. The 11 interceptions were no fluke either. Walls would intercept 7 passes the following year during a strike shortened season in which he only played nine games. In his career, Walls would intercept 5 or more passes in a season 5 times. He would also intercept a total of 57 balls in his career which ends up being more than the first defensive back taken in that 1981 draft Kenny Easley.
CB – Dennis Thurman
Thurman was in his 4th season with the Cowboys and was second on the team with 9 interceptions (career high). Unlike Walls, Thurman was not an undrafted free agent when he came out of college at USC. However, he wasn’t that much more highly regarded. The Cowboys selected Thurman in the 11th round, number 306 overall in 1978. That made no difference to Thurman who was playing in his first year as a starting cornerback for Dallas. Previously, Thurman had played both strong and free safety. The moves proved to be the right one as it produced Thurman’s best year as a pro. All told, Thurman had five seasons of five interceptions or more and logged a total of 36 career interceptions. After his playing days he went on to have a long coaching career in the NFL and coached greats like Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Stephon Gilmore.
FS – Michael Downs
How’s this for crazy? Michael Downs was also a rookie in the Cowboys’ secondary in 1981. Guess what round he was selected in? He wasn’t. Like Walls, Downs was undrafted out of Rice in 1981. Though he was 6’3″ 205 lbs., Downs played his senior year at Rice with a pinched nerve in his neck which affected his play. He was given a reputation as a non aggressive player so no one selected him in the ’81 draft. Downs won the free safety job in training camp and proceeded to aggressively intercept 7 passes for Dallas that year. Now it’s not often that you can intercept 7 passes in a season and be the third leading pass picker on your team but this boss unit was like that. Downs also had a stellar career intercepting five passes or more three times and totaling 35 by the time his career came to an end in 1989.
SS – Charlie Waters
Waters was the old man in this group of youngsters. He was also the highest drafted player in that 1981 secondary. Waters was in his 12th and final season in 1981 after being drafted in the 3rd round of the 1970 draft out of Clemson. Waters was the low man in the secondary with three interceptions that year but he was the general that allowed the other three to thrive. In his 12 seasons with the Cowboys, Waters never had a losing season and missed the playoffs only once. He played in five Super Bowls and won two. He is the NFL all time leader in playoff interceptions with 9 and in total, he intercepted 41 passes in his long stellar career. Waters went into coaching and broadcasting after his career and was considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame though he did not make it in.
The 1981 Cowboys made it to the NFC Championship game and played the San Francisco 49ers on the road at Candlestick Park. It was one of the great games in NFL history and it ended with a play termed “the catch”. Late in the 4th quarter with 51 seconds left, Joe Montana rolled out on 3rd and 3 from the 8 yard line and hit Dwight Clark with a pass in the back of the end zone. The touchdown would give the 49ers a 28-27 victory and effectively launch their dynasty in the 80’s as they would go on to win four Super Bowls during that time (81, 84, 88 & 89).
You have to be amazed at the performance of these lightly regarded NFL draft players and the coaches who developed them. The defensive back coach for the Dallas Cowboys in 1981 was Gene Stallings who would eventually become a national championship head coach for the Alabama Crimson Tide in 1992. The defensive coordinator for the Cowboys that year was Ernie Stautner who was the DC for the Cowboys from 1973 to 1988 and oversaw some of the best years of Cowboys defense in their history. Now that’s what you call a Boss Unit.