The Dallas Cowboys have Super Bowl aspirations in 2019. And rightfully so.
The Cowboys believe they have a Top 5 defense, the best running back in the NFL and a quarterback who doesn’t make mistakes. Sound familiar? That’s the formula that won the Cowboys their first NFL championship of the Jerry Jones era in 1992.
Jones is hoping history can repeat itself with DeMarcus Lawrence becoming the Charles Haley of the 2019 Cowboys, Amari Cooper becoming the Michael Irvin, Ezekiel Elliott the Emmitt Smith and Dak Prescott the Troy Aikman. Lawrence, Cooper, Elliott and Prescott have all been Pro Bowlers. But the players they hope to emulate were all Hall of Famers.
What the Cowboys really need, though, is another James Washington.
Washington does not have a bust in Canton. He is not in the Dallas Ring of Honor nor did he go to a Pro Bowl in is any of his five seasons with the Cowboys.
But when Dallas needed a play on defense, Washington delivered. And that’s what the 2019 Cowboys need if they are to advance to their first NFC title game since the James Washington era – some defensive plays.
The Cowboys give up yards grudgingly. They finished seventh in yards allowed in the NFL last season – fifth against the run and 13th against the pass. They added size and speed up front during the offseason, drafting 310-pound tackle Trysten Hill out of Central Florida in the second round and trading for veteran Pro Bowl edge rusher Robert Quinn. Dallas anticipates a shut-down defense this season.
But what the Cowboys need is a defense that can get off the field before fourth downs. The Cowboys can tackle. They just can’t take the ball away from offenses. They finished 16th in the NFL in takeaways last season with 20 and 26th in interceptions with nine. The 2018 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots forced 28 turnovers and intercepted 18 passes. The 2017 Super Bowl champs the Philadelphia Eagles forced 30 turnovers and intercepted 19 passes.
Which brings us back to Washington. The Cowboys signed him in Plan B free agency in 1990 and in his five seasons as a starter, he intercepted 14 passes and recovered six fumbles. Washington led the team with three interceptions in 1992 and again with five in 1994. Granted, three doesn’t sound like many interceptions to lead a team in a single season – but in three of the last four years the leading Dallas interceptor had only two.
Washington added four more career takeaways in the post-season. In the 1992 playoffs, he intercepted Steve Young in the NFC title game and Jim Kelly in the Super Bowl. In the 1993 playoffs, he would have been a more deserving Super Bowl MVP than Emmitt Smith.
With the Cowboys trailing Buffalo 13-6 at halftime of that Super Bowl, the underdog Bills took the opening possession hoping to expand their lead. But Washington scooped up a Thurman Thomas fumble and raced 46 yards for a game-tying touchdown.
Then in the fourth quarter, with the Bills trailing 20-13 and hoping to mount a game-tying drive, Washington intercepted Kelly on the first play at midfield, setting up another Smith touchdown for an insurmountable 14-point lead on the way to a 30-13 victory.
Notice anything about those four post-season takeaways by Washington? All came at the expense of Hall of Famers. It didn’t matter whom Dallas was playing, when the Cowboys needed a play, Washington stepped up and gave it to them.
The Cowboys play Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers this season. They need interceptions and takeaways against the Hall of Famers and non-Hall of Famers alike if Dallas is to snap its 23-year championship drought. Takeaways were a key element of the Jimmy Johnson era Cowboys. During that four-year window from 1992-95, when Dallas won three Super Bowls, they had two 31-takeaway seasons and a 22-interception season.
The Cowboys have the offensive playmakers to reach the Super Bowl. But they are going to need a defensive playmaker as well. Every team can use a James Washington...especially the 2019 Cowboys.