Over the years I've found that Darren Woodson's cellphone number comes in handy when I'm about to write a column overreacting to something going on with the Dallas Cowboys' secondary. I used to call Woodson to find out what was wrong with his former teammate and friend, Roy Williams. You might recall that Williams' once red-hot career quickly lost steam about the time Woodson retired in '04 because of a back injury.
The Cowboys spent years in the safety wilderness following Woodson's departure, and that's why I'm a bit surprised they seem so comfortable heading into the 2010 season with the largely unproven Alan Ball penciled in at free safety. When you've been held hostage by a position for years at a time, it seems like you would be leery of winging it with a former cornerback who's started all of four games in his three years in the league. Since Woodson tends to be a bit more level-headed than the NFC East blog, I asked him if he was as calm as the Cowboys appear to be about Ball being the starter.
"They have to be nervous about Alan Ball starting at safety," Woodson said Thursday afternoon. "He's a cornerback playing safety. He has a cover mentality, and that's apparently what they want. They want a ballhawk back there."
And no matter where you stand on the Alan Ball era in North Texas, it's probably a little early to refer to him as a ballhawk. He's still waiting on his first career interception and he has four pass breakups on his limited resume. There's also the little issue about him still looking like a cornerback at 6-feet-1, 190 pounds, which is about five pounds heavier than where he left off last season.
Cowboys head coach/pacifist Wade Phillips has been complimentary of Ball the past few weeks. I've looked hard for worry on his face, but he has yet to change facial expressions in his three years with the club. In this case, I'll let Woodson do the worrying.
"The problem you have is in the running game," said Woodson. "If you have a strong runner who gets to the second level, is Alan Ball going to make a play for you? That's the question mark in my mind. If he has to cover the tight end or a slot receiver one on one, I think he'll be fine."
Some of you might recall that Woodson made his reputation as one of the fiercest hitters in the league. You can almost hear his stomach turning when he talks about how current players in the Cowboys' secondary try to "cut" ballcarriers. Former Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, now with the Bengals, was adamant that tackling below the waist often allowed runners to gain three or four extra yards. He even tried to convince Deion Sanders to hit a running back high every now and then.
As Woodson noted, the Cowboys don't exactly have the surest tacklers lining up in the secondary. Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins are both solid coverage guys, but I'm not sure receivers fear going across the middle. And have you ever seen a receiver alligator-arm a pass when Gerald Sensabaugh's in the area? At least there was fear of a late hit when Ken Hamlin was on the field.
"If you wanted to play for Jimmy Johnson, you better be a sure tackler," Woodson said. "If you missed a tackle, that's your [butt]."
Phillips had a little different take on the situation last week when asked about Ball's lack of size. He can't really envision open-field tackles being a concern for the fourth-year player.
"His tackling and stuff, in the ballgames, because of his size, is really the only drawback on him," Phillips said. "I think he's going to be a really good free safety-type guy. Our free safety wasn't involved in a lot of the tackling, anyway."
I'd hate to remind Phillips of a certain play in Denver last season when Brandon Marshall caught a pass and then made like Earl Campbell on his way to the end zone. It's interesting that the Cowboys may have some of the surest tacklers in the league at inside linebacker. Bradie James and Keith Brooking don't often miss. But if a running back is fortunate enough to reach the second level, it's not as if Cliff Harris will be roaming around.
On Monday, I dropped by the Cowboys' organized team activities to visit with Ball's position coach, Brett Maxie, who played 13 years in the league and was an excellent free safety with the Saints. Maxie's a straight-shooter who doesn't praise a guy if he doesn't have some ability. I asked him if he'd noticed anything different about Ball this offseason.
"It's inevitable that when your role changes, you become that much more aware," Maxie said of Ball's promotion to starter. "He's gone from being a situational player to an every-down player. You can just see it in the way he carries himself on the field. He's talking to guys and he's making adjustments and corrections on the field."
To be clear, the Cowboys haven't promised Ball anything. They love second-year safety Mike Hamlin's potential, but he's basically starting over after breaking his forearm in the '09 preseason. For all we know, Ball might be an excellent fit at free safety.
But the Cowboys have been down this road before with unproven players at that position. And that's why it's a little unsettling they're willing to roll the dice again.