DALLAS -- Defense wins championships and championship teams sometimes lose defensive coordinators. Dave Wannstedt currently leads Dallas Cowboys assistant coaches in titles with three and hopes not to leave without first securing a fourth -- as Super Bowl winners.
This has all been discussed by the two football coaches who stick cigars in their mouths before leaving work at least once each week of the season. Wannstedt, who is one of the top head coaching prospects in the NFL, and offensive line coach Tony Wise take long walks around the team practice complex to reduce the stress and pressure of their occupations.
"I need those to neutralize my mind," said Wannstedt, who has emerged as a candidate for the New York Giants head coaching position. "They give me balance."
Wannstedt and Wise reflect the close bond between Jimmy Johnson's coaches, most of whom accompany the boss on daily jogs through the neighborhood that surrounds the team's practice facility and office complex.
Wannstedt is Johnson's assistant head coach, the defensive coordinator and linebacker coach. He also is Johnson's top adviser, his closest personal friend and the coach who turned limited talent into the NFL's top-ranked defense this season, the first time the Cowboys have finished there since their last world championship.
He also happens to represent the most unspeakable subject at Valley Ranch. The kind best left for cigar walks. Wannstedt has made himself a candidate to become a head coach, a possibility that when realized could dismember perhaps the closest group of coaches in the NFL.
The playoffs are important to all Cowboys assistant coaches, some of whom could as much as double their salaries with post-season checks. But the playoffs are doubly important to Wannstedt because of his ambition to one day have his own team, a promotion that could lead to advancement opportunities for Wise and defensive line coach Butch Davis, a hopeful defensive coordinator. It also could send shock waves through the Cowboys' infrastructure.
"If they're second to anybody, it's a split-hair second to the Redskins staff," said Philadelphia Eagles scout John Wooten, a former Cowboys personnel director for Johnson. "They have a tremendous group of teachers there, people who motivate and do a fantastic job. I honestly believe Wannstedt would have done the same job for the Steelers as Bill Cowher.
"Unless [Giants general manager] George Young has already made up his mind, he'll have a hot hand for the Giants. You're getting a guy who knows your top competitor inside out. If I'm the Giants, I don't hesitate to make this guy a contender.
"I think if Butch stays with Jimmy and becomes the defensive coordinator, Jimmy is covered," continued Wooten. "If he lost both of them, I think they'd be damaged. If they lost Dave, Butch and Tony, it would knock them back a little bit."
Johnson seems prepared with contingency options. He might consider Davis as defensive coordinator, make special-teams coach Joe Avezzano the offensive line coach and perhaps use Steve Hoffman or Bill Bates in a special teams capacity.
Still, the whole scenario prompts discomfort.
"We've got a good thing going, and we're different from other staffs, because there are no egos with this bunch," Wise said. "Some groups might think with Dave being a high-profile assistant, everybody knows he's going, and they're thinking, 'Good riddance,' when he goes. Around here, none of the other guys on the staff want him to leave. That's the reason nobody wants to talk about it. The thing is, we have yet to lose a guy. We believe that is one of Washington's strengths is that their coaching staff, for whatever reason, has remained in place."
Which is one reason Wannstedt has made the Giants' short list of prospective replacements for the fired Ray Handley. It appears, after all, the Giants must primarily compete with two teams for the NFC East championship: the Cowboys and Washington Redskins.
Wannstedt may know more about the Cowboys than Jerry Jones, and he has owned the Redskins almost as much as Jack Kent Cooke. Furthermore, the Giants have defensive problems Wannstedt might be able to correct.
Cowher's success in leading the Steelers to the AFC Central title as a rookie and Mike Holmgren's strong performance in making the Green Bay Packers contenders should help. Both of them were coordinators without head-coaching experience.
The only thing that could benefit the Cowboys is the lack of
openings and the fact Dan Reeves' dismissal from the Denver Broncos appears to drop Wannstedt a spot.
But Wannstedt interviewed twice last year with the Steelers, and the University of Pittsburgh pursued him last month. However, Wannstedt, who blocked there for freshman runner Tony Dorsett, chose to remain with the Cowboys despite the potential for a long-term contract and the possible financial windfall of $1.25 million, triple his current contract. For now, at least, he remains intently focused on the immediate future.