Ware looks for more in second season
After an up-and-down rookie campaign, LB DeMarcus Ware has worked hard this offseason to take his game to another level in 2006.
During a rookie season that was about as perplexing at times as it was productive, DeMarcus Ware let everyone else talk the talk because the Dallas Cowboys linebacker, the earlier of the team's two choices in the first round of the 2005 draft, usually was too inundated trying to, well, you know.
Quit crawling and get up, no matter how unsteadily, on his two feet.
As for Ware, he pretty much spoke when spoken to, or when he had a pressing question about a defensive scheme or any of the new techniques he was trying to assimilate at a totally foreign position. And for that whole walk-the-walk thing? Ware assessed last week that it was only a modest success, despite a debut season in which he started all 16 games, established a franchise record for the most sacks by a rookie linebacker and recorded the second-most sacks by a first-year Cowboys defender at any position.
"Well, I managed to get one foot in front of the other, I guess, but I've still got a ways to go yet until I'm really up to speed," said Ware, the 11th player chosen overall in the 2005 draft and the first linebacker off the board, one slot ahead of Merriman, who was taken by San Diego. "It wasn't until the very end of the season before things started coming naturally to me. It's hard when stuff you're trying to do isn't second nature, where almost every move, you're thinking, 'OK, what now? What do I have to do to keep from messing this up?' Already this year, just in the minicamps and stuff, I feel so much quicker. And that's a result of being more confident and knowing what I'm doing. So, yeah, it's time to start walking the walk, and to be a lot more consistent, too."
Especially in rushing the passer.
Ware, 23, was destined, it seemed, to play in Dallas. Or, at least, to be a cowboy of some sort, maybe with a capital "C." When he was a child, his mother, Brenda, bought him a pair of cowboy boots that were a few sizes too big, with plenty of room for him to fill out eventually. The footwear earned him the nickname "Boot" from his mom. Ware then proceeded, in several sports, to boot his opponents all over the field.
In football, he first played wide receiver, then added linebacker, then defensive end, where he terrorized quarterbacks. Possessed of superb natural athletic skills thanks to his gene pool -- his mother was a track star at Auburn (Ala.) High School and played on the boys' varsity baseball team -- it seems Ware also was destined to become an elite pass rusher.
As a defensive end at Division I-A Troy, Ware was a fierce speed rusher, recording 25½ sacks in his final three seasons and displaying tremendous explosiveness off the edge of the defense. His rare ability to compress the pocket, his dynamic closing speed and the eye-opening auditions for scouts in the weeks that preceded the '05 lottery catapulted him up most draft boards.
"You couldn't ignore that twitch he had coming off the ball," said Jeff Ireland, the Cowboys' vice president of college and pro scouting. "He's got a suddenness to him. He just shoots out of the blocks."
That special brand of quickness netted Ware eight sacks in 2005, and Merriman -- who had 10 sacks and won defensive rookie of the year honors -- was the only first-year player with more. Ware registered 65 tackles, seventh-most among all NFL rookie linebackers in 2005 and fourth-best among rookie outside linebackers. Yet his maiden season, to Ware, was a little like a doughnut, with a conspicuous hole in the middle.
Of his eight sacks, four came in his first six games, then Ware went a frustrating eight contests without a quarterback takedown. The discouraging drought ended after Ware watched a videotape of former star Kansas City sacker Derrick Thomas, and when Dallas owner Jerry Jones challenged Ware to show critics he was the equal of Merriman and he responded with a three-sack performance against Carolina on Christmas Eve. Ware added another sack in the season finale, giving him four in his final two outings.
Ware learned a lot about himself, he said, in the last two games of the season. But he learned even more, he acknowledged, during the eight-week stretch with zero sacks.
"Rushing the quarterback, putting a guy on his back, it's what everybody wants to do, and it was a skill that I always seemed to have," Ware said. "But at this level, you aren't going to beat the tackles off the edge with just speed alone. I mean, don't get me wrong, speed is a great starting point. But the good tackles are going to stone you if that's all you've got in the [arsenal]. And during those eight weeks without a sack, that's exactly what happened to me. Guys caught up to me. They knew my game. I didn't have a lot of stuff to counter with. Basically, it told me, 'DeMarcus, you've got to take it up a notch or two because doing the same stuff that got you by in college isn't going to cut it.' So I've spent a lot of time this offseason trying to refine some new moves."
In addition to watching video of Thomas, he has devoted hours to scrutinizing the peerless countermoves of Indianapolis standout right end Dwight Freeney, a relentless pass rusher who regularly beats double- and even triple-team blocking, frequently with his trademark spin technique. Ware also has pored over tapes of star Tampa Bay rusher Simeon Rice, who arguably uses his hands better than any end in the league. Last month, in an effort to improve his hand speed and upgrade the quickness with which he takes on tackles and redirects them, before disengaging, Ware began karate classes.
He feels that, with the fresh techniques gained even with his brief introduction to the martial arts, he will be better able to slap away tackles' hands. Ware isn't yet into chopping wooden boards in half or dissecting cinder blocks, but he is confident his new skill set will help him break into backfields more easily. "I know it's called football," Ware said, "but hands are just so important to your success."
So is handling the mental part of the game, and even Ware's teammates suggested in recent weeks that his recognition skills have improved dramatically. Ware conceded that, a year ago, his head was spinning with all the adjustments for which he was responsible and that he had problems identifying what the opposition offenses were planning when they used motion. There were plenty of occasions, he allowed, when he was uncertain whether he was supposed to rush the passer or drop off into coverage.
The latter technique was one that was totally anathema to him because he always had played moving forward at Troy and never had to play in reverse. How difficult was it for Ware to drop into the flat zone or patrol the short hook area? He was credited with just one pass defensed in 16 games.
"You can sense he's got a better feel for it [this spring]," veteran linebacker Al Singleton said. "DeMarcus is always going to be thought of as a pass rusher first. But he wants to be a great player, and that means being able to do everything, even the little stuff, well."
A player who displays almost no pretense -- he sports no tattoos, no earrings and very little bling -- Ware is a defender poised to turn mastery of the little stuff into a big-time career. He has been able to keep his weight at 260 pounds, after battling at times to maintain bulk as a rookie, and has not sacrificed any of his quickness to the ball. So maybe, in his second season, Ware will walk the walk. Even if he isn't quite ready yet to talk the talk.
Well-spoken, thoughtful and engaging on a variety of topics, Ware is wary of making predictions about his football future. He prefers reading offensive formations to reading tea leaves and assigns the crystal ball deciphering to teammates, many of whom are anxious to take up the task.
"He's got special skills, no doubt, and they just keep growing," said second-year defensive end Marcus Spears, the Cowboys' other first-round choice in 2005 and a close friend. "He's the kind of guy who lets his play do the talking for him, and it sure looks like he's ready for a big season."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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