Captain Crash – Cliff Harris – Other Dallas Cowboys Speak
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DALLAS – “There’s a reason why those other teams, when they would point to the middle linebacker, they’d all come up and say, ‘There’s 43. Look out for that guy,” recalled Charlie Waters.
Cliff Harris, number 43, played 10 seasons, all with the Dallas Cowboys, at free safety from 1970-79. He recorded 29 interceptions, one which he returned for a touchdown in 1975, and defended 60 passes along with recovering 18 fumbles.
Perhaps what made Harris notorious was his hard-hitting, knockout play for which there were no official statistics. According to Waters, who played
in the Cowboys defensive backfield with Harris from 1970-81, the two had a “mystery stat” of how many times Harris knocked out the best opposing player Dallas head coach Tom Landry said the defense had to key on that particular week.
“We went through it and Cliff’s record was seven games in a row where he would knock out the one player that Coach Landry would put in the game plan and we would have to pay attention and neutralize this player,” Waters said. “Well, Cliff would do a little bit more than neutralize them. He would put them into another zip code.”
Waters, who joined the Cowboys in 1970 as a third-round draft pick out of Clemson, played in the backfield with Harris and the two became fast friends off the football field.
“They were like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” said Randy White. “Them two were like stuck together.”
“Crash” — it was a nickname linebacker Dave Edwards gave to the undrafted rookie defensive back out of Ouachita Baptist University in southwestern
Arkansas. The 21-year-old mathematics major hit everything that moved and was fiercely competitive. These were the traits that attracted him to eight-year veteran linebacker Lee Roy Jordan.
“He was just such a great teammate,” Jordan said. “I loved going to practice every day just to check out Cliff and see what he was doing. I knew he was going to competing against someone on every play.”
Competition wasn’t the only quality instilled in a Landry-coached team; so was analysis and ruminating on game film.
Said Jordan: “I think that was inbred in Cliff the first day he got to training camp with the Cowboys. He was such a fierce competitor. And I adopted him immediately because I thought he showed the same tendencies I had when it came to the Cowboys.”
In addition to being a tremendous competitor and intelligent football player, Harris was a gifted athlete first, and this is what caught Gil Brandt’s eye when watching tape of Ouachita Baptist and noticing Harris’ athleticism returning kicks.
“The thing about Cliff was that he was a great, great athlete,” said the former Vice President of Player Personnel for the Cowboys from 1960-88.
Said Brandt: “We didn’t see him in person but we saw him running back kicks and we called his coach, Buddy Benson, and said, ‘Who is this guy?’ And he said, ‘That’s Cliff Harris.’ And, so, with that said, we urged more film from Benson. The head coach was very cooperative. And we got that. We got all the tape or film that we needed and we immediately as soon as the draft was over, we signed him. And he came to training camp.”
The kid from Ouachita Baptist caught the attention of secondary coach Gene Stallings. Brandt knew Harris was physically talented, but it was up to the staff how they would utilize him in the defensive backfield, unsure if he was a corner or a safety.
“Stallings made that decision to move him from corner and mainly because he was such a good tackler and was really good against he run,” said Brandt.
Harris played 11 games in 1970 and split some time with Waters at free safety with Harris starting in five games. The club would go all the way to Super Bowl V in Miami but fall to the Baltimore Colts 16-13. The following season Harris took over the free safety spot and Waters was relegated to token defensive back with Hall-of-Famers Mel Renfro and Herb Adderley locking down the cornerback spots and Cornell Green securing the strong safety position.
“Let’s just establish the fact that you could not play for Tom Landry unless you dedicated as much to the game mentally as you did physically,” Waters explained. “And it was a must. And he encouraged us the more you know about offenses the better defensive player you’re going to be. And in our instructions, as far as how to execute a defensive plan, there’s a lot of details that were broken down.”
Harris was the quarterback of the Flex Defense’s secondary. He knew where his teammates were supposed to be on every play.
“At the free safety spot, you had to be in tune with the middle linebacker and both corners and all of the team members,” said Renfro, who played safety for Dallas from 1967-69 before transitioning to right cornerback. “So, Cliff had to learn the positions, their responsibilities, their technique, and how to react. So, Cliff had a big job and he filled it well.”
Said Jordan: “He studied and was knowledgeable about all the position and was able to help other players to make sure they were in right positions on defense too. He was a very studious guy as far as the game was concerned.”
“Defensive backs had to understand what the run philosophy was,” White elaborated. “They also had to understand because they were either going to be a contain man or a cutback guy when they were running the plays around the end. You always had three guys at the point of attack. And one guy always had to contain.”
In addition to knowing his responsibilities and his teammates around him, Harris also spent considerable time analyzing opposing quarterbacks, both on film and off the field.
“That’s what I did,” Harris explained. “My job was to understand quarterbacks, not only the percentages of where they threw and how they threw, but how they thought and how their psychology was, how you beat them mentally.
“How do you understand them as a person? What are they really after? Are they really after the glory of winning the game by throwing the long pass like Tony Romo or like throwing the long pass and being a winner, or a strategic quarterback that throws, analyzes the defenses and threads their way down the field?”
Harris used the Pro Bowl as another scouting tool to get inside the head of opposing quarterbacks, though, according to Waters, he didn’t like spending too much time with opposing players because he would start to like them, something Harris felt would take the edge off of his game. It didn’t. If anything, it improved the trash talking because now it was between colleagues and not divisional enemies. Enter St. Louis Cardinals quarterback Jim Hart.
“He’d say, ‘Cliff I got you one time.’ He remembers the very play the guy took off. And I loved to play against him. I told him one time. I yelled out in the middle of the game: ‘Hart, I can read your mind!’ And he just laughed.”
Harris doesn’t recall what made him blurt that out in the middle of an NFC East showdown, but he does remember that 100 percent of his game was beating the quarterback and offensive coordinator, who was drawing up plays to specifically beat him.
The most classic example of Harris knowing an opposing quarterback was Super Bowl XII against the Denver Broncos, who were quarterbacked by Craig Morton, a Dallas field general during Harris’ tenure from 1970-74.
“We crushed Denver,” Harris said. “And that was a great example of me knowing and understanding the quarterback, Morton. I knew him backwards and forwards. I knew what to expect from him and he played right into my hand.”
Morton went 4-for-15 for 39 yards and four interceptions while being sacked twice. Morton was replaced by Norris Weese midway through the third quarter and was equally dismal going 4-for-10 for 22 yards and also getting sacked twice as Dallas prevailed 27-10 in the first prime time Super Bowl and indoor version at the Superdome.
But Harris feels the reputation of “Crash” has overshadowed if not buried the cerebral part of his game. The media later altered the nickname to “Captain Crash,” which dumped more strata on top of outsiders perceiving his cerebral approach to football.
“It was kind of an inside word, a nickname, Dave Edwards used,” Harris recalled. “He called Charlie Waters ‘Bucket,’ like a water bucket. Walt’s name was ‘Puddin.” ‘Captain Crash’ hurts me more than it helps me.”
Waters saw firsthand the punishment Harris at 187 pounds and standing 6’1” served on opposing receivers coming over the middle of the field.
“Cliff, for the amount of weight he carried, he established respect for himself and he would knock the crap out of you. He hit you as hard as he possibly could. I don’t know if he would be playing today. I really don’t know if he would be allowed to play.”
Before the snap of the ball, Waters, along with opposing quarterbacks and receivers, wanted to know where 43 was. In Waters’ case, it was so he wouldn’t suffer any “collateral damage.”
“I suffered from collateral damage on several plays when he would blow somebody up and I happened to be in the vicinity, probably get knocked out or break an arm or something like that,” Waters recalled.
Though Harris flew around the field seeking offensive targets to destroy, there was a rationale behind the collisions.
Said Harris: “Think about the logic behind, and I think which is going to make an impact more on a receiver coming down the field? If you go up and intercept the ball in front of him or if you knock him out on a play. If you knock that guy out on the play, that’s going to carry on the rest of his career with you.
“If you play him as we did over the years, team after team after team, and when you would knock out a player going for an interception, then that player would go, ‘I’m not going to go there anymore.’ And the impact on that was very effective because the coaches, the offensive coordinators, would know their players wouldn’t want to go into that area and so they would refine their game plan and do outside routes or deep routes or fade routes.”
Being a math major, Harris knew precisely where to hit opposing players.
“He used to tell me he would calculate the trajectory of where players were going to be and he would aim for this collision point point assuming the
player would be there at that moment and he would explode on them,” said Waters. “And somebody would be carried off the field and most of the time it was the other guy.”
With Harris, staying a step ahead of the competition was his forte. When teams expected him to knock guys out over the middle, he would shock them and intercept the ball.
“I think that’s the best thing you can do as a free safety not knowing not being predictable and out-guessing and playing a chess game with the quarterback and offensive coordinator up in the booth,” said Harris.
Like Vizzini, played by Wallace Shawn, in The Princess Bride in the famous poisoned goblet scene where Vizzini has to deduce which cup was poisoned by Westley, played by Cary Elwes, Harris would go back and forth, mulling over a myriad of options in pregame preparation to the point it drove Waters crazy.
“He got to the point where he would analyze a lot of stuff,” Waters said.
Though known as “Captain Crash” in the media, to Waters, the nickname “Worry Wart” would have suit him better.
Said Waters: “He would analyze everything to the point where I would say, ‘Okay, Cliff, stop! You just need to stop right there because we don’t need anything other than this point. We don’t need to go further than this.’ Because he would look into it so in-depth into this computer spit out report that like a big, massive encyclopedia every week that was telltale.”
The Cowboys had computerized printouts of all of their opponents going back the six previous games the opponent played as well as six previous games Dallas had played against that opponent. These 14-by-18-inch books on continuous stationery enabled Harris’ tendency to over analyze.
The biggest example was Super Bowl XIII, a rematch with the Pittsburgh Steelers that would decide who would have the most Super Bowl wins at the time with three. Harris had two weeks to prepare for Terry Bradshaw and the Pittsburgh offense.
“We had a very complex game plan that I wish that we did not have today,” Harris reflected.
The game plan against Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw was to confuse him with pre-snap shifts and adjustments in the Cowboys secondary. The plan was to disguise coverages and rely on the Cowboys secondary to blanket all of Bradshaw’s options to where the then-three-time Super Bowl QB would take “coverage sacks,” knockdowns caused by the passer holding the ball too long and the pressure eventually arriving. Instead, Bradshaw torched Dallas corners 11-for-18 for 243 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception. Pittsburgh led 21-14 at halftime.
Said Harris: “In the middle of the game, I said, ‘Let’s go back to basics. Let’s play basic defenses against these guys.'”
In the second half, Bradshaw went 6-for-12 for 75 yards and a touchdown. But his first half performance was enough to win him the Super Bowl MVP and the Steelers their fourth Big Game win 35-31.
Waters and Harris both believe the reason Bradshaw was the perfect antidote to the Cowboys defense was because the Louisiana Tech product allegedly didn’t read any defenses.
“Terry Bradshaw was a guy that it didn’t matter if you fooled him on the defense or not,” Harris said. “And he would throw into the strength of the
defense. I saw him do it time after time. He beat it with his strong arm and hammering it in there. There were times he threw right into the strength of our defense. And there were times, so many times, he would hit the weakness of the defense and I don’t think it was because of reading.
“Because I asked him one time, I said, ‘Terry, who do you key? Do you key me or do you key Lee Roy or do you key Charlie? Who do you key on it?’ He said, ‘I don’t key any of you guys. I look out there at at Lenny, if he’s covered, I go with Stallworth. If he’s covered, I throw it out to Rocky.’ That’s what he did.”
Said Waters: “Cliff and I just looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, my God. Here we are with all of these plans all these clever ideas and he just doesn’t even realize it.”
The two losses to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII are chief reasons why Cliff Harris is among a handful of ’70s Cowboys, including
receiver Drew Pearson and defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones, who are not in the Hall of Fame.
“I think had we won one of those two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers Cliff would be in the Hall of Fame,” said White, a class of ’94 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Pittsburgh got a lot of guys in there and just because they won both of those games. That had a lot to do with it. Cliff obviously has the credentials to be a Pro Football Hall of Fame guy.”
Harris is one of nine players, excluding special teamers, from the NFL 1970’s All-Decade Team to not be in the Hall of Fame. Harris also joins Pearson and teammate defensive end Harvey Martin as the only Super Bowl winners from that team to not be inducted in the Hall of Fame.
In comparison to contemporaries Larry Wilson of the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington and the Oilers’ Ken Houston, Harris had six Pro Bowls to Wilson’s 12 and Houston’s eight; four first-team All Pros to Wilson’s eight and Houston’s two; 29 interceptions to Wilson’s 52 and Houston’s 49.
“Not enough stats,” Renfro concluded. “He needed a few more interceptions, a few more tackles, a few more Pro Bowls. He’s capable. He was as good as some of the DB’s that are in the Hall of Fame but he just doesn’t have the numbers.”
Harris didn’t have the regular season numbers of Houston and Wilson, but he certainly had the postseason credentials. Harris played in 21 postseason games compared to Houston’s five and Wilson’s zero. To this day, Harris is tied for the 10th-most postseason interceptions in NFL playoff history with six. Harris is also tied with the most fumbles recovered by a defensive player in postseason history with four.
And perhaps the most telling of all his accolades is his two Super Bowl victories with the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI and XII. Only Roger Staubach, Ralph Neely, John Fitzgerald, Rayfield Wright, Larry Cole, Jethro Pugh, D.D. Lewis, Mark Washington, Mel Renfro, and Charlie Waters as the only ’70s Cowboys to win two Super Bowls. He is one of four players on the 1970’s All-Decade Team to have won multiple Super Bowls and still not make it into the hallowed halls in Canton, Ohio.
“I am so disappointed that he got to the threshold where he got and then didn’t get in,” Brandt said of Harris’ stalling out in the Finalist stage of induction in 2004. “And in my estimation, it was a case of Cowboy bias. But I thought that Cliff deserved to be in.
“I think Cliff Harris is a Hall-of-Famer without any reservations whatsoever.”
“If an offensive team spends its time, when they get ready to play a defensive team and there’s one player on the defensive team that you want to try to avoid, then that one player on the defensive team is worthy of Hall of Fame recognition,” Waters said. “And that’s Cliff Harris.
When those offensive guys came to the line of scrimmage, they didn’t care where Mel Renfro was or some of the linemen or linebacker or even me. They all wanted to know where Cliff was. And that changed how offenses thought because nobody gets that kind of attention except for linebackers.”
Harris, age 68, doesn’t know when he will be up for the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions again. If he ever comes up for consideration as part of the Seniors Committee, he wants voters to know one thing:
“I think if you asked the quarterbacks what kind of player I was, I think they would say, ‘He was a real tough guy to read and understand and figure out. He was a competitor that knew how to understand my strengths and weaknesses and would use them against me to beat me.’ And that’s what I think I did best.
“It’s not really knocking receivers out or hitting. I think that I knew how to compete with guys, how to beat them at their own game, how to understand them well enough to know and anticipate what their next move was going to be and beat them to the punch.”