Ask any NFL quarterback who faced Dennis Thurman and he'll probably warn you to be careful around the Jets' new secondary coach.
While Thurman may have earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Southern California in 1978, he's displayed mastery of larceny throughout his NFL career as both a player and a coach.
And following one particular game in 1985, Thurman and the group of bandits he was running with at the time earned a sinister nickname. It was the season opener, which was played on Sept. 9 at Texas Stadium in front of a nationally televised Monday night audience, and the Dallas Cowboys were playing host to the Washington Redskins.
On that memorable evening, Thurman's crew decided that Redskins QB Joe Theismann, celebrating his 36th birthday, was going to turn over the presents.
"We ended up having five interceptions that game and took one back to the end zone. We had a great night and we blew out the Redskins," Thurman said. "Danny White gave us the name 'Thurman's Thieves' and it stuck. It became something we built on as a secondary, and the linebackers got involved and we had a lot of fun with it that year. If I'm not mistaken, I believe we ended up with 33 interceptions."
Thurman, a two-time All-America safety (1976-77) and a four-year letterman (1974-77) at Southern Cal, was an 11th-round pick of the Cowboys in 1978 after collecting 11 interceptions and four bowl victories. He played eight seasons with the 'Boys before finishing his pro playing career with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1986. He never missed a contest in his 137-game career and finished with 36 interceptions.
The Green Bay Packers made Thurman a marked man when they met up with the Cowboys in the 1982 postseason. Determined to stay away from Everson Walls, Packers quarterback Lynn Dickey was victimized by a three-theft Thurman holdup — one of which he returned for a touchdown — as Dallas captured a wild 37-26 contest.
"We were playing the Packers and they had two great receivers in James Lofton and John Jefferson, so the challenge was on myself and Everson Walls to go out and compete and play well against those two guys," he said. "Lofton had a pretty good game if I remember, but we held Jefferson to two catches."
After Thurman's seventh season, legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry called Thurman into his office and asked the defensive back if he ever considered coaching. Fearing the worst, a perplexed Thurman asked Landry is his days as a player were numbered.
"He said, 'No, what I'm saying is the way you prepare for games is like the way a coach does.' So he said just start thinking about it and he asked me if I wanted to go to training camp early and work with Gene Stallings and the defensive backs," Thurman said. "I accepted and went to camp and helped Coach Stallings with the young rookie defensive backs and I liked it."
Throwing the Rope Back
Later, after a two-year stint as Stallings' DB coach in Arizona from 1988-89, Thurman actually moved to Las Vegas and worked in security systems at the Mirage for a couple of years. But he got the coaching itch and was hired as the Ohio Glory's defensive coordinator before returning to his alma mater under John Robinson in January 1993.
Back in LA, Thurman, who once played in the Trojans secondary with Ronnie Lott, Dennis Smith and Eric Scoggins, wanted to return the SC backfield to a position of prominence. And he succeeded, tutoring the likes of Jason Sehorn, Brian Kelly, Daylon McCutcheon and Sammy Knight along the way.
"There were 10 defensive backs I had the opportunity to coach at USC who played three years or more in the National Football League during my eight years there, so I'm proud of that," he said. "Then I recruited Troy Polamalu and coached him for two years and we have a great friendship even today. In my time at USC, it was about throwing the rope back and helping others achieve what they wanted to achieve."
The Baltimore Ravens hired Thurman to coach their secondary from 2002-07. It was as if "Thurman's Thieves" came back to life as the Ravens led the NFL with 126 interceptions and 18 INTs returned for touchdowns during his B-more tenure. His students included super safety Ed Reed and corners Chris McAlister, Samari Rolle and Deion Sanders.
"We had some guys back there who were just natural playmakers. Other times you want to think that you can create or help a guy become a playmaker," he said. "But most of the time it is an innate ability to understand when to take the opportunity to go for an interception or to knock it down or when it's sound just to make the tackle and get the guy on the ground."
Earning Their Money
Familiar with Rex Ryan from their days together in Baltimore, Thurman is well aware of the challenge in front of him. Ryan, one of the most creative defensive minds in the game, is going to turn up the heat and that means there will be quite a bit of man coverage in the back end.
"In this system, it's about being aggressive and having players that understand that. We want guys who can play man-to-man back there and a lot of times they're going to earn their money," Thurman said.
By expanding what the DBs see in terms of presnap reads and keys, Thurman hopes to improve their vision and the feet will follow.
"We're not trying to build an atom bomb. It's not rocket science. We're playing football, we're playing a kids game that we've played from the time you can remember on the sandlots when you were scraping up your knees and your elbows and coming home with bloody noses," he said.
Under the new regime, the Jets will surely deliver a number of scrapes to opposition quarterbacks. But the passers can't relax when they do get the ball off because Dennis Thurman's got a new unit and they'll have thievery on their minds.