Harris: Safety has to think, react fast

Old School 101 is a three-part series featuring former Dallas Cowboys greats tackling key problem areas with the current team. Cliff Harris takes part in the final installment:

Cliff Harris was inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor in 2004 with good reason. He was a six-time Pro Bowler and a member of four All-NFL teams. The undrafted safety from Ouachita Baptist in Arkansas was named to the NFL's all-decade team for the 1970s. Harris has two Super Bowl rings and picked off six passes in 21 playoff games.

He discussed the Cowboys' current situation at safety with ESPNDallas.com:

How hard is it to play safety?

Harris: To me, it depends on how you're made. One of the things I'm made up of is I'm very analytical. I have a math degree in college -- a physics guy -- so I understand angles and calculations, formulas. And I understand how problems are solved. That's really what a safety does: He looks at a bunch of things moving at once. It's like a crossword puzzle or maybe a type of puzzle, and you see these moving parts and this is the ultimate result. Then you attack that as quick as you can. If you're quick and fast and if you're wrong, then you can adjust.

Is that how you played it?

A: Yes, I played it as an analytical guy and as a physiological guy. I played percentages. You look at all the data that is involved and you narrow it down to what can possibly happen to those percentages, and then you can break it down to what this team did during those percentages. Then you narrow it down to that moment in the space and time when you're playing a team. Then you deal with the other side of it, and that's the mental aspect of it. That's what I enjoyed the most.

It was the part of the game of dealing with the quarterback and what is he thinking. What kind of personality does he have? What is he trying to do? Is he a risk taker and thinks he's really better than he really is, like some quarterbacks that I know are, even today? Quarterbacks who throw the ball better than they think they are. You have to play those games and say this is what you're looking for.

At the same time, you have to make him think that he knows what you're going to do. If you know that you're an aggressive football player and you go up and make tackles at the line of scrimmage, when the ball is snapped and then he goes deep … The quarterback -- because you know him, because you've been studying him -- is going to flinch. He says, "Oh no, I thought he was coming up." And he goes deep. By that time, the pass rush is there and you got him because you out-thought him based on percentage.

When does it become more physical?

A: Then you put it into gear. I played 10 years, and I came out of it healthy. I don't know how I did it. I just put it in overdrive. I had durability and I had quickness to that last moment of quickness to know when you're not going to get hurt.

What do you think of Alan Ball?

A: I went to one of the games, and -- at that time -- he played very cautiously as a safety. You can play back and protect the deep pass and not get thrown on deep, but you might get somebody to run up on you because you're so far back. When you're first thrown into the game as a rookie, everything is a blur. All you see is people moving. If you put a person in there off the street and ask what happens: "Man, it's a constant motion of people coming at you." But at a certain point it slows down and you get to read it and you begin to read it to the defenses you're playing.

For a safety, it's a thinking position to make the right decisions quickly. My dad was a fighter pilot in World War II, and that's what a safety is. A free safety is making instant decisions with the enemy: Do I go up? Do I go down? Do I turn sideways? Do I dive? And you make those decisions. You live or die. If you don't, you get cut.

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.