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Wed., Feb. 21, 2018 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM CST
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Spagnola: History And Recent Past Should Keep Defensive Priorities Real
IRVING, Texas – Twenty-some years has a way of creating perceptions, actually causing me to chuckle this past Super Bowl Sunday.
There has been all this talk of just how great the Denver defense was in that 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, and it certainly was, some insisting this was one of the greatest defensive performances ever in Super Bowl history. There were other performances being compared to what the Broncos pulled off, like those of Baltimore and Chicago and Seattle and Tampa Bay. Think the Miami Dolphins, too, being mentioned, giving up just seven points each time in their back-to-back victories in Super Bowls VII and VIII.
All causing me to think, hey, what about the Cowboys?
Did folks forget the Cowboys’ No. 3 total defense in 1971 spanked the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI, 24-3, the group better known as Doomsday for good reason? Then shellacked the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII, 27-10, Randy White and Harvey Martin sharing MVP honors after the Cowboys’ No. 1-ranked defense in that 1977 season (Doomsday II) finished with eight takeaways, including four interceptions of Denver quarterback and former teammate Craig Morton.
Pretty good defense, right?
And then there were the Cowboys of the 1990s, still one of only two teams to win three Super Bowls in a four-year span, the Cowboys in Super Bowls XXVII, XXVIII and XXX beating the New England Patriots to the punch (XXXVI, XXXVIII and XXIX).
Most identify the Cowboys championships in those years with offense, sprinkled with Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith and Larry Allen, he in just the last of those three title years. They remember Jay Novacek and that dominant offensive line with the likes of Nate Newton and Erik Williams, Mark Tuinei, John Gesek and Kevin Gogan. They remember the Cowboys gouging Buffalo thefirst time with 52 points and then 30 more the next time, Aikman the MVP in XXVII and Emmitt the MVP in XXVIII.
But lest you’ve forgotten, let some of these numbers do the talking: The Cowboys owned a top-10 defense in each of those years, along with the 1994 one when losing the opportunity in the NFC title game to have made four straight a possibility. The Cowboys had the NFL’s No. 1 defense in 1992 and 1994. They were ranked 10th in 1993 and ninth in 1995.
Standing out in Super Bowl XXVII always has been the 52 points the NFL’s fourth-ranked offense scored. But forgotten is all this: The Cowboys set the single-game Super Bowl record with nine takeaways in that game, intercepting four passes and recovering five of the Bills’ eight fumbles. The Cowboys returned two of those takeaways for touchdowns and would have had a third if not for Leon Lett’s early celebration inside the 5-yard line on a fumble return, or Don Beebe’s commendable hustle to knock the ball out from behind in a 52-17 game with just 4:42 left.
Oh, and guess what’s No. 2 on that takeaway record list? Those eight by the Cowboys in Super Bowl XII? Want to take a stab at No. 3? Why, the Cowboys’ seven in Super Bowl VI.
Now sure, the Bills did score 17 points in Super Bowl XXVII. But remember, those first seven came giftwrapped by the Bills special teams ending the Cowboys’ first possession of the game with a blocked punt recovered at the Dallas 16. Other than that, the NFL’s No. 2-ranked total offense and third-ranked scoring team produced just 10 points on their own. Also, do not forget those four sacks, along with the hit by Hall of Fame defensive end Charles Haley knocking Bills quarterback Jim Kelly out of the game in the second quarter.
And this was not just a one-time wonder defensive performance in that game for the Cowboys that playoff season. In their three 1992 playoff season victories, opponents averaged just 15.66 points a game, just a bit more than the 15.2 the Cowboys gave up that season.
Even in their 30-13 Super Bowl XXVIII victory the next season, seems everyone remembers Emmitt’s 132 yards rushing and two touchdowns. But the Cowboys defense held Buffalo to just those 13 points and that dynamic offense to just 3.9 yards a play. The Cowboys sacked Kelly three times and collected three more takeaways. And the real MVP should have been Cowboys safety James Washington finishing with, and let this sink in, 11 tackles, an interception to set up a Cowboys touchdown, a forced fumble to set up a field goal and his early third quarter fumble recovery returned for a touchdown that tied a game (13-13) in which the Cowboys trailed 13-6 at halftime.
And I know everyone remembers Larry Brown’s two interceptions to quell that second-half Pittsburgh uprising in Super Bowl XXX, each of those setting up basically layup touchdowns for the Cowboys offense starting at the 18 and the 6 in the 27-17 victory. With the Cowboys offense struggling that day, the defense intercepted Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell three times and limited Pittsburgh’s offense to averaging just 3.7 yards a play, enabling them to survive for a fifth Super Bowl title.
And you know what? In that 1994 NFC Championship Game 38-28 loss to San Francisco, the Cowboys’ No. 1 defense that season actually held Steve Young, Jerry Rice et al to just 294 yards total offense. And surely no one has forgotten the Cowboys offense handing the Niners their first 21 points, Aikman intercepted on the third play of the game by Eric Davis for a touchdown, followed on the third play of the next possession by Irvin’s fumble turning into a second Niners score five plays later and then a Kevin Williams fumble on the ensuing kickoff the 49ers turned into a 21-0 lead seven plays later.
After that, the Cowboys defense gave up just 17 points on their own to the NFL’s second-ranked total offense and top-ranked scoring team.
So let’s not act like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones or COO Stephen Jones, or anyone else in this organization, doesn’t understand the importance of defense, since that perception is being thrown around quite loosely lately. They sure do know, and realize why a stout defense is needed to complement an explosive offense to win a Super Bowl.
And do yourself a favor, don’t buy into the endless stream of rhetoric that the Joneses are simply seduced by offense in the draft or will be in this year’s. Check this out: Since 2005, the Cowboys have used six of their 12 first-round draft choices on defensive players, starting with DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears in 2005 and going on to Byron Jones this past draft. They also, after trading their 2009 first-round pick to Detroit for wide receiver Roy Williams, traded out of the second and into the third to use their first pick in that draft on a defensive player, linebacker Jason Williams (oops). Also during that 12-year span they have spent either their second-round pick or next pick on a defensive player seven times.
Oh, if you want to go back to analyze the Jones era first-round draft choices, 13 of the 23 have been defensive players, discounting trades for players or those out of the first rounds.
Just a little fact to salt away some perception.
And to me, really don’t think the Cowboys needed reminders from Super Bowl 50 on how important defense is, too. Since 2010, they’ve actually spent 25 of their 45 draft choices on defensive players.
Like, why do you think the Cowboys last year took chances on character guys like free agent Greg Hardy and second-round pick Randy Gregory? They darn well knew they needed to improve, by hook or by crook, their defense if they expected to improve in 2015. Why do you think they used last year’s first-round pick on defensive back Byron Jones? Or in the 2014 draft, after finishing with the worst defense in franchise history and nearly the league history, why do you think the Cowboys traded up to grab defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence in the second round or use six of the next seven picks on defensive guys? Or why they dearly wanted in the first round linebacker Ryan Shazier, taken by Pittsburgh the pick before them, then “settling” for guard Zack Martin at 16 after failing to trade down in the first so they could take Lawrence in a more appropriate spot?
And while they know they must find an acceptable solution to the backup quarterback headache, they also are quite aware, even with a healthy offense, that the defense still must improve. Lots.
Otherwise, it’s back to the past three seasons when they’ve needed to score 26 points or more 23 times – nine of the 16 games in this past season – in order to just have a chance to win. Why they went 1-8 in such games in 2015, and 6-17 over the past three seasons.
Oh, believe me, the Cowboys aren’t in jeopardy of turning a blind eye on the importance of defense, and they surely didn’t need the Broncos or anyone else to point that out.
Nope, it’s right there in living color. Read