FRISCO, Texas – The date was Sept. 3, 2021. A Friday, seven days prior to the Cowboys opening the season on a Thursday night on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
My season projection, emphasizing these were not your 6-10 Cowboys of 2020 while declaring this offense was fit and raring to become one of the best in the NFL, meaning the Cowboys had a good chance of winning the NFC East.
How far could this team go, though? Warning not to judge this franchise's 62nd edition off last year's Cowboys team, that one loaded with a multitude of reasons for going 6-10, only the franchise's second losing season in a decade.
Could these Cowboys maybe do even better than winning the East?
Well, to me, that would depend on one big IF, and here was my declaration back then:
"So here we are at the $64,000 question, and as I've pointed out during the offseason work, at the beginning of training camp and at the end of training camp, all until I'm blue in the face:
"If the defense is better, if it's at least average for goodness sakes, this team is capable of transposing 6-10 into 10-6 to win the NFC East for the fourth time in eight seasons, something no other team in the NFC will have accomplished. Make that 11 with the 17-game season."
So here we are, nine games in with eight to go, sitting at 7-2 with a three and a half game lead in the East and no team in the NFL with fewer losses than the Cowboys two. And so far this defense has done an about face. Huge about face. Check this out.
Last year after nine games the Cowboys already had given up 290 points on their way to yielding a franchise single-season high 473. That was 32.2 points a game, limping along at 2-7 heading into the bye.
This year the Cowboys have given up 195 points after nine games, or 21.7 points a game, actually ranking them 10th in the NFL.
Last year at this point the Cowboys were giving up an average of 381.6 yards a game. This year 354.0, a 27.6-yard improvement and ranking them 15th in overall defense.
Last year the Cowboys after nine were giving up 157.0 yards rushing a game and finished 31st in run defense. This year 101.2, ranking them ninth in the NFL.
Last year the Cowboys were giving up 224.6 yards a game passing heading into that bye and ended up 11th because few teams bothered throwing against them with such a porous run defense. This year, a slight increase to 252.8, ranking 21st but some of that due to teams playing catch-up in second halves.
By this time last year, the Cowboys already had given up 21 passing touchdowns. This year14.
And this may be the best part: Last year after nine the Cowboys had all of three interceptions. This year 14, just one behind the NFL-leading Bills.
So look, better. And their current ranking in total defense in the 32-team league is 15th, so yes, a skosh better than average.
But here is the even better part in the words of Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who has so far created this 180-degree turnaround while overseeing the D this season:
"By no means are we as good as we're going to get."
Well, come Sunday, here is when this Cowboys defense needs to get getting: Right from the 3:25 p.m. national TV start against the Kansas City Chiefs before potentially 74,000. That's the 6-4 Chiefs, winners of three straight and four of their past five games.
That's the Super Bowl participant Chiefs these past two seasons, winners of Super Bowl LIV following the 2019 season and losers in Super Bowl LV this past season.
That's the Chiefs of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the little magician from East Texas, and an offense loaded with the likes of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, one ranked fourth in the NFL and third passing, averaging 26.2 points a game but already having produced 25 passing touchdowns – the Cowboys have 22 – and having scored at least 31 points in half their games.
And even more so now this Cowboys defense must step up against the Chiefs with the Cowboys' high-soaring offense dealt a severe blow on Friday, having to place lead receiver Amari Cooper on Reserve/COVID-19 after testing positive Friday morning. And with three games in 12 days, for sure Cooper will miss the next two games, and depending on how quickly he recovers, could miss a third game against New Orleans the Thursday after Thanksgiving.
Man, oh man.
So look, going into this Chiefs game, there is no consolation for this Cowboys defense since Mahomes has been intercepted 10 times. Or that until scoring 41 this past Sunday against the Raiders, the Chiefs had averaged just 12 points in their previous three games while losing to Tennessee and beating the Giants and Green Bay.
Because Mike McCarthy is right, the Cowboys head coach saying, "This is as explosive an offense as we'll see in this season."
Or as Quinn says, "I have a sense in games like this, against two good teams when they battle, usually comes down to the end. And when you go in thinking that way, you're ready to get it on as long as it takes. Four quarters, overtime, whatever it takes."
Now then, we can sit here overloading you with Mahomes' stats, starting with this past Sunday earning AFC Player of the Week honors by completing 35 of 50 passes for 406 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions and a 127.6 QB rating in that 41-14 victory over the Raiders.
But heck, if you are reading this, you know darn well how good Mahomes is, especially with his ability to create, to extend plays, to basically pull the proverbial rabbit out of his helmet time and time again.
So here is the number McCarthy is most worried about: 2.3. That is the average time in seconds a quarterback should need to get a pass off in the NFL. Anything more is trouble.
Well, McCarthy's analytics inform that "20 to 23 percent" of the Chiefs plays are extended past his 2.3 seconds, and goodness knows that's when defenses get in trouble. When Mahomes escapes the pocket. Or when he steps up in the pocket, almost to the line of scrimmage before throwing after exaggerated deep drops.
You have heard about the Cowboys offense with Dak Prescott practicing the "scramble drill," where he purposely breaks out of the pocket, runs one way or the other and still tries to find a receiver down field. Well, this week, the Cowboys defense has been working against the scramble, those extended plays.
"It's a major focus for us this week," says McCarthy, returning to Kansas City where his NFL coaching career began in 1993 with the Chiefs.
Good thing, because when Mahomes is extending plays the already dangerous Hill (75 catches, eight for touchdowns) and Kelce (62 catches, five touchdowns) become even more dangerous. There is only so long you can expect a DB to cover.
"Defense, the biggest thing is to plaster, don't get caught with eyes looking back at the quarterback, and (Mahomes) will come up in the A and B gaps," Quinn says of the middle of the line. "He's outstanding at it."
By plaster, he means sticking to the guy you are covering, even if it seems for an eternity. Just can't lose track of those receivers.
"The first play begins, and then, OK, I'm going to get outside the pocket, and they are exceptional at throwing the ball down the field on the run," Quinn says of the Chiefs. "So, I think with this quarterback wherever he is on the field he can get it to somebody … with that kind of strong arm to do that.
"Eye discipline is super important in this one."
Definitely, but to me the best way to combat this at times helter-skelter approach offense, and since you can't be expected to cover forever, is to put pressure on Mahomes. See Super Bowl LV, that 31-9 Tampa Bay victory, when the Buccaneers sacked Mahomes three times, intercepted him twice, registered nine QB hits and nine passes deflected while overwhelming a makeshift Chiefs offensive line decimated by injuries.
Why, Mahomes only completed 26 of 49 passes for just 270 yards and an anemic 52.3 QB rating. Why, a Chiefs team averaging 29.6 points a game – uh, ironically equaling what the Cowboys yielded last year – and piling up 57 touchdowns, averaging 3.6 touchdowns a game, could manage only three field goals against the Bucs.
Pressure makes quarterbacks, just like pipes, break, too.
"There's no question that the pressure, it has to be anytime you face a good QB," Quinn says.
Unfortunately for Dallas, some next men up must step up. The Cowboys two best pass rushing defensive ends, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, will miss the game, both on injured reserve. So will their presumptive best pass-rushing defensive tackle, Neville Gallimore, not having played a game yet all season.
What to do, what to do?
Well, Dorance Armstrong showed some life this past week in his third game back after missing four straight with a sprained knee. Up, too, must step veteran Tarell Basham and rookie Chauncey Golston. And up the middle, how about Trysten Hill.
But the wild card in all this likely will be just how Quinn uses rookie football player Micah Parsons, part linebacker, part defensive end but at 22 years old, all man. Remember, Parsons leads the team with six sacks, one more than Gregory. And he can line up as a stand-up defensive end or come up the middle as a blitzing linebacker.
Remember this, too: Before playing just 74 percent of the snaps in the blowout win over Atlanta, Parsons had averaged 94.4 percent of the snaps in the previous five games. That's like 5.6 percent fewer than he'd like. He wants to be an all-day sucker.
"The flexibility he gives us is unique," McCarthy says of Parsons.
Sic 'em, Micah.
Yep, now we'll see if this year's defense can continue to make strides. So far, the Cowboys actually have won two games scoring just 20 points, and to think by the end of last year the Cowboys hadn't won a game scoring less than 30 points in their last 15 wins, going back to Game 15 of the 2018 season.
Look, in five of their nine games this season the Cowboys have given up no more than 21 points, winning all five.
We keep talking about tests this season, for the offense, for the defense. Well, pals, here comes the biggie for this Cowboys defense, going up against Mahomes and them.
"If I was a fan, this is a game that I'd watch," McCarthy says.
OK, Mike, eyes wide open for this one, especially on your defense.