Spagnola: Defensive Consternation Surrounding Cowboys Oddly Familiar

FRISCO, Texas – Three OTA workouts a week for three consecutive weeks begin on Tuesday, here at The Star.

The full team minicamp is scheduled for June 13-15.

Training camp will begin sometime around that third week in July.

And for this Dallas Cowboys team, the defending NFC East champs, seems as though heading toward the 2017 season it's the same worries, next year.

Am I right?

The defense.

If you remember, that was the universal worry starting the 2014 season. Then again in 2015. Once again in 2016.

And here we are, 2017, the Cowboys coming off that franchise-tying best 13-3 record, and what is everyone seemingly wringing their hands over?

The defense.

Understood.

The Cowboys lost four of their top six defensive backs in free agency. Also, six of the team's top 11 in tackles, comprising 278 of them. They didn't sign a defensive free agent that would wow you, and in the draft, remember, their first-round pick, Taco Charlton, was no more than the seventh defensive end selected.

And no matter what, when it comes to this Cowboys defense from last year, most only remember the team's final defensive play of the season – Aaron Rodgers hitting tight end Jared Cook for 36 yards, down to the Cowboys' 32 with three second left in a tie game, setting up the Green Bay Packers' playoff-winning 51-yard field goal as time expired in the 34-31 outcome.

Those factors have created a profoundly negative prognosis of the Cowboys defense at this point of the year.

So found this interesting the other day, for what it's worth, and to these people, in their business, it's worth quite a lot.

When it comes to odds being posted to win Super Bowl LII by Westgate out of Vegas, the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots are No. 1 at 3-1. The Atlanta Falcons, losers to New England in Super Bowl LI, are seventh at 14-1. The New York Giants, seemingly everyone's new darling in the NFC East, are tied for eighth at 20-1. The Packers, Steelers, Raiders and Seahawks are all tied for third at 12-1.

Yet somehow, those supposedly defenseless Dallas Cowboys, no Tony Romo, no backup quarterback to suit everyone's tastes and far too many worrying about a "sophomore slump" for quarterback Dak Prescott, they check in at 8-1, the second-best posted odds to win this season's Super Bowl.

Now imagine that.

There is also this: Westgate likes to post projected win totals, and then it's up to you to decide if you want to wager the over or the under. New England tops the charts at 12½ wins. Next are Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Seattle at 10½. Then comes the Cowboys, Falcons and Raiders at 9½, all favored to win their respective divisions.

Imagine all that, despite the Cowboys' perceived defense; despite the Cowboys scheduled to play seven games against playoff teams from 2016 and nine total against teams winning at least nine games last year; despite the Cowboys' strength of schedule ranking 10th in the NFL (.531).

Maybe some of what you should be reminded of 'bout that Cowboys defense was taken into consideration, more so than losing four starters in free agency and potential starter Randy Gregory to a yearlong suspension, not to mention the security blanket of Romo.

First, let's remember the Cowboys ranked fifth last year in points allowed, giving up an average of 19.1 per game. The 306 points opponents did score in 2016 was the fewest given up by the Cowboys since the 250 they did so in 2009, and the third fewest in the last 17 seasons. Same with touchdowns, opponents scoring 34 against the Cowboys last year, the fewest since 28 in 2009 and the third fewest in the past 17 seasons.

Not bad.

Overall, the Cowboys ranked 14th in yards against, their 343.9 a game the fewest in the past five seasons and in six of the past seven, again going back to 2009.

Lest we forget, the Cowboys finished No. 1 in rushing defense, the first time they have done so since, uh, 1992 (1,244 yards on 345 carries), 25 seasons ago, and did this with only one Pro Bowler on the defense, Sean Lee. The Cowboys gave up 1,336 yards rushing, 295 fewer rushing yards than their rushing champ, Ezekiel Elliott, gained by his lonesome (1,631). That also represents the second-fewest rushing yards allowed in a non-strike season since the 1971 Super Bowl-winning season when the club gave up just 1,144 yards, although in a 14-game season.

Now, know exactly what you're thinking: Opponents didn't run all that much against the Cowboys. You're right, just 340 attempts, the fewest in the franchise's history during a 16-game season and the third fewest all-time, no matter if it's the 12-game 1960 season or those 14-game seasons between 1961-1977.

Got two good reasons for that low number. First, with the Cowboys averaging 26.3 points a game, teams knew they couldn't dilly-dally around on offense. They had to go, since 10 times the Cowboys scored at least 27 points in a game, and that over the first 15 games since Prescott played little more than a quarter in the final game of the season.

Also, the Cowboys were good against the run, giving up just 3.9 yards per carry, nearly a yard less than they averaged themselves (4.8). You have to go back to 2003 to find the last time the Cowboys gave up less than 3.9 yards per carry.

We can argue about how the Cowboys hogged the ball offensively, keeping their defense off the field. But the disparity was not that great, 31 minutes, 41 seconds to their opponents' 28:19 – what's that, like one extra set of downs a game. Only once in 16 regular-season games did the Cowboys have two possessions more than their opponent, and just four for the season. The Cowboys since 1992 have limited opponents to less time of possession five other times, including 2009, 2005, 2003, 1998 and 1992.

At some point, give the defense credit for getting off the field and also for not allowing teams to run into the end zone. Remember, the Cowboys did not allow an opposing runner to gain 100 yards all season long, first time since 2009. And when it came to rushing touchdowns, the Cowboys only allowed nine, the fewest since giving up seven in 2009 and the third fewest since seven in 2003.

Look, I get it. You want the Cowboys defense to get better. So do they. But consider this: Atlanta won the NFC title in 2016 and was ranked 25th in total defense. The Cowboys playoff nemesis, Green Bay, wasn't much better, ranked 22nd, and did give up 429 yards to Dallas in the playoff game with a rookie at quarterback, 15 more than it gained against the Cowboys. On top of that, the Packers then gave up 44 points the next week to the Falcons in that NFC title-game loss. And heck, the Falcons then gave up 34 to the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Also consider this: In the two regular-season games the Cowboys lost legitimately, meaning trying their best to win, they gave up 20 points the first time to the Giants and then 10 points the next time. Not the defense's fault for those losses by any means.

Again, take away that last darn defensive play from scrimmage and you'd be encouraged by what defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's group did in 2016 and with its possibilities of getting better in 2017. That's right, possibly improving.

At least the odds suggest as much.

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