Spagnola: Do Not Forget Repairing This Defense

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FRISCO, Texas – There seems to be this preoccupation with the Cowboys offense at this point.

Like, new head coach Mike McCarthy, with new offensive line coach Joe Philbin and new wide receivers coach Adam Henry and new running backs coach Skip Peete and new tight ends coach Lunda Wells and Doug Nussmeier moving from tight ends coach to quarterbacks coach, will solve all what ails 'em.

OK, get it. In four of the eight losses the Cowboys failed to score more than 15 points, and in three of those no more than 10, with no touchdowns in the other two.

But moving the football didn't seem to be a problem. The Cowboys were the No. 1 offense in total yards in the whole wide NFL, the first time that's happened since 1977 – uh, 43 seasons ago. The 6,904 total yards set a single-season franchise record. The Cowboys also finished No. 2 in passing offense, and quarterback Dak Prescott missed setting the franchise single-season record for most yards passing by just two. The Cowboys had two wide receivers with more than 1,000 yards receiving for the first time since 2006. They did have five offensive Pro Bowlers.

And they did score at least 31 points in every one of those eight wins, the 434 total points their third most since 2006. All that probably why McCarthy has decided to retain last year's first-year offensive coordinator/play-caller Kellen Moore in the same capacity.

Come on, not exactly the punch-less, inept squad of 1989.

But, oh, this defense, to me, sure needs a serious fixer-upper.

Welcome back to the Cowboys, Mike Nolan.

Yes, Mike Nolan, defensive coordinator, the first legacy coach in the franchise's 60-year history, his daddy Dick spending 15 years with the Cowboys as an assistant, 13 under Tom Landry and two more with Jimmy Johnson – Dick the one-time rugged New York Giants defensive back that Camel cigarettes posed back in the early 1960s on one of those gigantic Times Square billboard ads.

For the past five seasons the Cowboys defense continually improved from their 32nd finish in 2013, moving up to 19th then 17th, 14th, eighth and seventh, until falling back to 10th this 2019 season.

Yes, the Cowboys did lose three games when giving up no more than 17 points – 12-10 to New Orleans, 13-9 to New England and 17-9 to Philadelphia in the winner-takes-the East Game 15 – normally a winnable total.

But in the other five losses, the Cowboys gave up at least 24 points, including 34 to Green Bay, 28 to Minnesota, 26 to Buffalo and an inexcusable 31 to Chicago and 24 to the darn Jets. Of the team's eight losses, five were one-score games. The lowest margin of victory in the eight wins was eight points.

Thought there were three major problems: Pressure on quarterbacks, takeaways and run defense.

The Cowboys' 38 sacks tied them for 20th in 2019. Less than average. Their 17 takeaways left them in a three-way tie for 25th. Their seven interceptions left them in a three-way tie for 30th – dead last – and just one more than the franchise single-season low. And they allowed at least 100 yards rushing in 11 of the 16 games, including 153 to Minnesota and 151 to the Giants and Chicago.

Not good, and definitely not good enough.

And on top of all this, the Cowboys have defensive five starters heading toward free agency: Byron Jones, Robert Quinn, Sean Lee, Maliek Collins and Jeff Heath, with another nine prime backups in the same boat, including Michael Bennett, Joe Thomas, Anthony Brown, Christian Covington, Justin March, Kerry Hyder, Kavon Frazier, C.J. Goodwin and Darian Thompson.

Plus, on top of that, who knows if Tyrone Crawford wants to come back for a ninth season after undergoing painful surgeries to repair both hips.

"I think there's just a good nucleus of guys on defense who are good building blocks going forward," Nolan said during his introductory news conference a few weeks back.

As for playing a 4-3 or 3-4, he's been adamant, and McCarthy too, that the key will be to get "your best 11 on the field at the same time," and then decide if your personnel best fits a 4-3 or a 3-4. But with what we know right now, and that sure could change through free agency and the draft, the Cowboys personnel probably best fits into a 4-3 since they don't have a bunch of those 3-4 outside linebackers capable of standing up on the line of scrimmage as pass rushers but capable of also dropping into coverage.

Look, these are the Dallas Cowboys, and for so many years the focus always has been on the offense – the Hall of Fame quarterbacks and running backs and wide receivers and offensive linemen. But remember, from 1964 through 1979 the Cowboys defense ranked in the top 10 all 16 seasons, including No. 1 and No. 2 in the Super Bowl seasons of 1977 and 1978.

Think anyone remembers the Cowboys defense being ranked No. 1 in 1992, on the way to winning Super Bowl XXVII? And No. 1 in 1994, losing the NFC title game to San Francisco, and in the top 10 through 1997? Or the reason that Bill Parcells in 2003 went 10-6 that year was the No. 1 defense?

Look to the successes from 2007-09. Top 10 defenses. Last three years, top 10 defenses.

So let's not minimize the importance of this Cowboys defense moving forward. Let's tap the brakes on drafting wide receivers and more tight ends high in this draft. Let's quit looking at this free agent and that free agent for the offense.

After taking care of business with Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, it's time to focus on building this defense, and depending on what happens in free agency, possibly rebuilding this defense. As Nolan pointed out, there are some building blocks already in place.

But this defense is a work in progress.

And for the Cowboys' 2020 sake, it had better progress.

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