Offseason | 2022

Spagnola: Don't Let This Defense Off The Hook


FRISCO, Texas – What about this defense?

You know, think about it.

Most of this offseason attention and blame for the premature playoff exit has centered on the offense and those involved.

The head coach, Mike McCarthy.

The offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore.

The quarterback, Dak Prescott.

The running back, Ezekiel Elliott.

The offensive line, and not just one or two, but seemingly all of them men out there.

And the lead receiver, Amari Cooper.

But this defense seems to get a pass.

And I get it. This bunch went from epically poor in 2020 to reasonably effective this year. From giving up a single-season club record 473 points (29.5 a game) to 358 in one more game this year (21.0).

Went from ranking 23rd overall, giving up 386.4 yards a game, to 19th this year, 351 a game. Went from giving up the second-most franchise rushing yards in a single season (2,541) and ranking 31st in the NFL in 2020, to 1,918 yards this season and ranking a much-improved 16th.

And oh, my gosh, the great leap, takeaways going from the 23 of 2020, ranking 21st, to the NFL-high of 34 of this year, including an NFL-high 26 interceptions. The Cowboys were also tied with an NFL-leading plus-14 turnover differential.

Then there was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro linebacker.

There was second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs and his 11 interceptions, the most in the NFL since Everson Walls' 11 in 1981, earning him Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors, too.

And there was defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, NFL Assistant Coach of the Year, a Cowboys first since the award began in 2014 and certainly a well-deserved honor. Enough so that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and head coach McCarthy went the extra mile and likely millions of dollars to retain Quinn in place after his league-wide head coaching interview tour.

And, of course, going from last year's 6-10 season to an about face 12-6, including the first-round playoff loss to San Francisco.

Comparatively great stuff, and a credit to revamping nearly the entire defensive coaching staff, bringing in Quinn, secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr., defensive line coach Aden Durde and putting senior defensive assistant George Edwards in charge of the linebackers.

But let's ask ourselves, was this defense good enough?

Better, yes, but not nearly good enough.

Look, in the 12 games the Cowboys won, the defense gave up 320 yards a game. In the six games they lost, the unit gave up 409.5 a game.

In the 12 games the Cowboys won, they gave up 18 points a game. In the six games they lost, opponents averaged 27.3 points a game, while in half of those six losses giving up thirty-something to Tampa Bay (31), Denver (30) and Las Vegas (36 in OT), with a low in the 19-9 loss to Kansas City.

And look it here, the Cowboys lost to six of the NFL's top-15 ranked quarterbacks: Tom Brady (7), Kyler Murray (8), Jimmy Garoppolo (9), Patrick Mahomes (10), Teddy Bridgewater (12) and Derek Carr (14) while beating No. 4 Kirk Cousins and No. 15 Mac Jones – having played eight of the top 14 since Dak finished at No. 3.

Oh, and about those 34 takeaways. The Cowboys totaled four takeaways in the season-opening loss to Tampa Bay. But in the other five losses, they had only three more, and finished a minus-1 in turnover differential in the six losses this year.

So, let that give you a little different perspective about this defense and just where it is against the NFL's elite.

Now then, where is the Cowboys defense going?

Well, that becomes complicated. Here are the prime players becoming unrestricted free agents: Randy Gregory, Carlos Watkins, Leighton Vander Esch, Damontae Kazee and Jayron Kearse. Those five guys, like nearly half the defensive starters, combined for 71 starts in the 77 games they played out of a possible 85.

That's a lot, and figure the Cowboys likely will not be able to retain all five starters. And what if they lose the majority of those guys in free agency?

Then there are valuable role players headed toward unrestricted free agency, such as Dorance Armstrong (five starts, 44 percent snaps) and Keanu Neal (5 starts, 50 percent snaps), along with Brent Urban (4 starts), Malik Hooker (3 starts) and Maurice Canady. And valuable special teams player Luke Gifford as well, a restricted free agent.

Thus, my concern with this defense. Can't assume just because this side of the ball took a giant step in the right direction from 2020 to 2021 that the unit will naturally take that next highly important step to go from average to good enough to help win more of those critical games they lost against the better teams.

The Cowboys were outscored in the six losses 164-126, a minus-38 point differential or by an average of just 6.3 a game. But check this out, in three of the losses, while giving up 92 points to Tampa Bay (31), Vegas (36) and Arizona (25), they only lost by two, by three and by three while scoring 84 themselves. Gotta win when averaging those 28 points a game. And every once in a while gotta win when scoring just 17 points, you know.

All of this leaving me scratching my head and wondering, what about this defense?

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