Offseason | 2021

Spagnola: No Way To Win Getting Run Over


FRISCO, Texas – This is what happens when you finish a season 6-10.

For the better part of the next four months, as a prelude to free agency and the NFL Draft, priorities to "fix this, Jerry" are set. And while 2021 so far has been far different in many respects for the Cowboys from previous offseasons, this part about priorities has remained the same. And theirs have been …

  • Sign Dak Prescott to a long-term deal.
  • Find a new defensive coordinator.
  • Find a quality backup quarterback.
  • Restock a depleted secondary, uh, cornerbacks and safeties.
  • Restore health to the offensive line.
  • Fix a defense giving up 473 points in 2020, by far the most in the franchise's 61-year history, and 57 touchdowns, another ignominious franchise record.

All fine and reasonable priorities, but today, when taking a microscopic look at just what went wrong with a team losing four games by no more than seven points, but the other six by 11 or more – three of those by 28, 22 and 25 – here is exactly what comes into much clearer and zoomed-in focus:

The run defense.

Pathetic, and that's not piling on, the Cowboys giving up 2,541 rushing yards, just 87 shy of the franchise record for most opponent rushing yards in a single season set at 2,636 in the 5-11 year of 2000, but 299 more than the previous second-worse mark of the 2,242 in the inaugural 0-11-1 season of 1960.

Yep, that bad.

So hey, Dan Quinn, for some reason with that _Mission Impossible_ theme song pounding in my little brain, your mission since evidently you chose to accept it as the new defensive coordinator is to engineer a complete run defense fixer-upper.

Sure, the Cowboys had other problems in new head coach Mike McCarthy's first year. Dak going down for the season in the fifth game. Backup Andy Dalton missing two games and parts of another when knocked into yesterday. Having to start four quarterbacks in one season, rookie Ben DiNucci, no more than a seventh-round pick, in one and Garrett Gilbert, an NFL journeyman, making his first NFL start in another.

Then there was losing 36 of a possible 48 starts from your top three offensive linemen, with a fourth guy belonging in that group deciding to retire earlier in the offseason.

But none of that – none of it – is reason enough to yield 158.8 rushing yards a game, ranking 31st in the NFL. None of that is reason enough to give up 5.0 yards a carry, just .04 yards shy of the opponent single-season franchise record set in 1960 but more than the previous second-worse mark of 4.92 in 1961.

Yep, that bad. Epically bad.

Oh, and none of that other mess contributed to allowing 20 rushing touchdowns, only the 24 by the patchwork 1960 squad in just 12 games allowing more in club history but three more than the previous 16-game record of 17 set during the 1-15 campaign of 1989.

And who can forget the 307 yards rushing Cleveland jammed down the Cowboys' throats? Of course, another opponent record high, erasing the previous single-game mark of 306 set by Philadelphia in the 2000 season opener when the Eagles credited their dominance to ingesting "pickle juice" to combat dehydration in the 109-degree temperatures coming through the hole-in-the-roof of Texas Stadium in a 41-14 loss. Or the 294 gained by Baltimore last year in a 34-17 drubbing?

Know what? This wasn't just something new, either.

Why, in 2019, even though the Cowboys finished 11th in total run defense, six times they gave up at least 120 yards rushing, including 153 to the Vikings, followed by 151 to the Giants and 151 to the Bears. And if we go back to 2018, who can ever forget the Rams rushing for two-hundred-and-seventy-three in that playoff game, fueling their 30-22 victory over the Cowboys at the LA Coliseum.? Evidently, McCarthy agrees with this premise.

"I think it's obvious that my primary focus is the defense," he said three weeks ago.

No kidding, and this all has to change defensively. You realize the Cowboys lost two games in 2020 scoring 31 and 38 points, and needed to score 40 to beat Atlanta by one (40-39).

You realize the Cowboys haven't won a game over the past two seasons – the six in 2020 and eight in 2019 – without scoring at least 30 points?

Come on, that's no way to do business in the NFL.

But to me, to fix this defense the Cowboys must solve their inability to stop the run. Heck, when giving up that many yards on the ground, why would anyone ever bother passing against you? Can't keep getting run over.

That means the front-7 must play better, either with improved scheme or talent, especially in this draft.

But just the Cowboys' luck, even though they own the 10th pick come April 29, one of those top-100 boards has only two defensive tackles ranked among the top-50 players (Christian Barmore and Levi Onwuzurike) and just five in the top 78.

Well then, how about grabbing a DeMarcus Ware-quality defensive end? Really not a budding one in this draft, and just three ranked in the top 22. And by deciding against re-signing defensive end Aldon Smith, agreeing to terms now with Seattle on a one-year deal this week, going into the draft the Cowboys are banking on DeMarcus Lawrence and a rejuvenated Randy Gregory to hold down their end spots, along with hopefuls Dorance Armstrong, Bradlee Anae, Ron'Dell Carter and free-agent signee Tarell Basham. Those hopeful four have totaled all of 10 career sacks, 7.5 of those belonging to Basham over his four-year mostly rotation-player career.

As for defensive tackles, the Cowboys must be hopeful for a successful return from Trysten Hill, a torn ACL last year ending his second season in the fifth game; then continued improvement from last year's third-rounder Neville Gallimore; and for sure support from Antwaun Woods and free agents Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins, all working on one-year deals.

Ah, and now the linebackers: Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and, as I've previously posed … who?

On this 73-man roster, I see just Luke Gifford, Francis Bernard and Azur Kamara, that is if Sean Lee is not brought back, but with the possibility of recently-signed safety Keanu Neal playing some hybrid linebacker, where McCarthy says he will start off.

That's why the likes of Penn State's Micah Parsons, Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Tulsa's Zaven Collins are intriguing possibilities within the top 25, Parsons potentially a top-12 pick. You know, run-stoppers with instincts and speed.

Now, the first-round defensive depth in this draft is cornerback. As many as five could be selected in the first round, maybe three to four within the top 20 to 25. And you have heard the names associated with the Cowboys: Patrick Surtain II, Jaycee Horn, Greg Newsome II, Caleb Farley and Asante Samuel Jr. And no doubt, corner certainly is a need in the defensive scope of things.

It's just that the Cowboys don't need another season like last year when four of the top six leading tacklers were defensive backs, with defensive ends Aldon Smith and Lawrence coming in at seventh and eighth and Woods leading the defensive tackles at 14th.

And they sure as heck can't expect to win like 10 games if they are giving up 158.8 rushing yards a game, a prime reason last year for opponents averaging an unreasonable 29.5 points a game.

Or, how about this: Expecting to maybe finally win a game scoring less than 30 points for the first time in three seasons.

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