Spagnola: Only Self-Defense Will Cure 8-8 Epidemic

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IRVING, Texas – Defense … defense … defense.

That will be the Dallas Cowboys battle cry when they land Tuesday at Naval Air Station Point Mugu in Southern California.

Defense … defense … defense.

That will be the Dallas Cowboys overriding priority during their upcoming three-and-a-half week training camp stay at the River Ridge Playing Fields in Oxnard, Calif., starting with the first practice on Thursday preparing for the 2014 NFL season.

And for good reason.


When analyzing 2013's third consecutive 8-8 season, the Cowboys arguably didn't score a reasonable enough points to win in only two of the eight games they lost: 17-16 to Kansas City and 24-22 to Philadelphia.

In the other six losses, in order to win the Cowboys would have needed to score 31, 52, 32, 50, 46 and 38 points. In other words, an unreasonable average of 41.5 points a game. And despite that, the Cowboys lost three of those games by a combined total of only five points.

Why, this 2013 Cowboys team averaged 27 points a game, normally a total worthy of a winning record. Only five teams last year totaled more points than the Cowboys' 439. Those teams' combined average record was 10.6-5.4. Of the five, only the Chicago Bears with 445 points did not finish with a winning record (8-8).

But see, that's what happen when you throw down not only the worst defense in the league in 2013, giving up an ungodly 6,645 yards – third most in NFL history – but also needlessly to point out, the worst defense in the Cowboys' 54-year history.

That's what happens when you give up at least 30 points seven times in a season, not surprisingly losing six of those games. And to think, in those six losses the Cowboys averaged 30 points a game.

That's what happens when you set an NFL single-season record for allowing four quarterbacks to throw for more than 400 yards in a game, and there would have been a fifth if not for New Orleans calling off the dogs in a 49-17 thrashing of the Cowboys with Drew Brees at 392, the Saints in no need of even attempting a pass over the final 11:11 of the game.

That's what happens when you are scorched for 33 passing touchdowns, matching the franchise single-season high previously set in 1962 (5-8-1) and matched in 2010 (6-10).

That's what happens when you give up a total of 51 touchdowns, one short of the franchise single-season record, again set in 1962 when the expansion Cowboys were in their infancy.

That's what happens when you shatter the record for having given up the most first downs in a season (388) by 67 and also set a franchise single-game record by giving up 40 first downs to the Saints, seven more than the previous high.

We could agonizingly go on and on, but really there is no need. You get the picture. Leave it up to these Cowboys to provide a 180-degree different meaning of Doomsday Defense.

So yeah, 2014, defense.

And if this defense does not improve from last year's horrendous production, which by the way wasn't that much worse than the 2010 and 2012 versions, to at least be mediocre (by definition average or middling) then this Cowboys team will not eradicate itself from that deepening rut of three consecutive 8-8 seasons.

In fact, considering all this, how in Hades did the Cowboys ever go 8-8 last year with this &%$# defense?

So when training camp begins you half expect to hear, Good morning, Mr. Marinelli. Your mission, Rod, should you choose to accept it …

Too late, he's already made his choice, Rod Marinelli, the former Vietnam Army vet, having taken over for Monte Kiffin as the Cowboys' third defensive coordinator in three years and fifth in the last five. Hmmm, sensing a trend here since Jason Garrett has taken over as head coach at the 1-7 point of the 2010 season – obviously for good reason if checking the defensive performances the past four years?

Oh yeah, and to make Marinelli's job that much tougher – as if it wasn't tough enough to start with – the Cowboys decided to part ways with defensive end DeMarcus Ware, only the franchise's all-time sack leader, and declined to offer a free-agent deal to 32-year-old defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, last year's Pro Bowler and sack leader.

Bad enough? Ha! Marinelli also will be without the heart of soul of this defense, middle linebacker Sean Lee, already rehabbing from tearing his ACL during the first offseason practice. And there is no telling if 2012 Pro Bowl defensive end Anthony Spencer will return this season, or if at all, following the career-threatening microfracture surgery last year to repair damaged cartilage under his left kneecap.

Want to wish the man luck?

Marinelli remains stoically undaunted in his task of reviving a Cowboys defense which has not ranked better than 14th (so average) since finishing eighth in 2008. And he just might need every bit of his previous 37 years of coaching experience to pull this off.

When Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was asked back in June why he thinks this defense can be better than last year's, the one riddled with injury after injury and playing an unheard of 20 different defensive linemen, no wonder he said, "Because we were so bad last year there is nowhere else to go but up."

Then, a tad more serious, Jones said, "We are better right now, certainly on paper and on the field, than how we finished last year."

You know, he's got a point. By time that final winner-take-the-East game rolled around last year on Dec. 29th, the Cowboys defensively were playing without Lee, Spencer, Tyrone Crawford and Justin Durant. Ware was playing with one arm, his elbow in need of surgery and still with a hamstring that never got right from training camp. George Selvie and Morris Claiborne were playing with shoulders in need of offseason surgeries, although Claiborne because of a hamstring injury was playing for the first time since early November. Ernie Sims was out with a groin injury.

Scarier? Here is a who-dat list of those who actually played in the game: Edgar Jones, Frank Kearse, Corvey Irvin, Everette Brown and Jarius Wynn. And that's not to mention having to start rookie safety Jeff Heath, DeVonte Holloman at middle linebacker for just the second time in his football career and playing former defensive end Kyle Wilber at strong-side linebacker.

What a mess.

 So yeah, indeed Jerry has a point.

Now, so far, unlike last year when the Cowboys were signing guys on Monday, practicing 'em on Wednesday and lining 'em up on defense Sunday, the Cowboys will land in Southern California with only one guy just coming off his couch: former eighth pick in the 2010 draft Rolando McClain, signing him a few weeks ago out of desperation to replace Lee at middle linebacker, taking a chance on a guy who did not play football last year, claiming to have retired, and then walked away from the Ravens this past April after a brief comeback fling. Who knows?

But for this defense to improve here is what definitely needs to happen:

Defensive tackle Henry Melton, the free agent signed to replace Hatcher, must return to his 2012 Pro Bowl form of Chicago before tearing his ACL in the third game of last year.

The versatile defensive lineman Crawford must make an impact, no matter if it's at defensive end, the 3-technique defensive tackle or as a pass-rushing defensive tackle on the nickel.

Second-round (and third-round) draft choice DeMarcus Lawrence must provide quarterback pressure at defensive end for what was a pressure-deficient defense last year.

Defensive end Selvie, second last year with seven sacks, must prove not to be a one-year wonder on the strong side after coming off his couch to start 16 games.

Wilber must prove he's the real deal at strong-side linebacker after playing surprisingly well at a position he hadn't played previously before the final month of the 2013 season.

Weak-side 'backer Bruce Carter, who has seemed much more engaged this offseason than last year, like really into it, has to play to the team's vision of him.

Some of this happens, and you won't have to worry about that porous secondary of last year hung out to dry far too many times with little to no pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And I'm telling you, if he remains healthy, watch out for Claiborne.

That brings us to middle linebacker, enough to make your head hurt without Lee available. This offseason we've seen rookie Anthony Hitchens there. We've seen the veteran Durant there. We've seen Holloman there, a guy who played remarkably well in his only two starts last year.

So did the Cowboys, and they've decided to bring in sight unseen McClain on a one-year minimum deal, the fourth-year veteran having missed all of 2013 and really this entire offseason. An inexpensive leap of faith? I'm told he showed up here in better shape than expected, but then his physical ability has never been questioned.

Training camp will serve as a cardiovascular examination of his heart. Does the dude really want to play? If so, the Cowboys might have just hit this one out of the park. If not, well … that's Marinelli's problem. [embedded_ad]

 So here we go, the 55th training camp beginning Tuesday for the Dallas Cowboys, heading West in search of the illusive upgrade to finishing so-so, half-n-half, or as my grandpa used to say when asked how he was feeling, "menza-menza."

And in order to break out of that dubious 8-8 malaise the mere mention of the Cowboys defense mustn't be preceded with a dirty word.

**

Just so you know: Former Cowboys assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Jim Myers – in other words Tom Landry's right hand man from 1962-1986 – has passed away at the age of 92. Myers has been considered "the oldest living Cowboy," helping to build the expansion franchise into two-time Super Bowl champs and being a part of the record 20 consecutive winning seasons.

Back in late October 2011, I was fortunate enough to attend a 90th birthday celebration for Coach Myers put together and attended by many of the former Cowboys assistants and players. His former offensive linemen spoke fondly of the hard-nosed taskmaster, as did the likes of Hall of Famers Roger Staubach and Rayfield Wright, along with Gene Stallings, Bob Ward and Alicia Landry and Tom Landry Jr.

Born Nov. 12, 1921, in Madison, W.V., Myers spent 40 years coaching football in college and with the Cowboys. Prior to Landry hiring Myers in 1962, he served as head coach of the Texas A&M Aggies from 1958-61.

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