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Offseason | 2021

Spagnola: Quinn Must Cure Those Defensive Ills


FRISCO, Texas – There were times in the Cowboys' 61-year history when they were noted for their defense.

Even earned the nickname "Doomsday Defense" back in the early 1970s, leading the Cowboys to consecutive Super Bowls, winning their first that 1971 season.

They even emerged with a second-coming of "Doomsday" later that decade, "Doomsday II" leading the Cowboys to three Super Bowls in a four-year span and winning their second Lombardi Trophy that 1977 season.

And while winning three Super Bowls in those four 1990s seasons, the majority of the attention centered on the Cowboys offense, you know, them "Triplets" comprised of Aikman-Smith-Irvin, with a Pro Bowl tight end named Novacek and an offensive line known as "The Great Wall of Dallas," the most glorified wall in Texas history.

But forgotten has been the Cowboys defense during those glory years, certainly worthy of some sort of nickname, ranking No. 1 in the NFL in 1992, 10th in 1993, No. 1 in 1994, No. 9 in 1995, No. 3 in 1996 and if you can believe this, No. 2 in that disastrous 1997 season of 6-10, costing head coach Barry Switzer his job.

Maybe, uh, "Cuttin' Cowboys" for the way they had been herding offenses.

Then, how about this? Bill Parcells that 2003 season turning a three-time 5-11 team into a wild-card playoff squad just like that in his first year as Cowboys head coach with a huge hand from this little-known fact: Mike Zimmer coordinating the NFL's No. 1 defense that year, the Cowboys' first winning season since 1998.

Defense, you know. All of it.

And after hitting rock bottom in 2013 under aging coordinator Monty Kiffin, ranking 32nd, the Cowboys defense began a steady rise over the next six seasons under Rod Marinelli, in order finishing 19th, 17th, 14th, eighth, seventh and ninth. That's a respectable top 10 for his final three years.

That's right, the Cowboys 2019 defense finished ninth in the NFL, 11th against the run and ninth against the pass, the team giving up 321 points, right at 20 a game.

Then came what unmercifully could be tagged as "Doomsday III," but this distant cousin meaning the Cowboys were _doomed_ in 2020 with an epically bad defense, finishing 23rd overall, 31st against the run, 11th against the pass, and mostly that high because teams didn't bother to throw much while running rampant over this bunch.

And if there was a statistic for busted coverages or broken assignments against the run or pass, certainly the Cowboys would have led the league in that dubious stat.

Like, what the hell happened? How did the bottom drop out so fast and so far in a year's time?

What changed?

Look, I know the Cowboys lost four starters in free agency: cornerback Byron Jones, defensive end Robert Quinn, defensive tackle Maliek Collins and safety Jeff Heath. Not like they lost four Pro Bowlers or future ones, though. Quinn had all of two sacks for the Bears in 2020 after really having spent 2019 basically "hunting" sacks on a one-year deal. Collins started just 11 games for the Raiders, 15 tackles, no sacks. Heath, the guy most everyone wanted to replace, started five games for the Raiders, but had three interceptions, which would have tied for the Cowboys' team high.

And Jones, who scored huge in free agency with the Dolphins (5 years, $82.5 million), did start 14 games, had two picks – as many as he had in five seasons with the Cowboys – and just four passes broken up.

Heck, Cowboys rookie corner Trevon Diggs had three interceptions. Rookie defensive tackle Neville Gallimore had 26 tackles. Defensive ends Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory teamed up for 8.5 sacks. And second-year safety Donovan Wilson, once he broke into the starting lineup, finished fourth on the team with 49 tackles, had 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions and four passes defensed.

The other seven starters in 2020 were basically the same from 2019.

Yet, this defense reminded me of that gosh-awful one of 1989, the first year of Jerry Jones/Jimmy Johnson when the Cowboys went a putrid 1-15. How bad was it back then? Let me count the ways:

  • 393 points, at that time the second most given up in franchise history to only the 402 of the 14-game, 1962 season.
  • 44 touchdowns, second most since 48 in 1963.
  • 321 first downs, most in the franchise's first 30 seasons.
  • 5,556 yards, also most in those first 30 seasons.

Yep, that bad, so little wonder the Cowboys won but one game that year, nine times giving up at least 27 points, with six of those at least 30.

This past season was historically worse. Let us recount the ways:

  • 473 points, most given up in franchise history.
  • 57 touchdowns, most given up in franchise history.
  • 359 first downs, second most in franchise history to the 388 in 2013.
  • 6,183 total yards, second most in franchise history to only the 6,645 of 2013, and 506 more than the third most given up.

We could go on and on, like those points given up coming to 29.5 per game, nearly 10 more than the 20 a game in 2019. But you get the idea.

Just don't buy the Cowboys defensive personnel is as bad as being depicted during all this postseason discussion. You know, all the upcoming free-agency and pre-draft discussions, that this just has to be an all-defensive draft. Heck, aside from this past year's first-round pick of CeeDee Lamb, that's basically what the Cowboys did in 2020, four of the next five picks defensive players, center Tyler Biadasz the lone exception who would have finished as last year's starting center had it not been for his hamstring injury prior to the Pittsburgh game.

Now then, the Cowboys do have holes to fill, and a lot depends on if they want to or can they sign back some of their 10 presumptive free agents, guys such as Smith, Sean Lee, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods, just to name a few.

Need help at defensive tackle? Sure, but remember Trysten Hill was playing well before lost to a torn ACL, at the time probably the best of anyone on the defensive line.

Linebacker? Most definitely, but most important is playing the ones they do have where their talent best fits. Say what you want about Jaylon Smith, the team's leading tackler the past two seasons, but he is not a weakside linebacker.

Cornerback? The height of need depending on what takes place in free agency, but why not?

Safety? At some point, sure, but please, no more has-been veterans.

Defensive end? Maybe, but what if Smith is re-signed and what if DeMarcus Lawrence plays more than 60 percent of the snaps. And how about having Randy Gregory available for an entire season, and maybe giving last year's fifth-round pick Bradlee Anae a chance.

So, step right up to the plate Dan Quinn, the Cowboys hiring the former Atlanta Falcons head coach and architect of Seattle's "Legion of Boom" defense that took the Seahawks to consecutive Super Bowls (2013-14 seasons). The veteran defensive coach replaces coordinator Mike Nolan, fired at season's end. Quinn spent those two years with the Seahawks as defensive coordinator/defensive line coach.

Quinn needs to become "Mr. Fix-It II," following in the footsteps of the self-proclaimed Wade Phillips, the noted defensive coach in his first three seasons as Cowboys head coach (2007-09) leading the defense to rankings of ninth, eighth and ninth. Phillips really topped out during the 11-5 season of 2009, the Cowboys giving up just 250 points, matching the fewest since the 248 of 1994 and subsequently matching the fewest (1996) in the past 26 seasons.

That was 15.6 a game in 2009, only the Giants scoring more than 21 points against the Cowboys in two narrow victories, 33-31 and 31-24. That was like 14 points a game fewer than the defense's deplorable performance in 2020.

You know, there was this 1990s American Western TV drama series called Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Well, the Cowboys sure need Dan Quinn to become their very own Dr. Quinn, Medicine Man of this defense.

To cure what's been ailing 'em.

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