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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: Striking some high defensive notes


FRISCO, Texas – Oh, my gosh, was this ever music to my ears.

These words coming from Cowboys COO Stephen Jones Friday afternoon, addressing what has been a big pet-peeve of mine ever since that crushing first-round playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, 48-32.

And they pertained to the Cowboys defense, at times totally overlooked for why this team struggled in some of the biggest games of the 2023 season when the Cowboys went 12-5 and won the NFC East, but failed miserably when facing such playoff teams as San Francisco and Buffalo and Green Bay, and then nearly in a game against Seattle.

You realize in those three regular-season games (49ers, Seahawks and Bills) the Cowboys gave up 108 of their 315 points this past 17-game schedule. And then the 48 to the Packers in the playoff loss, though can only pin 41 of them on the defense. But the Cowboys gave up 34.2 percent of their regular-season points in but three games, going 1-2.

And look at it this way. Opponents scored 363 points over the course of 18 games against the Cowboys in 2023, and 156 of those came in just four games, or 42.9 percent. Think about it now – forty-two-point-nine percent in four games while going 1-3. And the only reason they didn't go oh-for-four was scoring 41 points overall to beat the Seahawks, having overcome a 35-27 fourth-quarter deficit by scoring 14 consecutive points – 11 of those in the final five minutes.

Yet, when it comes to perception out there, of course head coach Mike McCarthy must shoulder the majority of the blame, and what not dumped on his shoulders then rests on Dak Prescott's. Of course, the head coach and the quarterback, the only two on a football team tagged with a record. Never heard of a defensive tackle gong 10-7, right? But as we know, with much money comes much accountability, fair or not.

Look, the Cowboys offense basically was a no-show in the first half of the payoff loss, trailing 27-7 (the Packers pick-6 of Dak accounting for seven of those points). But just because the offense is struggling doesn't mean the defense must collapse, too. Hey, hold your own. Team game, right?

And this is not to dump on defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. He was dealt a short personnel stick in the end. Not enough linebackers after Leighton Vander Esch suffered a season-ending neck injury that turned into career ending, having to play one true linebacker and a big safety as the other linebacker. And being roster deficient from ever playing three linebackers when teams were running right over the Cowboys – Arizona with 222 rushing yards, San Francisco 170, Buffalo 266, and then in the most critical game of the season, Green Bay with 143 and three rushing touchdowns.

In the playoffs, when warts always are exposed, there were not enough cornerbacks to help shoulder the load after first Trevon Diggs was lost for the season (torn ACL) and then Stephon Gilmore tried to play with a harnessed shoulder in need of season-ending surgery against the Packers.

And on top of those two inadequacies, Quinn heads to Washington for the head-coaching job and now the Cowboys are left searching for a new defensive coordinator.

But came Zimm to the rescue.

Seriously now, when accusations of doing little to nothing this offseason in free agency, along with the inability to retain enough of their own, being overlooked is the hiring of Mike Zimmer to fill the vacant defensive coordinator spot. To me, the best, most critical free-agent acquisition of the year. By far.

Now, dim the lights, play the music.

"I think any time you bring in a new coordinator you're going to have changes," Stephen said Friday on radio flagship station 105.3 The Fan, "and certainly Mike brings an edge. He coaches in a different way than Dan. Dan was very successful in the way he did it, but I think Mike has been very successful in this league in the way he does it.

"And certainly, philosophically we'll have more of a three-linebacker system rather than a two-linebacker and three-safety system that Dan preferred."

Oh, preach to me, preach.

"And the other thing, I think we'll probably look to be bigger and stronger in the middle," continued Stephen. "I think obviously our Achilles heel the last two or three years has been stopping the run."

Yeah … yeah.

"And I think Mike will bring an edge and a philosophy that should help us improve in that area," Stephen deduced.

More linebackers. Bigger in the middle. Run-stopping priority.

Just for reinforcement, in the words of Packers quarterback Jordan Love said to Micah Parsons during Super Bowl week to prove this run-stopping priority, "The key for us going into the game was we needed to run the ball. That was a huge thing. Obviously, we played you all the year before, and I feel like we ran the ball pretty well."

Yes siree, to the tune of 207 yards, defeating the Cowboys, 31-28, in overtime.

Continue giving us some Love.

"Just going against you all," Love said, "I'm not trying to talk (smack), but your linebackers (in the playoff game), I think you had a defensive back playing linebacker (Marquese Bell, converted out of necessity from safety to linebacker). That was our goal, to run the ball. That was going to set everything else up."

Brother, did it, and when forced to play so much zone compensating for Gilmore's shoulder deficiency, never in my born days have I seen so many next-zip-code open receivers, the Packers totaling 415 total yards, the fifth game the Cowboys defense gave up 400-plus yards.

Now go on Stephen. It's one thing to want to be better at stopping the run, but another is having the ability and personnel to better do so.

"I think the philosophy Zimm brings to the table fits what Mazi (Smith, first round pick) did (at Michigan)," Stephen said. "Obviously, we have a lot of resources tied up in Mazi, what you pay a first-round pick and using a first-round pick. I think he fits more into what Zimm does than maybe what Dan was trying to get out of him, so I think that will be a big plus for us."

And then considering having signed veteran free-agent linebacker Eric Kendricks, that importance should not be overlooked, and still having the likes of Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, Osa Odighizuwa, Damone Clark, Jourdan Lewis, the return of Diggs and DeMarvion Overshown, along with DaRon Bland, Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson at safety, with up-and-comers Sam Williams, Bell and Juanyeh Thomas, plus the draft potential, the outlook defensively is not so bleak.

"But we really like the defensive side of the football," Stephen said with good reason if being realistic not overly hysterical.

Key notes here then would be: Mazi must become The Maz; acquisition of Kendricks; then Diggs and Overshown return good as new; and draftees. And with all the talk of first-round offensive linemen – tackles, centers, guards – don't just dismiss a defensive tackle since behind Osa and The Maz is just a Fehoko and Golston, and do you even know their names?

See there, when you hear all that, strike up the band.

The notes not so sad.

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