FRISCO, Texas – So much is being made of the Cowboys' offensive failures following the 48-32 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the first round of the NFC playoffs.
And that focus includes questioning whether to retain head coach Mike McCarthy, who is basically the offensive coordinator and play-caller too, for the final year of his five-year contract. Much attention is being centered around quarterback Dak Prescott, even though he's an AP NFL Most Valuable Player award finalist, along with being an AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year award finalist, focusing on heading into the final year of his contract and questioning if he's worth the $59.45 million base salary for 2024.
OK, fine. That's great.
But what about the Cowboys defense? Any thoughts there? Any worries?
Now certainly realize the Cowboys finished fifth in total yards allowed, fifth in total passing yards allowed and fifth again when it comes to points allowed, an average of 21 a game.
But here is my concern, and it's one of my biggest worries looking back at the 2023 season when considering the six games the Cowboys lost and the number of rushing yards given up:
Arizona 28, Cowboys 16, 222 rushing yards.
San Francisco 42, Cowboys 10, 170.
Philadelphia 28, Cowboys 23, 109.
Buffalo 31, Cowboys 10, 266.
Miami 22, Cowboys 20, 91.
Green Bay 48, Cowboys 32, 143.
Sense a trend? Two trends?
First, the Cowboys gave up at least 28 points in five of the six losses.
Next, five of the six losses were to eventual playoff teams, all but Arizona (4-13) winning at least nine regular-season games and four of the teams winning at least 11.
The Cowboys gave up a total of 199 points of their 18-game total of 363 in those six losses, yielding an average of 33.1 points a game. Now granted, the defense is only responsible for 41 points in the playoff loss to the Packers, but even in the one game the Cowboys allowed the losing low of 22 points, the defense let the Dolphins drive 64 yards in 12 plays to kick the game-winning, walk-off 29-yard field goal as time expired.
Otherwise, they would have beaten the Dolphins, 20-19, a rare oddity since then beating Detroit, 20-19, meant winning two games by that identical score for the first time in one season and only the third and fourth times in franchise history. The only other 20-19 victories registered were during the 2011 season when beating Miami on Thanksgiving and in 2012 when winning at Cincinnati.
When it came to rushing yards in those six losses, why, they only held Miami to less than 100 yards (91), thus giving up an average of 166.8 rushing yards in those six losses. And the Cowboys were able to beat Detroit by only a point – the Lions deciding against kicking the extra point that most assuredly would have sent the game into overtime – while giving up 125 rushing yards.
Again, this is what's been so deceiving about this third consecutive 12-5 season under McCarthy, and now having gone 1-3 in the playoffs these past three seasons. The Cowboys were just 4-5 against teams finishing with winning records, beating the Rams (10-7), Eagles (11-6) the second time around, Seahawks (9-8), yet having to score 41 points to win by six, and Lions (12-5).
Check how important defense still is in this NFL with three of the four teams playing in the conference finals on Sunday. The Ravens gave up no more than 20 points in 12 of 18 games, including just 10 in their divisional round playoff win, and no more than those 20 in 11 of their 14 wins. NFC champion San Francisco gave up no more than 20 points in 11 games, 10 of those wins, and just 21 in the divisional round playoff win. Oh, and Kansas City, no more than 20 in 12 of their 14 wins and in 14 of 19 games, and just 21 in two losses.
Defense does matter.
Now, great the Cowboys beat all but one of the teams they should have beaten for sure this season, the lone exception being losing to the Cardinals. Great they finished 8-0 at AT&T Stadium. But in the scheme of things, their victories came against teams totaling a .392 winning percentage, tying Seattle for sixth lowest in the NFC. Dallas beat teams that combined for 80 wins, far behind San Fran's 97 and the 89 belonging to Detroit and Philadelphia.
Feasted on the have-nots but not so much the haves.
On top of all these concerns, the Cowboys sit on pins and needles waiting to find out if defensive coordinator Dan Quinn gets the Seattle head coaching job, having interviewed twice where he once was the Seahawks defensive coordinator back in 2013-14 and D-Line coach in 2009-10. Seems Seattle is waiting to conduct a few more interviews next week with coordinators in the conference title games, and word is the Commanders want to bring Quinn in next week.
As McCarthy said of Quinn, "Dan is a highly valued member of the team."
Their defensive deficiencies were glaring. Too many times they got knocked off the line of scrimmage, really only veteran Johnathan Hankins at 325 pounds adding heft to that front. First-round draft choice Mazi Smith shrunk to maybe 300 pounds after the draft and only played 25.2 percent of the defensive snaps, finishing with just 15 tackles. Most telling of his rookie season, Mazi had only four snaps in the loss to Green Bay.
Then their inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks reared its ugly head in the latter part of the season. The Cowboys went five consecutive games between beating Seattle and losing to Miami with but one sack in each game. And then after recording four against the poor Commanders in the regular season finale, they zeroed out against the Packers, thus finishing down the stretch with a total of five sacks in six of the final seven games.
Then there was the loss of veteran linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, leaving the linebacking corps way short-handed, trying to supplement with safeties moonlighting as 'backers. And that sure didn't work out too well when offenses went heavy against the Cowboys defense by playing two tight ends.
And finally, after disguising their lack of depth in the secondary with the loss of Pro Bowl cornerback Trevon Diggs after two games, the last thing the Cowboys needed in the playoffs was veteran corner Stephon Gilmore trying to play with the injured shoulder he suffered against Washington harnessed because of a lack of cornerback depth and trust in the next man up – either Nahshon Wright or Noah Igbinoghene. The Packers tore apart their attempt to play some zone coverage.
On top of all that, the Cowboys have nine defensive unrestricted free agents, either starters or significant contributors, heading into the new league year, and that includes Gilmore, Hankins, Jourdan Lewis, Jayron Kearse and Dorance Armstrong (21 sacks over the past three seasons, second to Micah Parsons' 14 in 2023 with 7½).
Speaking of Parsons, now a three-time Pro Bowler and an AP Defensive Player of the Year candidate going into his fourth season, the Cowboys have until May 2 to pick up his 2025 fifth-year option, which will cost them at least a guaranteed $20 million against the cap if they don't sign him to a costly long-term extension.
This defense must improve. Free agency. NFL Draft. Trades. Return of Diggs (ACL), maybe Vander Esch, depending on what he decides with his neck issues, and last year's third-round draft choice DeMarvion Overshown (ACL). The Maz making a huge second-year jump. Same for another leap from safeties Markquese Bell and Juanyeh Thomas.
Bottom line: This defense needs to improve. Must improve against top competition. Because as pointed out in Wednesday's Mick Shots, the Cowboys schedule grows significantly more difficult in 2024, 11 of 17 games against teams with 2023 winning records, nine of those games against 2023 playoff teams, and five of them vs. division winners. Why, three of those games against teams competing in Sunday's conference championship games.
Lions and Niners and Ravens, oh my.
So in my book, if there's already a prevailing worry heading into the 2024 season, and we haven't even hit February yet, it's D-E-F-E-N-S-E.