In one telling stat, the Cowboys are off to their worst start in franchise history
For the better part of the offseason, the Dallas Cowboys’ plans for a monumental step forward in 2020 clung to the offense.
New head coach Mike McCarthy spent a year studying schemes in his film bunker and arrived with a renewed belief in analytics and personnel flexibility. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore survived the ousting of the coaching staff, promising a level of continuity and growth inside a regime change. First-round draft pick CeeDee Lamb was added to one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL. Running back Ezekiel Elliott was motivated and feeling disrespected nationally. And of course, Dak Prescott was preparing for a step into the next echelon of quarterbacks, both in the postseason and his bank account.
Beneath it all, Dallas’ defense was largely an afterthought, a retooling project under new coordinator Mike Nolan that would be leveraged on scheme flexibility, growth, youth, aging stars and a wild-card addition of former All-Pro defensive end Aldon Smith, who hadn’t played in the NFL since 2015. There wouldn’t be a mega-signing in free agency, nor a landscape-changing trade for a player like Jamal Adams.
When the 2020 campaign began, this unit was going to be whatever the mishmash of parts and plan dictated. Thus far, the result has been nothing short of terrible — to a historical degree.
How bad? Four games into the season — including Sunday’s embarrassing 49-38 loss to the Cleveland Browns — Dallas has given up an atrocious 146 points. That’s an average of 36.5 per game, which currently projects as the single-worst scoring defense in team history. To put that into perspective, the Cowboys’ previous worst-scoring defense contributed to a midseason firing of head coach Wade Phillips, who started 1-7 during a 2010 debacle that ushered in the Jason Garrett era. That infamous season, Dallas surrendered 436 points (27.3 per game) and finished 31st in the league in points allowed.
Right now, that 2010 defense would be an upgrade.
That reality is the kind of thing that usually leads to significant upheaval inside a staff. Unless a franchise is in the midst of a total teardown, this level of futility is where ownership pressure kicks in, particularly when the expectation heading into the season was a Super Bowl-caliber effort. That might be the one blessing of this pandemic season for McCarthy — the reality that Jerry Jones hasn’t been able to speak to his customary media gaggle while still caught up in his postgame emotions.
Not that anyone really needed Jones to needle the coaching staff after Sunday’s loss, which is undoubtedly the lowest point of this still-young season. The Cowboys appear to have a firm grasp on how bad things are right now.
As defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence appropriately summed it up, “I call this s--- soft.”
There are numbers to back that assessment up. Single-game numbers tell the story, like the Browns rolling up an ungodly 307 rushing yards on Sunday, a franchise worst for Dallas. Or Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson diming five touchdown passes in Week 3, despite a foolish end zone fumble by wideout DK Metcalf that could have accounted for a sixth touchdown for Wilson. Pull the tape of any game in Dallas’ 1-3 start and at some point you will encounter a stretch where it seems the Cowboys’ opponent can essentially do whatever it wants on offense.
That’s not great for Nolan, whose last stint as a defensive coordinator was monumentally bad. That includes a run with the Atlanta Falcons from 2012-14 in which Nolan’s units finished 24th, 27th and 32nd in the league in total defense. That’s a run that gets coaches fired and then relegated to positional assistant jobs, which is exactly what happened to Nolan right up to McCarthy hiring him as his defensive coordinator this season.
Make no mistake, that decision is going to weigh on McCarthy if the first quarter of this season is an indication of where Nolan’s unit is going. In fairness, it’s a reality that most defenses appear to be struggling in the early going this season, likely due to an offseason where units didn’t have time to work through scheme tweaks and complications. Nolan also hasn’t fielded a full-strength linebackers unit, with key tackling machine Leighton Vander Esch sidelined with a neck injury and glue-guy Sean Lee shelved with hernia surgery. He has also been hamstrung by a secondary that aside from rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs has woefully underperformed nearly across the board this season.
As time goes on, there is going to be a question about the complexity of Nolan’s scheme, which is guided by adjustments and different looks based on personnel strengths. Thus far, the best player inside it has been Aldon Smith — who had seemingly gotten better every game until Sunday, when he was held without a sack for the first time this season and got bullied against the run like every other defender.
It’s alarming that the best player in Nolan’s scheme has been the guy who spent the past four years out of the NFL. It’s equally alarming that Lawrence, who is the highest-paid defensive player, has been allowed to become the focal point of offenses and has been held without a sack this season. It’s also concerning that Nolan’s defense is supposed to thrive on takeaways but has one interception through four games — all while safety Xavier Woods appears to be regressing.
Perhaps nothing is more problematic than highly paid linebacker Jaylon Smith looking overmatched and out of place in coverage under Nolan.
This is the kind of thing that has made Dallas look historically vulnerable to the strength of its opposition. It was no secret the Falcons and Seahawks were going to throw the football like crazy. And this weekend, it was abundantly clear that Cleveland’s offense was predicated on the run. The Cowboys could stop neither, despite game planning for precisely those strengths.
“When you give up 300 yards rushing, that’s just poor,” McCarthy told reporters. “That’s poor run defense — no way around it. What I don’t like is the pattern of the four games. The points are outrageous, the time of possession is lopsided and we’re a minus-7 [in turnover differential].”
For now, Cowboys fans will have to wait and see what Jones thinks about all of this. Through three games, he has stayed on an even keel despite the fact that his team can’t. But the season is already slumping. And next week, Garrett comes back to town as the offensive coordinator for a New York Giants team that has been struggling on offense without running back Saquon Barkley.
As rough as the first month has been for the Cowboys and Jones, losing to the Giants and Garrett would be catastrophically bad for McCarthy. Even with the Giants being winless and looking like one of the worst teams in the league, there’s no denying what Dallas has shown the first month of the 2020 season:
A defense that is historically bad, dragging down seemingly everything with it.
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