It certainly feels like just about any commentary about this team should be about the inevitable change that hovers right outside the front door, but given that it is being covered just about everywhere else I thought we could talk about the current state of affairs with this defense. The spine of the Wade Phillips’ era has been the ability of his defense to border on dominant at certain times as his 3-4 scheme has helped the Cowboys spend the better part of his 4 seasons near the top of the charts in many of the important defensive categories.
But, at this point, the defense is the main reason why a change must be made in this organization to attempt to salvage something from the rubble of this defense’s complete and total collapse under Phillips.
In 2009, they boasted one of the best resumes in points allowed (only the Jets allowed fewer points) and kept the Cowboys in games on a routine basis. There were days in 2008, when the offense was going through all sorts of issues that the defense fought its tail off to attempt to save the day for the team. Anyone who saw the games like the trip to Pittsburgh ’08, or Green Bay ’09, or even Washington to start this year know what this defense is capable of. Heck, even the game at the Metrodome on October 17th was a very proud effort from the defense that was coordinated and inspired by the embattled Cowboys coach.
So, when you look at this team as it embarrasses itself on national TV by hardly slowing down the Green Bay Packers, you can rationalize the offensive effort by simply suggesting the Cowboys have one of the 10 top Quarterbacks in the league and that when you lose him, the season is effectively over. But, there is simply no way to rationalize the defensive efforts anymore.
Not after Chicago. Not after Tennessee. Surely, not after New York. Or Jacksonville. And goodness, not after Green Bay.
As we have talked about on Friday, the most disconcerting element of the defense’s supremely disappointing effort would be the fact that everyone is present and accounted for. There is really not one player of significance on the defense who has missed time because of injury. That is amazing on many levels because #1) it is tough to find another defense that can say they have had perfect health and #2) it is tough to imagine this Cowboys’ defense with their full compliment of talent can go from what we saw last December against the Saints and Eagles to what we saw yesterday in Wisconsin.
DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are here. And yet the defense continues to struggle. Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins are here. And yet the opposition’s QB cannot wait to throw another quick pass to the sideline to watch them try to tackle. Bradie James and Keith Brooking are here. And every time they blitz it seems they are caught up in the wash. Gerald Sensabaugh and Alan Ball are here. Except I have a hard time finding anything positive to say about the safety position all season. And that defensive line, that was the anchor of the 3-4 for this entire Phillips’ run is still Marcus Spear, Jay Ratliff, and Igor Olshansky. Just like they drew it up in April and May. You remember April and May, right? That was when many of the NFL pundits (including this one) looked at the talent at the Cowboys disposal and agreed that the odds were reasonable to assume the Cowboys would be a real threat to be the first team in NFL history to play the Super Bowl in their own stadium.
There is no projecting or accounting for the broken collarbone of your Quarterback. But, before we revise history, let’s remember that the Cowboys were 1-4 when his body was healthy. They were 1-4 and now 1-7 because of many reasons. The offensive line has underachieved at a very high level this season, and many are thinking the unit got old simultaneously. The running game still looks woeful. But, to me, the element of the team that is the single greatest reason a change of great significance must be made is the way this defense has allowed itself to be gutted in front of the football world.
First, the Giants had their turn. With a big offensive line, powerful running backs, and Wide Outs attacking the edge, we saw that the Cowboys didn’t quite have the ability to stay on task when they saw their QB taken to the locker-room to be fitted for a sling. Now, you might ask why Romo’s health would keep Sensabaugh from wanting anything to do with Mario Manningham, and for that I do not have an answer.
Then, David Garrard spent a good part of his first trip to the Cowboys brand new stadium throwing touchdowns. He had an effort that even shocked him, because guys in this league know how tough things should be. After the game, he marveled at the ease of the conquest and suggested that it was pretty clear the Cowboys defense wasn’t into the game like you would expect. Wasn’t into the game? There are 16 days a year they are asked to be “into it”. And from peewee league on, defensive players know that what the offense does is not their concern. They still need to do their jobs with the same proficiency and intensity that they would do regardless of the other units on the team.
And then, last night. Where the Packers had almost no threat themselves of running the football. A team that would not challenge your physical spirit between the tackles like the Giants or Jaguars could. The Cowboys would be able to simple pass rush and cover a team that hardly even bothers to run the ball and was led in rushing by their QB for most of the night as he was simply trying to keep plays alive after his pocket broke down.
Aaron Rodgers is a quality QB who was playing at the top of his game. There would be nights were you would tip your cap and accept that the other team is paying their players, too. But, given that the Cowboys have allowed the highest passer rating in the NFL week after week, we should not be shocked that Rodgers had a 131 (they allow an opponent’s passer rating of 109.1 which is now dead last 32nd). After all, Vince Young, Jay Cutler, Garrard, Eli Manning, and Brett Favre, sliced and diced this defense through the air, too.
The fundamental problem with the Cowboys is that their defensive front and their secondary do not seem to ever be on the same page in pass defense. This remains particularly surprising given the success that these players have had in the past.
But now, with their full compliment of 11, they demonstrated that the blitz doesn’t work. Coverage doesn’t cover, and worst of all, nobody seems to either have the ability or the will (or both) to tackle. There were several instances last night where the opportunity was there to make a play with a simple tackle and the Cowboys looked like they were making “business decisions” as Deion Sanders used to say. A business decision is the opposite of showing heart and effort and pride in the face of adversity. And because it appears the barrel is fresh out of all of those supplies, I think the need for a severe and strong message that this will not be tolerated is at least 2 weeks long overdue.
Maybe the signature play from the game was a moment when Rodgers attempted to scramble for a 1st Down on a 3rd and long play, only to realize that 2 Cowboys were converging on him to stop him short. He kept running through their half-hearted effort to stop him and easily gained a 1st Down. Credit him for not going to the hook slide when many other QBs might have in an effort to fight another day, but debit the Cowboys for not attempting to make him pay with a heavy physical toll.
And the ultimate insult comes in the form of those quick WR screens. When one team runs them on you, it doesn’t constitute a trend. When every team runs them on you as a matter of habit, the league is telling you that their number one objective when playing your defense is to perform a gut check throughout the game. See how long the Cowboys want to compete. See when they try to tap out and take the easy way out because they are tired from the fight. Imagine, the league telling a proud franchise like this that they don’t believe your soldiers have any spirit left in them.
That is where we are. And now, the weekly question must be repeated: Is Jerry Jones mad enough to do something about this mess, yet? Or, will we be asking this same question in 7 days after a trip to see the Giants again?