I must admit that covering the offense on Tuesdays and the defense on Wednesdays all of these many years has offered quite a contrast in how teams are built. On the offense, the Cowboys have invested their resources - all of the money (it seems), all of the draft picks (it seems), and all of their focus. They wanted to build an offense without weaknesses, and sometimes it looks like it.
Meanwhile, when we look at the defense, there are almost no players (Sean Lee being the lone exception) who would ever work their way onto an NFL promo where they are highlighting which stars are going to be playing next Sunday. The Cowboys have not invested the world in this defense and seem to seldom obsess about it. They know this is a league where people always say "defense wins championships" and sometimes it really does. But most years, it is a Top 5 offense joined by a defense that is just good enough to get a stop here and there. Almost like NBA teams see life. They realize the other team is going to score, too. We just need to mix in a few stops along the way.
So the Cowboys wisely followed this model and that has led us to where we are. An offense that is raved about from coast to coast with people discussing each component as the league's best. Who is the MVP? Is it Ezekiel Elliott or Dak Prescott? Well, I might try to vote for the offensive line, personally. And then, on his day, Dez Bryant gets plenty of time on the screen as a "best in show" candidate.
Meanwhile, here is Rod Marinelli trying to put together a puzzle of league-minimum players, retreads, projects, and the occasional high investment mixed in. According to Spotrac, the Cowboys have 10 players with contracts that average $5 million a year right now. Only 3 are defensive players - Tyrone Crawford, Brandon Carr, and Sean Lee. Carr agreed to a massive salary cut last summer, and Lee gets paid quite a bit of his money based on his attendance record.
So, the defense ends up being a laboratory of experiments. Maybe the Raiders don't need this fourth defensive end. Maybe we can snag this guy off the Chiefs practice squad. Maybe this Minnesota linebacker makes sense in Round 4. Or this Iowa linebacker in Round 4.
Regardless, the Cowboys have a defense. It has warts, but doggone, the athleticism they have built is impressive. I have really enjoyed the work of the scouts and the front office with Rod Marinelli to consistently find players he can use without ever really dedicating a huge investment to his cause. In fact, at times, you almost think he prefers these guys over the guys you pay before they accomplish anything. It reminds me of the cliche "it is hard to be hungry when you are full" that is thrown around about players who are granted the world before they make a play. The Cowboys have almost none of those players on their defense.
Which has led us to this group which seems to be getting better each month. Here are the final totals.
When we look at these numbers, we see that they were very good in two particular spots - points against and big plays against. You can thank the offense for not over-exposing the defense (notice time of possession). But the ability to keep big plays from happening on a regular basis is not something you would credit the offense for helping with. That is scheme. That is quality. And that is something that has sunk other Cowboys ships.
This year, when a big play has been made when the defense has been on the field, it has often been by the defense themselves.
In fact, allow me to show you John Daigle's latest masterpiece. This is the season-long pass chart for the opponents.
DEFENSE THROW CHART
You will notice theme - don't let anyone get behind our safeties. Very few times did that happen all year and they should be congratulated for that very impressive accomplishment.
And that is why 6 years ago, I started to keep "splash plays. " Now, I know we don't need media guys inventing new stats and this certainly would not be called an analytic. This is really a subjective award I give out when watching the tape of these games when I see a defender "end" a play in a positive manner. You can't just have defenders out there bending but not breaking. Good defense is best played with an aggressive and attacking fashion. Splashes should measure successful attacks. Attack the QB, the ball carrier, the ball itself. Go win a down. If you do, I award a splash. Consider it a "Buckeye" on the helmet.
With that in mind, we have a new king. Now, individual awards can get wonky when you have a good team, because if Sean Lee had played full the final two weeks, he would have likely won another crown. Instead, the very unlikely prospect of a kid named David Irving has won the 2016 splash play crown. Amazing work from big #95, who contributed 27.5 play-enders this season. Lee led the entire season until this final week where he did not play a snap.
SEASON TOTALS - SPLASH PLAYS
There are so many good stories on that chart. Many players took steps forward or arrived on the scene like Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown, and new signings Benson Mayowa and Cedric Thornton and let you know you can look to them in upcoming years.
Here were the Week 17 Splashes for your review:
And, one more - the week-by-week splash totals to see how the race developed:
I think it is a worthy endeavor to try to track these plays, because this is what defense is all about. The Cowboys have built a team that is making more splash plays now than at any other time I have tracked this since 2011, and I think you can see it on the screen.
OK, on to some video.
I admit, I have a thing for Randy Gregory. He is an amazing talent and despite his flaws as a human, I remain optimistic that at some point, he will be worth the trouble. I know this will not be a position that makes me popular with many readers, but perhaps you will allow me one indulgence that defies common sense. He wears #94 like DeMarcus Ware and sometimes, if you squint, you can see Ware. I know that seems crazy, but he has made 6 plays in the last two weeks that have me remembering the greatest Cowboys defender in my time in Dallas.
Here is that TFL against the Lions from last week. Explosiveness and cat-like quickness.
Then, this one where he converts power to quickness and ends a play where Stafford is pulling his chute early to get out of Dodge before the train arrives.
Now, 4 more plays from the Philadelphia game:
This is not a splash play and it might also be a busted assignment from Gregory (Although you could argue he is crashing inside and the LB is supposed to fill his lane. Either way, he is beat by Darren Sproles. That happens and Ware used to crash inside all of the time on this type of play. But, the recovery is what I focus on. Look at those strides and the speed to run down one of the fastest guys in the league. Wow!
Here is another quick jump off the snap and a crushing TFL. Good luck to the TE who is supposed to stop him with a reach-block when there is no leverage at all on his side. No chance. Splash.
This one is more about motor. Just watch 94 on this play. It takes a lot of defenders to keep this play out of the end zone. But, I credited Gregory with the splash because he stops the play and if he doesn't, the play is a touchdown. Look at this still shot to prove it, I think, as the ball carrier is trying to get back to the wall of Eagles behind Gregory. One more move and he is home free around his blockers. He can't get around 94.
Any loafing and that is a touchdown. Gregory wasn't having it.
Finally, here, one of the best tackles in the league, Jason Peters, tries to cut him. He fails and moments later Gregory has his first NFL sack. Let's hope there are many more, but frankly, it may be quite a while based on his off-field issues and problems.
Meanwhile, another player we have hardly ever discussed had a big game, too. Damien Wilson, come on down!
This is Wilson playing for Sean Lee. One thing this year has taught us is that good teams cannot have guys that you can't replace. Tony Romo had us believing that only one player could ever play QB for this team. In the past, Sean Lee has felt that same way at LB. Now, his understudy plays a game for him and looks somewhat capable of doing Sean Lee things, when given the chance. He is such an athlete and certainly looks like he has learned from the master. Look at this.
Again, Darren Sproles, people. In space against a Linebacker. Wilson is certainly up to the task.
Here he is as the rat in the hole. But, once he sees what is happening, he goes in hot pursuit of the QB. Look at the mobility and the hips that have this play looking like a drill at the NFL Combine. Eventually, Wentz realizes this play is dead, but throws a pass that is begging to be picked off carelessly in the middle of the field.
And one more from Wilson. Tell me this doesn't look like Sean Lee beating a RB to the corner, shedding off a guard, and combining with Maliek Collins for a TFL. What a day from Damien Wilson.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
It was a game where the understudies had plenty of chances to shine and they did. The vets had a chance to rest and recover and now the big tests will arrive in the playoffs. Likely, Randy Gregory will not join them there, but the rest look up to the task..
We will study what that task will be next Wednesday.