The idea behind my mini-epic three part series looking at strategy for the Dallas Cowboys was to show how the team has developed a long range approach to continued success similar to the nearly three decades when Tom Landry and Tex Schramm ran the team upon first joining the NFL. I not only think Stephen Jones and Jason Garrett are headed in that direction, but that they are doing so deliberately and with some daring and vision.
I am basing this on the evidence of what the team has done in the year and a half since JG5000 first stepped in as head coach, and then projecting what I see Stephen and Jason doing beyond 2012. The first part laid the foundation, and the second part looked at the offensive side of the ball. This final installment will look at the defense.
There is a difference between the defense and the offense. Jason Garrett is an offensive coach first, and even if he brings in or promotes a full-time offensive coordinator to take over the signal calling duties on game day, I am sure the offense of the Dallas Cowboys will always be guided and shaped by him. The defense is very different, with the coordinator there having much more input and influence on how that goes. And maintaining continuity is going to be a bit more difficult, since coordinators are, if successful, likely to be lured away to become head coaches themselves.
That is certainly the expected trajectory for current DC Rob Ryan. He was hamstrung by the loss of the 2011 offseason to the travesty known as the NFL Lockout, as well as a poorly stocked pool of defensive talent. The team focused first on upgrading the offense, and Rob had to roll largely with what he inherited. That did not work so well. But the 2012 offseason has brought him a whole bunch of shiny new toys, and I certainly expect him to make some significant strides. Which may result in some offers as early as the end of the next season. I hope the team has him grooming one or more of his assistants to be able to step up and keep some stability in the defensive approach for the Cowboys. As I have alluded to, a constant building is a lot better way to go than having to retool completely.
A look at the defensive units after the jump.
I would expect that Stephen and Jason have given some thought to what to do next at the defensive coordinator position, but that is still largely going to have to be a bridge that will be burned after you get to it, or however that goes. But in the meantime, we can take a look at what is going on with the defense, and what the future plans may look like.
Secondary. This was generally conceded to be the defensive downfall of the Cowboys in 2011. And the team jumped on it in the offseason like the proverbial duck on a June bug. Brandon Carr was the prime target in free agency. Brodney Pool was added to bolster safety play. Then the megadeal on the first day of the NFL draft brought potential defensive stud Morris Claiborne to the team, and they added Matt Johnson with the supplemental fourth pick. Despite the ongoing drama over Mike Jenkins and his desire for a trade, the team would seem likely to have the issues in pass coverage well in hand, with a bunch of other young players vying for the backup positions and the obvious weak links, like Frank Walker and Alan Ball, no longer issues. Unless the team is woefully wrong in its talent evaluation, and I don't think they are, this is one area that should be in good shape for a couple of years. I do expect the Garrett approach of competition and churn to continue here - I just think that the players that make it this year will be in good shape to hang onto their roster position the following season. Even anticipating that Jenkins will move on next year if he does stay with the team for 2012, I think "next man up" will come into play, and the team will just be seeking one backup then.
Linebackers. The inside is looking good. Sean Lee is already being used as a standard of comparison by the national media. With Bruce Carter and Dan Connor vying for the other position, and looking like they will give the team a solid three man rotation, the team just has to find a good backup.
Outside is in good shape this year. DeMarcus Ware is going to be in the Hall of Fame, and hopefully he has at least a few good years left. The much cussed and discussed move to franchise Anthony Spencer has the other side also set for this year, and hopefully the backups will be solid. But this has to be one area that the team is going to be looking long and hard at for 2013. Spencer is likely going elsewhere, and even if Kyle Wilber steps up and makes us forget the Almost Anthony moniker, there is still that issue of what to do when DWare retires. The OLB class is not looking that strong in 2013, according to the early look at prospects on CBS Sports, and I am not sure how many of the somewhat deeper DE group would be good candidates for the Ware role. The team will likely have more than one year to get this right, but it would be prudent to start working on this sooner rather than later.
Line. Outside of Jay Ratliff, there is some youth here, and the team may be in a pretty good position. Sean Lissemore seems poised to break out this year, Jason Hatcher should still have a couple of serviceable years in him, Clifton Geathers has some apparent upside, and rookie Tyrone Crawford has a lot of people excited about his potential. But Marcus Spears is likely getting to the end of his usefulness, and Rat can't keep going forever. After trying to find a followup for DWare, I would think some good DT talent would be the next priority. Again going by the CBS projections, the 2013 class looks to have a fair number of likely candidates here.
So the priorities for defense in the immediate future would seem to be OLB/DE and DT. With the things I came up with looking at the offense, that gives five priorities, and in roughly this order: Quarterback, OLB/DE, tight end, DT, and running back. That is not at all overwhelming, and as I have mentioned, the team may have two or three years to get some of them right.
Based on the past year and a half, I feel pretty good about the prospects. I like what Stephen Jones and Jason Garrett are doing. I think they have a very good handle on this, and already have some ideas about what they will do. First, of course, they have the 2012 season to take care of. And I, for one, can hardly wait.