When you want to win a game, you have to teach. When you lose a game, you have to learn. - Tom Landry
Since this clearly was not a winning year for the Dallas Cowboys, the team needs to take a large dose of Landry's wisdom and put it to good use. They must be in a full-blown learning mode. On Sunday night in New York, Super Bowl XLVIII gave the team what should turn out to be a remedial lesson in Championship Football 101: Defense still wins championships in the NFL. There were lessons to be learned from the way that the World Champion Seattle Seahawks effectively dismembered the Denver Broncos, and for now, we must hope that the Dallas Cowboys brain-trust was taking notes of the lessons being taught.
In his recap and early post-game discussion post, Blogging The Boys Managing Editor Dave Halprin summed up the game with one sentence in his opening paragraph.
That was one of the best displays of defensive football I've ever seen and I've watched a lot of football. - Dave Halprin
Dave took the words right out of my mouth with that comment. In a battle that pitted the NFL's top offense against the league's top defense, the Seattle Seahawks defense stepped up from the opening kickoff and started to punch the Denver Broncos in the mouth. They never backed off, and the unflappable Broncos quarterback, Peyton Manning, was never able to get his high-powered offensive juggernaut in gear.
The First Lesson
The Seahawks' defensive line dominated the game -- ferocious, fierce and overwhelmingly physical. They smacked the Broncos in the mouth, and Denver's offense couldn’t smack back.
While the Denver passer did set a Super Bowl record for passes completed (34 for 49), Manning's stats were generated once the outcome had long since been decided. The night belonged to a defensive unit that many felt should have been awarded the game's MVP as a group achievement. The entire group rose to the occasion against perhaps the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, and they were able to do so without going outside their normal gameplan.
"I know our guys know how to rush, but we didn’t talk about sacks. We talked about moving Peyton off his spot. If we did that, we knew they would have to deal with us." - Dan Quinn, Seattle defensive coordinator
Although the defense only recorded one sack of the future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback, they spent the entire evening in his face. The pressure the Seahawks were able to generate upfront was unrelenting.
"We knew if we got pressure on Manning, we could affect the outcome of the game. That’s what we did tonight." - Cliff Avril, Seattle defensive end
It all began upfront for the Seahawks. While new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is well aware of how consistent effective pressure from the rushmen can be disruptive to an offense, the higher levels of the Dallas organization should probably take copious notes to reinforce the concept in their minds. If an unrelenting pass rush can get inside the mind of the unflappable Peyton Manning, it can throw any mortal quarterback off of his game. Dallas must be continually striving to develop the same kind of pressure from its defensive front that the Seahawks were able to deliver in the Super Bowl.
The Second Lesson
On Sunday night the Seahawks played not like a flock of birds but more like a swarm of angry hornets. They were flying around everywhere and were attacking with a vengeance. It seemed like every tackle resulted in a hapless Bronco being sandwiched between multiple defenders, each one laying the wood with his hit.
"They haven’t played a defense that flies around like we do, that hits like we do, and we just do it every single play. We figured that the longer and longer the game went, they were going to fall eventually." - Bobby Wagner
Wagner was right, sort of. It was less a matter of the Broncos failing eventually, than it was a failure from the get-go. On the few occasions that it seemed that Manning and his teammates were actually going to bring about a shift in the momentum of the game, a Seattle defender would make a play and wrestle back the tide of the game in favor of his team. Most impressive was the fact that it was not one player doing so, it was everybody on the defense. Well almost everybody. Surprisingly, the Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman was mostly quiet on the night. With their entire defensive unit playing as a unit and executing Dan Quinn's defensive schemes to almost perfection, Seattle didn't need him (and Denver didn't test him much). Seattle had too many other pieces on the defensive side of the ball to step up and make plays.
"Our defense is one of the best that has ever played. We just have so many great players. I can’t believe the NFL even lets us all play on the same defense. Guys like me, [free safety] Earl Thomas and [defensive end] Cliff Avril. It’s just unfair." - Michael Bennett, Seattle defensive lineman
The key to a stout, championship-winning defense is having multiple key pieces that can be playmakers. While a team does not need eleven superstars on the defense, it does need a couple playmakers in each unit, and to be filled out with other guys who play solid football. The fact that a relative unknown player like Malcom Smith, essentially the second-stringer for most of the season, can win the MVP award in the biggest game of his life is a testament to the level of depth that Seattle has amassed. That is the type of depth that allows a defensive unit to dominate its opponent the way Seattle dominated Denver. Every guy on that defense knew that he belonged on the field and that it was his responsibility to shut down the vaunted Denver offense and that he was capable of doing just that. In effect, the Seattle defense, and to a larger extent the team, is built around a wolfpack concept. They don't rely on having a few stars, they built a pack of wolves hungry to prove themselves to the NFL.
They simply have a team with many great parts, but those parts seldom work their way to marquees, except when they demonstrate a personality trait that may not play well everywhere. Otherwise, they are a 53 man wolf pack that seems to be generally cut from the same cloth of physical, demolishing football. - Bob Sturm
As my BTB colleague Tom Ryle stated in our post-Super Bowl discussions around our virtual office today, there is no reason Dallas cannot build a similar type of defense. All that is required is that they commit to doing so.
"If the Cowboys give Marinelli the tools he needs, they can become a similar defense. It is unlikely they can be as good, because there was a little luck involved in Seattle finding the players they did when they did (such as all the other teams, like Dallas, that passed on many of these players), but they can certainly get a lot closer if they get the team some rushmen and a big safety or two with range." - Tom Ryle
Having Rod Marinelli as the new defensive coordinator is a positive start. From experience, we know that he is capable of building a defensive front that is willing and able to get heat on the passer. Now the next step is for the front office to take the next step in building Rod a pass rush. That too appears to be on its way to becoming a reality, according to Stephen Jones.
"I think our biggest challenge is to get a better roster. Get us to where we can compete better. I think it will start with our defensive front. We spent a lot of energy in the offensive line the last couple of years. I think we did some good there...obviously we'll turn our attention to the front seven with the injuries and obviously the cap situation that we have." - Stephen Jones
In this area the Cowboys have the men on staff to develop the talent, it is simply a matter of finding the talent and bringing it in. Marinelli and Leon Lett have proven their ability to develop players in Dallas.
Still, the pass rush is only where things start. Dallas also needs to be strong on the back end. There have been some efforts to address this in recent years, but they have not proved successful. In this case Dallas has brought in some talent like Mo Claiborne and Brandon Carr, unfortunately they have not developed and gelled as was anticipated. There lies the opportunity for the Cowboys to improve in this area. The talent that they have in house needs to be developed to its fullest extent. Of course the still need to invest in more talent for the back end, too. A safety would be a good place to start.
The task is large, but not unachievable for the Cowboys. The "infrastructure" to begin building a championship caliber defense is in place, but it is going to take more than just that. Starting with the realization that "defense does win championships", the Cowboys have the potential to transform themselves into the type of team that they need to be. It is a matter of effort and commitment, and the question remains; 'Will the Cowboys be willing to do what it takes?' The model for success is out there. Now Jerry Jones and company just need to follow it.
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