When thinking about the Dallas Cowboys and the season they had in 2007, a few conflicting words come to mind: incredible, disappointing, record setting, untapped potential, you get the idea. Last season was filled with incredible highs that ended with a resounding thud in the playoffs. A lot of fans and media look back at the 2007 season and point to one area that needed major improvement in order to contend for the Super Bowl in 2008; the pass defense. While Tony Romo, Marion Barber and Terrell Owens were busy setting franchise records and putting together the number two ranked offense in the league, the defense was seemingly coming up short all year long.
As I think back to last year's campaign, one thing really sticks out that bothered me endlessly throughout the season. Every single week we had to listen to various experts around the country lambaste the Cowboys' pass defense and how it would hold the team back. And while I wouldn't want to admit it, those views were justified. The Cowboys never really had a fully healthy defense, with Terence Newman and Anthony Henry fighting injuries all season long. On a team that was firing on all cylinders like the Cowboys were, the play of the secondary was easy fodder for everyone else to point to and say, "They need to fix that." So as we prepare for the new season with several new faces on defense, I decided to take a look back at exactly what went wrong with the Cowboys defense in 2007. The results might surprise you.
Caution: stats avalanche ahead.
While the Cowboys ranked #9 overall in total defense and #13 in pass defense, those rankings are slightly misleading. The defensive rankings are based upon yards allowed per game; the Cowboys allowed 307.6 ypg total while allowing 213 ypg passing for the season.
Yet the Cowboys were sixth in the league in yards per play, allowing just 4.6 ypp all season and in Wade Phillips' favorite category they were sixth overall in passing yards per attempt at 6.4. Even better the Cowboys were fifth in the league in opponents QB rating, with quarterbacks scoring an average 75.1 rating against the Cowboys. Most surprising was that the Cowboys had as many interceptions as touchdowns allowed (19).
Taking a look across the board, the Cowboys allowed just three big passing games all season long. Week one against Eli Manning; with no Terence Newman the Cowboys gave up 312 passing yards for a 7.6 ypa. Week 6 against Tom Brady; well we know that was bad (388 yards, 54 pass attempts, 8.4 ypa). And Aaron Rodgers had a nice half against the 'Boys with 201 yards through the air for a 7.6 ypa.
The other supposedly big game by an opposing quarterback was Jason Campbell's in week eleven. On closer examination it wasn't that tremendous, while he had a whopping 348 yards passing he managed just 6.4 yards per attempt.
So what gives with the confusing and conflicting stats? Well the Cowboys had such a low yards per pass attempt versus overall pass defense because opposing teams had the fourth most pass attempts against the Cowboys in the NFL. The low ypa and QB rating say that the Cowboys' defense wasn't really all that bad, right? Well, not exactly.
Anyone can use stats to prove the point they are trying to make. They just show the numbers they want and ignore the rest. While the Cowboys weren't as bad as the rankings would have you believe, they definitely had some holes that were mighty worrisome.
The Cowboys were just 15th in the NFL in stopping the opposition on third down, allowing a 39% completion rate. That was something that plagued the team all year long. The defense would work hard on first and second down only to allow a big conversion on third down. And while they allowed just 94 yards a game on the ground, opposing teams averaged just over 4 yards per carry. The inability of the defense to stop teams on 3rd down and the lack of versatility in several positions hampered the defense from fully reaching its potential as a championship squad.
With Terence Newman and Anthony Henry hurt for much of the year the Cowboys’ options in the secondary were limited. Wade Phillips praised Jacques Reeves as much as he could but Reeves' presence on the field for significant playing time hurt the Cowboys. Reeves did not have the ability to play up on the receiver and too often gave up a big cushion. The lack of versatility in the secondary also put Roy Williams in positions that magnified his shortcomings as a safety. When Newman and Henry finally were able to get on the field at the same, the defense improved and you could see its potential.
That is what makes looking forward to this year so exciting. The weak links from last year's defense have departed, replaced by players that have the potential to give the coaching staff infinite more options in their defensive gameplay. The addition of Pacman Jones instantly bolsters a secondary that was hurting on depth just a few months back. Drafting Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick also gives the Cowboys a big improvement at corner and is already paying off as the team experiments with Anthony Henry moving around on defense. Zach Thomas also provides a major upgrade at the ILB position and his abilities in pass coverage give the linebackers a whole new versatility they didn't have before.
While the Cowboys certainly were not horrible on defense last year, it was obvious that the squad was just short of being truly great. The pass rushers lacked a secondary that could give them that extra split second they needed to reach the quarterback. The secondary lacked the depth to employ the schemes needed to give the pass rushers that extra second.. Yet in 2008 the Cowboys now have those options, of putting a big cornerback on those pesky NFC East pro bowl tight ends or bringing a in a corner with Pacman's ability in nickel situations. They have the personnel to play up in man on third and six instead of giving a ten yard cushion.
Now we just have to wait and watch. The defense the Cowboys put on the field in 2007 had some big holes; the 2008 defense should plug those holes and pave the way for that long-awaited playoff win.