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Quick Take II: A Look At Cowboys Starts In The Wade Phillips Era

Wade is disappointed because Jason's unit hasn't been able to bail him out this September.
Wade is disappointed because Jason's unit hasn't been able to bail him out this September.

This week's Cowboys-bashing has taken a turn: not only is the offense taking abuse, but the defense, the unit that managed to escape a good deal of the ire after the Washington game, now has a bullseye drawn on its lumpen back. How, people ask, can this collection of elite talent, a unit that was overwhelming in the first quarter, have given up so many big plays to the Bears--especially given that few, if any, of their skill position players instill any fear in a defense. While this is certainly a legitimate question, a look at the way in which Wade Phillips' boys have played in the previous three Septembers is instructive.

Since the advent of the Philips era in 2007, the Cowboys' defense has stumbled out of the gate before finding their sea legs in October and November. In '07's season opener, the Giants ran up 438 yards and 35 points; the following week, at Miami, they gave up 334 yards and 20 points to a Dolphins team that would end up with the 26th-rated offense and a 1-15 record. In '08, they yielded 337 yards and 37 points to Philadelphia in a Monday Night barn-burner, then surrendered 334 yards at Green Bay and a whopping 381 in an embarrassing home loss to the 28th ranked 'Skins offense. Last year, Tampa Bay ran up 450 (!) yards in week one; a week later, the Giants gashed them to the tune of 427 yards, and, two weeks after that, Denver managed to pile up 337 yards in a defensive battle.

In 2007. the Cowboys D settled down in weeks three and four, in no small part thanks to the wretched Rex Grossman and the fact that the Rams were starting three backup offensive linemen. In the two seasons since, however, it has taken a full month before Wade and his boys have found their groove. In September '08, the Cowboys gave up 18 yards per game over their season average; in '09, it was a whopping 55 yards per game: they surrendered 371.3 yards per game in September.

That said, the Cowboys record in the Septembers of '07-'09 has been a very respectable 9-3. Given the defensive struggles, how is this possible? A few thoughts after the break:

So, why hasn't the defense's slow start hurt the Cowboys in recent years? Because in this same timeframe, the Cowboys offense has opened in midseason form. Let's take a look: after September 2007, people were talking about whether the Cowboys would threaten the '98 Vikings' season scoring record; the 2008 club's offense dominated their first three opponents before losing the line of scrimmage to the Redskins in week four. Last year, the Dallas O piled up just a nick short of 400 yards per game in the opening month.

In short, Jason and Co.. have bailed out Wade and Co. in the season's opening month each of the last three years. But--and here's an important "but"--they have done so with less frequency and authority each season. Look at the Cowboys'  September records in the last four seasons:

2007: 4-0

2008: 3-1

2009: 2-2

2010: 0-2

In '08, the offensive cracks began to show in the infamous home loss to the Redskins in which Garrett was criticized for abandoning the run in a game in which the O-line was absolutely whipped at the line of scrimmage. In '09, they spread a bit further: the Cowboys put a first half goose-egg on the scoreboard against the Panthers (and were booed as they left the field at halftime). Then, after starting strong and scoring on their opening drive, the Dallas offense lost their mojo and were increasingly dominated for the final three quarters in a 17-7 loss at Denver. In the two games this year, these cracks have become fissures.

While the reasons for this downward spiral can--and will--be debated endlessly, the issue at hand is this: if the Cowboys' offense is going to struggle--perhaps mightily--in September, who is going to bail out Wade's notoriously slow-starting defense? The special teams? Not judging by the kickoff coverage....

I'm down to one answer: Dez Bryant: we're going to need several big returns against the Texans, kid.

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