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Cowboys Defense: Addition By Subtraction?

Can the surprising early success of the Dallas D be attributed to losing its superstars before the season?

The Cowboys lost Sean Lee, but look what they found.
The Cowboys lost Sean Lee, but look what they found.
Otto Greule Jr

Looking at the 5-1 record of the Dallas Cowboys, particularly after the most highly rated football game of the season against the Seattle Seahawks (but of course, they aren't  really America's Team anymore), the preseason predictions about how this team would do seem laughable. But at the time, there was one part of the argument that seemed hard to refute. It was going to be impossible to replace the production of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee. Due to financial/cap considerations and a freak injury, the three top defensive players from the dismal 2013 season were gone. Hence the logic behind all the projections that the 2014 edition of the defense would be even worse. That, in turn, would lead to regression from the 8-8 doldrums of the past three seasons. And probably Jason Garrett's tenure as head coach would end.

Instead, the Cowboys are the hottest team in the NFL and tied for the best record. How in the world could this have happened?

Well, maybe losing the acknowledged stars of the defense was not as bad a thing as it seemed. Maybe it was actually the best thing that could have happened to the defense.

This idea has been kicked around a bit by my fellow writers here at BTB, going all the way back to the preseason. I apologize in advance for not being able to dig up all the old e-mails and Tweets involved, but it was brought up that the Cowboys actually had a better record in games that Sean Lee had missed in previous seasons than it did when he was playing. The theory was put forth (I want to say Joey or rabble came up with it first, but I can't be sure) that the players had a tendency to look to Lee to make the plays rather than busting their butts to get there themselves. It is one of those things you can't truly measure, but it certainly seems to fit human nature.

CORRECTION: Landon McCool, our resident media maven, told me he had floated the idea that the other players were depending too much on the stars, after @DraftCowboys, one of our Twitter allies, brought up the record with and without Lee.

And now there are members of this year's defense making that same claim. Look at how Barry Church put it.

The doomsayers couldn't imagine that ramshackle unit improving once it bid farewell to defensive linemen DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher in March before losing linebacker Sean Lee to a season-ending knee injury in May. It seemed unfathomable because Ware, Hatcher and Lee were the defense's top talents and most visible leaders. A noticeable void was created. But instead of a a few individuals filling it, a group of them did.

"Before we had guys who were unbelievable players, but we relied on them to make the play instead of making it ourselves," Church said. "Now I feel like everybody is accountable for this team and guys are going out there and making plays."

Bob Sturm also sees it, putting this in the conclusion of his latest Marinelli Report post.

What more can you say?  At some point, we are going to have to credit the Cowboys brain-trust for assembling players who can carry out the plan of the day.  Please forgive those of us who wonder if disaster is around the next corner, but it still seems unlikely that they could lose Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Morris Claiborne, and now even Bruce Carter from last year's very poor defense and then go into Seattle and spank the champs.

Is it sustainable?  Let's take this week to week.  Next, here come the Giants who are licking their wounds from a tough night in Philadelphia where they lost Victor Cruz for the year, a guy who generally makes a living off the Cowboys. Since the Giants and Eli Manning are 4-1 in Arlington, and since the only loss was when they turned the ball over 6 times last September, I think the best advice is for all involved to put Seattle in the rearview mirror now and get ready for the first NFC East Divisional opponent.

But, as we turn the page after 6 weeks, we must tip our cap to all of the bright spots about this defense.  Tyrone Crawford, Rolando McClain, and Orlando Scandrick are very high on that list.  But, the best and most promising aspect of this sustaining for a while is that there doesn't appear to be a major achilles heel that the Cowboys are trying to scheme around right now.  In other words, when you attack the Cowboys defense, who do you want to go after?

It is bizarre, but somehow the loss of three outstanding players, one of them almost certainly a future member of the Hall of Fame, has been the catalyst for a much improved defense. Everyone seems to be putting more effort into the game. And there was one result that was completely unexpected.

(That is Rolando McClain being discussed, just to make sure you are clear on that.) Incredibly, the player who retired from the NFL twice has come in and played with as big an impact as Lee had when healthy. But for some reason, instead of looking for McClain to step in and make the plays, everyone is feeding off his intensity.

Of course, you also have to look at the work of Rod Marinelli in all this. He has the Cowboys making stops where they were giving up long drives last year. But he is doing it with a bunch of guys that no one really expected to be capable of rising to the challenge. Anthony Spencer's career was thought by most to be over, but his play has improved game by game, and there were flashes of the player that got the franchise tag against the Seahawks. Marinelli is wearing shirts that have the Cowboys star with "22 men" superimposed on it, signifying that it is not the just the starters that matter, but everyone who suits up on defense. The rotation of players, particularly on the line, has been a key to the relentless pace.

Not everyone is convinced this can last. It is not surprising, given the number of people who were absotively certain that the Cowboys would be the wet toilet tissue of NFL defenses. A roundtable discussion at the holy temple of objectivity and careful analysis, ESPN (sorry, I think I dripped a little sarcasm on you) looked for whatever reason they could find to explain this away.

NFL Nation writer Kevin Seifert: Marinelli might well be maximizing the Cowboys' defensive talent, but it wouldn't matter if the Cowboys hadn't finally committed to the run game. Keeping this defense off the field is undeniably part of the Cowboys' early success.

But the hiring of Scott Linehan, who most recently spent five seasons calling plays for the pass-happy Detroit Lions, provided no immediate indication that a philosophical change was imminent. Part of me wonders if this was a well-executed plan -- or if Jerry Jones & Co. just stumbled into a record-setting hot streak from running back DeMarco Murray.

The reduced number of snaps has helped the defense in several ways, but the discussion did not touch on things like the improved ability to get those third down stops and how many fewer big plays are being given up. And no matter how you slice and dice the numbers, they don't reflect what you see watching the Cowboys, which is a swarming defense that will flat out hammer people. Yes, they are vulnerable at times, but they are also capable of making big, timely plays. And they have, consistently, for the past five weeks. Despite that, and the 5-1 record, many expert analysts continue to look for things to run off the rails, as the ESPN article shows.

However, much to my amazement, our own Dave Halprin instantly produced a reference from Bill Simmons that explains exactly why everyone that was so certain the Cowboys were doomed to the NFL cellar this year were wrong so far. It is a thing called the Ewing Theory.

Eventually, we decided that two crucial elements needed to be in place for any situation to qualify for "Ewing" status:

  • A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
  • That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) - and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.

When those elements collide, you have the Ewing Theory.

Yep. That pretty much nails what happened last summer regarding all those apocalyptic forecasts for the Cowboys. But the Ewing Theory explains that teams can actually become better when those superstars are lost, using much of the same logic Barry Church used in his above quote. The fit for the Cowboys could hardly be better.

Losing those superstars has somehow unleashed the defenders now on the team to reach their potential. Combined with the benefits of having a run-heavy, ball control offense that still can put up big numbers, the defense simply dumbfounds those who focus on the past and scouting by stat sheet. Something else is going on for Dallas. It may not hold up, but given how successful it has been, and the way the schedule shapes up for the rest of the season, it just might. Less, as it turns out, may very well be more.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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