As my colleague OCC touched on during Friday's news links, head coach Jason Garrett is putting the bulk of his focus on rectifying the plethora of issues that plagued the team's defensive unit last season. In addition to putting last season's defensive line coach in charge of the defensive unit in 2014, Garrett is also taking the steps necessary to allow him to be more involved with that unit as well. Speaking at the owners meeting in Orlando, he gave some insight into his plans for rectifying the most glaring problem his team faced last season.
"The best teams in this league, they play better defense than we played. We have to do a better job in that area. So that is an area I have to give my attention to, give my focus to throughout the offseason and as we go forward in OTAs, mini-camp and camp and during the season. We have just got to simply play better over there." - Jason Garrett
One of the steps Garrett made was to bring in Scott Linehan to take charge of the offense. That's right, he brought in an offensive coach to help him fix the defense. With Linehan, with whom Garrett shares a similar offensive philosophy, to take charge on the offensive side of the ball, he will be freed up to focus more of his own efforts on working with Rod Marinelli on bringing the Dallas defense back to dominance. Considering that in his three seasons as the coach, the Cowboys defense has plummeted down the rankings, Garrett will have his hands full, and losing guys like DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher is not making the task any easier.
"Losing a guy like DeMarcus Ware or a guy like Jason Hatcher to free agency, those are hard pills to swallow. Those guys have been good football players for us for a long, long time. But we felt like those were the best organizational decisions for us, for now and for going forward.
"Now we have to make the next best decisions, get some younger guys in there to replace them, rely on the leadership of guys like Sean Lee, Brandon Carr, some of the other guys. Those are good football players. We feel like those are the core of our defense right now. We have to get better on defense. Hopefully we’ll do that this coming year."
In fact, returning Carr to the form that made him so attractive to the Cowboys during the 2012 free agency period is one of the key things that Garrett intends to focus on, along with developing his cohort Morris Claiborne. While the fans have been less pleased than expected by the performance of the two cornerbacks, the coach sees the position as one of the team's strengths, especially Carr.
"We have a lot of confidence in him. He plays very well. He’s had a couple of games he certainly would have liked to have played better in, but again, we evaluate what we did as a defensive staff in some of those games and how we could have put him in a better situation. He’ll learn and grow from all of those experiences. He’s the right kind of guy. He cares a great deal about getting better."
As for his counterpart on the other side, the biggest concern is keeping the player, known to fans as "Pick-6" due to the trade up that allowed Dallas to make him the sixth overall selection in the 2012 draft, healthy enough so that he can develop into the type of corner that scouts thought he would be coming out of LSU.
"He had been dealing with injuries. He needs to get stronger as a player. He is working very hard to do that. It’s a hard position to transition into in the NFL. These guys in this league can run routes, and they can throw and catch the football. So, have asked him to do a lot, coming in here on Day 1, being a starter for us. But as much as anything else, get healthy, get stronger and keep learning and grow as a player."
The first step in solving any issue is to get to the root cause of the problem and start taking the steps necessary to make improvements. From my point of view, by moving on from blaming the issues on "all three aspects of the game" to targeting the one specific aspect of the team that has been in free-fall since he took over, Jason Garrett has made a positive move toward making the team better. While expecting miracles in just one season is asking for way too much, if the Dallas defense can improve from its #32 ranking in 2013 to a slot somewhere in the middle of the pack for 2014 that will be significant progress. For that to happen, it will take the serious focus and commitment of everyone involved. That means Garrett, Marinelli, the position coaches, and the players are all going to have to be fully bought in. If the history of his tenure in Dallas tells us anything, Garrett has no trouble getting his team to buy in to his mantras.
For 2014 it will be vital that they do so one more time. From the moment OTAs begin through the final game of the season, the team must keep one thing in mind:
"We just have to play better defense. We’ve played well on offense over the last number of years. We just have to improve our defense.