I don't know how low the expectations for the Dallas Cowboys are going to get this year. A short while back, one pundit predicted that the team would finish in the NFL cellar at 3-13. More recently we are reminded that the front seven for the Cowboys was ranked the worst in the league. The defense has now lost the three best players from last season. It is starting to sound that it doesn't matter how good the offense will be this year. Everyone else in the NFL will be able to score at will against a defense that will put up all the resistance of a wet piece of toilet paper.
Maybe I am just a cockeyed optimist, but I think the reports of the Dallas defense's demise are greatly exaggerated. The most glaring thing that always hits me is the logical inconsistency that everyone brings up. The Cowboys lost DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher to free agency, and Sean Lee to injury, so the team has to be worse with the three best defensive players gone. But those three players were all part of the front seven that was the worst in the league last year. How much worse can it get?
I will not deny that it would be great to have a healthy Ware, Hatcher and Lee this season. But for two of those players, I'm not sure such a thing exists any more. Lee has always had injury issues at some point in the season, and Ware was significantly less than 100% for most of the 2013 season. I do wish that Hatcher could have stayed around a couple of more years, but his price was just too high, even if you don't look at the cap situation. Letting him sign with the Washington Redskins was painful, but from a smart football perspective, it was the right move. So was letting Ware become a member of the Denver Broncos. The only decision that all this calls into question was whether the Cowboys should have committed so much money to Lee, with his history, although the team would surely have been castigated for letting him go. Hindsight still shows that it just seems to be a matter of time every season before Dallas has to adjust to playing without him.
Still, stating that healthy versions of the three lost players would be good to have is not saying that here is no other way the team can improve. And the front office has not been shy about putting resources into trying to fix the problem. They signed Henry Melton, Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey and Amobi Okoye in free agency, and had a deal with linebacker Will Herring come undone. They used seven of their nine draft picks on defensive players. Plus they have hopes that at least some of their players who were injured last year will contribute this season. Even if you no longer believe in the unicorn Matt Johnson, they still have Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass coming back, and you really should include Morris Claiborne in that list, since he was never really healthy in 2013.
Most likely, the success or failure of the defense is going to be more on coordinator Rod Marinelli than anyone else. Monte Kiffin, although still a good teacher, was clearly having trouble adjusting to the latest offensive wrinkles as well as the limitations imposed by the Cowboys' own personnel issues. Kiffin seemed to especially struggle in calling the defense during games. It is hoped that Marinelli, who was still doing a superior job just two years ago with the Chicago Bears, can handle the things that were causing Kiffin to struggle.
One of the comments that Marinelli has made about things is that he needs all his players to have career years. Most saw that as more or less an admission of defeat, but it really isn't. Look at who he is talking about. Only Henry Melton and Brandon Carr have past seasons elsewhere that are going to be difficult to meet or exceed. Of the players who have been in Dallas for a while, you have Barry Church, Orlando Scandrick, and maybe Bruce Carter and George Selvie that have benchmarks worth striving for, and meeting those levels of play is hardly something that is beyond imagining. Everyone else basically has nothing of significance on their resume outside of Anthony Spencer and Okoye, and no one seems to be banking on either of them playing any significant role this year. It is easy to see players like J.J. Wilcox, Claiborne, Crawford, McClain, DeVonte Holloman, and Kyle Wilber all having the best years of their pro careers. And as for the swarm of rookies, any contribution to the team at all is, by definition, a career performance to date. One player who thinks Marinelli can get what he needs to out of this bunch is Okoye, who played for him in Chicago, and who calls Marinelli "Master Splinter", after the guru rat who made the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into the unstoppable warrior team they are. And if you don't get the TMNT reference, just trust the fanboy here.
So, like I said, maybe I am too fried from all the blue Kool Aid I have been guzzling over the years, but I am just not as pessimistic about the situation as many. I like to read things like how excited Crawford is about the prospects for this team. Admittedly, he is hardly an unbiased observer, but at least he is going into things with a positive attitude. The one thing about all the negative articles is that I hope the players are either ignoring them or just getting a bit inspired to prove people wrong. The message is frequently a negative one whenever the Cowboys are concerned, as the recent headlines about former NFL player Gennaro DiNapoi showed. He played most of his career in Oakland and Tennessee, with a brief and largely unproductive stop in Dallas before he left the game, but when he was arrested for illegally selling painkillers, every headline I could find referred to him as a "former Dallas Cowboys player" or words to that effect.
The bias is clearly to find the downside of the story about the Cowboys, and I think that is affecting the coverage of the prospects for this year. I will remain hopeful that the team will improve their defensive performance, if for no other reason than that up is the only way they can go. The expectations are so low that there is nothing but opportunity here to exceed them.
If they do, it will be fun to watch what the writers say then.