On March 11, 2014, Cowboys fans received some long-expected but nevertheless bad news: the team had released long-time stalwart DeMarcus Ware. Two days later, more bad news came: Jason Hatcher signed with the division rival Redskins. Immediately, bitter fans and gloating, Cowboys-hating pundits began to pile on, lending a growing number of voices to the "the NFL's worst defense is going to be historically bad in 2014" theory. This murmur became a full-throated roar when, in the team's first OTA session in late May, middle linebacker Sean Lee was lost for the year with a torn ACL and slightly torn meniscus.
Clearly, Dallas suffered a drop-off in talent by losing these players. Ware had long been the most talented defender, with a once-in-a-decade skillset and a Hall of Fame resume. Hatcher had an up-and-down Cowboys career, but a 2013 campaign during which he notched eleven sacks (more than double his previous career high) was decidedly in the "up" category. Lee had long been the brain of the defense, and had a knack for making plays; in 2013, he had four interceptions in eleven games.
In losing these three men, the Cowboys defense lost a lot: arguably their three best players; a huge slice of the D's overall production (17 sacks, 130 tackles, 4 picks, and eleven passes defensed); their "veteran presence" and, by extension, their defensive identity. From early June through September, as the national media cruelly beat the tired, flagging "historically bad defense" horse, it appeared that these losses would be insurmountable. In training camp, as the offense often had their way with Rod Marinelli's overmatched guys, we saw little evidence that the frenzied media narrative would prove to be anything other than a disappointing truth.
What nobody was able to see back in early June was that the losses of Ware, Hatcher and, to a degree, Lee would end up up yielding positive dividends. Their absence led to a critical shift in the team's identity. On one level, this happened across the team; with the likes of Ware and Miles Austin (who was released the same day as Number 94) no longer in the fold, emerging vets like Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick stepped up as team leaders. Typically, if they are talented enough to command their teammates' respect, guys are able to step up as team leaders somewhere in their third to fifth seasons. Dez, who was drafted in 2010, was entering season five; Scandrick was starting his seventh NFL season.
And here's the key: Miles and DeMarcus are nice guys; Dez and "O" aren't. Scandrick is known for his competitive, confrontational manner and Dez, while blessed with a nicer disposition, is a nasty, physical competitor. One trait both share is that they are relentless and never satisfied, no matter how much success they enjoy. In a locker room long ruled by very talented but gentle guys - Ware, Austin, Tony Romo, Jason Witten - who tipped the locker room scales towards nice when weighed against nasty grumbletonians, a power vacuum emerged that was filled by personalities more akin to Jay Ratliff's.
On defense, Scandrick's demeanor was instrumental in setting the tone, at practice, in the locker room and during games. His fundamental grouchiness and unwillingness to be satisfied - as well as his considerable football intelligence - helped to instill an edge and an attitude that the defense never enjoyed when Ware, thanks to his supreme athleticism and years of service, was the de facto leader of the Cowboys defense. More recently, Ware began to share leadership with Sean Lee, another "nice" guy. Under their leadership, the Cowboys defense had been talented but a bit buttoned-down.
In a recent (must-listen) podcast, our guest, Mike Fisher, after carefully noting how much he loved and respected Ware, told us that a team of 22 DeMarcus Wares would win a Super Bowl - but do so politely. And he put Sean Lee in the same category. The 2014 defense, by contrast, had, as he put it, "some dog in 'em": they were feistier, more willing to battle and to mix it up, and they were perhaps mentally tougher when it mattered most: on third downs and at the end of games and the end of the season.
To lend credence to this theory, I've broken down the last two season's worth of big defensive plays - sacks and turnovers - by quarter and by quarter season. Let's take a look and then we'll chat about it:
|Games 1-4||Sacks||3||6||2||3||14||Games 1-4||Sacks||0||2||1||2||5|
|Games 5-8||Sacks||2||3||4||1||10||Games 5-8||Sacks||2||1||0||2||5|
|Games 9-12||Sacks||1||1||2||1||5||Games 9-12||Sacks||1||4||1||3||9|
|Games 13-16||Sacks||2||2||2||1||7||Games 13-16||Sacks||1||0||2||6||9|
A perusal of this breakdown shows that, in 2013, the Cowboys' defensive big plays were evenly distributed by quarter but fell off by month (22, 18, 11 and 11, respectively, with the last number inflated by a strangely high number of sacks in the week 17 game against the Eagles). In 2014, by contrast, they ballooned in the fourth quarter as well as increasing over the course of the season. Certainly, the season increase can be attributed in part to the disparity in overall defensive health across the two seasons, but the staggering difference in fourth-quarter performancewhich was consistent in 2014? That, from where I sit, is all about the new defensive mindset, taught by Rod Marinelli and embodied by a unit that had considerably more "dog" in them.
And this, Fisher suggested in our podcast, was all because the nice guys had been ushered out of the locker room and a younger, feistier gang had space to assert themselves. And here's a critical piece of the puzzle: new arrival Rolando McClain (who, like Dez, was drafted in 2010, putting him in the category of five-year veteran ready to step in and lead) brought a heavy dose of "dog" with him, much to Scandrick's delight. As Fisher told us:
I was talking to Scandrick the other day...and I asked him, "Has the fact that D-Ware's not here anymore freed you guys up to be more you?" And he said, "Yes. DeMarcus Ware's one of the greatest players in history, and I love him to death, but yes." It's freeing other guys up to exert their style of leadership...I said to Scandrick, "You and [Rolando McClain] are cut from the same cloth." And he said, "Yea, from the first day that he showed up here, we became best friends."
In a different part of the conversation, Fish notes that Scandrick refers to McClain as his brother, with the only question being who is the elder and who the baby (apparently, this is a matter of considerable, and good-natured, debate).
And here's the capper: Fisher also pointed out that it's Scandrick who introduced "We Dem Boyz" as a locker room anthem. And it's not the Bowdlerized version we hear over the Stadium PA, but the raunchy, raucous original, a song suitable for the league's fourth-youngest team. I don't know what DeMarcus Ware's favorite music is, but he doesn't particularly seem like a Wiz Khalifa guy.
As Fish noted, the other long-term roster stalwarts aren't either. It's a good bet "We Dem Boyz" wasn't getting heavy play on Jason Witten's personal iPod, but the savvy vet is smart enough to realize that is a unifying anthem for the Cowboys' new, saltier leadership class and the young heads that follow them. And The Senator has always been all about winning. So, after yet another game in which Scandrick and Co. helped to seal a victory with a big fourth-quarter defensive play, I imagine Witten grinning broadly as the young'uns cranked up Wiz Khalifa and had themselves a little party...