With the loss of Tony Romo, the chances of the Dallas Cowboys finding a way to defend their NFC East title seem to have vanished. Despite that, the team remains alive in the hunt because of the striking resemblance the division bears to a flaming dumpster. But the Cowboys still have to find a way to improve themselves enough to overtake their three division rivals.
The biggest obstacle is the fact the team has to continue winning with Matt Cassel as quarterback. Although he did show some flashes in the crucial win over Washington, he is not going to rise to the level of Romo. The injured franchise quarterback is one of the best in the league at reading and countering defensive alignments. Cassel is not going to magically acquire that skill. And his arm is just not that strong.
But there are certainly precedents for teams to have success with a less-than-stellar quarterback. For the most part, they did so with the help of strong defenses. There are multiple Super Bowl champions that rode stout defenses all the way to the top. The Chicago Bears won with Jim McMahon. Trent Dilfer got a ring with the Baltimore Ravens. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made it with Brad Johnson. Notably, in all three cases, the MVP of those championship games, normally given to the winning quarterback, was on defense.
Can the Cowboys use the same formula to squeak back into the playoffs? There have been several games in the loss column this season where it can be argued that the Dallas defense played good enough to win the game. And the recent trend indicates that this may be a real possibility for the last quarter of their season. Here is a table of the points and total yards allowed by the Cowboys in the last four games (note that against the Carolina Panthers, 17 points came off the two pick sixes and the third Romo interception that put the Panthers in field goal range, and are not counted as points allowed by the defense).
|Defensive Performance Last Four Games|
|Opponent||Points Allowed||Yards Allowed|
Those are very good numbers. While it has to be admitted that, except for a Panthers team that was playing with a big lead for most of the game, none of them are exactly offensive powerhouses, although the Buccaneers actually are ninth in total yards. And the remaining opponents don't exactly have numbers to strike fear into your heart. The Green Bay Packers are 22nd and the Buffalo Bills are 17th. The New York Jets are the most potent offense still to be faced at tenth, and of course the Cowboys have already faced and handled Washington and their 25th ranked attack.
There are several reasons why Dallas' defense may be just now hitting their stride. First off, they and the team as a whole are as healthy as they have been all season, with the obvious exception of Romo. Going into last week's game, Morris Claiborne and Jeff Heath were the only defenders listed on the injury report, and both played. The Cowboys got out of that game relatively unscathed.
Today's practice is non-padded. Garrett expects all his guys to go.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) December 9, 2015
Having Claiborne back allowed Byron Jones to return to his best position, safety. The first-round rookie has been all that the team could ask for, and it is only logical that he would be playing better after getting three quarters of his first season under his belt. And it is notable that Barry Church had one of his best games ever against Washington, based on the grades from Pro Football Focus. Another rising player who stood out is second year defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. He finally seems to be benefiting from the attention offenses have to give Greg Hardy.
The real standout on defense was Sean Lee. He and Rolando McClain are finally rounding into the form we all hoped they would. Lee had his own injury issues earlier in the season, and McClain, like Hardy, sat out the first four games on suspension. It makes sense that he is just now getting to midseason form.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was willing to throw more blitzes at Kirk Cousins than he normally does, which may be an indication that he is adjusting his approach to both the overall situation for the team and the strengths and weaknesses of his players. It is certainly time to throw everything you have at the opponent to try and win, and Marinelli is showing that he is one old devil dog that can at least adjust his tricks.
If the defense can continue to keep opposing offenses under control, the main task for the offense will be taking care of the ball and capitalizing on any opportunities. It would also be very good if some takeaways could finally start to show up, but that remains to be seen.
The Cowboys are still the longest of shots to make the playoffs, but for now there is still at least a small chance. If they pull of the miracle comeback, it is likely to be because the defense stepped up. And with the team holding onto hope that Romo may be able to come back for the playoffs . . .
Well, let's just say we haven't seen that overweight soprano come out onto the stage yet.