The Denver Broncos did something this season that the Dallas Cowboys could not accomplish; they won with a backup quarterback at the helm. Once Peyton Manning, whose own performance this year was more of a journeyman effort than that of a first-round Hall of Fame quarterback, went down with health issues the Broncos continued to win behind Brock Osweiler. Dallas took the opposite direction once Tony Romo was lost to injury. The Cowboys behind Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore won one game as starters. Denver won the Super Bowl while the Cowboys are picking inside the top five. You could give credit to Brock Osweiler for that success, but does the real secret lie elsewhere?
Have you seen the Denver defense? They, and not the reserve quarterback, were the key to Denver's success.
Several times during the course of the season I referred to the Broncos defense as being the return of the famed Denver "Orange Crush" defense of the mid to late 1970's. The current defense held their opponents to somewhere between 10-18 points in every post season game this season. They did the same, with a few notable exceptions, during the regular season as well. That is a recipe for sustained success in the National Football League.
NFL teams won 82.5 percent of their games over the past decade when keeping opponents in that 10-18 scoring window. Tarvaris Jackson has a 10-1 starting record when his teams give up that many points. The record over the past decade is 17-2 for Vince Young, 16-2 for Matt Schaub and 14-1 for Ryan Tannehill. Tim Tebow, John Skelton and Gus Frerotte are a combined 16-0 in these games over the 10-year period in question. (Peyton Manning, for what it's worth, is 44-1.)
Consider that for a moment. There is not one quarterback on that list that comes close to approaching elite status; at their best each would be a marginal NFL starter, but yet they have a combined winning percentage that would translate into a 13-3 season if they were paired with a dominating defense. The adage is that defense wins championships. In the case of the 2015 season that certainly held true.
The 2015 Denver Broncos were atop the league in total defense. They allowed opposing offenses 283.1 yards per game. The Cowboys allowed 347.9 yards per contest, which was 17th in the league. Dallas allowed 22% more yards per game than did Denver. Most of this was due to the Cowboys inability to shut down the run. Dallas allowed over 120 yards per game in 2015 while Denver held the opposition to just over 83 ground yards per contest. In pass defense both units were top five squads with the Broncos holding a slight advantage over Rod Marinelli's charges.
Denver also led the National Football League with 52 sacks this season (followed closely by their opponent from Super Bowl 50, the New England Patriots who had 49.) The best the Cowboys could muster was a paltry 31 sacks which ranked them 25th in the league. While the orange-clad unit was doing its best to dine on roasted quarterback each Sunday, Dallas was struggling to find their way into the dining room.
What does this mean for the Cowboys?
The Cowboys need to start getting the job done up front. Teams run the ball to inflict their will and punishment on the other squad. Starting quarterbacks in the NFL will pick even the best defenses apart if they and their receivers are allowed the time to work. Even second-stringers at this level can get the job done if allowed to play unmolested.
The production from the Dallas front seven is going to have to improve. Defensive linemen and linebackers are going to have to raise the bar; under-performers will have to improve or be replaced. Coaches like Rod Marinelli, Matt Eberflus and Leon Lett will be reviewing film and looking for improvement opportunities. Players, at least those who want to keep their slots on the roster, need to be doing the same and working toward improvement. The front office will be looking for opportunities to better the talent pool via both free agency and the draft. Getting better will be a joint effort.
Selecting a capable reserve quarterback is a small portion of the issue, but the real area of opportunity is for the Dallas Cowboys to take the #2 passer out of the equation by bolstering its defense. Only once the Cowboys can shut down the other team will an upgraded back up quarterback be enough to lead the squad to victory.