There is a sense of gloom for many Dallas Cowboys fans in the wake of the Rolando McClain suspension. Along with the upheld suspension for DeMarcus Lawrence, it just increases what were already serious concerns about the defense. The Cowboys now face at least ten games (and probably more) without their projected starting MIKE linebacker, and four games without the two best pass rushers on the roster. It is all bad news.
Except we don’t really know. I received an email from a reader named John Carpenter that made just that point. After all, the team has been in a very similar position quite recently, and things did not turn out as badly as many expected.
It was just a couple of years ago that Sean Lee was lost for the season due to an injury in OTAs, and cap considerations led to the departure of DeMarcus Ware. That was the starting MIKE linebacker and the leading pass rusher gone for the season. The season where DeMarco Murray had his career year and the Cowboys went 12-4.
Obviously, there is no guarantee that the team will manage to recover as well this year. McClain was the player brought in to cover for Lee, and he did so well that it allowed the team to move Lee outside to the WILL position, which is his best spot. The pass rush was never very good that year, but the team did manage to get some timely turnovers and the defense was good enough to succeed - until that impotent pass rush, a Murray fumble, and a catch was that called incomplete for reasons that still sound like legalistic pasture deposits combined to lead to a defeat in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Still, Dallas does not know where it will get a pass rush and it has an open question as to who will replace McClain. Only the secondary appears to be improved, primarily to the return of Orlando Scandrick and putting Byron Jones at free safety full time. That is not seen as enough to make up for the other deficiencies. The prevailing view of things was given by Rick Gosselin in his recent take on the situation.
On paper heading into next season they have 12 1/2 sacks. It's gonna take you 43 to be a Super Bowl contender. Now where are they going to come up with 30 sacks in the next five months?
Obviously, the team thinks it can come up with some from the current group of young, athletic, but unproven defensive linemen. It is a little unclear exactly how you have to have 43 sacks to be a Super Bowl contender, either, since there is always more than one way to accomplish that goal. The statement, which is opinion being presented as fact, also makes a common error in assuming there is a straight line relationship between what players do from year to year.
There is a lot of recency bias involved here. No one was able to do much last season, so they are not likely to do more next season. However, very few players remain static from season to season, and the Cowboys are betting at this point that most of their young rushmen are at a stage of their career where they will improve. Dallas did not go for a "silver bullet" approach in signing a big name pass rusher to a big time contract. The defense was not seen as being one impact player away from success. Instead they got what they think are two functional pieces in Benson Mayowa and Cedric Thornton, drafted two more linemen that they liked in Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper, and hope to get more out of a Tyrone Crawford with two functional arms, while looking to see what other players will step up in camp and preseason games. It is not a guaranteed way to get to where they want to be, but no approach is guaranteed. Top free agents regress or get injured all the time, for instance. And the plan is obviously to put most of the burden for success on the offense, especially until Lawrence and Randy Gregory are done with their suspensions. That is why Ezekiel Elliott was taken in the first round.
The youth movement on the defensive line is part of the rationale for the Cowboys as well. The team is banking on most of them having their best seasons ahead of them, and hopefully several in many cases. It all depends on having the right players in place.
(Recent news that the Denver Broncos would entertain the idea of trading Von Miller if he wants to hold out raises some hopes that Dallas could go after him. He would be expensive, and would certainly complicate how to keep other players you need, but he is one player that might be worth the effort. However, the price would be steep, there would be a bunch of other teams wanting to enter the bidding, and it is all likely posturing during the ongoing negotiations to work out a new deal with him.)
This has been the blueprint the team has followed all along, and it has been pretty clear. The biggest danger is that the team is seeing far too much in its own players. If the expected improvement does not materialize, or if it is limited to too few of the linemen, then the team may be in trouble. But there is no way to know if they got it right until they see what they have in camp and preseason games, and perhaps not until the real games start. Saying that the Cowboys will not have a pass rush that can get to the quarterback at this point is a projection or assumption rather than fact.
At the moment, the McClain situation is much more problematic. First of all, the team appeared to be expecting him to be available. That was always a risky proposition given his history, but that seems to be what they were thinking. The timing means that they are really looking at leftovers in the free agent market, which is why they are more likely to wait to see how the possible replacements on the roster pan out. And those candidates are all much less capable than a McClain who is in shape and who has his head fully in the game (conditions that are not always present, admittedly). The closest thing to him in size and athletic talent is second-round pick Jaylon Smith, who is not expected to be ready until 2017, assuming he does recover at all. But again, the team was not planning on having to replace McClain this year when they drafted Smith. Had McClain kept his urine clean, the Cowboys would have had a very formidable starting MIKE and WILL with him and Lee. Now, the urgency for the defensive line to gel and find some way to generate some sacks is even greater with the prospect of having to operate with a smaller, less athletic player in the middle.
Dallas has certainly taken a gamble, but almost everything in the NFL is, to some extent. Injuries are random, some players will disappoint while others will break out unexpectedly, and the offense may well be good enough to take a lot of pressure off the defense. We will start to find out when training camp gets underway. For now, we just have to be hopeful that the Cowboys have a workable formula for this season. Because we just don’t know.