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Point-Counterpoint: Looking at whether offense or defense will lead the way for the Cowboys

We are very hopeful for this season. But on which side of the ball do we put the most faith?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp
Have we been paying enough attention to Mike Nolan?
Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s almost here. We are less than a week away from the Dallas Cowboys opening their season at the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday Night Football. Dallas comes into the game with some key returning players, a ton of new talent, and an almost completely revamped coaching staff. The game will be played in an empty stadium, just one of the many things being done to manage having a season during the ongoing pandemic.

But it is football! A game that counts, in front of TV cameras that follow the plays while the players wear numbers and names! (OK, as Cowboys fans, we may still be a bit sensitive about whatever Cowboys Night was.) It is always important to get off to a strong start, and even more so for Dallas with all their internal changes. The offense and defense usually are not equally ready to start the season, something that is aggravated by the unique circumstances, But which one is more likely to carry the team? Our David Howman and Tom Ryle have thoughts.

Tom: The old axiom is that the defense is usually ahead at the beginning of things, given how much more complicated the offensive plays are. It is easier to react, after all. But the Cowboys have much more continuity on offense, and I think that will flip things. It all really starts with Kellen Moore, who along with Doug Nussmeier, was retained specifically to keep things comfortable for Dak Prescott and minimize how much the quarterback had to adjust to things. As a charter member of the “how the quarterback goes is how the team goes” school of thought, I think retaining Moore was the most important thing Mike McCarthy did. The second most important thing may be letting Moore keep the reins calling plays. I really expect the offense to pick up where it left off last season, when Prescott was having his best statistical performance and they were blowing up the scoreboard every other game. And now the anchor that was the conservative nature of the former head coach is no longer there, they should be putting up big numbers with more regularity.

David: Tom makes some good points, and I do expect the offense to do well overall, but concerns on the offensive line - Travis Frederick’s retirement and La’el Collins’ injury -have tempered my expectations out of the gate. The defense, on the other hand, should have every advantage. Mike Nolan hasn’t called a defense since 2014, so there’s no telling what his tendencies are these days. His desire to be creative up front is further buoyed by the team’s suddenly stacked pass rush. Much like Kellen Moore’s offense last year, Nolan’s defense has the chance to genuinely surprise teams with just how little we know about his preferences. That will help, as will the competition. Defensive production is heavily dependent on quality of opponent, and only one of the Cowboys’ first nine opponents ranked in the top ten of offensive DVOA last year. That was the Seahawks, who are likely to have five new starters on offense this year and, like last year, will rely almost entirely upon Russell Wilson’s ability to carry the group as a whole. If Nolan can take advantage of this, he’ll have his defense playing with some real confidence by the time the schedule brings about the likes of the Vikings, Ravens, and 49ers. And did I mention those pass rushers?

It’s going to be creative, too.

Not only that, the first unofficial depth chart has both Aldon Smith and Dorance Armstrong listed as SAM linebackers. This is not going to be a vanilla 4-3 defense.

Tom: OK, the O line issues are legit. But this is not the Jason Garrett Cowboys, either, where the next man up was just expected to go out and do the exact same job as the All Pro he was filling in for. I’ve touched elsewhere on how Dallas essentially dug themselves a year-long hole in the now infamous Atlanta Falcons debacle of 2017. They threw Chaz Green out there in place of likely future hall of famer Tyron Smith, and left him without any help in stopping Adrian Clayborn, who went on to notch fully 16% of his total sack production for a nine-year career to date in one game. Byron Bell replaced Green when it was apparent the latter was overwhelmed, but he was no more effective. And still there was no tight end help, because the TE had to line up on the right side of the line. That was the way Dallas did it, and the health of the quarterback was not going to change that.

I think neither McCarthy nor Moore are going to let that happen. They will have everyone prepared, including Prescott, and there will be plenty of quick passes and play-action to keep the defense from teeing off on him. Additionally, this is the Rams’ first look at the offense. I don’t think their defense can get too feisty right out of the gate.

David: I certainly hope that McCarthy and Moore are better at in-game adjustments of the sort, and offensive line coach Joe Philbin certainly has plenty of experience on that end, too. But the Rams have a certain player on defense by the name of Aaron Donald, and I don’t think it’s controversial to say this but he’s a bit better than Adrian Clayborn. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Donald focus on tying up the attention of Joe Looney and Zack Martin, creating one-on-one matchups for whichever Rams edge rusher and whoever the Cowboys roll out at right tackle. Not to be a doomsayer but things could get ugly in that scenario.

Conversely, the Rams offense is facing many more challenges. After thrashing the league in Sean McVay’s first two years running the show, this unit found itself near the bottom in nearly every efficiency metric last year. Now, they return 10 of those 11 starters, with the only difference being running back. Todd Gurley wasn’t the same player he was in 2018, but I’m not sold on their combination of Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson, and rookie Cam Akers becoming an upgrade over Gurley. This is an offense that’s likely going to have more bad outings this year than good, and with such an unknown commodity in the Cowboys’ new defense in Week 1, it’s a chance for this Dallas defense to really shock the world and jump out to a red-hot start.

Tom: Well, it’s not like the Cowboys have never faced Donald before. As a matter of fact, they have, and generally done a good job with him. See the mention of getting some help for that RT from a TE or RB as well. And heck, we haven’t even talked about the Dallas running game, which I suspect will be used with more effectiveness.

I think we both agree we want the Cowboys to come out fast on both sides of the line. I just think it’s going to be the offense out of the gate, and you believe the defense is ahead. Really, we’ll be happy however it stacks up, as long as the game winds up in a W.

David: More than anything, I’m just looking forward to all the creative fronts we might see from Nolan. As much as I appreciated what Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard were trying to do, it’s going to be fun to see something different on every other play, and I think that uncertainty will be a huge boon for this defense. But whatever gets them the win will make me happy.