You’ve probably heard the old saying. “It’s not the X’s and the O’s but the Jimmys and the Joes.” If you were a Dallas Cowboys fan in the glory days of the 1990s, you would have heard Jimmy Johnson espousing that philosophy. It’s not something he invented, as it is one of those things that floated around college football for years before he used it. It may have been coined by Darrell Royal, but the origins are just a fun side note. What is important is that there are some strong arguments to be made for it being accurate. With their defense coming off a very bad year, the Cowboys are bringing in a new defensive coordinator. If it really is the players and not the coaches that are the drivers of success or failure, then Mike Nolan’s replacement is not as crucial as we might think.
If you want some evidence, you don’t have to look any further than Dan Quinn, the man taking the job in Dallas. His reputation as a defensive guru is based on his time as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks. That was in 2013 and 2014, when he had a few players on his team you may have heard of: Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and Bobby Wagner, all in their absolute prime.
We will never really be able to conclusively answer the question of who made who, but it is hard to not accept that Quinn was working with some serious talent in what was decidedly a high point for both him and the Seahawks. He is going to face a very different situation in Dallas.
Let’s look at some of the names that are under contract with the Cowboys this year on defense per Over the Cap. (Any omissions are my error.)
DE: DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Dorance Armstrong, Bradlee Anae
This is one position group where they have a pretty good core to work with. Lawrence and Gregory are a very good pair of bookends. Armstrong saw a lot of snaps last year, and while he was uneven, he seemed to be growing in ability. Anae never saw the field, but players like Aldon Smith and Tyrone Crawford that kept him off the game day roster are currently not in the mix.
DT: Trysten Hill, Neville Gallimore, Justin Hamilton
That’s thin already, with Hill missing most of the season and only Gallimore having a decent year once he got some reps under his belt. Antwaun Woods is a restricted free agent, so the team has a good chance of retaining him if they choose to. They also are rumored to be strongly considering re-signing Gerald McCoy to give that another chance.
But basically they have a bunch of 3-tech players. The team badly needs a coke machine with arms as my old colleague Michael Sisemore used to call it. That is a player who is not going to be easily moved out of the hole on running plays, and who can also push the middle of the pocket back when the opponent is in pass protection.
It is also something Dallas has been loathe to spend draft capital or big free agent money on. They did try to find it with the Dontari Poe signing last year, but that went about as well as Doug Pederson keeping his job as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. (Gratuitous? Yes. Do I care? No.) This needs to change. Whether it will is an open question, and there is not much reason at the moment to think it will.
LB: Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Luke Gifford, Francis Bernard, Azur Kamara
Two years ago, we thought the team was set with Smith and Vander Esch. Now, we are all wondering what has gone wrong with them and hope that the new coaches can come up with some answers. Gifford did not show as much as we wanted, Bernard was a largely untested if somewhat heralded UDFA, and if you didn’t know Kamara was ever on the team, you can be forgiven as he spent the season on IR.
There is an ongoing debate about whether the team should consider moving on from Smith, who just looked dazed and confused, including his tone deaf celebrations of tackles after the opponent had gained a first down. It remains to be seen if the problem was what he was being asked to do, or an inherent issue with him. In any case, this is now a major problem area, and we may well see the Cowboys overdraft the position yet again.
CB: Anthony Brown, Trevon Diggs, Reggie Robinson II, Rashard Robinson, Maurice Canady
Old Mother Hubbard and her dog are staring into the cupboard, and they are not pleased. Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis are both free agents, and the team is hardly in a position to eat up a lot of cap space re-signing them. C.J. Goodwin may be more likely a target, since he is not going to command as much.
If you want a position that would be very attractive to spend that tenth overall pick on, corner may be your best bet.
S: Darian Thompson, Donovan Wilson, Steven Parker, Deante Burton
You thought the cornerback situation was bad? This may be worse. Safety is another position the Cowboys just don’t want to invest in. Like with a 1-tech, they really need to get over that.
Quinn is not going to have an easy job of improving the defense unless the staff brings in some more horses, and not just bottom of the barrel free agents. Since that is about all they can afford, with Dak Prescott poised to eat up a bunch of the limited cap space, Dallas has to look to the draft to try and fill some rather gaping holes. This is one reason they may still be looking to trade back with their first-round pick, since they could well use more ammunition than the picks they are currently expected to have. With the compensatory picks yet to be awarded, they are projected to have from eight to ten total, but over half those are day three selections. Adding second- and/or third-round picks by trading back in the first should be given a long, hard look if a trade partner emerges.
In any case, they have to use their picks wisely, and with the current state of the roster, they need to use most of them on defense to give the new defensive staff a fighting chance. It truly is all about the Jimmys and the Joes on defense this year.