The Dallas Cowboys 2020 season was filled with disappointment. A changing of the guard with the coaching staff, extensive injuries to the offensive line, and a season-ending injury to their star quarterback all dug a deep hole for this team. While there was a moment when it appeared as if they might poke their head out of football irrelevance, they made sure to slide back down into the underworld in the season finale.
There are reasons to be hopeful that some of the atrocities of this past season won’t be there again next year. The health of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins will be a huge boost, but nothing will bring life back into the offense more than the return of Dak Prescott. Fingers will be crossed that this new coaching staff still has something to offer and only time will tell if that comes to fruition.
While these factors offer reasons for optimism, there is one overwhelming component that should bring great pause in believing anything special is coming down the pike - the defense.
The 2020 Cowboys defense allowed 473 points, which is the most points this franchise has ever allowed in their 60-year history. That includes exceeding the 2013 season by 41 points; a season where the team finished with an 8-8 record despite having a top five scoring offense. That defense was remembered for frequently rolling out the red carpet and blowing big leads despite Tony Romo putting up some monster games. But as many points as that defense allowed, it was still fewer than this current team.
What lies ahead with this group is a big mystery. The biggest question resides around whether the team hangs on to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, whose coaching ability came into question early and often after the defense allowed 34+ points in five straight games early in the year.
While Nolan has had various success throughout his coaching career, he struggled during his last defensive coordinator job with the Atlanta Falcons in 2012-2014. In fact, the 443 points his Falcons unit gave up in 2013 is the most points their franchise has allowed over the past 25 seasons.
Under Nolan, the Cowboys regularly came out completely unprepared and played with such a poor display of discipline that one can’t help wonder if Nolan’s defensive approach still has a place in today’s game.
Should the team stick with Nolan, they would be doing so with the belief that everything that went on with this unique season created significant obstacles that hindered their ability to successfully implement these new changes. Of course, we won’t really know if that’s truly the case until more time is given and we see their results.
Another element that could be of concern is that the talent of the players they currently have just isn’t up to snuff to do what these coaches are trying to do. That was never more evident than what happened at linebacker for the Cowboys this season. It was supposed to be the year of rebound for Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, but things got even worse for those two. Not only has their performance been very disappointing, but Smith seems to be in mad denial that there’s even an issue as he tells his doubters to “watch the film.”
Well, we’ve watched it, and it is not good.
And while Vander Esch tells us he’s “on a mission” to train hard this offseason, durability concerns will be on the forefront of everyone’s mind once the new season begins.
The defense needs help at several positions as they stand to lose three key players in their secondary as Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods, and Jourdan Lewis all hit free agency this offseason. Young players like Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore have shown some nice promise, but the interior line remains an area of concern for the defense. While there are pieces here and there, the defense has a lot of holes. To fill these holes, the team needs to get serious about investing quality draft resources. And we’re not talking about quantity of picks as they team does plenty of that, but rather premium draft capital.
Over the last eight drafts, the Cowboys have held the 18th or better pick four times. And in each of those instances, they came away with an offensive player on Day 1 of the draft. This doesn’t even include Amari Cooper who was selected fourth overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. If they expect to get better on defense, they must properly invest.
That means when Day 1 of the draft rolls around in April, the Cowboys must have a plan to address the defense. Best player available is always the right answer as you never want to sacrifice talent for need, but if they’re on the clock and that best player available plays offense, they might want to consider trading back a few spots to position themselves to take a defensive player. If they aren’t able to come out of round one with a defensive stud, then that’s a fail for this organization.
The Cowboys need some major help defensively. Whether it comes in the form of better coaching or better players, something’s got to give.