Early days in an NFL training camp tend to create optimism. We have to maintain some caution about how much we read into what are so far unpadded drills and reps. Still, outside the return of the myriad injured offensive players from last year, nothing is more encouraging than how the defense has looked for the Dallas Cowboys in Oxnard.
It leads us to the chicken/egg conundrum. Is this more because Dan Quinn has come in with a better scheme and superior coaching and teaching skills, or the massive infusion of new free agents and rookies on that side of that side of the ball? It is probably some mix of the two, but all the early reports indicate that it is working.
There have been numerous videos and reports about how Quinn is putting in a lot of one-on-one time with players such as Micah Parsons and Randy Gregory. He also has been running the defensive line drills himself. The players are responding with complete positivity.
If there is one player who is the poster for all this, it may be Gregory. After all the suspensions and now having a full offseason under his belt, he has been a monster in the first couple of practices. His talent was never questioned. Now he is unleashing himself and giving us hints of what is to come.
Watch 94 close on Dak here once he pops out to the boot action pic.twitter.com/yQsx6NWtfH— Killin' Moore (@McCoolBCB) July 24, 2021
Or, as Mr. McCool remarked after Gregory just blew up a reverse:
Seriously, get 94 out of here, he is RUINING practice— Killin' Moore (@McCoolBCB) July 24, 2021
While Gregory was stealing the show a bit on defense, lots of others were making some good plays. Leighton Vander Esch had some very heartening reps, and Kelvin Joseph continued on day two to show why he was the team’s second-round selection. Meanwhile, Micah Parsons is being groomed to do it all, from run fills to pass rushes to coverage. Add in some hopeful signs from Nahshon Wright, lots of work from the free agent defenders added, plus vets like Neville Gallimore having good days and the talent on this side of the ball looks markedly improved.
It is more than just some improved horses in this race, however. One thing that is missing so far is the sense of confusion and poor understanding of the defense that plagued Dallas last season. You have to look to Quinn’s bigger influence on things. The scheme seems simpler, which in turn can lead to the players having more confidence and success on the field. Admittedly, the defense often is ahead of the offense at this time of camp. But the offense is basically the same guys back that they planned to start last season, and that extends to many of the key backups as well. They have a lot less to learn and absorb. It is impressive that the defense has their act together so well with so many unfamiliar pieces, many of whom have obviously never played together.
One of the many depressing things to come out of 2020 for the Cowboys was how the defensive players were pointing fingers at the staff for their failures. The rapport Quinn has established is night and day from that divisive situation. One of the specific complaints last year was that there was really no teaching going on. Quinn is knee deep in that.
Of course, you can teach all you want to no avail if the payers simply do not bring the requisite skills and abilities to the table. So far, the talent seems to be much better at all three levels. Safety is still a bit of a concern, but the reported plan to add Malik Hooker to the team might go a long way to addressing that. The defensive line is both fortified and getting apparently better performance from its returning players, even with DeMarcus Lawrence still working his way off of PUP. Parsons looks well on his way to earning a starting job, and Vander Esch might be returning to the form that had us so excited his rookie year. And one big thing that has stood out about the defensive backs is that they are getting their heads around so much better and seeing the ball early enough to make a play on it, something that was still very much an issue last year. It also helps that they seem to be in much better position to make those plays.
We need a dose of reality that this is still so very early. There is a lot of work to be done before the regular season, and there are going to be some days when things take a step back. However, the benefits of a full offseason program are rather obvious.
While the loss of Dak Prescott and nearly the entire offensive line last year would have doomed the team in any case, the way the defense repeatedly let the club down was nearly as big a reason for the dismal record despite being in the weakest division in the NFL. This may not be a top 10 unit yet, but if this offense is anything like what we believe it to be, just getting somewhere in middle of the pack on defense will be enough to win some extra games. It even will help protect Prescott, since it should keep him out of many situations where he thinks he has to put on his hero cape to try and pull things out.
Going into the offseason, fixing the defense was stated as a top priority. Based on what we have seen so far, those were not empty words.