Remember when the Dallas Cowboys spent their first six draft picks on defensive players, including five Day 1 and 2 selections, and nobody was like: “Wow, the Cowboys defense feels like it got a lot better!” That feels like a big deal.
The Cowboys clearly have angles on an NFC East championship—why wouldn’t they, considering the weakness of the division—and they have the offense to get the job done. But defensively, the Mike Nolan-led Cowboys couldn’t stop a nosebleed. They were 23rd in DVOA and yards/play allowed, suffering from poor corner play and a weak rotation besides EDGE Demarcus Lawrence along the defensive line. A highly-paid linebacker corps couldn’t account for all the deficiencies elsewhere, even if they were playing at the level expected of them.
So Nolan was fired and replaced with Dan Quinn, and after his signing, the turnover of the roster to full Seattle-style Cover 3 began. Quinn signed Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee to the safety room from his time in Atlanta, brought in a clear Byron Maxwell-style corner in Nahshon Wright, and added 275-pound defensive ends in Chauncey Gholston and Osa Odighizuwa. While Mike McCarthy’s staff continues to push a narrative of multiple defenses, it’s clear that this unit is built in Quinn’s image.
For the Cowboys to be considered a reasonable competitor, the defense simply must get to above-average levels—not even the level of the offense. So much capital, in free agency and in the draft, has been poured into this unit, that the defense putting a limit on another explosive Dak Prescott-led offense is simply a failure, even if that offense drags them to the playoffs. The defense has to improve.
If it does, the Cowboys shouldn’t only be an NFC East contender, but a legit playoff team as well. While the defense may still be too young for a deep playoff run, it will justify McCarthy’s hire as a legit championship builder for the Cowboys if they show life in the onset of Prescott’s second contract. That’s success both in the short-term, as the Cowboys get a playoff berth, and success in the long-term, as the team’s arrow is pointing up for Dallas’ longtime Achilles’ heel.
Should the Cowboys look as they did last season—with Prescott’s late-game heroics saving some questionable coaching and a leaky defense from blowout losses—but scrape up enough games to lead another weak NFC East, Jerry Jones must be honest with himself: that’s still a failure. If McCarthy’s first two swings at defensive coordinator were misses, what faith does he possibly deserve to take a third? I’m not sure McCarthy would need to be fired, but if it’s Kellen Moore’s offense, the decision-making is still bad, and he can’t bring on an effective staff… then what value does he bring at all?
Dallas’ successful 2021 season looks like what they likely envisioned before the 2020 season: a high-powered offense led by a top-five quarterback, a functional defense able to hang around enough with top offenses, and a playoff run in the NFC. The biggest hurdle left for that, assuming Prescott is back healthy, is the improvement of a defense that, despite all of the investment, few believe is actually ready to take the leap.