Commentary

Cowboys' focus should be on defense

Until Jones decides to make it a priority, Dallas will remain an afterthought in NFC

Updated: February 5, 2014, 4:43 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

While we watched Seattle's destruction of Denver's supposedly unstoppable offense and, for now, Peyton Manning's legacy, in Super Bowl XLVIII, some obvious questions emerged.

How long will it take for the Dallas Cowboys to compete with Seattle and San Francisco for supremacy in the NFC and can they accomplish it before 33-year-old Tony Romo is over the hill?

In general, there are reasons for optimism. After all, we saw Kansas City improve from 2-14 to 11-5, Philadelphia from 4-12 to 10-6, Carolina from 7-9 to 12-4 and Arizona from 5-11 to 10-6.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/James D. SmithDeMarcus Ware was one of several Cowboys players on defense who regressed under a new system last season.

Only Arizona failed to make the playoffs.

Kansas City, Philadelphia and Carolina used the impetus from new head coaches and quarterbacks to change their fortunes, while Carolina used the momentum created from winning five of its final six games in 2012.

Your Cowboys ain't replacing head coach Jason Garrett or quarterback Tony Romo. And based on recent history, you can't trust the Cowboys to add considerable help through the draft, even though well-respected Will McClay is leading draft day duties these days instead of director of scouting Tom Ciskowski.

It's not that Ciskowski did a poor job, but owner Jerry Jones and vice president Stephen Jones seemingly started tuning him out, which is among the reasons the Cowboys would pass on Sharrif Floyd, the fifth player on their draft board when he fell to them at 18.

The Cowboys' biggest issue is that based on the current state of the NFC, their blueprint for winning won't get them to the Super Bowl.

Uh-oh.

Just like the Broncos, the Cowboys have built a team that revolves around offense.

Think about it.

Romo, Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten, Travis Frederick and Terrance Williams are among their best players. Smith, Bryant and Murray made the Pro Bowl.

Jerry has spent so much time and energy making the offense Romo-friendly that the defense has suffered. The hasty decision to switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 Tampa 2 scheme after the 2012 season is part of the problem.

The scheme change made DeMarcus Ware, Bruce Carter and Morris Claiborne less effective players. That's all you need to know about it being a dumb idea.

Ware had a career-low six sacks after being asked to play a traditional defensive end and tussle with 330-pound tackles every play in close quarters, instead of outside linebacker, where he could use space and speed to his advantage.

Carter spent too much time figuring out his new responsibilities in the 4-3 instead of attacking ball carriers, and Claiborne excelled in man-to-man coverage in college -- not the zone schemes the Cowboys often asked him to play last season.

The Cowboys' defensive issue is twofold: The team lacks overall talent and doesn't have the pieces necessary to excel in the scheme.

Sean Lee, the Cowboys' best defensive player, has missed 18 games in four seasons, including 15 the past two. Orlando Scandrick is a nice player, and Cowboys Nation should spend some time on its knees praying to the football gods that Ware can become a star again.

Carter, Claiborne and cornerback Brandon Carr each had disappointing seasons. You hope they play better next season, but it's certainly no guarantee they will.

This defensive scheme requires a disruptive defensive tackle who plays on the outside shoulder of the right guard, a weakside linebacker who can make plays sideline to sideline and a safety who brings the pain.

[+] EnlargeJerry Jones
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesUntil Jerry Jones decides to do something to improve the defense far beyond where it is now, don't expect the Cowboys to be serious contenders in the NFC.

Dallas currently has no players to fill those roles.

Carter flopped last season, and rookie J.J. Wilcox, a third-round pick trying to make the jump from Georgia Southern to the NFL, couldn't beat out undrafted free agent Jeff Heath from tiny Saginaw Valley State much of the season.

History has taught us and Seattle has reinforced the notion that defense wins championships. Offense can bring a team to the cusp of a title, but when matched against an elite defense, the defense usually wins.

The New York Giants won Super Bowls XLII and XLVI because their front four dominated New England and shut down the Patriots' supposedly unstoppable offense.

In Super Bowl XXXVI, New England shut down St. Louis' Greatest Show on Turf, and the next year Tampa Bay's defense beat up Oakland's high-powered passing game to win a championship.

When the Cowboys won the NFC East in 2009 -- sadly, it's also the last time they made the playoffs -- they allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL and ranked ninth in total defense. They finished the season with consecutive shutouts.

In 2007, the Cowboys scored 455 points, second most in the league, but they won 13 games because they finished ninth in the NFL in defense.

When you talk about the Cowboys being the team of the '90s, most of the focus is on Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. But the 1992 team led the NFL in defense, the 1993 team tied for 10th and the 1995 team tied for ninth.

Notice the trend?

None of us knows how long it will take the Cowboys to become a contender again, but until Jerry gets this defense fixed they'll remain an afterthought in the NFC.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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