The first season for head coach Mike McCarthy was hardly a success with a 6-10 record and missing the playoffs in a division that contained no winning records. The Cowboys had been 8-8 last year and 10-6 the previous season, so no positives emerged from 2020. McCarthy gets a second shot at leading the storied franchise. Even his first season saw dissension that the coaching staff failed to prepare properly for games and the team was embarrassed in most matchups outside of their own division.
Losing Dak Prescott put a major dent in the offense after Week 5 but they were already 2-3 on the season and had just barely beaten the Falcons and Giants. At least they scored points until Prescott left. Without the high-scoring, the Cowboys season was realistically over by mid-season.
Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore finishes his second season and was considered for the head coaching job at his alma mater Boise State and interviewed for the same opening at the Eagles. The offense posted 30+ points in the four weeks leading up to Prescott’s injury and that was with the offensive line ravaged by injuries. The Cowboys were happy to retain Moore despite the eventual decline in production for reasons aside from his coaching.
The defense was never adequate. Mike McCarthy chose former Saints linebacker coach Mike Nolan to become the new defensive coordinator last season. Nolan was a former head coach who was saddled with a bad defense that had lost several key players which were not adequately replaced. The result was the worst defense in the Cowboys’ 60-year history in several metrics, including a franchise-record 473 points allowed. Nolan’s complicated scheme simply lacked the needed personnel and he became the scapegoat.
The Cowboys opted for ex-Falcons head coach Dan Quinn whose lengthy resume dealt entirely with defense until running the Falcons for six years.
Quinn brings significant experience, especially with defensive lines that he coached for the 49ers (2003-04), Dolphins (2005-06), Jets (2007-09), and Seahawks (2009-2010). After a two-year stint as the defensive coordinator for the University of Florida, he returned to Seattle as the defensive coordinator and spent two seasons running what was considered one of the best defenses of all-time (“The Legion of Boom”). The Seahawks were loaded with talent and went to the Super Bowl in both 2013 and 2014. They were the first team since the 1985 Bears to lead the league in takeaways, fewest points allowed, and fewest yards allowed.
While he’s worked in different defensive schemes, he is mostly considered a 4-3 coach as he was during those two years in Seattle. But the difference in talent between the 2013 Seahawks defense and the 2021 Cowboys is immense. Mike McCarthy has leaned towards experience over “up-and-comers” on his staff and Quinn certainly fits that mold.
He’ll bring flexibility to the defensive scheme which alone should help after last year’s attempt to fit the wrong players into the wrong scheme. Quinn will consider his players first and then fit the scheme to them – that makes for a less predictable result though with the quality of players he inherits. His success will be more tied into bringing in new players than relying heavily on the lackluster crew already there.
Last year, the Cowboys lost their best cornerback Byron Jones and best pass-rusher in Robert Quinn. Their impact was never replaced. They used their 3.18 pick on DT Neville Gallimore who showed improvement over the final games as did 2.19 pick cornerback Trevon Diggs who was picked on constantly and battled through a broken foot that made him miss four games. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch missed six games due to injury. Injuries and underperforming players doomed the squad.
This is a defense that needs new players and free agency and the NFL draft have to net more talent for any improvement, particularly since they are installing yet another defense. Both safety Xavier Woods and cornerback Chidi Awuzie are free agents after very shaky seasons. The linebackers Sean Lee and Joe Thomas are both free agents as well.
Attempts to upgrade the secondary with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and cornerback Daryl Worley both flopped last year. The secondary is where the Cowboys need help the most. Dan Quinn was the defensive coordinator for the Legion of Boom in Seattle when cornerback Richard Sherman was there and there is speculation that the two could be reunited in Dallas.
Chasing free agents could be a challenge this year since the Cowboys will sign Dak Prescott to a painfully expensive contract that impacts how many 2021 dollars there are to spend. Their track record on bringing in veterans hasn’t been the greatest in recent years as well.
The Cowboys spent their second and fourth-round picks on cornerbacks last year and hope their second years show improvement. There’s expectations that they will use their first round pick on an offensive lineman since that is also a glaring need. But they also have a second round, two third-round and two fourth-round picks that should be primarily, if not exclusively, spent on the defense.
Fantasy football takeaway
In fantasy terms, the Dallas Cowboys defense was a blessing in 2020 giving up plenty of yards and scores to both rushers and receivers. While Dak Prescott was healthy, almost every game turned into a shootout and they averaged 36 points allowed over those first five games. The Cowboys offensive line problems also drove down their ability to control the clock and maintain good field position. It was a catastrophic year for the defense, and a bounty of riches for every opponent. And a boon for the Cowboys receivers in those shootouts.
The Cowboys defense ranked No. 20 in sacks (31) and need more help reaching the opposing quarterbacks to help compensate for below-average cornerback play. The defense could be in for a major overhaul between losing free agents and acquiring new players and raiding the 2021 NFL draft. This defense ranked No. 31 with 158.8 rushing yards allowed per game which reflected not only defensive inadequacies but also the poor game situations that their offense left them in during most games.
There’s no realistic chance of this defense taking a major leap upwards from what was one of the very worst seasons in franchise history. But Dan Quinn has been successful in optimizing what he has to work with on previous defenses. It will all come down to whatever veterans they can acquire and how well they spend their draft picks.