We have reached the end of a season that the Cowboys started with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. The team and its fans had every reason to be excited about the opportunity for a special season building on the rousing success of their returning young stars at quarterback, running back, defensive tackle and cornerback. Now, looking back at a disappointing finish without even a playoff birth leaves all parts of the team subject to intense scrutiny inside and outside of the Star. With that in mind, we will look at the leadership of the team (the coaches and front office) and how they performed this season.
It’s been a few years since I was in school but one of the most important things I wanted to know for every class I took was, “Does the teacher grade on the number or on a curve”. That would always make a huge difference at the end of the class. For better, or worse, the NFL’s parity-driven setup requires that we always grade on a curve. An 8-8 record for one team can be a great job for one team’s circumstances while at the same time being a colossal failure for another. Over this series, we will grade the offensive coaches, the defensive coaches, the head coach and special teams coach and the front office. We already looked at the offensive side of the ball. Today we look at the defensive coaches.
Secondary Coach – Joe Baker
Joe Baker began the season with a lot of youth and a ton of question marks in his group. The free agency departures in the secondary were deliberate to upgrade the talent level in the secondary but losing Brandon Carr and Barry Church also meant the significant loss of veteran leadership. Carr’s influence was always positive in the locker room and Church was a respected captain of the defense. Those losses mean more responsibility on the coaches as they no longer had those voices to help lead the group. Morris Claiborne was an enigma of talent and potential that could never stay healthy. J.J. Wilcox was always one of the fanbase’s favorite whipping boys for the holes in his game. Both were valuable to the secondary but not valuable enough to bid for their services.
Baker had several challenges that were not of his making. He had to manage a group filled with 1st and 2nd-year players without the on-field leadership to which he was accustomed. He was given some talented clay with which to craft an effective secondary, but that job was severely hampered by injuries throughout training camp. Jourdan Lewis missed the entire offseason and Chidobe Awuzie couldn’t complete a full NFL game till the 2nd half of the season. He did an excellent job of preparing Xavier Woods to fill in admirably at slot corner, something he had never done in college. Orlando Scandrick stepped up to fill some of the leadership void left by Carr and Church, but his health and availability were inconsistent throughout the year. Even worse was the regression of Anthony Brown to the point where he was no longer starting. Brown did rebound over the last few games with fewer snaps, but this was a major disappointment in the secondary’s development.
The young bucks (Awuzie, Lewis, Woods) made some typical rookie mistakes but they also flashed the talent that got each of them drafted in the first place. The results on the field were, likewise, an up and down affair. It was ugly at times (against the Chargers) but the season ended with a great deal of hope for the development and growth of this unit going into the 2018 season.
While the team didn’t seem to value Baker’s ability to lead the group into the future, his ability to get them to perform under adverse circumstances earns him a solid B.
Safeties Coach – Greg Jackson
Greg Jackson came into 2017 with Byron Jones looking to take the next step into the top tier of NFL safeties and Jeff Heath looking to step up into a full-time starter role. As mentioned above he also lost his leader in Barry Church and looked to replace Wilcox’s role as a part-time banger on the back end with Kavon Frazier.
Looking back at the season, this was a failure regarding two of the three. Jones spit the bit when presented with more responsibility and pressure. His play regressed and the smart player with extreme athleticism was unrecognizable with some of the stupid penalties he seemed to get almost weekly (the Chiefs game right before the half sticks out). By the end of the season, he was losing big snaps to Frazier and looked lost when he was on the field. Heath is another story. On one hand, he is a fan whipping boy that routinely takes poor angles and misses tackles at the back end of the defense. On the other, he makes some splash plays at the biggest moments which has created a loyal fan group that affectionately refers to him as the GOAT. The problem here is that Jackson could not get Heath to develop into a starting NFL safety even with every chance to do so right in front of him. Some of this falls on the player but it can’t be ignored that Jackson’s charges were one of the worst units on the entire team.
It appears that the Cowboys have chosen to ride with Jackson in the secondary now that they have moved on from Joe Baker, but the results show they may have it backward. Jackson’s grade is only saved from utter failure by the lowered expectations of replacing Church’s leadership and play. That means he gets a very generous D.
Defensive Tackles Coach – Leon Lett
Leon Lett has been learning his craft at the feet of the defensive line master in Rod Marinelli. His room looked solid as the offseason took shape. David Irving looked like he was finally ready to breakout and go from potential to performer. Stephen Paea looked great in the offseason and the team was confident he could replace Terrell McClain’s productivity. Maliek Collins was a huge rookie bright spot in 2016 and looked like he would continue to grow. He was even a pick by many Cowboys’ writers to get a pro bowl invite. Brian Price was brought in at the end of the offseason as a good rotational piece on the nose.
Then all hell broke loose. Irving was suspended for a supplement he should have known better than to take. Paea decided that his knees could no longer take the beating of an NFL defensive tackle. Collins suffered through slumping production as he flopped between the one and three-technique positions. Brian Price showed some strength in the middle of the defense, but he too was slowed and then stopped altogether by injuries. Richard Ash and Lewis Neal were called up at different times of the season to help cover for these injuries and performed well enough to help the defense become the team’s strength in the last couple of weeks of the season.
Lett’s charges have been developing steadily in his time as a Dallas coach. Maliek Collins’ 2017 regression was a big change to that but again, much of his struggles appear to be health related. Lett was impressive in getting not only his backups to play effectively but to also integrate practice squad call-ups into a rotation that held its own as the season progressed. That makes my grade for him a B.
Linebackers Coach/Passing game Coordinator – Matt Eberflus
Matt Eberflus has been somewhat of a mystery man to casual fans. People close to the team know all about his contributions though. Eberflus survived the debacle of Rob Ryan’s tenure and impressed Jason Garret and the Jones enough to be kept on. He was promoted this past offseason by adding passing game coordinator/defense to his business card. At linebacker, Eberflus came into the season with his all-pro weakside backer, Sean Lee, healthy and ready to roll. Anthony Hitchens spent the entire offseason impressing the coaches, his teammates and all the media that cover the Cowboys. Jaylon Smith stepped onto the field and took significant steps in his long road back from injury to a participant to top performer. Damien Wilson showed promise of another athletic linebacker although he dealt with some off the field issues in the summer. The team also had reliable Kyle Wilbur and re-upped again for another run with Justin Durant.
Sean Lee’s age and injury history make it impossible to expect him to be available for all 16 games. Once again, his inability to stay healthy severely compromised the Cowboys defense. Anthony Hitchens and the team were lucky he only missed the first month of the season after being carried off the field in the preseason. Jaylon Smith wasn’t ready to carry the load in the absence of Hitchens and Lee, especially with Durant not yet ready to play early in the season. As the team got healthier there, Smith was able to scale back his snaps and really started looking like an impressive player over the last couple of games. This development was mental as much as physical and the coaches deserve a lot of credit for helping him get there. Eberflus has also had great success in coaching up his charges to cross train for all three linebacking spots. This has been most important with the inability to depend on Sean Lee’s availability week-to-week. Wilson doesn’t seem to be progressing. He is continually overrunning plays or shooting the wrong gap. This hasn’t allowed his physical tools to be fully displayed.
While Eberflus has a primary duty of linebacker coach, he is also responsible for putting the young secondary into the right spots to succeed as passing game coordinator. His linebackers, were a mixed bag due to injury (and recovering from injury) but his pass defense showed real growth throughout the season. This put his grade at a B.
Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach – Rod Marinelli
Rod Marinelli came to the Cowboys before the 2014 season with Monte Kiffin. Marinelli has made a habit of making lemonade out of lemons with the talent he’s had on the defensive line. He has always been able to coax production out of other teams discards and now the team seems to finally be having some success with the draft capital it has spent on the defensive line. He’s developed a “war daddy” pass rusher in Demarcus Lawrence and his players are showing solid growth in their ability to affect the quarterback consistently. Marinelli’s ability as a teacher on the defensive line is not in question. If he was simply the coach for that group, he would grade out well. That is just his “side job” here though.
Marinelli’s main job for the Dallas defense is to call the plays that allow the defense to function at its best. He must be adept at preparing for and adjust to injuries or ineffectiveness in the middle of a game. Marinelli’s is a true believer in the one-gap, attacking defense that depends upon his four down linemen to provide almost all the pressure. That is helpful when coaching consistent technique in the d-line room. Unfortunately, that stubbornness in the play-caller to stick with the plan can allow his players to be abused if the other offense exposes a weakness they can exploit. Marinelli was very stubborn with his personnel and his play calls this past season. One of the things he did well in 2016 was to switch to a three-man line and flood the passing lanes with a 3rd cornerback AND a 3rd safety. Marinelli appeared at various times to be overconfident in his team’s ability to play straight to the scheme and win. Some of this was due to the early success of his pass rush and late improvements in the young secondary. Last season he knew they couldn’t get consistent pressure, so he adjusted his plan to help hold up longer on the back end. That really didn’t happen this season.
Barring some major, unforeseen change, Marinelli will again be calling the defensive plays from the Cowboys’ sideline in the 2018 season. The voices coming out of the Star seem to suggest that he will get more help on the line and in the secondary to keep improving the talent base of the defense. Maybe this, and the continued growth of young players on the line and in the secondary will allow him to successful play his one gap scheme straight up and still be effective. If not, Cowboys fans must hope that he looks back at how he maximized less talent in 2016 by changing things up. Marinelli’s line work helps to pull up a very average performance as play-caller to an overall B.
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