The year was 2013.
The Dallas Cowboys, one of the most storied franchises in the NFL and all of American professional sports, had just done something that they had never accomplished in 53 years of existence.
They finished the season with the worst defense in the history of the franchise.
Almost 1,100 plays ran against them produced over 6,600 yards and 27 points per game. To put that into some perspective, only one other team since 1994 has ever given up more yards.
Amazingly, even though Dallas finished 26th in points allowed, 32nd in yards allowed, had the third worst pass defense and sixth worst defense against the run, they still found a way to win eight games.
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Now, just two years later, the Cowboys defense has undergone a complete face lift. A team that relied heavily on three key contributors in their thirties now just has two guys that age who will see any playing time, neither of whom will start once league issued suspensions are served.
In fact, the youth movement is vital to the Cowboys defensive resurrection. Eight different players all aged 25 years or younger will play key roles for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Rising star defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford, up and coming defensive backs J.J. Wilcox and Tyler Patmon, along with this year’s draft coup of defensive back Byron Jones and pass rush specialist Randy Gregory all make for a nice core of youthful talent and energy.
The move to replace defensive coordinators and bring in Rod Marinelli certainly has something to do with the makeover as well. In just one year, the Cowboys improved 11 spots in points allowed and 13 spots in total yards allowed.
With another year of familiarity under Marinelli, the players can focus on honing their craft instead of learning a whole system as they did under previous coaches Rob Ryan and Monte Kiffin.
Of course, injuries will also play a part in the story of the 2015 edition of this defense. Two years ago, eighteen different players started a game on that side of the ball. That team though was ill-equipped to deal with losing players as depth was non-existent. Now, this team has several positions where the next man up is almost as good as the guy he plays behind.
With the aforementioned suspensions creating an issue, guys like defensive end Greg Hardy and linebacker Rolando McClain will add to the opening day total of eleven but another season of 18 starters is unlikely to happen.
In the end though, it all comes down to talent.
Thankfully, the Cowboys have done well at adding plenty of that. The signing of defensive end Greg Hardy bolsters the line and gives Dallas a bona fide threat to get to the quarterback. Having a guy who can rack up double-digit sacks in his mid twenties is something this team hasn’t had for almost six years now.
Unlike the majority of past seasons, the elite pass rusher on this team won’t be the only one capable of creating havoc. Teams will either be forced to block last year’s second round pass rush artist, Demarcus Lawrence or this year’s in Gregory one-on-one. That’s a problem that talent provides you.
The Cowboys also get arguably their best defensive player back this year when linebacker Sean Lee reappears in the fold. Remarkably, even though he has missed 26 games in three years, he still has more interceptions (11) than any other Cowboys since 2010.
Now Lee is being moved to the weak side to hopefully keep him healthier and will be used more in obvious passing situations to maximize his talents.
As with everything, the proof will be in the pudding. The potential to be very good will not enough on its own to get this team where they want to be. Potential is certainly something they have a lot more of though in 2015. The coaching and talent appear to be in place as well.
If it all comes together and this defense can be a top 10 performer in both points and yards allowed, the sky is the limit for this Cowboys squad.