Do the Dallas Cowboys just need an average defense?

Dallas Cowboys Dan Quinn Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Dallas Cowboys Dan Quinn Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys just need to have an average defense in order to compete for a championship run this year is the narrative many fans are running with. On the surface, it is not a bad assumption as the defense had a rough 2020 season.

New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has given the team a teacher on defense but one that does so with an infectious ferocity that players love. Do not allow the professional athlete title to sway your mindset. Just because some of these guys are professionals, it doesn’t mean that they always prepare or compete at a professional level on their own.

Some players need that kick in the rear or that constant pressure to push them to where they didn’t think they could get to. Coaching style is just as important as scheme in my opinion. Former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan certainly proved that point for me last season.

So Quinn is expected to have an improved unit but I believe this unit can be even better than what the masses are saying.

In 2020, the Dallas Cowboys defense finished 23rd overall while giving up a staggering amount of points and yards. Their 158.8 rush yards allowed per game was second-worst with only the Houston Texans giving up more.

Their 29.6 points given up per game is also an atrocious stat that should have fans calling for better defensive play. The days of former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard don’t seem that bad anymore.

The Dallas Cowboys are the most polarizing team in all of sports so everything they do reverberates throughout the league.

In 2019 or the last year under Marinelli, the Dallas Cowboys finished with the 9th best defense in the NFL. They only allowed 223.5 pass yards and 103.5 rush yards a game that season. 2018 was even better where they finished with the 7th best defense that allowed only 94.6 rush yards and 234.7 pass yards a game.

The 2018 Cowboys squad finished with a 10-6 record but fell in the divisional round to the Los Angeles Rams but went 8-8 in 2019 and missed the playoffs.

That means the Dallas Cowboys had a top 10 defense twice in the last two years of Jason Garrett but failed to even reach the NFC Championship Game. If all the fans are asking for is an average defense, I’m sorry to say but it might not be enough.

So if the Dallas Cowboys have the offensive performance like most people think they can and an average defense with improved special teams play, what is the key to a successful season? The answer is simple, turnovers.

I apologize in advance to those of you who thought there wouldn’t be any math. In 2018, the Dallas Cowboys forced a paltry 20 turnovers but their turnover differential was plus three. That means the Cowboys had forced three more turnovers than giving up the ball. That ranking was good enough for 12th overall in the league.

18 teams in the league either had a better or tied Dallas for those 18 forced turnovers but the turnover differential is where I want to focus.

In 2019, the team had a minus one turnover differential while creating even fewer turnovers with 17. We all know they missed the playoffs that year. The New England Patriots had the best turnover differential with a plus 21 and won the Super Bowl.

This is your reminder that both of those years saw the Cowboys as a top-ten defense in regards to points and yards. This is also a reminder that most of the defensive players who finished in the top ten in 2018 and 2019 are still on the roster.

My apologies to Monte Kiffin, Rob Ryan, Rod Marinelli, and Mike Nolan but this defense possibly has the best defensive coordinator the team has employed in quite some time.

The 2020 Dallas Cowboys had 23 turnovers which bested their previous two years but the team finished 21st in turnover differential with a minus eight. The reigning Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished with a plus-eight differential good for sixth in the league.

This is not the be-all do-all as the 2018 Philadelphia Eagles posted a minus-six turnover differential which was 25th in the league. I only went back seven years but every other Super Bowl Winner since 2014 has finished in the top 13 of turnover differential in the entire league.

The point I am trying to make is the narrative is simply off by a bit. It would be nice for the Dallas Cowboys to have at least an average defense in terms of yards and points but I am more interested in winning the turnover differential battle.

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This also means the offense has to do their part and cut down on their turnovers during the season. The narrative should read, All the Dallas Cowboys need is a middle-of-the-road turnover differential in order to compete for a championship.