ARLINGTON, Texas -- In a half-joking manner, Jerry Jones declared this spring that the Dallas Cowboys’ defense would get better because it couldn’t be any worse.
When you rank dead last in the league in total defense, there’s only one way to go, he figured. Of course, it’s completely possible for the Cowboys to have the worst-ranked defense again and give up more yards than last season’s franchise record, but Jones would rather not view the situation that way.
“I think the defense is much improved, much improved,” Jones said after the preseason finale. “Awareness, the player we’re going to ask to do the job, I think we’re much improved from the team that was on the field the last four games when we ended the season. This is a better defense.”
Jones attempts to muster hope for a defense that lost arguably its three best players from last season with linebacker Sean Lee tearing up his knee, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher leaving in free agency and defensive end DeMarcus Ware being released. Plus, Orlando Scandrick will serve a four-game suspension to start the season after performing the best among the Cowboys cornerbacks last season.
The Cowboys certainly upgraded at defensive coordinator by demoting Monte Kiffin, who the game has clearly passed by and promoting Rod Marinelli. The Cowboys have recent evidence that Marinelli is a quality coordinator from his tenure with the Chicago Bears before coming to Dallas last year.
But Marinelli is no miracle worker. Just look at the Detroit Lions defensive rankings from his tenure as head coach: 28th, 32nd and 32nd in yards and 30th, 32nd and 32nd in scoring.
Marinelli needs playmakers to make his scheme work. Where are they on the Dallas defense?
The reality is this defense is in even worse shape than anticipated when training camp opened. They lost rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who they desperately needed to develop as an edge pass-rushing threat, for several weeks due to a broken foot. Defensive tackles Henry Melton and Terrell McClain didn’t play a down in the preseason due to injuries, with Melton still working to chip off rust after missing the last 13 games last season with a torn ACL. Defensive end George Selvie is dealing wth soreness in his surgically repaired right shoulder. Cornerback Morris Claiborne sat out the entire preseason -- again -- and will need to take pain-killing injections to play with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder. Scandrick is suspended four games.
“We know our limitations,” Jones said. “We know our scheme better, and we got players [who] can execute. We’ve got better players, healthier players to execute the scheme.”
That's the hope for the Dallas defense. But it’s definitely not the reality as they get ready for the regular season.