IRVING, Texas – Former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis was asked a blunt question at the team’s kickoff luncheon last week at AT&T Stadium:
Is this the worst defense you’ve ever seen?
So much for breaking the ice with some softballs. Ellis didn’t stammer and backpedal. He didn’t really answer the question either, but he brought some perspective.
“You remember the year we were supposed to have been pretty bad and we finished up No. 1?” Ellis said. “Deion Sanders was on TV, saying, ‘Hats off to Mike Zimmer. I can’t name one player on this defense, but they’re playing [great],’ and I think we finished up No. 1. Hopefully this defense at this time can still not so much read into what people are saying about them, but put it into their hearts and minds that, ‘We’re NFL players. If we pull together and play good team defense – we might not be able play individual defense and have a bunch of interceptions and a bunch of sacks,’ but come together and play solid team defense, I think they’ll be OK.”
Ellis was referring to the Cowboys’ defense in 2003 in Bill Parcells’ first season. That defense, however, was loaded compared to this defense. Ellis was solid. La’Roi Glover was a Pro Bowl defensive tackle. Dexter Coakley made the Pro Bowl. Roy Williams made his first Pro Bowl that season. Darren Woodson was still playing at a high level. So was Dat Nguyen. Terence Newman had a terrific rookie season.
Those are seven players better than what the Cowboys will be rolling out Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
Ellis would be this team’s best pass rusher. Glover would be the best defensive tackle. Coakley, Nguyen and Al Singleton were a better trio of linebackers. The Roy Williams of 2003 is a better safety. Newman would be a better corner.
Coming off a season in which they allowed the third-most yards in NFL history and the most in franchise history (6,645) after allowing what was a franchise-record 5,687 yards in 2012, the expectations for this defense are low. Lower than low.
They don’t have DeMarcus Ware. They don’t have Jason Hatcher, who had 11 sacks last year. They don’t have Sean Lee, who is out for the season with a knee injury. They don’t have Orlando Scandrick for the first four games. They don’t know how the linebacker group will shake out. They don’t know what Henry Melton, their biggest free-agent signing, can do coming off a preseason in which he did not play a snap. They don’t know what Morris Claiborne can do after he missed the preseason for the second straight year with injuries.
They are also breaking in a new coordinator in Rod Marinelli.
“I don’t want to be looked at as a guy with low expectations,” linebacker Justin Durant said. “That means they don’t think you’re good. That kind of speaks to me like as an individual that it’s talking about me. I definitely want to go out and show what I can do and I’m sure everybody feels that way. We know what we have in our room and we’re trying not to pay any attention to the projection and things that the media and people say about us. We’re just going to go out there and play football. That’s all we can do.”
For years the Cowboys have had to deal with high expectations as a team. Looking back, those expectations were mostly unrealistic.
Barry Church wonders if the low expectations might help the defense.
“It kind of takes the pressure from us feeling as though these guys, ‘They’ve got to be one of the top defenses in the league,’” Church said. “But I feel like we have ability to be that. Now we’re just going to show it with our pads instead of talking about it.”