IRVING, Texas -- In a week, the Dallas Cowboys will land at Point Mugu, Calif., for the start of training camp.
They will arrive with an offense that should be among the best in the NFL. Tony Romo is healthy. Dez Bryant is healthy. They have a top offensive line and added running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick. They have one of the best tight ends in Jason Witten. They also have role players who can create problems for other teams, such as Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and even Alfred Morris.
They will also arrive with a defense that is dogged by questions, mostly because of the suspensions of Rolando McClain (10 games), Randy Gregory (four games) and DeMarcus Lawrence (four games). They have not seen Orlando Scandrick play a game since the divisional round loss in the 2014 playoffs due to a serious knee injury. They didn’t see Sean Lee take part in any offseason work because of minor knee surgery. They saw 2016 third-round pick Maliek Collins take part in one organized team activity before he broke his foot, which required surgery. They will not see this year’s second-round pick, Jaylon Smith, play because of a serious knee injury.
Despite the myriad of questions, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones sees hope in the defense. Some of that might be because of the offensive expectations. Some of it is just the hope that arises for every team coming into a new season. Some of it has to do with 2014.
“I know we had a really good football team two years ago, and I think this defense that we have is better than the defense we had two years ago,” Jones said in June, before the suspension of McClain became official.
That might not be saying much, but considering the woes predicted for the defense in 2014 -- some wondered if it might be the worst ever -- it was a plus. The Cowboys finished ranked 19th in defense that year (eighth against the run and 26th against the pass). But the defense did enough to help the Cowboys finish 12-4.
The 2013 defense was a mess, giving up 6,645 yards and finishing ranked 32nd (last) overall (27th against the run and 30th against the pass).
The Cowboys cut DeMarcus Ware that offseason. They made no attempt to re-sign Jason Hatcher, who had a career-high 11 sacks. They saw Lee go down for the season in spring workouts with a knee injury that forced him to miss the entire season.
Their biggest free-agent signings in 2014 were defensive tackle Henry Melton, who was coming off a major knee injury, and Jeremy Mincey. The Cowboys gave up their second- and third-round picks to take Lawrence only for him to broeak his foot early in training camp, an injury that cost him the first half of his rookie season.
There was one training camp practice that summer in which DeMarco Murray was not touched before he was at least 7 yards down field.
It was bleak.
But the Cowboys and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli figured it out to a degree that year on their way to a 12-4 finish. Mincey led the Cowboys with six sacks. Although the team had just 28 sacks for the season, they finished second in takeaways with 31.
The offense’s success directly contributed to the defense’s success. While controlling the ball is important, scoring is more important. The Cowboys scored at least 30 points in 10 games. It is far easier to play defense with a 7-10 point lead.
But Jones looks at the personnel differences as a reason for optimism in 2016.
“We didn’t have a Byron Jones two years ago,” he said. “We didn’t have a Sean Lee playing for us two years ago. We didn’t have Tyrone Crawford playing where he is right now -- he’s got so much experience. [Lawrence] and obviously Gregory have got to serve their suspensions but he's come a long way. So we have a chance to have a good defensive football team.
“[I have] a lot of confidence in Rod [Marinelli] and I know he’ll come up with ways to get pressure on the quarterback. But we feel good about this team and feel good that we have a great opportunity to really compete for a championship.”