When the news broke that Randy Gregory would face a longer suspension because of another violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, and that he had checked himself into a treatment facility, it was met with differing emotions.
Some felt sorry for Gregory as he works through issues he has yet to get under control. Some wanted him cut as quickly as possible. Others lamented what an even more prolonged absence would mean for the Dallas Cowboys’ defense.
Clearly, it doesn’t help. The Cowboys do not have the deepest of defensive lines and their pass rush is, politely, unproven. The current leader in sacks for the players set to play Week 1 against the New York Giants is Orlando Scandrick with 9.5. He is a cornerback. Repeat: a cornerback.
But for all of Gregory’s promise, he remained more potential than proven as he entered his second season. He played in 12 games as a rookie and did not record a sack.
The optimist would point out that DeMarcus Lawrence did not have a regular-season sack as a rookie in 2014 but led the Cowboys in sacks in 2015 with eight.
The pessimist would point out Lawrence is set to miss the first four games this season because of a suspension.
Short of an unimaginable trade for a proven pass rusher -- guard Ronald Leary will not bring back one of those in a trade, by the way -- the Cowboys enter 2016 hoping they can find an improved pass rush from within. They are hoping Benson Mayowa (two career sacks) can do more with more playing time than he had with the Oakland Raiders. They are hoping Ryan Russell, David Irving, Charles Tapper and anybody else can become this year’s version of George Selvie, who had seven sacks in 2013.
They were hoping Gregory could be that guy.
In a way, the longer absence of Gregory is better than losing another starter to suspension. In addition to Lawrence, middle linebacker Rolando McClain is set to miss 10 games and Jason Garrett gave the most tepid of ‘yeses’ when asked if McClain would be with the team in training camp.
The loss of Gregory hurts, but the Cowboys’ success in 2016 has always been and will always be about their offense.
It was that way in 2014, too. The fallacy of that season is that the Cowboys simply played keep-away and the defense was able to rest. The truth is the offense scored a ton of points (467) in addition to holding on to the ball a lot. Last year’s defense was on the field for about one more play a game than the 2014 defense. The difference was the unit did not have the ability to defend with leads of 4, 7 or 10 points.
The defense fell short in late-game situations in losses to the New Orleans Saints (overtime), Philadelphia Eagles (overtime), Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills. The Cowboys weren’t good enough when it mattered most and they weren’t good enough because the offense couldn’t do much of anything.
In 2014, the Cowboys scored 56 touchdowns. Last year, with Tony Romo starting and finishing two games, they scored 26 touchdowns.
Playing defense with a lead is a lot easier. The opposing offense becomes more predictable. It can’t run the ball as much. Quarterbacks have to take chances, which lead to takeaways. The Cowboys had 11 takeaways in 2015. They had 31 takeaways in 2014.
Knowing Gregory and Lawrence were going to miss four games each in February, the Cowboys chose this direction. They did not make big free-agent pickups (Cedric Thornton at four years, $17 million was the biggest). They used their second-round pick on Jaylon Smith, who will not play as a rookie because of a knee injury.
This season was going to be about the offense.
Provided good health, the Cowboys have the look of one of the best offenses in the NFL in 2016.
Romo has to be great. Dez Bryant has to be great. Jason Witten has to be great. Ezekiel Elliott has to be great. That offensive line has to be great. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has to be great, too. Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Alfred Morris, James Hanna, Brice Butler and anyone else you want to mention have to play at a high level, too.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on one side of the ball, but it was that way before the Gregory news and it is that way now.