FRISCO, Texas –- Tom Brady: Dallas Cowboys slayer.
Fans of the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills have suffered longer, since Brady was the New England Patriots' quarterback from 2000 to 2019. Brady won 66 of a possible 76 games against his former AFC East rivals in his career.
But he has tormented the Cowboys, too – six games, six wins.
The Cowboys’ 2022 season opens the same as last season – against Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in prime time, though it's the Cowboys' turn to play host at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).
If the Cowboys are going to finally beat Brady and become the first team to repeat as NFC East champions since the 2003-04 Philadelphia Eagles, the defense – not the offense – will have to be the centerpiece.
For most of the past decade, if not more, the Cowboys’ larger-than-life expectations came from having a star-led offense that was the envy of many teams across the league. Since Tony Romo became the starter in 2006 (replaced by Dak Prescott in 2016), the Cowboys’ offense has ranked in the top half of the league in scoring in 12 of 16 seasons -- and within the top seven in eight seasons.
The defense, on the other hand, was mostly asked to do just enough.
In 2022, it’s about asking the defense to do more -- even more than last season, when it exceeded expectations, ranking seventh in points allowed -- and perhaps, yes, carry the weight of the season against Brady in Week 1 and ideally into the playoffs.
“Someone asked me earlier, ‘What do you think about an encore?’” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “Encores happen after the show. This is a new tour, new show, new group. We ride together.”
Proof identity is shifting from offense to defense
The last time the Cowboys won Super Bowls, in the 1990s, the stars were the Triplets: wide receiver Michael Irvin, quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and the offensive line. Yes, defensive end Charles Haley is in the Hall of Fame and safety Darren Woodson is in the Ring of Honor, but it’s as if the defense played just a small part of those three championships in four seasons.
From 2006 through last season, offensive players Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Terrell Owens, Leonard Davis, Miles Austin, Marion Barber, Andre Gurode, Flozell Adams, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, DeMarco Murray, Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb made at least one Pro Bowl appearance.
In the past 10 seasons in which the Pro Bowl was played (2011-19, 2021), the Cowboys have had 37 offensive selections to the Pro Bowl and just 14 on defense.
“We always need points, but I feel like the defense is finally catching up, and we finally can match the offense with flash plays and points and everything, turnovers,” said cornerback Anthony Brown, who has been around since 2016. “I feel like we both mesh together and it’s well-balanced.”
The proof, however, that this season is different comes on the cover of the Cowboys’ media guide. It’s not Prescott, the $40 million quarterback. It’s not Elliott, the star running back.
It’s linebacker Micah Parsons, cornerback Trevon Diggs and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence pictured in three different poses.
Parsons and Diggs were All-Pro selections in 2021. Lawrence has twice been named to the Pro Bowl since 2017 and is the acknowledged leader of the group.
Quinn’s defense lets Parsons shine
Parsons is the centerpiece of Quinn’s scheme and seemingly ready to become the franchise’s most dominant defender since Ware, who became the Cowboys’ all-time leader in sacks from 2005 to 2013. Parsons set the franchise-rookie record with 13 sacks in 2021. He lined up at middle linebacker and defensive end. He even took some snaps at safety and cornerback. He excelled in everything he did.
“Last year, I was just trying to earn the respect of my fellow teammates and my fellow players across the league,” Parsons said. “This year, I just want to go out there and dominate now.”
In 2022, Parsons figures to be here, there and everywhere. The Cowboys added four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr in the summer to free Parsons up to rush the passer more if they want. They can also drop him in coverage if they want.
“I don't believe in pressure. Pressure is non-existent,” Parsons said. “You have expectations for yourself and what you want to achieve, and that is personal. I think pressure might be other people’s aspects and how they view you. If that can get you off your game, you are probably in the wrong sport.”
Beyond the scheme, there will be changes in personnel. Regulars from 2021 like Randy Gregory, Damontae Kazee, Keanu Neal and Carlos Watkins are gone – but the Cowboys believe they will have a better pass rush with Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowle rJr. and Sam Williams replacing Gregory; Malik Hooker replacing Kazee; Barr replacing Neal; and a host of interior players replacing Watkins.
Will the Cowboys finally be the slayers against Brady?
Maybe it is fitting Brady is the first test for the Cowboys' defense this season.
No other quarterback with a minimum of five starts against the Cowboys has a better record than Brady. In fact, only one other quarterback has an undefeated mark with at least five starts against Dallas, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. It just so happens to be Brady’s childhood hero, Joe Montana, who went 5-0 against the Cowboys in his Hall of Fame career.
Brady has won all sorts of ways against Dallas. He has been a game manager (2003, no touchdowns). He has been surgical (2007, five touchdowns). He has been meh (2015, sacked five times). He has been bad (2019, one touchdown, 20 incompletions). He has been deadly (2011, 2021, final-minute, game-winning drives).
When the schedule came out in May, Brady was retired. Parsons thought he wouldn’t see him again, but then the quarterback unretired in June.
“I don’t think I’m facing the same Tom Brady, and he’s not going to be facing the same Micah Parsons, so it’s going to be a battle,” Parsons said. “It’s not the same defense we had last year either. So either way you look at it, everything has changed. We still got to go out there and play football on Sunday though.”
History says Brady will win Sunday. But maybe the Cowboys are due.
“Every week you’re going in to try and win the game and be the best player you can be,” last year’s leading tackler, safety Jayron Kearse, said. “As far as it goes with Tom and the Aaron Rodgers of the world, you know, those guys are getting old, so it’ll be good to get a win, and when they get out of the league, you can say you beat them in [what may be] their last year.”
What is the defense's ceiling?
“I mean, it could be as good as we want it to be,” Lawrence said. “This is all up to us and getting our stuff together out here with DQ [Dan Quinn]. You know, we are just going to continue to grow and see where it takes us.”
Nobody knew where the defense would take them a year ago in Quinn’s first season. They just knew it would be better than the 2020 debacle under Mike Nolan, when the defense allowed a franchise record 473 points.
Blame the pandemic. Blame the scheme. Blame the talent. Blame whatever you want. It was bad.
And Quinn rectified it quickly.
The Cowboys went from allowing 29.6 points per game in 2020 to 21.1 points in 2021. The yards allowed per game improved by 35 yards a game. The third-down defense was second best in the league behind the Buffalo Bills.
Most importantly, the Cowboys took the ball away more than any other team in the NFL with 34. They had 26 interceptions – led by Diggs’ 11 – which was the most Dallas had in a season since 1985.
The defense scored six touchdowns, including five interceptions returned for a touchdown, the most in a season in team history – and Quinn was named the Associated Press’ Assistant Coach of the Year.
The new defensive standard for Cowboys
Quinn doesn’t have to worry about buy-in. The players bought in a year ago.
“That's just the standard,” said Diggs, who is looking to become the second player with consecutive double-digit interception seasons since the 1950s. “We got to top that. Just keep going.”
Maybe this identity was coming all along.
While the Cowboys have tilted toward the offensive side of the ball because of their stars, owner/general manager Jerry Jones and executive vice president Stephen Jones have put more draft capital into the defense. From 2011 to 2022, the Cowboys selected 59 defensive players, compared to 42 on offense. In the first three rounds of those drafts, the Cowboys selected 20 defensive players, compared to 13 on offense.
The salary-cap makeup of the Cowboys still trends toward the offense with 60% of the allocation on that side of the ball, as Prescott, Elliott, Martin and Smith are near or at the top of the highest-paid players at their respective positions. The defense checks in at 38.4%. That figures to change over the next few years when Diggs (2023) and Parsons (2024) are first eligible to sign contract extensions.
“I feel like when Jerry and those guys drafted us, it felt like they wanted to have a switch of mentality to defense,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “We had a few changes that led to this point. Ultimately, we got to where we want to be on defense.
“Well, we’re getting to where we want to be on defense.”
Beating Brady for the first time would be a sign the defense can be the difference-maker.
"I think we have a chance to break some more records and set a standard of how defense should be played," Parsons said. "I think we got some older talent. We got some really good young talent and we got some really good guys coming in."