Now that the minicamp is over and training is a month away, the big elephant in the room regarding the Dallas Cowboys' hopes for 2014 remain the same as in 2013.
What can they do to improve a defense that not only finished worst in the league last year but ranked the worst in team history and third-worst in league history?
That was a question before Pro Bowlers DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher departed in free agency and it was raised again when middle linebacker Sean Lee tore his left anterior cruciate ligament on the first day of OTAs last month.
“Because we were so bad last year there is no place but up,’’ owner Jerry Jones said.
"I can say it this year: We are better right now," Jones added. "And I think better on the field. We're certainly better on paper than we were at the end of the season last year. Not on paper at the beginning of the season last year, but on paper right now relative to how we ended up last year."
Certainly the Cowboys added former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton, defensive tackle Terrell McClain and defensive end Jeremy Mincey in free agency, drafted defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and have 2012 second-round pick Tyrone Crawford coming from back injury.
The Cowboys have gotten younger on defense, but the question remains how they can be markedly better without any proven performers.
“Would you feel better if you had DeMarcus Ware in your prime, hell yes, I would,” vice president Stephen Jones quipped. “But we didn’t really have all the guys that we’d thought we’d have as it turns out … What we’re trying to address here, and I hope it pans out, is we’re younger. And we made tough decisions. There’s no one that thinks more of DW and would like to bet on him one more time than me. This guy is one of the all-time greats to ever put on a Cowboys uniform but at some point you’ve got to start saying, hey, the money and the age, and how long are you going to keep going there. So I’d like to think we’re younger. I think we do have a couple of bets on some guys.”
Jones acknowledges that one of the players the Cowboys are betting on is Melton, who is coming off knee surgery but developed into a Pro Bowl performer in Chicago under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
“And not only proven himself in the league as a Pro Bowler he proved it under this coach and this system so that made a huge difference for us,” Stephen Jones said. “It’s not like we’re betting on some guy that OK, Rod’s going to make him better because he’s Rod. We saw how Henry played under Rod in this system. The only difference is he’s coming off an ACL but he should be to be healthy based on what our doctors say and based on how he’s progressing.”
Stephen Jones said the Cowboys should be better as well by osmosis. He said things were so bad injury-wise at the end of last season that they were signing guys off the street who didn’t know the defense.
He noted that a number of players who played in the season finale against the Eagles weren’t even brought back to the off-season program as part of the 90-player roster.
“We are confident in what guys can do now base don how of some of our guys who were inured last year did it and of course some didn’t do it all because of injury,” Stephen Jones said. “And then some of the ones where out there had nagging injuries and didn’t play to the level we thought. We are going to play at better levels than our guys played last year. And some of those guys can’t make our team this year who were on the active roster and they can’t even make the 90. So that tells you a lot about our defensive front at the end of the season.”
And considering that the Cowboys were one game away from the playoffs with such a historically bad defense, those in the organization don’t think they have turn into another version of the famed Doomsday defenses of yesteryear to make a difference in a post-season run.
-- Clarence Hill