Everybody doubted them.
The Dallas Cowboys defense was the third-worst in league history in 2013 and seemingly took steps backward in the off-season. Longtime fixture DeMarcus Ware departed for Denver, Jason Hatcher bolted to Washington, and Sean Lee was lost to an injury before the season began.
But what a difference a season can make.
Who thought Rolando McClain would go from bust to promising player by showing signs of his college self?
Who knew Jeremy Mincey could disrupt the backfield and provide a veteran presence in the locker room?
And did anyone expect anything of substance from fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens?
The list just goes on from there.
Tyrone Crawford has turned into a force as a defensive tackle; Bruce Carter continues to make big plays at critical times; and Orlando Scandrick might be one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the league.
“I’m excited to see our team who was expected to do nothing rise to the occasion,” Mincey said. “The great thing is guys understood if you expect to be great, you can become great. They started getting the mentality of it and did a good job of reaching their full potential.
“I’m so proud of everyone on defense. We’re ready, man.”
There’s no question the defense has exceeded expectations with relatively no-name guys and is a confident bunch going into the wild-card game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday.
Sure, guys such as Anthony Spencer and Henry Melton were players who made Pro Bowls at one point in their careers, but were trying to rebound from injuries. Brandon Carr is among the highest-paid cornerbacks in the league, and McClain was a star in college.
But nobody knew where their level of play would be this season and it’s something the unit has turned from a negative into a positive. They consider themselves a “we-fense,” a group that has no Pro Bowlers or standout players, but is successful because they play as a team.
“It’s definitely night and day from last year,” safety Barry Church said. “Not only has our defense grown and jelled, we’ve learned how to play with one another and off each other’s strengths. We have a good thing going right now.”
Yes, they do.
This is a group that had such low expectations going into the season that people considered it a “win” when opposing teams settled for field goals instead of touchdowns early in the season.
Now, this is the eighth-best run defense in the league, which is more than capable of producing its fair share of three-and-outs. There are still warts, such as the pass defense at times, but the Cowboys rank a surprising 19th in total defense.
That might not sound great, but it’s borderline miraculous considering what most expected. Equally important has been the defense’s knack for turnovers. The Cowboys finished second in the NFL with 31 takeaways, trailing only Houston’s 34.
Credit must go to defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who consistently preaches the importance of stripping at the ball at all times.
Marinelli referred to December as “Punch Out December” at the start of every meeting, and reinforced it daily during practice. The end result was the defense producing 12 turnovers in December, including a season-high four in the finale last week at Washington.
“We’re just relentless on it,” said Marinelli, who is among the candidates for assistant coach of the year.
“As soon as you don’t emphasize it, you don’t do it. Sometimes you can have a game where you don’t get any, but the strip attempts are there. If you have enough attempts, eventually you’re going to get them out.”
The message this month?
Score in January.
Spencer might have inspired that phrase by scoring his first career touchdown at Washington when he returned a fumble 5 yards on a strip-sack by Terrell McClain.
At the end of the day, there’s no question this defense is peaking at the right time going into the playoffs.
“Playing pretty dominant in the month of December, looking for some carryover going into the playoff season,” Carr said. “Guys are just clicking on all cylinders, coaching staff, players. The expectation level is being met. Sundays is meant for guys going out and executing and having fun.”
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760
The Dallas Cowboys recorded 31 takeaways in 2014 — the most since the 2006 squad had 31 — and finished second in the league with that total. Dallas created 12 turnovers in December.