Mac Engel

Cowboys brain trust destroyed this defense

Jerry Jones, right, and Stephen Jones are dealing with three suspended defensive players.
Jerry Jones, right, and Stephen Jones are dealing with three suspended defensive players. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

It was cute and fun to watch Jerry Jones literally jog up to the podium to begin Cowboys training camp. Not bad for a man who will turn 74 in October.

It was this time one year ago that he needed assistance to painfully walk up to the same podium because he had recently had his hips replaced. At that moment, he looked like an old man.

On Friday, he looked liked a man with renewed energy, whose limbs are working well.

“This is my favorite day,” said Jerry, who then added that on the eve of the first workout he had “visions of sugar plums and No. 9 [Tony Romo] and No. 88 [Dez Bryant]” returning to practice.

While modern medicine allows him to upgrade his hips, there are no such procedures to swap out his football brain with that, say, of a Chocolate Labrador.

Every single time you think “Wow, he gets it” in a matter of minutes he will undercut his progress. What he and the brain trust pulled this time, via his own admission, rivals that any of his previous gaffes.

Defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford will be the team’s leading sacker in Week 1. He has eight career sacks

The good news is he admitted neither he nor his team will build hopes around the return of injured players. No more will he say or think, “When Player X gets back, then we’re fine.”

And that’s wonderful, right up until the time he explained the thought process of his team’s handling of its defensive personnel issues. His explanation is mystifying, frustrating and could be ruinous for this team, whose window is built entirely around Romo, who is not young and borders on fragile.

Jerry said the team was aware of “potential” problems surrounding its three suspended Drug Dogs — Rolando McClain, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory — before the NFL Draft.

According to Jerry, the team was so aware that this trio might have problems it “would make you want to backstop [those positions].”

Just to be clear I heard correctly, I asked Jerry if the team knew it could be without three of its best defensive players before the draft. He said there were “no surprises there.” That’s a yes.

Three of the Cowboys’ most talented defensive front-seven players — LB Rolando McClain, DE Randy Gregory and DE Tank Lawrence — were drafted in the first or second round. McClain was the eighth overall pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2010; Lawrence was a second-round pick in 2014, and Gregory was a second-round pick in 2015. All three are suspended by the NFL for failing drug tests.

This means the Cowboys were aware they were going to be without their most talented linebacker, most productive pass rusher and another pass rusher they were counting on — they knew before the draft that the players would miss significant portions of the 2016 season.

Jerry said oftentimes the team finds out about violations of players at the same time the media announces it. Then there are others where the team knows “month and months and months” before the media announces it.

In order, Gregory was initially suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the season back in February. It was announced Lawrence failed his drug test on April 20.

The NFL draft began April 28.

And the announcement of McClain’s latest drug-related suspension came on June 30.

The Cowboys had already let defensive end Greg Hardy out the door — thank God — but knew they were going to be missing these key players for extended periods and did virtually nothing about it.

You can never have enough good football players.

Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones

Their “backstop” along the defensive front seven consisted of spending a second-round draft pick on a linebacker — Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith. And he will likely not play much at all this season while he is recovering from major knee injury.

“The biggest mistake you can make is to draft for need; ‘Just draft defensive ends,’ ” vice president Stephen Jones said.

That is a fair enough point, but what the Cowboys did to address the “backstop” for what should be one of the better offenses in the NFL is arrogant, or denial.

The individual actions of Lawrence, Gregory and McClain are on them, but the decision to virtually ignore their “backstops” is on Jerry, Stephen Jones, head coach Jason Garrett and scouting director Will McClay.

Having been repeatedly burned in the free-agent market on big contracts for players such as Brandon Carr, Stephen hates signing older guys. That’s why there is no talk about bringing in veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney or linebacker Stephen Tulloch.

The Cowboys have embraced drafting, and developing, their own.

It’s a wise tactic, but it won’t work if they can’t find good players to develop. Other than Sean Lee, they have no proven player, or pass rusher, who will start the season along their front seven. No one among this group has ever demonstrated he can get to a quarterback consistently, much less sack one.

This has potential to become major sports Greek tragedy.

The sad reality is even if Gregory, Lawrence and Ro were all available to play, there were no assurances the defense was going to be markedly better anyway.

Lawrence looks like he will be a nice player, whereas Gregory is an unknown commodity and McClain is unreliable. And those were the guys the Cowboys were counting on to help rush the passer and make plays at the line of scrimmage.

The Cowboys were always going to be an offensive team, but how the brain trust willfully built this defense when they knew what was coming is offensive.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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