Could the Cowboys Have the Worst Defense in NFL History?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistAugust 14, 2014

AP Images

Last season, the Dallas Cowboys gave up more yards on defense than all but two other teams in NFL history.

Most yards allowed in a season, NFL history
TeamYearYards allowed
1. New Orleans Saints20127,042
2. Baltimore Colts19816,793
3. Dallas Cowboys20136,645
4. Green Bay Packers20116,585
5. New England Patriots20116,577
Pro Football Reference

And then, in the offseason, they lost their top three defensive players, per grades from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), before also seeing their fourth-best player get suspended four games. 

Dallas Cowboys: Top defensive grades, 2013
PlayerPositionGrade2014 status
1. Jason HatcherDT20.9Gone
2. DeMarcus WareDE11.6Gone
3. Sean LeeMLB9.7Out for season
4. Orlando ScandrickCB3.4Suspended 4 games
Pro Football Focus

So, it's quite easy to draw some bleak conclusions about the direction the defense is headed in 2014. Sure, the Cowboys were ranked 32nd among 32 teams last year in total defense, but that doesn't mean they can't be worse in terms of yards and points allowed. 

In fact, Josh Planos of The Washington Post came right out with it, suggesting that in 2014 the Cowboys could have the worst defense, statistically, in NFL history. He, of course, cites injuries to Sean Lee and top defensive draft pick DeMarcus Lawrence, Orlando Scandrick's suspension and the loss of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, but Planos also points out that the 'Boys have one hell of a tough schedule. 

The Redskins, Eagles and Giants all look to be improved. Plus, the Cowboys face the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks and the entire NFC West (arguably the best division in football), as well as the Saints and Bears (both of whom had top-eight offenses in 2013) and the Colts (who are primed to have a huge season with Andrew Luck and all of those weapons). 

It's not as though last season was a walk in the park, but the Cowboys allowed an NFL-record four quarterbacks to throw for 400 or more yards against them last year, and it could have been a lot worse had they been forced to face Aaron Rodgers or Jay Cutler (both of whom were hurt for matchups with Dallas). 

In fact, there was a four-week stretch last November and December in which the Cowboys faced four consecutive backup quarterbacks.

And ultimately, the Cowboys had the NFL's 12th-easiest schedule last season, according to the numbers crunched by Canal Street Chronicles

Sure, they were hit hard by injuries, but Football Outsidersusing a unique formula, determined that the Saints, Giants, Bears, Patriots, Broncos, 49ers and Chargers were all hit about as hard on the defensive side of the ball. Five of those seven teams still managed to make the playoffs. 

Plus, it's not as though things are shaping up any better in the health department this year. Lee is out for the season, while they're still waiting on Anthony Spencer and Morris Claiborne, both of whom are recovering from knee injuries. 

"In the first four games next season, Dallas will be missing 61.8 percent of its sack total and five of the 11 players who accrued 28 or more tackles a season ago," wrote Planos. "The unit looks destined to give up more than 30 points per game."

Dallas gave up 27.0 points per game last season, which isn't pretty but actually ranked ahead of six other teams. The Vikings were dead last in that category, surrendering exactly 30.0 points per game. Minnesota became just the ninth team from the Super Bowl era to hit that 30 mark. 

Regardless of how many yards they concede in 2014, we won't be able to even consider the Cowboys for that "worst defense ever" label unless they jump above that plateau of 30 points per game allowed. That'll be the case so long as they keep score in points, rather than yards. 

Frankly, I think it'll be nearly impossible for a defense that still has talented players such as Henry Melton, Brandon Carr and Barry Church to plummet as low as some of these embarrassing units:

Worst defenses of all time vs. 2013 Cowboys (post-merger)
DefensePPG allowedYPG allowedTakeaways rank
1981 Colts33.3424.628 of 28
2008 Lions32.3404.126 of 32
2011 Bucs30.9394.417 of 32
1980 Saints30.4388.628 of 28
2013 Vikings30.0397.627 of 32
2013 Cowboys27.0415.313 of 32
2014 Cowboys???
Pro Football Reference

Of course, the game is constantly evolving on both sides of the ball, so it isn't totally fair to compare pure stats from different eras. When we instead look at those defenses versus the league-wide averages for those seasons, you really begin to see that Dallas won't belong in that category this year unless things really get out of control. 

Bad defenses compared to that year's league average
DefensePPG allowedYPG allowed
1981 Colts-12.6-90.1
2011 Bucs-10.7-47.6
2008 Lions-10.3-76.9
1980 Saints-9.9-65.1
2013 Vikings-6.6-49.1
2013 Cowboys-3.6-66.8
2014 Cowboys??
Pro Football Reference

Dallas would have to give up an extra touchdown per game to be considered a candidate for worst defense ever. Still, the Cowboys are in terrible defensive shape during the most offensively charged era in NFL history, and their current trajectory doesn't bode well. 

Cowboys defense: Worse every year
Points allowedYards allowed
Pro Football Reference

And on paper, they've gotten substantially worse defensively. That's scary. And it means the Cowboys have at least a chance to become infamous on that side of the ball this season. 


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