Worst Ever? Rolando McClain-Led Dallas Cowboys Defense Proving Doubters Wrong

Clarence Hill@clarencehilljrFeatured ColumnistSeptember 17, 2014

Linebacker Rolando McClain is leading a resurgent Dallas Cowboys defense with his contagious and physical play
Linebacker Rolando McClain is leading a resurgent Dallas Cowboys defense with his contagious and physical playWade Payne/Associated Press

To say expectations were low for the Cowboys defense coming into the 2014 would be a gross understatement.

Not only did the Dallas Cowboys give up the most yards in the league last year, they gave up the most in team history and the third-most in league history.

And while owner Jerry Jones joked that the Cowboys had to be better on defense this season because they couldn't be any worse, there were people predicting just that.

Josh Planos said as much here in the The Washington Post before the season.

And with good reason.

The Cowboys cut perennial Pro Bowler but aging defensive end DeMarcus Ware in March, lost Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jason Hatcher in free agency and watched middle linebacker Sean Lee suffer a season-ending knee injury in OTAs without adding any proven performers.

There was a general feeling that the Cowboys had the worst defensive talent in the league with no proven performers in the front seven, thus fostering a widely held theory that this 2014 edition could actually become the worst defense in league history.

Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com says the Cowboys defense could go from worst to collegiate.

Even the eternally optimistic Jones acknowledged as much when he openly talked about the "challenges the team has on defense," resulting in the Cowboys coming into the season with "their backs the wall" and "facing an uphill battle."

Of course, that's why you play the games.

The Cowboys aren't ready to reclaim their historic Doomsday moniker.

But the defense has been more than respectable the first two weeks of the season.

The Cowboys rank 12th in total defense and 10th in points allowed. What's more is the formerly movable force has allowed just one touchdown in the last six quarters and two in the last seven, dating back to the second quarter of the 28-17 season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

They blanked San Francisco in the second half of that game and held the Tennessee Titans scoreless in the first half of last Sunday's 26-10 victory before giving up a lone touchdown in the third quarter.

“Oh yeah, it definitely feels good (to prove the doubters wrong)," said journeyman defensive end Jeremy Mincey who, along with his five sacks the past three years in Jacksonville and Denver, has been tasked to replaced Ware at right end for now.

"We’ve just got to continue to have that feeling and keep working on our weak points and get better at our strong suits, and we’ll be fine. Like I said last week, we built off the 49ers' second half and kept it rolling, so we’re going to continue to do the same thing.

"This time, hopefully not let up and allow anything one of these days. But we’re just focused on fundamentals, rushing four as one, defensive backs doing a heck of a job, linebackers playing downhill and we’ve just got to get better."

Rod Marinelli
Rod MarinelliRingo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

Give defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli credit for getting this collection of no-names (Mincey, safety Barry Church), reclamation projects (linebacker Rolando McClain), disappointments (cornerback Brandon Carr and linebacker Bruce Carter) and so-called busts into not reading the headlines and believing in him.

Marinelli replaced the inept Monte Kiffin, who was made assistant head coach in the offseason. The new coordinator put a heavy emphasis on technique, fundamentals and believing in themselves and the scheme. 

As Jones continues to remind us, the Cowboys are not working with a collection of future Hall of Famers on defense.

"I’m, for one, so impressed with the job our coaches are doing," Jones gushed after Sunday's game against the Titans.

"Rod Marinelli, Monte Kiffin and our head coach [Jason Garrett]. We all know the challenges that our defense has. They can be good players and good athletes, but they still have to get in there and play together. Our coaches are doing that. Guys are into it. They know the challenge.

"I heard some of them talking before the game, ‘We’re right there, guys. We’re close. We’re right there.’ The team is coming together."

The Cowboys defense is coming together faster than expected because of a new emphasis on offense of running the ball, controlling the clock and allowing defenders to be fresh.

Rolando McClain
Rolando McClainGus Ruelas/Associated Press

What also can't be overlooked is the standout play of McClain, who is playing football again for the first time since 2012, when he was unceremoniously dumped by the Oakland Raiders after three disappointing years.

Considered a bust after being selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, McClain sat out last season in semi-retirement, trying to find peace with his childhood demons.

Jones, desperate for a replacement for Lee, talked McClain into playing football again and swung a trade with the Baltimore Ravens.

The only concern was whether McClain would be fully committed after retiring twice with the Ravens after signing with them in 2013.

While that remains a game-by-game and season-by-season proposition until McClain puts a few of them together, there is no question about his passion, physicality and talent on the field.

Certainly no one is questioning whether the Cowboys have an elite talent in their front seven anymore. 

McClain leads the team in tackles with 15. He is tied for first in sacks, tackles for losses and interceptions; he's second in pass deflections.

Jones said McClain came in wanting to become just one of the guys.

"Well, I’m just glad to have him," Jones said. "I think that he’s a great example to all of us. He came in and he did not want to be featured. He did not want people to say that he was going to be the difference-maker. He just wants to come in and be a part of the team, but I’m going to tell you something: He’s a natural-born football player.

"He’s mean. He’s interested in a good way on the football field, and he’s really making a difference out there on our defense. But he really doesn’t want it that way. He wants it the opposite, and he’s said that. He just wants to be a part of a good team."

He is now the leader on defense, not by words but by his style of play.

Mincey says McClain leads with his physicality.

"No question, that kind of demeanor is contagious," Garrett said. "It’s something that’s really good for your team. Obviously the plays that Rolando and the other guy on defense make—physical plays, plays on the ball, taking the ball away—those are all really good things. The other guys see it and want to be a part of it."

As good as they feel about how well they have played on defense so far, the Cowboys know it’s still early. They know they still have much to prove.

And they certainly haven't forgotten their woeful performance of a year ago and what others have said about them.

"It's a fight to stay consistent, to stay humble and to stay hungry at the same time," Carr said. "It's a long season. There is still a lot of motivation from last year. It has us with a big chip on our shoulder. We have that taste in our mouth every time we step on the field.

"The last week is an indication as far as us trying to turn that corner and trying to become that dominant defense. But it's a long road ahead of us. Each time we step on the field, it’s in the back of our mind."

Even more good news for the Cowboys is they believe they have a chance to get better.

McClain will certainly get better as the year goes on and he gets back in football shape. The same is true for Henry Melton, a former Pro Bowler in Chicago who is coming off season-ending knee surgery. He missed all of the preseason with knee and groin injuries, resulting in limited snaps the first two weeks.

But if the Titans game was any indication, Melton will soon become the force the Cowboys expected him to be in the middle of the defense. He had a half-sack, a quarterback pressure and a pass deflection that led to a McClain interception.

And defensive end Anthony Spencer, who leads the team with 32.5 career sacks, is expected back in October after being sidelined since Week 2 of last year because of microfracture surgery.

Orlando Scandrick
Orlando ScandrickBrandon Wade/Associated Press

In addition, Orlando Scandrick, the team's best cornerback, could return this week after the NFL rescinded his four-game suspension for popping "a molly" while on vacation in Mexico last April, according to ESPN's Ed Werder.

“It would mean a lot," Mincey said of Scandrick's expected return. "You’re talking about a guy who can blitz, cover, and he actually has a real good motor on the field and has a knack for making plays. So that would definitely be a great positive to have Orlando back.

"Right now, we’re just holding it down for him, doing the best we can do, and when Spencer gets back, we have a lot of guys coming in down the road, so this thing is going to build up and turn into something special.”

 

All quotations obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.