It takes real, unprecedented effort to establish new historic statistical highs in the NFL. The team or player is battling 44 years (since the merger) of tackles, touchdowns, throws, catches, and runs. That’s 44 years of chaos on every snap, and over four decades of the game evolving.
So when a record is shattered and a new plateau is established, hero status is attained. Look no further than Peyton Manning last year. He broke pretty much every passing record, and his Broncos offense was rightfully looked upon as a menacing juggernaut, the likes of which we may never see again (except maybe this year?).
But little effort is needed to avoid being on the other end of history, and being the absolute worst, posting historic lows. To do that, averageness isn’t even required. Instead, performance by a player or team needsto be just a tick above terrible.
That’s a low, pitiful standard, and one I’m not sure the Dallas Cowboys defense can meet in 2014. They may give us history this season, and the wrong kind.
When the Cowboys attempt to stop any sort of ball movement this year, the end result after 16 games could easily be the worst defense the NFL has ever seen. Given their losses through free agency, injuries, and now a suspension for a significant chunk of the season, that’s not a hard future to see.
A dismantling started with the annual salary cap handcuffing in Dallas, as the Cowboys entered the offseason with only $329,312 in cap room. That led to DeMarcus Ware being jettisoned, and with him went 37 sacks over the past three seasons. Even while severely restricted by injuries in 2013 (missing three games), Ware still managed six sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception.
Combine the loss of Ware with Jason Hatcher leaving for Washington, and an already poor pass rush (ranked 25th in 2013) lost 17 of its 34 sacks from a year ago. But it gets worse, because of course it does.
After the draft there was fleeting hope when the Cowboys selected DeMarcus Lawrence with their 34th overall pick. No worries, one DeMarcus will replace the other, we were told. Then Lawrence broke his foot in training camp and he’ll be out until at least the end of September.
That’s the same amount of time Orlando Scandrick will be gone too after his vacationing good times included poppin’ some Molly, resulting in a four-game suspension. A secondary that allowed 33 passing touchdowns last year and 286.8 yards per game will now resemble a speed bag even more, with hope riding on first-round bust Morris Claiborne. He gave up 16.6 yards per reception last year, according to Pro Football Focus, while across from him Brandon Carr surrendered the third most catches in the league (96), along with 966 total yards. Not good.
But the most crushing loss is Sean Lee, who faced some awkward contact during spring non-contact drills, tearing his ACL. Lee has been a combination of brittle and incredibly unlucky, and he’s missed 15 games over the past two years.
Lee comes from the modern middle linebacker mold, the NaVorro Borman and Luke Kuechly types who can do a bit of everything, and do it all at a high level with great instincts and lateral speed. His presence alone wouldn’t fix this Cowboys defense, because it’s impossible to plug a leak in the Titanic using a thumb tack. But the entire complexion of the unit would have changed.
Even while missing five games last year, Lee led the team in defensive stops with 42, while finishing second in tackles with 99. The far more impressive number: a middle linebacker who sat out for over a month still led his defense with four interceptions.
To review that tally: Lee, Ware, and Hunter are gone, while Scandrick and Lawrence will miss a month (or likely more for Lawrence), and both Claiborne and Carr are diced regularly.
Even with most of those bodies, and even with cornerback play that came with a stench, the Cowboys defense managed to avoid being the absolute worst historically last year. They were by far the worst in the league while giving up a comical 415.3 total yards per game, nearly 20 yards more than the 31st-ranked Vikings.
But they weren’t the worst in history. Nope, they were the third worst, with 6,645 yards allowed. That was 283 more yards than any other team.
The 2012 New Orleans Saints defense holds the distinguished title of the worst at, well, defending. They gave up a historically horrible 7,042 yards, and now to match that this year’s Cowboys have to set a pace of 440.1 yards allowed per game.
I believe they will.