Playoffs point Cowboys to defense

Playoffs point Cowboys to defense

Published Jan. 17, 2012 9:56 a.m. ET

If the Dallas Cowboys and team owner Jerry Jones can learn anything as bystanders in the NFL playoffs, it's that defense is what matters.

It goes beyond seeing two of the NFL's most prolific offenses, the Saints and Packers, bounced in the divisional round.

It's about how teams are built and where foundations need to be laid. The Cowboys clearly don't have a foundation on defense with so many holes and aging veterans.

But if Jones wants to dig his team out of 8-8 mediocrity, the focus on the draft and free agency needs to be almost entirely on defense.

Why did Jim Harbaugh succeed in his first season as a head coach and Jason Garrett didn't in his first full season?

It wasn't because Harbaugh, who had his pick of teams a year ago, went with the team that had the best quarterback. That probably would have been the Broncos with Kyle Orton. It certainly wouldn't have been the 49ers and Alex Smith.

And the Dolphins, who were also interested in Harbaugh, had won a division title as recently as 2008. The Dolphins still had the framework of a team built by Bill Parcells, which surely would have fit Harbaugh's hard-nosed reputation honed at Stanford.

But Harbaugh chose the 49ers, who had the makings of a great defense already in place. The 49ers finished fourth in total defense this year and second in scoring defense, an improvement from 13th and 16th in those categories a year ago.

Watching 49ers defensive backs make play after play last weekend had to make any Cowboys fan envious.

And watching the Giants' defensive line dominate the Packers had to evoke some emotions. The Giants still don't have much of a secondary, but they can come at teams in waves of talented defensive linemen.

Compare that with the Cowboys who have DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff. There's a huge drop-off after that.

As the Giants have continued to stockpile pass rushers, the Cowboys have seemed to think that area is covered by Ware. Sure, Anthony Spencer is supposed to be Ware's complement on the other side, but Spencer's potential emerges with unsettling infrequency.

Over on the AFC side, the Ravens have again succeeded with a team built on defense. The offense-weighted Patriots are just the opposite, but then they were playing the anemic Broncos offense.

This season, the Cowboys finished 14th in total defense (343.2 yards per game) and 16th in scoring defense (21.7 points per game). That's right in the middle of the pack, which won't get you anywhere unless your offense is outstanding.

In the first season under new coordinator Rob Ryan, the scoring defense improved from 31st in the league, at 27.2 points per game.

What the Cowboys have to guard against is falling for the Green Bay mirage. The Packers won a Super Bowl last year, and looked like challengers this year, seemingly with a team reliant completely on its offense.

The Packers regressed from fifth in the league in total defense in 2010 to last this year. They went from No. 2 in scoring defense to No. 19. And they went from Super Bowl champions to losers in the NFC divisional round.

Clearly, defense had a great deal to do with the Packers' success in 2010.

The Cowboys would be wise to point toward defense.

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire