With a new sheriff often comes a new rule of law, and Jason Garrett having been replaced by a more proven NFL mind in head coach Mike McCarthy has immediately fueled change for the Dallas Cowboys. In his nine seasons as full-time, non-interim leader of the Cowboys, Garrett did some good, but not nearly enough to justify just how long in the tooth his tenure had become. In the end, it was lack of postseason success that did him and the majority of his coaching staff in -- including defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and passing game coordinator Kris Richard -- with personnel decisions being the crux of several issues.
For as much as blame can be heaped upon owner Jerry Jones and rest of the team's front office when it comes to roster moves or lack thereof, and rightfully so, it was just as much on Garrett and Co. to formulate a successful blueprint regarding the type of talent they needed the Joneses to procure. The continued devaluation of key defensive positions led to their demise in key games over the past several seasons, be it the surgical fashion in which the Los Angeles Rams rushing attack dissected them in the 2018-19 NFC Divisional Round or in how lack of a pass rush and inconsistency at safety aided Aaron Rodgers in his victory over the Cowboys on their own field two Januarys prior.
And in quite the cosmic plot twist, the latter was orchestrated by McCarthy himself, who now brings his philosophies to North Texas in an attempt to turn the tables in the NFC.
In a recent interview with 105.3FM the Fan, team exec Stephen Jones didn't take the usual PR stance of simply focusing on the good McCarthy has already done for the roster. He admits the reason the Cowboys weren't beefed up before now on the defensive interior because of Marinelli's blueprint, as approved by Garrett, which also includes the annual woes at safety.
"[Filling the defensive holes in 2020 free agency] was our focus," Jones said. "I think, for the most part, we've done a nice job of filling our obvious needs with free agency. That's always our goal. Between finding a couple of big tackles in [Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe], we're gonna have a little different philosophical change in how we look at players on the defensive side of the ball.
"I think McCoy would fit in any defense, but to get a big body like Poe, probably wouldn't be a guy we normally would've been interested in during the Marinelli era. But we were able to shore up some needs on the defensive line. We [also] actually stepped up and put some capital into the safety position there with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix."
McCoy will go a long way in being a potential upgrade at 3-tech (right of center) alongside Poe at 1-tech (left of center), and the former can also provide aid at the right edge when the Cowboys deploy their hybrid defense that sees them convert from 4-3 to 3-4 in real time. But the Cowboys didn't stop rolling the dice there. They essentially picked up the entire craps table and shook it when they signed Aldon Smith on a one-year deal that's staggered financially to ensure minimal risk for a potentially high reward, expecting to combine him with Randy Gregory -- both seeking and looking forward to NFL reinstatement this offseason -- at the right edge with a returning Tyrone Crawford.
If all goes according to McCarthy's plan, which includes both Smith and Gregory remaining in the good graces of commissioner Roger Goodell, the Cowboys defensive front could be one of the most lethal in the entire league.
The addition of Clinton-Dix -- who calls the signing an "opportunity of a lifetime" -- reunites him with McCarthy, who drafted him to the Packers and helped guide him to his best years in the NFL. Should Clinton-Dix return to form, and despite the value of Jeff Heath having been a special teams ace and quality defensive backup, the grab could turn out to be big for the Cowboys. Additions like Maurice Canady and Saivion Smith add depth at cornerback, but the team understands fully what the loss of Byron Jones means, considering they've yet to replace him -- that being the most glaring issue they couldn't successfully resolve in free agency (albeit not for lack of trying).
They were interested in having a conversation with Desmond Trufant, for example, but the Detroit Lions granted him a two-year, $21 million deal that got him to expeditiously stiff-arm all other suitors who wouldn't match that price tag.
For the Cowboys, it's now about eyeing top cornerback prospects in April, along with top safety talent, which is why they've already met virtually with some of the most coveted players at both positions to build for all manner of contingency. Some names include C.J. Henderson, Trevon Diggs, Kristian Fulton, A.J. Terrell, Grant Delpit, and others who could presumably make an impact in the club's secondary from the moment they touch down in Dallas.
Will McClay, the Vice President of Player Personnel for the Cowboys, noted the team "will do things a bit different" in the NFL draft this year -- to get McCarthy the pieces he needs -- and Jones is onboard with making sure that happens as well; but particularly on the back end of their defense.
"We'll certainly continue to look to improve [in the secondary]," Jones noted, hinting heavily at where the team's nose is pointed when it comes to the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
They didn't need the same drastic overhaul offensively, although they'll now have to execute their in-house plan to replace a retiring Travis Frederick, but a competition at kicker was long overdue. For while Garrett allowed a struggling Brett Maher to retain his job far longer than he should've, McCarthy and newly-signed special teams coordinator Jim "Bones" Fassel have already re-signed Kai Forbath -- Maher's replacement who went a perfect 10 for 10 in December -- and brought in Greg Zuerlein to reunite with Fassel after the two spent years together as members of the Los Angeles Rams organization.
There hasn't been a competition at kicker in Dallas since Dan Bailey was signed in 2011.
That's mostly because there didn't need to be for several years as Bailey became one of the most prolific kickers in franchise history, but Garrett's decision to move on from Bailey, give the reins to an unproven Maher and then refuse to give a struggling Maher competition to prevent the woes the team suffered in 2019 is yet another scarlet letter for his regime. McCarthy will seemingly have none of it, and while the financial edge goes to Zuerlein by virtue of a multi-year deal, even Zuerlein admits he still has to win the job.
"It was certainly a tough situation with the kicker last year, although Kai stepped up and did a great job of coming on late," said Jones. "That will be a good competition there. Overall, I think we did a good job [in free agency]."
Admittedly, while it wasn't perfect, it was definitely far above average. And that was the Cowboys' goal in shedding Garrett and his staff following another 8-8 finish -- to finally and consistently be far above average.