FRISCO, Texas -- For the last few decades of Dallas Cowboys football, the first phase of football to come mind has been the offense. In the 1990s, "The Triplets" -- Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin -- headlined a run of three Super Bowl victories in four seasons. Come the turn of the century, offenses led by quarterback Tony Romo, future Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten, and Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens were the Cowboys' star attraction.
Early in the 2010s, the same story continued with Romo, Witten, and three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant. Late in the same decade, current Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott took the reins from Romo, Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott burst on to the scene, and Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper became Prescott's go-to guy.
So far, the Dallas Cowboys of the 2020s have flipped that script with their defense leading the show under head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Since McCarthy hired Quinn and they drafted two-time First-Team All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons in 2021, Dallas leads the NFL in takeaways (70), sacks (102), quarterback pressure rate (40.4%), points off turnovers (243), and defensive touchdowns (10, tied with the New England Patriots).
Following the addition of 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year cornerback Stephon Gilmore via an offseason trade with the Indianapolis Colts -- a five-time Pro Bowler, two-time First-Team All-Pro and Super Bowl LII Champion with the New England Patriots -- the Cowboys defense hit a new level of dominance in Week 1 of the 2023 NFL season: they helped Dallas record its largest shutout victory, 40-0, in franchise history against the New York Giants on "Sunday Night Football." The Cowboys totaled seven sacks -- the most by any team in Week 1 --, a defensive touchdown (a pick-six), a special teams touchdown (a blocked field goal return score), and three takeaways.
"It's the formula of complimentary football, and when you talk about complimentary football, everyone's definition might be a little different, but it does start with your defense," Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said Thursday, a somewhat surprising omission from a coach who has called offensive plays in the NFL for 19 seasons, including 2023. "It starts with defense and taking care of the football. With our six fundamentals of Cowboys football, ball security is number one. It's not just a philosophy. We have a profile for it, draft for that, coach to it, scheme for that. Then, you have a menu to take advantage of the things for what a Micah Parsons has. I think that's something [defensive coordinator] Dan [Quinn] and the defensive staff have done an incredible job of. Moving Micah around and making sure we're creating targeting problems with that. He has made a huge impact. When you look at the history of Dan and how you get after them in the passing game...You're seeing our best defensive football is in front of us, which is exciting. Very excited, especially the way we have taken the ball away the last few years and the progression we have had with our pass rush."
The Cowboys believing their best defensive football is ahead of them after their Week 1 smackdown victory should send a collective shudder down the spines' of the other 31 NFL teams.
Five players -- Parsons (one sack), defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa (two sacks), defensive end Dorance Armstrong (two sacks), defensive end Chauncey Golston (one sack), and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (one sack) -- combined for seven sacks of Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, who signed a four-year, $160 million extension with New York this offseason after helping lead them to the NFC divisional round in 2022.
Dallas' three takeaways -- a pick-six by cornerback DaRon Bland, a forced fumble by cornerback Trevon Diggs, and an interception by new Cowboys cornerback Stephon Gilmore -- were also evenly distributed throughout the Cowboys secondary.
"It's one of those plays where you just fight and just try to make a play," Gilmore said Thursday. "I was able to get under the ball. Hopefully we keep that going, feeding off each other. A lot of guys made plays that game. They rushed the quarterback out of the pocket and they were able to get him off the spot. I was able to make a play on the ball. That was more of a scramble drill, staying with my guy, and the quarterback was running. He was able to buy a lot of time, and I able to make a play before the tight end that was there [Pro Bowler Darren Waller] did."
That play didn't surprise McCarthy, and it even led him to compare Gilmore to another Defensive Player of the Year cornerback he has coached: Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Woodson.
"Stephon looked like that at practice every day," McCarthy said postgame Sunday night. "He's an incredible route reader, just the pattern of concepts and understanding of the [route]stems. The way he sees the game is exceptional. I look back at Charles Woodson and some of those guys that had that special trait, and he definitely has that."
McCarthy, who spent 13 seasons as the Packers head coach from 2006-2018, coached Woodson for seven seasons from 2006-2012, the defensive back's age-30 to age-36 seasons. He captured the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, and the Packers won Super Bowl XLV the following season in 2010. Gilmore's serene manner during games is a critical factor in his play reminding his head coach of Woodson. Like McCarthy, another member of the Cowboys offense couldn't help but gush about Gilmore's football IQ in Dallas' top receiver, 2022 Second-Team All-Pro CeeDee Lamb, who bestowed the highest praise upon on his new teammates that he possibly could.
"I just made a comment today that he's probably the smartest DB that I've ever lined up against," Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb said Thursday. "I get one yard down the field off of a release and he knows, he's kind of eliminating routes in his head. So you can beat him, you got him, but I don't know if you can do it twice even if you do a good job. Love that guy. Glad he's on our team."
One of the likely reasons why Lamb loves Gilmore and his game so much is that he is willing to share his perspective on how to beat top cornerbacks with the Cowboys receivers.
"I try to tell the guys on my team what I'm what looking at and try to help them out because we know what makes us [top cornerbacks] uncomfortable," Gilmore said. "Any information I can share to help the team, I always do that."
New Dallas wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who the team acquired in a trade with the Houston Texans this offseason, and Gilmore are with their friendship stemming from their shared season as Patriots in 2017. The shutdown corner still setting an example for younger teammates like he did six years ago the last time the two played together, before Gilmore became an NFL Defensive Player of the Year winner in 2019, is what makes in special in the 10-year wide receiver's words.
"I don't know if they forget, but if they did, I think they should remember now for sure," Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Brandin Cooks said Wednesday when talking about how Gilmore's play, alluding to him missing the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2017 in his lone year with the Indianapolis Colts. "You talk about a guy that's been playing at a high level from the moment that he's been in this league and he showed that again on Sunday night. Any time you press play and you put that film on, he's still doing it. From a leadership standpoint, never getting too high and never getting too low. Just staying even-keeled. He comes into work, he's the same guy every day. Also, you talk about a guy on the verge of the Hall of Fame, but he still comes in here and works his tail off, never takes it for granted. That's the biggest impact he has on the younger guys."
Gilmore appreciates the high esteem his boss and an incumbent Cowboys offensive leader holds him in.
"That's a compliment, Charles Woodson was a great player for a long time," Gilmore said. "One of the corners I looked up to as a kid. He was making plays for a long time. It's a great compliment. [As for the one] Coming from CeeDee, one of the best wide receivers in the league, to get that compliment from him, it's good. We just have to keep it up and keep playing at a high level."
The soon-to-be 33-year-old, his birthday is September 19, certainly hit the level he constantly strives to be at on Sunday night. He finished Week 1 with a passer rating allowed in coverage of 6.3, the third-lowest allowed in the entire NFL in 2023 among players with five or more passes thrown their direction. Jones finished with five incompletions in eight attempts Gilmore's way, including the interception.
"Yeah, it was awesome," Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said Thursday when describing watching Gilmore from the sidelines in a real game. "Especially for him to go out there and get a turnover, just do exactly who he's been his whole career: a special player, a guy that makes big time plays. That was a huge catch right there in that moment, [played] lockdown [defense] on other possessions and he's just a leader. The way that he carries himself, the way that he gets these young guys going is great for [All-Pro, 24-year-old cornerback Trevon] Diggs, but great for the whole unit and us across the ball. Honestly, you want to talk about practice and people making you better. He's one of the main guys, whether it be my eyes, whether it be different concepts on how to move people, it's been a lot of communication that he's gotten me better."
The development of your favorite cornerback's favorite cornerback
One of the biggest keys to Gilmore's sustained, top-tier play has been his obsessions with film study, not only of other teams' concepts and schemes but also specific receivers down to their smallest tics.
"I try to be smart an time on the field, just to be prepared knowing what the receiver is doing and playing with good technique each and every play," Gilmore said. "I've been in the game a while [12 seasons], so I've seen a lot of football. Just trying to keep adding to everything I know. It's like a test throughout the week, you study and you take the test on Sundays. You just try to play with good technique and you got to know the receivers you're going against because all guys are different and I just take that approach to each and every game and try to play the best as I can."
Growing up, his role models were some of the game's greatest players from the 1990's and 2000's including McCarthy's former pupil, Charles Woodson.
"Charles Woodson, Darrelle Revis and Champ Bailey are some of my favorites," Gilmore said, naming all Hall of Famers. "Deion [Sanders]. Aeneas Williams, a true technician."
"Bailey, Revis, Woodson, and Champ [Bailey], [Darrelle] Revis and Charles Woodson," Gilmore said when naming players he was able to connect with when honing his craft in the early stages of his NFL journey.
He also learned about staying power in the league from cornerback Johnathan Joseph [a two-time Pro Bowler and 15-year NFL vet who played from 2006-2020]. Both Gilmore and Joseph are natives of Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Given the development of his career, Gilmore has become one of the primary corners younger players at his position reach out to in the offseason when working on their craft. Most of their conversations now are like Gilmore's were back then with previous legends, perfecting the technique required to be an elite NFL defensive back.
"A lot of guys hit me up and try to pick my brain," Gilmore said. "I always help out because I always want to pass the game down to those guys. I hope those guys do the same thing too when they become the older guy in the room. I try to help out as much as I can. It's [the conversations] more about technique and reading routes. Stuff like that. It's a hard game to play, but it's kind of simple in some ways. Just try to minimize all the routes you can get in those situations."
A homecoming of sorts
Despite being a South Carolina native, Gilmore's childhood team was none other than the Cowboys thanks to many Sundays spent with his family soaking in Dallas' 1990's glory years. The Carolina Panthers, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, didn't exist until 1995.
"In the nineties, that's when the Cowboys were the best," Gilmore said. "You always watch the best. I was like 'wow I'm a fan.' The nineties was when I was born. My dad had them on TV along with my uncles. I was never able to get to a game as a kid, but I was definitely a fan from afar."
Come Sunday, a few of his family members will be in attendance Sunday when he runs out of the tunnel at AT&T Stadium for the first time as a member of the home team.
"It's going to be a great atmosphere," Gilmore said. "I played here last year [with the Colts]. Definitely different [being on the Cowboys], but I try to focus on the game as much as I can. Once you make plays, then you can enjoy the fans."
Despite waiting to enjoy the Cowboys fans, it's clear Dallas coaches and teammates are all-in on Gilmore just one game into the season.
I think he has made a really strong impact," McCarthy said Wednesday. "You can see right away in training camp once we got to the team drills and long before that in the spring. His connection in the locker room, his leadership. He has been tremendous. He has impacted us in every possible way he can."