ARLINGTON - The 2020 Dallas Cowboys' defense was historically awful, and a repeat performance this season would surely doom coach Mike McCarthy's bunch.
“I think you’re seeing it already,” McCarthy said in the days leading up to Saturday's 20-14 preseason loss to the Houston Texans, asserting that his defense has "flipped.'' “I think it was definitely needed. I’ve been in this league a long time. I’ve never seen one side of the ball flipped the way we flipped it in one offseason.''
By "flipped,'' McCarthy means "changed.'' Change in coaching staff. Change in players. Change in philosophy.
And, if this outing at AT&T Stadium - which largely featured Dallas' first-team defense for the entirety of the first half - is any indication?
Hopefully, a change in win-loss results.
Outside of the resting DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys put on display the defensive guys who will matter if Dallas is to avoid a repeat of last year's six-win effort - and the guys who will matter if the Dallas defense is to do its part to keep up with what the Cowboys believe can be the No. 1 offense in the NFL.
"We just got to be dogs out there,'' said the other starting end, Randy Gregory. "We got to trust and believe in each other, believe in the scheme, and we'll be all right. I think we've shown that so far during this preseason. We've shown it in practice, certainly.''
McCarthy recently told us that he emphasized the importance of "putting the resources'' into the defense, because, "to get to the championship game, you’ve got to have a great defense. I had one top-five defense (as the Green Bay head coach) in 13 years and won a Super Bowl.''
No, playing the woeful Texans (with QB Deshaun Watson off the field and in legal limbo) in a practice game isn't the strongest test. So it's impossible to know that Dallas has a "great defense,'' let alone one that won't again finish 31st in the NFL, as was the case a year ago.
Belichick Raves About Cowboys’ Kellen
“I think (Kellen) Moore is one of the better offensive coordinators that we’ve faced. … It’s not just the players. It’s the scheme,” Belichick says.
Cowboys EXCLUSIVE: Tyron Smith Neck MRI Update
"He's planning on playing on Sunday,'' a source tells CowboysSI.com.
Tyron Trouble? MRI on Neck Raises Cowboys’ ‘Level of Concern’
The Cowboys flagship station reports that Tyron Smith’s issue is severe enough to require an MRI, which he's undergoing Thursday.
But "resources''? Dallas, including the hiring of new coordinator Dan Quinn, got that part right.
Well, expect for the fact that on this night, Quinn and one of the free agent signees weren't available.
Quinn and defensive lineman Carlos Watkins left the stadium early due to what the team called "an abundance of caution" regarding COVID-19 guidelines. Both will be medically evaluated on Sunday.
In the meantime, top defensive aide Joe Whitt took over and called plays.
Carryovers Leighton Vander Esch (four early tackles) and Dorance Armstrong (with a sack) were productive. The tackles were Osa Odighizuwa (a rookie) and Brent Urban (a vet free agent). At one point, safeties Damontae Kazee, Jayron Kearse (both free agent newcomers) joined Donovan Wilson on the field at the same time.
Oh, and the starting linebackers? Rookie Micah Parsons and newcomer vet Keanu Neal. And in total, Dallas gave up just seven points in the first half.
Said Gregory: "Now we just got to stay locked in and believe in the process. I know it sounds cliche, but it's really what you have to do, and to expect guys to do that."
Meanwhile, this was a Dallas offense playing without QB Dak Prescott (who is taking care of his shoulder while ramping up toward Week 1 of the NFL regular season). Garrett Gilbert started and was OK, Cooper Rush was next up and was actually fairly impressive, and Ben DiNucci mopped up and was poor.
But beyond Amari Cooper getting in some reps and the Dallas O-line starting together intact, this was largely a test - and a success - for the front-line defensive players, despite the final score.
"I think it’s a real credit to what we were able to do in free agency and in the Draft,'' McCarthy recently said of his re-made defense. "I think it’ll definitely be evident when we get into the regular season.”
It helps that it was somewhat evident here, too.