Welcome to Vibes Check, a recurring column in which I’ll check in from time to time with smart people about the state of teams around town.
Our Cowboys correspondent is the incomparable Babe Laufenberg, who has been around the team for the better part of three decades, between his time as Troy Aikman’s backup and 29 seasons as the team’s radio color commentator.
To prove just how smart he is, he refused to take the bait when I asked for a season prediction. “Everybody hates me,” he says. “I never do predictions.” His logic is simple: the NFL is a league of attrition, and there is no prognosticating which players will be on the field on each side of 17 regular-season games, so what’s the sense in pretending he knows any outcomes?
But he’ll gladly share his insight heading into the 2021 season on how wary you should be about Dak Prescott’s health, how justified the CeeDee Lamb hype truly is, and what he makes of the overhauled defense. I’ll let you decide how much you believe in his case for how the Cowboys could, in theory, upset Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers tonight.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. We’ll check back in with him once the season is underway.
The NFL preseason is shorter than it used to be, but what is the most important thing you have learned from this Cowboys preseason?
I believe that the defense has bought into what Dan Quinn is selling, and I’m a firm believer that it’s not so much your Xs and Os. You can play a 4-3 [defense], you can play a 3-4. You can blitz, you can not blitz. Everybody does it a little bit differently, but for the most part, you have 11 guys and there’s not a whole lot you can do schematically. They face Tom Brady, and there’s nothing they will do that Tom Brady hasn’t seen in the opener. But it’s getting your players to buy in to what you’re selling. And, in my mind, they have totally bought in to Dan Quinn and the defensive staff on what they’re selling.
Did you see that same buy-in a year ago with Mike Nolan?
Well, clearly it wasn’t there, and Mike Nolan has coached in the NFL for 33 years. So it wasn’t that Mike Nolan was an idiot and these schemes are so much better than Mike Nolan’s schemes. It’s that he never got the buy-in that Dan Quinn did. There’s no question Mike Nolan was at a disadvantage last year because they never got to lay hands on players at OTAs, they never had a minicamp. You were kind of doing everything on the run. So, from that regard, I always felt a little bit sorry for Mike Nolan. Over Weeks 11 through 17, the Cowboys had the most takeaways in the NFL. So as the season went on, the defense did get better. The downside was, weeks 1 through 10, only Houston had fewer takeaways. They couldn’t get the ball away from teams.
That’s the biggest thing you learned from preseason, but we all know what the biggest storyline was. So, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being “Dak Prescott is an indestructible superhuman” and 10 being “Something in this man’s body is going to snap when he rolls out of bed in the morning,” how concerned are you about QB1’s health going into this season?
Honestly, not overly concerned. What I do find interesting is one minute, we were sitting here going, “How’s the ankle?” Everybody’s looking at the ankle. Is he moving? Is he limping? When he drops back, is he getting 6 inches less drop than he was? And then, all of a sudden, everyone moved up the body [laughs]. How’s his shoulder? Can he throw? So it’s almost like people have totally forgotten the fact that his bone was sticking out of his ankle in Week 5.
I’m not alarmed, but I think there will always be reason for concern if your throwing shoulder has an issue. Is it something that he will probably have to manage throughout the season? I’m not a doctor, but I’m going to say probably. I have no inside information; they could let me examine his shoulder and I still couldn’t tell you! And, let me say this: he’s not the first quarterback or person who uses his arm to throw something who has had an issue, and you’ve got to just deal with it. Imagine if you asked Nolan Ryan, who was throwing 300 innings a year, “Were there times your shoulder wasn’t right?” He’d say, “Every time I went on the mound after the age of 25.” So it’s not a unique thing where you’re going to have to deal with an injury and manage it throughout the season.
If there was one player making the rounds on social media in August, it was CeeDee Lamb. Some of the things he was doing were out of control, and now the hype is totally wild. How excited should people really be about his second season?
Many times, you want to say tap the brakes when all this gets out—but I don’t think you need to tap the brakes on this guy [laughs]. It was for real what I watched out there in training camp. Spectacular catches, and usually, a guy might make those catches he made once a week, and you say, “Man, did you see the catch CeeDee made last week?” This was every practice. “Did you see the catch he made?” “You mean yesterday?” This was, “No, 10 minutes ago.” [laughs]
I remember [Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett], “Double Dynamite.” I totally tapped the brakes on that one. Rico Gathers was going to be the next coming of Antonio Gates, from basketball to football, and I was like, “Eh, let’s hold off on that a little bit.” CeeDee appears to be the real deal, and the other part of CeeDee is, your college route tree as a receiver is so simple. For him to have the year he had, which was good, with none of the OTAs, minicamps, all that — he had a really good rookie season, but I think he’s going to take that exponential jump this year.
With respect to Lamb and Prescott, a lot of this season will hinge on the defensive makeover. Who are the names on that side of the ball you’re watching the most?
Micah Parsons, obviously No. 1. As you should; when you take a guy with the 12th pick in the draft, he better be an impact player. … He will be one, and I think a lot will hinge on Randy Gregory, to be quite honest. I think you kind of know what you’re getting in DeMarcus Lawrence, and while you can look at Randy Gregory and say, “Well, he looked great, he’s got his shit together, all this,” you still have to see it. And here’s a guy, he’s got 10 and a half career sacks, so it’s not a guy that had three double-digit sack seasons and now he’s back. I think you can certainly be hopeful, and he does appear to have things under control. But he’ll be the first to tell you. I forget the exact question I asked him at training camp, but he said, “Hey, everybody thinks I’ve arrived. And I haven’t arrived.” So he’s putting the pressure on himself—which I love, by the way—of saying, “I haven’t done anything yet.” So he, to me, will be a key. In today’s NFL, you’ve got to be able to rush the passer. You’ve got to be able to cover, and you’ve got to be able to rush the passer.
And those two guys are probably the best hope they have after Lawrence.
Yeah. If Randy can be that guy on the other side, to me, that’ll be the big key because there’s not another big-time pass rusher that they have. There’s going to be somebody who jumps up and gets five sacks, something like that, but there are only two guys on that defense capable of double-digit sacks. One is Lawrence, who’s done it. The other is Randy.
I think everybody knows the promise Trevon Diggs has at cornerback. Outside of him—you could say Donovan Wilson looked promising getting the ball toward the end of last year, but he’s still got a lot to prove—are there any names that you feel especially confident about besides Diggs right now?
It’s not that I am down on people, but they’re either guys coming off injury, where you hope they can fully recover—the list goes on; they’ve got a bunch of them … or they’re young guys who you’re going to count on.
I think what really hurt the team defensively last year was the veteran guys they brought in not only didn’t add, they actually detracted. Dontari Poe took up snaps; that should never have happened. I think HaHa Clinton-Dix, you said, “There’s our safety,” but he gets released before training camp. Gerald McCoy blows his quad out in training camp. So, anyway, I think the veteran guys they brought in this year should provide a lot more help defensively. … You don’t have to hit on all of them, you just have to hit on some of them. And I think this year, they’ve done that. Last year, those guys provided less than zero.
The very first game, as you alluded to, happens to pit the Cowboys against the very best team in the league —
[laughs] Yeah, and unfortunately, many times you say, “Yeah, but you know what? They lost this guy and that guy.” They lost no one.
Yep, they’re all back. So, make the case—some case—the Cowboys can beat the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.
This team is not talent deficient, and this offense is going to be able to keep up with that offense. Now, can the defense get enough stops? It’s like an NBA game, where you deal in stops, right? But this offense, I’m going to be shocked if they don’t score points. … The defense just has to be average because, to me, the offense is going to be good. The last five Super Bowl winners—you can talk all you want about “run the ball, stop the defense, defense wins championships,” but the last five Super Bowl winners have all been top-five scoring offenses. It used to be, if you were a top-five scoring defense, you were doing that, right?
Now, you’d better be able to score points … and one thing people forget is in that 2019 season, when they went 8-8, they were the No. 1 offense in the NFL. They had the most yards, they were second on third-down conversions—which I always look for that. That’s a huge stat. If you can convert on third downs, that converts to points, that leads to keeping the ball, all that. You convert on third down, that’s a major deal, and they were like second in the NFL behind Kansas City the year Kansas City won the Super Bowl. Everybody’s like “Can this offense…?” Hey, all they have to do is get back to where they were in 2019. If they had just average kicking in 2019, they’re 10-6, win the division, everything looks a lot different. Dak’s still your play caller, Kellen Moore [is still] your coordinator. … You’ve got everything in place that you had when you had the No. 1 offense in the NFL. They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.