Shelves, a cage and autographed photos: Inside Cowboys D’s unusual motivation tactic to create turnovers

Dallas on takeaway pace not seen since 1970s Steelers

FRISCO, Texas — At the front of the room, when players enter, they see the cage.

Along the left and right walls of the Dallas Cowboys' defensive meeting room span long shelves.

More than 30 signed photos now line those shelves, accompanying the more than 30 footballs piling up in the cage. Each corresponds to a team takeaway.

“Every day you walk in there, it’s the first thing you see,” Cowboys linebacker Luke Gifford, who signed a fumbled ball he helped recover vs. the Packers, told Yahoo Sports. “A constant reminder of how conscious we have to be as a defense about the ball.”

Cowboys defenders embraced that message last season. Dallas led the league with 34 takeaways in 2021, intercepting 26 passes and forcing eight fumbles. Coordinator Dan Quinn sought to increase the fumble awareness but also to maintain the group’s generally high volume of theft. So after the Cowboys’ Week 1 game vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Quinn called safety Donovan Wilson up to the front of the room.

Wilson had intercepted Tom Brady. Now, he would sign the ball he swiped and a photo of the hallowed moment. Each takeaway that has followed since, Wilson and teammates repeat the ritual.

“Each time you go up, it’s a great honor and goes to show the mindset we have,” Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons, who has forced three fumbles and recovered two including one for a touchdown, told Yahoo Sports. “It was always about: Can we do it again? Can we find a way to do it again?”

The Cowboys sought to again lead NFL defenses in takeaways.

With two weeks to play in the regular season, they are.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 30: Micah Parsons #11 of the Dallas Cowboys scores a touchdown on a fumble recovery against the Chicago Bears during the third quarter at AT&T Stadium on October 30, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Micah Parsons scores a touchdown on a fumble recovery in a blowout victory over the Chicago Bears on Oct. 30. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

The Cowboys’ defensive ‘personality’

A feisty December of four straight multi-takeaway games has led Dallas to this point.

The Cowboys have robbed their opponents 30 times. The next closest contenders are the Philadelphia Eagles with 26 takeaways, followed by the New England Patriots at 25.

If the Cowboys hold onto their lead through the Jan. 8 regular-season finale, they will become the first team to lead the league in takeaways for consecutive seasons in nearly 50 years. The Pittsburgh Steelers last held the crown from 1972 to 1974.

Why does this matter? Undoubtedly, snapping opponents’ possessions eliminates their ability to score. But the Cowboys’ complementary strategy doesn’t stop there. As the defense continues to rear its opportunistic head, each takeaway energizes the offense to spark accordingly. More than a quarter of the Cowboys’ points this season have resulted from turnover-gifted possessions. Dallas has scored a league-high 110 points off takeaways to power 11-and-counting wins.

“It’s huge,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “Anytime we go in the huddle after those turnovers, [one of us] is always saying: ‘Hey, we’ve got to get seven points. We’ve got to reward those guys who are over there fighting for the ball and being ball hunters.’

“Make sure we continue to capitalize on those opportunities.”

The strategy — take the ball away! — seems obvious. But several factors have allowed it to move from empty words to action. In 2020, head coach Mike McCarthy arrived with a strong vocal emphasis on how winning the turnover battle correlated closely with winning games. McCarthy’s Packers had ranked top-10 in turnover ratio during nine of his 13 seasons. An absurd batch of injuries precluded meaningful team success in 2020, but Cowboys defenders began forcing takeaways at a high clip in November and December that year. By the time defensive coordinator Dan Quinn arrived the following offseason, players already had integrated a ball-hawking mentality. Now, they would also enjoy the scheme and personnel usage to support the philosophy.

“Shows to the personality, the play style of the football team,” McCarthy said. “That’s a big part of our personality on defense.”

The Cowboys’ takeaways generated more national attention in 2021 than this year, in large part due to cornerback Trevon Diggs’ NFL-best-in-40-years 11 interceptions. A former receiver, Diggs levied his ball-tracking gifts to anticipate and close on opponents’ routes. But NFL history indicated quarterbacks would target Diggs less frequently this year, his opportunities dipping.

So while he has still contributed three interceptions and a fumble recovery, the Cowboys’ current success relies less heavily on a single player.

A Yahoo Sports analysis found that 16 different Cowboys defenders have intercepted a pass, forced a fumble or recovered a fumble en route to the Cowboys’ 30 takeaways. At least three more players have forced fumbles that the opponent ultimately recovered to maintain possession. And that doesn't include the special teams takeaway that three players, including Gifford, were recognized for forcing and recovering in a November defensive meeting. Cornerback C.J. Goodwin was officially credited with the play, but Quinn recognized multiple players whom he felt were necessary to the result.

This egalitarianism makes Quinn’s takeaway decor a player favorite. The Cowboys’ defense preaches that “everybody is him.” Recognizing more than a dozen players — starters and depth guys, Pro Bowlers and not, defenders and special teams aces — demonstrates that.

“Week to week, we have different guys stepping up,” safety Jayron Kearse told Yahoo Sports. “And everybody in our room gets treated the same way from Coach Q.”

The array of live-action photos and end-zone celebrations that form the scenery of defensive meetings ensures no player will forget how important the ball is. Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said the recognition of “ball hunters” also has prompted laughs, including after the Cowboys’ five-takeaway victory over the Detroit Lions.

“We collect every ball we get from the opponents’ team,” Lawrence told Yahoo Sports. “Funny story was I think it was the Lions, we actually took all of their balls. So they ain’t have no more balls for their team at the end of the game.

“It’s a good recognition.”

Oct 23, 2022; Arlington, Texas, USA;  Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Barr (42) recovers a fumble during the second half against the Detroit Lions at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Cowboys linebacker Anthony Barr (42) recovers a goal-line fumble against the Lions on Oct. 24. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

Eyes on the prize

Like all good motivation tactics, the Cowboys’ emphasis on takeaways requires at least an ounce of caution. Coaches try to teach the paradoxical philosophy that players should chase balls with hunger — defenders don’t refer to themselves simply as ballhawks, rather ball hunters — while also not freestyling so thoroughly that alignments and assignments err.

Quinn and his staff preach that if Cowboys players do their jobs as sharply as they can, the ball opportunities will come to them. Kearse, who intercepted a pass and recovered a fumbled snap in the Cowboys’ 40-34 win over the Eagles last Saturday, said he saw that calculus play out.

“I had an interception but going into halftime, another play I could’ve had an interception if I just did my job,” Kearse said.

He was playing the curl as Eagles quarterback Gardner Minshew scrambled out, the safety sensing an under route.

“I chased the under, he throws it right into my curl,” Kearse said. “If I just OK, let him go to the flat, I have a flat defender there. Instead of trying to go make that play thinking he was going to go there, stay in my position and in my zone of the defense which is a curl, [and] I’ll get another pick.

“That’s why I started this saying I had an OK game but it could have been even better.”

The Cowboys enter a Thursday visit to the Tennessee Titans eager to pounce on a team that has given away eight balls across the past three games. Three have been lost fumbles by Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry, who still surpassed 100 rushing yards and scored a touchdown in each of those outings. The Titans dropped all three games. Wednesday afternoon, the Titans officially ruled Henry as “doubtful” to play. But if he does, a Cowboys defense that has struggled to play sound gap coverage consistently this season will covet a stolen possession or two to blunt Henry’s impact. A Cowboys defense whose quarterback pressure has trailed off the past month will continue to employ another means of getting off the field.

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Win in Tennessee, and the Cowboys’ chance of an NFC East title lives at least three more days. (The Cowboys must win out and the Eagles lose out for Dallas to steal the division.)

And longer-term? The Cowboys’ playoff viability doesn’t stem only from a talented defense. Dallas’ offense leads the league in most major categories since Prescott returned in Week 7 from a thumb fracture. But the Cowboys have fronted talented offenses most of the past decade-plus. They’ve won division titles and the occasional playoff game but failed, since the 1995 NFL season, to reach a conference championship game, much less a Super Bowl.

That’s ultimately what the Cowboys have their eyes set on, the takeaways a means to the end rather than the end goal. The shelves and cage represent the journey more than the destination. Parsons joked with Quinn that they should create a takeaway trophy for the top performer at season’s end.

Lawrence intimated at another trophy.

When told the 1970s Steelers were the last defense to repeat as takeaway champs, he didn’t marvel at the historical rarity of what his unit is on track to accomplish. He instead reframed the conversation.

“Did they win Super Bowls?”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein