‘America’s Team’ was one win short of hosting a playoff game last season. They haven’t made the playoffs since the 2009 season, but, aside from 2010, have always been a threat late in the year in the Tony Romo era.
In the competitive NFC East, the pressure continues to build for the Cowboys, with even owner Jerry Jones publically noting “window is closing” for the core of this team.
In the latest installment of 32 Teams in 32 Days we’ll take a look at reasons to be hopeful that the Cowboys will return to prominence, as well as some reasons to be cautious about their upcoming season.
Five Reasons to Be Confident
1) Tony Romo
One of the most debated quarterbacks of recent seasons, Tony Romo is, simply put, also one of the better QBs in the league. He holds the 10th-best passing grade of last season, his 31 TD passes were bested only by four other signal callers, and 22 others threw more picks than his 10. His previously questioned toughness also became apparent in 2011 as he played through injuries. Having Romo gives Dallas a better shot at a world championship than the majority of other teams around the league.
2) DeMarcus Ware is a Reliable Force
Still having DeMarcus Ware, one of the most consistent and lethal defensive players in the league, should also boost the team’s confidence. In overall grading of 3-4 OLBs in the past four years, his lowest position was fourth overall at +40.3 (with Cameron Wake’s +40.4 just barely beating him out) in 2010. He also graded out as the best overall pass-rushing 3-4 OLB last year with 20 sacks, 8 QB knockdowns and 44 hurries. Having a full year under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s creative system should only put more fear into opposing offenses.
3) Carr > Newman
The Cowboys’ secondary was a real problem last season, with veteran cornerback Terence Newman by far the worst of the group (-11.2 coverage grade). He was especially poor in the second half of the year, grading negatively in coverage in all of the last seven games and grading in the red five times–most notably in the week 17 loss that ended their season, where he surrendered 174 yards. The good news is that the Cowboys cut him and brought in a much younger and more consistent DB in ex-Chief Brandon Carr. Carr has been solid the past three years and his only negatively-graded coverage year was his 2008 rookie season. Cowboy fans should be relieved that Jerry Jones and company addressed this issue.
4) Keith Brooking and Bradie James are gone
Another weakness of last season’s defense was the underwhelming play of two inside linebackers, ex-Falcon Keith Brooking and Bradie James. Both veterans had been reliable the previous two seasons, especially James, but that changed last season as they combined for an overall grade of -11.9. As with Newman, the Cowboys recognized the weakness they brought to the team and cut them loose. They also brought in Dan Connor, a former third-round round pick for the Carolina Panthers. Connor, a tremendous downstream linebacker who excels at disrupting blocks, performed well on an otherwise terrible defense last year. An ideal two-down linebacker, he can at least be a reliable backup if Bruce Cater, who only had 41 snaps last year, is ready to play to his potential. Meanwhile, Sean Lee has a stranglehold on the other ILB spot.
5) DeMarco Murray
DeMarco Murray, the second-year running back out of Oklahoma, didn’t get a chance to become the #1 rushing option until incumbent Felix Jones got injured in Week 6 at New England. From that point until his ankle injury in Week 14, he proved his worth, breaking or avoiding 19 tackles (two more than Ray Rice), grading green in rushing in four games with only one red-graded performance, and breaking Emmit Smith’s single-game rushing record with 253 yards on 25 carries. Despite missing the last three games and most of the Week 14 Giants game, he collected 897 yards with an average of 5.5 yards per carry, tied for third best with the most elusive back over the past three years, Jonathan Stewart, his teammate DeAngelo Williams (ninth-best elusive back rating), and PFF favorite Fred Jackson. With Murray seemingly fully recovered, it’s reasonable to expect the Cowboys’ offense to race out of the gate this year.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1) Tony Romo
You don’t become one of the most debated QBs without some causes for concern, and Romo has those. While he did have a good season last year, it’s impossible to forget the Jets and Lions games in which he helped give away victories with his poor ball security. There were other mistakes, especially the overthrow in Week 14 that could’ve sealed the win. Injury is also a concern for Romo, who missed significant time in two of the past four seasons, and went into the crucial Week 17 contest with a hand injury. Cowboys fans have plenty of reasons to be more than content with him as their leader, but it’s a double-edged sword.
2) Interior O-Line
The Cowboys have not addressed the interior offensive line issue like they have the secondary issue. They let go guards Kyle Kosier and Montrae Holland, even though the latter ended the year with a +5.9 grade and could have provided, at the very least, depth. They did sign ex-Bengal Nate Livings in hopes to solidify the left guard spot, but he was far from solid last season with a -13.4 overall grade, including a terrible playoff performance (-2.9). Livings also recently injured his hamstring during training camp, adding to an injury list that includes most of his competition, such as Bill Nagy, who struggled before getting injured last year, Kevin Kowalski who played just 114 snaps, and Mackenzy Bernadeau, who played only 125 snaps for the Carolina Panthers in 2011. Undrafted guard Ronald Leary or David Arkin, who didn’t play a snap last year despite being a fourth-round pick, could end up starting. Meanwhile, the Cowboys hope second-year center Phil Costa will have a better year, but his -9.7 overall grade suggests that could just be wishful thinking. Can this injury-ravaged group protect their injury-prone QB?
3) Third Wide Receiver
It’s hard to imagine the Cowboys’ air attack being as successful as it was last year without Laurent Robinson, who led the team in TD catches with 11 and accounted for 858 yards. Those stats helped the journeyman wideout receive a nice contract from the Jacksonville Jaguars, which has left the Cowboys missing a productive piece of last year’s offense. Not counting Dwayne Harris’ one snap, only veteran Kevin Ogletree, who graded in the red the only two times he played over 40 snaps in 2011, was on the team last year. There have been some positive off-season reviews of unknowns Andre Holmes and Cole Beasley, but the former failed his initial conditioning test and the latter has abruptly quit the team. Raymond Radway, who impressed last year but got injured on the last play of the final preseason game, is also in the mix, but there is no one on the roster you can expect to contribute anywhere near as much as Robinson did last year. If Miles Austin or Dez Bryant go down the Cowboys will have another problem on their hands.
4) Safeties (both positions)
Incumbent strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh is no doubt expected to retain his position after signing an extension last year. However, he has had to miss all of the Cowboys’ off-season activities due to a nagging knee injury and subsequent surgery, which makes his status and health a real concern. Barry Chuch, a 2010 free agent who showed significant improvement last year (+2.7) over his rookie year (-4.4) has flashed in camp, but has yet to handle a starter’s workload; the highest number of snaps he has played was 49, and that was in 2010. The free safety spot on paper was set for at least this year with free agent Brodney Pool replacing Abe Elam, but Pool failed his initial conditioning test and has since been released. Another possible contender is fourth-round pick Matt Johnson, but he has yet to practice due to a hamstring injury, while a biceps injury ended his senior season. Both safety spots cannot be guaranteed to anyone at this point.
5) The Other CB
This spot has become much more worrisome since training camp began than it was prior. First-round pick Morris Claiborne seemed poised to start, with disgruntled incumbent Mike Jenkins still not cleared to practice and some reports surfacing that Jenkins won’t play at all in the preseason. However, the sixth overall pick of the draft is also not full healthy, coming into camp off wrist surgery and recently spraining his MCL. Even before this camp injury, it was unlikely that Claiborne would become a stud shut-down corner in his rookie year; it is not uncommon for first-round CBs to struggle in their debut season, evidenced by fellow LSU Tiger Patrick Peterson last year (-6.6 coverage grade) and Jenkins four years ago (-4.6). If Jenkins is able to return to the field before, or manages to otherwise wrestle away the starting gig from the rookie, there are still questions about his coverage ability (one season with a positive grade in this area), durability and motivation. With both Jenkins and Claiborne sidelined at the moment, slot corner Orlando Scandrick, who has always been much better at rushing the passer than he has been in coverage, has taken over opposite Carr. A position that seemed filled with depth a few months ago has suddenly become a real concern.
What to Expect
While the wide receiver and offensive line depth are prominent concerns, as long as they can keep Romo healthy the Cowboys’ offense will continue to test defenses around the league. The defense, which repeatedly let the team down last year, on paper at least, has clearly improved with the removal of aging liabilities Newman, Brooking, and James. There’s no reason to believe the Cowboys won’t be in contention for a playoff spot late in the year.