32 Teams in 32 Days: Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys finished 2012 the same way they finished 2011: with an 8-8 record and, despite yet another shot to host a playoff game with a week 17 win, a road loss to the NFC East champions.
With Head Coach Jason Garrett on the hot seat and stripped of play-calling duties, Tony Romo signing a lucrative extension, and a transition to the 4-3 defense with defensive mastermind Monte Kiffin, the pressure is still on the Cowboys. Is this the year they finally live up to the perennial hype surrounding their organization? Or just another mediocre season for America’s Team?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Dez Bryant Just Keeps Getting Better
In his rookie year, Dez Bryant showed some flashes of the talent that made the Cowboys select him in the first round of the 2010 draft, returning two punts for scores and catching six TD passes (only one of which came from Romo, who was injured early that year). In 2011 he improved on the field with over 900 yards receiving, nine TD catches and only one drop. Last season wasn’t perfect though, especially in the first half, accumulating just over 500 yards and two scores while dropping seven passes (including a TD in the Panthers game). The second half of the season was a far different story with four more drops but 879 yards and 10 scores, including at least one score for seven straight weeks. Overall he forced 14 missed tackles in 2012, tied for fifth-best among WRs with Davone Bess and superstar A.J. Green. It’s also worth noting that Bryant played through a finger injury late in the year. If he continues to mature and take advantage of his physical gifts, he could be one of the best WR’s in 2013.
2. DeMarcus Ware
DeMarcus Ware was one of the many injured Cowboy defenders last season and his performance suffered as a result in all areas. Totaling 59 pressures is nothing to be ashamed of though, and the simple fact is he’s still one of the league’s most feared pass-rushers. Ware will now spend the vast majority of his snaps at defensive end in Kiffin’s 4-3 defense, the same position he played in college. This presumably means he’ll spend far less time dropping in coverage (64 snaps last season), which is a win for the Cowboys as teams would prefer him chasing tight ends down the field instead of attacking quarterbacks and running backs. It is possible that transitioning to playing almost exclusively with his hand on the ground again could require an adjustment period, but that seems unlikely with a player of Ware’s caliber. This year he should continue to build his lethal reputation.
3. Trio of Linebackers
Kiffin has a trio of talented linebackers, all former second-round picks, to patrol the middle of his 4-3 defense. Former Jaguar and Lion Justin Durant is a new roster addition and is expected to add some much needed help against the run. In this area over the past four seasons he’s made 105 stops out of 148 tackles while only missing 16. Holding down the important middle linebacker spot will be fourth-year standout Sean Lee. There are some injury concerns with Lee (he only played 6 games last year), but he has the talent to be one of the best middle linebackers in the league. In the running game he always seems to be around the ball making plays, especially in his limited time last season (16 stops and only a pair of missed tackles). He’s also a capable pass-rusher and can drop back in coverage (he has seven career interceptions in his brief three-year career). Rounding out this trio is Bruce Carter, our PFF Secret Superstar for the Cowboys last season. Despite suffering a season-ending elbow injury in Week 12, Carter showed no signs of the ACL injury that he ended his college career with. He was solid against the run as well (30 stops and only three missed tackles) and showed some ability to cover, which was one of the reasons Cris Collinsworth kept praising him in the Cowboys/Falcons primetime game. If this group can stay on the field, it will be problematic for opposing offenses.
4. Jason Hatcher Making a Name For Himself
A 2006 third-round pick, Jason Hatcher has become one of the most reliable players on this defense. With 24 stops and only one missed tackle in run defense, along with five sacks, eight QB hits and 29 hurries, Hatcher was our fourth highest-graded 3-4 DE overall. He’s improved every season since we began watching every play from every game in 2008, so his 2012 campaign wasn’t too surprising. The only game in which he failed to record any pressure was in the Chicago game. Also, in only two contests did he grade negatively against the run. Should he continue to produce, he may become one of the most recognizable names on an already talented defense.
5. Tony Romo (Yes, Tony Romo)
No QB is more polarizing than Tony Romo, but are there many signal-callers more productive and more essential to their team than Romo? No. Despite 39 drops from his teammates on catchable passes, Romo still finished with the third-most yards (4,903), sixth-most TDs (28) and our 11th-best passing grade (+13.9). Behind a below-average offensive line he continued to make plays while evading pressure (his scoring pass to Kevin Ogletree in the Falcons’ game was just one of many examples). It’s also worth noting he played more than a few games without anything resembling a competent running game (the Cowboys rushed for less than 50 yards in seven games). There are concerns with Romo of course, but at the end of the day he gives his team a better chance to win than many of the other QBs out there.
Five Things to be Concerned About
1. Romo’s Interceptions
While there aren’t more than a dozen better passers in the league than Romo at this point, his interceptions can’t be ignored. In 2012 he was actually tied with Drew Brees for most picks in the league (19), and it could have been much worse. There were numerous moments when defenders dropped picks, including three in the Bengals game alone. While not every interception can be blamed solely on Romo, the majority can. Arguably his most damaging interception was his last in the Week 17 game where, down by only a field goal, he lofted a swing pass without noticing ROLB Rob Jackson dropping into coverage. The Redskins would score seven off the turnover, ending Dallas’ postseason hopes and furthering Romo’s anti-clutch reputation. The Cowboys know they need Romo, but can he change the Cowboys’ recent misfortunes and his own legacy?
2. Can They Consistently Run The Ball?
One of the Cowboy’s biggest problems the past few years has been their inability to consistently run the ball. Part of this was the play calling – in the Thanksgiving day loss at home to Washington, Cowboy running backs ran the ball a mere seven times for 22 yards while Romo had to drop back 62 times. That kind of imbalance makes it hard to win games, but maybe new playcaller Bill Callahan can avoid making that same mistake. Another problem was the health of DeMarco Murray. The third-year RB has only played in 19 games with 15 or more snaps out of 32, and Dallas could rarely adjust without him. Undrafted free agents Phillip Tanner (2.4 yards per carry) and Lance Dunbar (3.6) could not sufficiently carry the load, neither could former first-round pick Felix Jones, who is no longer on the team. The Cowboys drafted another runner, Joseph Randle, in the fifth-round this year, but it remains to be seen if he can produce when Murray inevitably misses some time. The Cowboys may not even give any of their runners a chance to shine.
3. Stopping the Run
It’s hard to keep control of a game when 10 of Dallas’ 16 opponents rushed for over 100 yards last season. The worst came in the Week 17 contest as the Redskins piled 274 yards on the ground and four scores. More embarrassing is the fact that seven of the rushing TDs they allowed found the runner un-touched, all but one which came against division rivals. Some of this can be explained by season-ending injuries to Lee and Carter and nagging injuries to Ware. Still injuries happen and overall, Dallas needs better effort from their other players. Backup LB Ernie Sims, who will most likely need to play at some point, was not surprisingly unable to deal with the run (he’s never had a positively graded season in this area). Despite seriously upgrading the secondary, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne were liabilities in run defense too, missing nine tackles combined with only five stops. There’s also already injury concerns with second-year 3rd round pick Tyrone Crawford (already lost for the year) and nagging injuries to Jay Ratliff (only played 6 games in 2012) and Anthony Spencer, their best run defender in 2012. Add in potential growing pains with the new defensive scheme and this could once again be a problem late in the year, if not sooner.
4. Offensive Line
The Dallas offensive line was one of the most glaring weaknesses on the team last year. In his first season at LT, Tyron Smith only conceded three sacks and four hits, but also 37 hurries; he also had five red-graded performances in pass protection. It’s very possible he’ll show improvement after a full year protecting Romo’s blindside under his belt, but the rest of the line doesn’t exude confidence. Center Phil Costa only played one full game last year and could lose his job to Travis Frederick, whose selection in the first round raised a few eyebrows. Can a rookie effectively manage the line, and can Costa cut it as a guard? Ex-Bengal Nate Livings was the best run blocker on the line in 2012, but will reportedly miss all of training camp due to knee surgery. Undrafted free agent in 2012, Ronald Leary, who could take over Livings’ LG spot, has received some praise but didn’t play a snap last season. And there’s Doug Free, the most penalized tackle in the league (15), who had to take a pay cut this offseason. Like Smith on the other side, 2012 was Free’s first full year at RT, but considering the pressure he consistently allowed (51 total) and the fact that Dallas started rotating him with 2009 undrafted free agent Jeremy Parnell, it’s hard to be excited about a potential comeback year for him.
The Cowboys haven’t had a solid safety duo for a long time, and they still don’t. After releasing the underwhelming Gerald Sensabaugh, they picked up veteran Will Allen, who hasn’t started a full season for any team since 2008 when PFF began. Last season saw him play 432 snaps for the Steelers, resulting in a not-terrible -0.5 coverage grade, but there’s a reason why he’s been a journeyman. The other starter is Barry Church. Despite suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 3 last year, Dallas gave him a four-year extension. Three games is a small sample size, but he did give up a TD in the opening win vs. the Giants. He fared better doing spot duty in 2011 (+3.3 overall in 172 snaps) but his lack of starting time makes it hard to predict great things. Church may be a safer option than Danny McCray, who got extensive playing time last season (658 snaps) and proved to be a liability (the 68 yard TD to Aldrick Robinson on Thanksgiving being his most memorable fluke). There’s also sophomore Matt Johnson, who never saw the field in 2012, and rookie J.J. Wilcox, but neither can be expected to have a great impact this year.
What To Expect
The Dallas Cowboys should continue to be competitive in the NFC East, which hasn’t been the powerhouse division it once was. The Eagles are rebuilding after a miserable four win season and already lost their most productive WR Jeremy Maclin for the season. The Giants, as usual, are impossible to predict – they could win a third title with Eli Manning, or they could be a just-above .500 team, if not worse. The defending division champion Redskins also have a major question with their star quarterback Robert Griffin and a secondary that will probably end up starting several rookies. The biggest question will be how Dallas – including the new 4-3 defense and Romo – perform in December with a potential playoff spot on the line.
Follow Trey on Twitter: @PFF_TreyC