Monday, February 27, 2012

NFL Offseason Preview -- Dallas Cowboys

If there's a more defining picture of the Cowboys 2011 season, I'd love to see it!
Though the Super Bowl is over and games don’t begin until next fall, the NFL season never truly ends. In many ways, the “game” that goes on in between the games is just as important, if not more so, than what happens on the field. Here, in the offseason, is where the course of all 32 NFL franchises is determined. To highlight the importance of this period, and to take a peek at what each team is facing, I’ll be embarking on an ambitious series in which I briefly preview each team’s offseason. We’ll examine the major questions each team faces, what type of cap room they have, who they should be targeting in the draft, etc. My goal is to complete this prior to the start of free agency (March 13)…..which will likely not happen. Oh well.

We continue the previews with a team that crushes my soul on a weekly basis, the Dallas Cowboys. In case you missed them, here are links to each of our past previews:

*Cap figures are taken from South Florida Sun-Sentinel.  Estimated cap is $124 million.*

Dallas Cowboys

2011 Record:  8-8
PPG For: 23.1 (15th)
PPG Against:  21.7 (16th)
2012 Cap Number:  $128,910,735
Draft Position:  #14 Overall Pick

Other than the Patriots, there can’t be another team more haunted by the New York Giants improbable Super Bowl run than the Dallas Cowboys. They’re haunted, because the Giants are their bitter division rivals. Their haunted, because the Giants have now won two Super Bowls since the Cowboys last claimed one. But mostly, they’re haunted because when they coughed up a 12 point lead to the Giants with 5:41 remaining in the fourth quarter, they coughed up their best chance to send the Giants home for the season and take their place as the NFC East’s playoff representative. Believe me, speaking as a die-hard Cowboys fan, that hurt. Bad. Like having one of the zombies from The Walking Dead slowly gnaw my nose off.

Would Dallas have mounted a similarly improbable playoff run? I doubt it. There were just too many fatal flaws with this team to take them seriously against the league’s top teams. But hey, I had similar reservations against the Giants as well, so you never really know until you give yourself a chance. Problem is, the Cowboys had several chances to give themselves that chance…if that makes any sense. 14 point 4th quarter lead against the Jets – loss. 24 point 3rd quarter lead against the Lions – loss. 3 point 4th quarter lead against the Patriots – idiotic, overly conservative coaching loss. Tie ball game against Arizona with time, timeouts, and good field position – worst coaching I’ve ever seen, including icing your own kicker loss. Throw in the collapse against the Giants, and you have five wasted opportunities.

Of course, if I take my fan hat off, it’s not hard to see that close wins over San Francisco, Washington (twice), and Miami could have gone the other way as well. As a biased fan, my preference is to see the Cowboys as a 12 win team that choked away too many opportunities. As an unbiased analyst, though, I see a team that finished in the middle of the pack in both scoring offense and scoring defense, and won nearly as many close games as it lost. Sounds like 8-8 is about right, actually. For a team with as much talent as the Cowboys, that’s a truly sobering reality.

The Good: 

As I just said, there IS a lot of talent on this team – especially on the offensive side of the ball. Tony Romo put together the best season of his career, and barring his usual late game meltdowns, he’d easily be considered one of the league’s five or six best passers. Since you already know all about the teams other stars – Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and DeMarcus Ware – I’ll gloss over them and focus in on the four most promising developments of the 2011 season:

1. DeMarco Murray – Murray, the team’s third round pick last year, appeared to be buried on the depth chart after an injury riddled training camp/preseason. However, thanks to Felix Jones’ annual injury and Tashard Choice’s propensity to do Tashard Choice things, Murray would get his chance. I’d say Dallas found their running back, wouldn’t you? Murray racked up 897 yards in just 7 starts, averaging an impressive 5.5 Y/A. Throw in his 183 yards receiving and that puts him over 1000 yards from scrimmage…in 7 starts!!! If he can stay healthy, and that’s a really big if, Murray adds a dimension to the offense that has been missing since the days of Emmitt Smith. Here’s hoping for a bit of good luck.

Note: This is the part of the preview where I get to toot my own horn. I was screaming, SCREAMING, for Murray to be the starter since day 1. Felix Jones is simply not an every down back, and the offense really lags without a credible running threat. I watched a lot of Murray at Oklahoma, and I was absolutely convinced he was far and away the best RB on the roster. It doesn’t happen often, but I got this one right! And yes, I have witnesses! I now return you to your normal programming of me getting everything wrong. Carry on…

2. Laurent Robinson – Seriously, who saw this one coming? Robinson had a huge opportunity in St. Louis a couple seasons ago, getting 11 starts, but was too wildly inconsistent to capitalize. And hey, if the Rams think you’re a bad receiver, you know you’re in trouble. So when the Cowboys brought him in last year, I didn’t think anything of it. Then he caught 7 passes for 116 yards in just his second game…I started thinking. Improbably, the same guy who made the Rams think “Eh, we’ll just sign Mike Sims-Walker” found himself stepping in for an injured Miles Austin , and doing a darn good job of it, as he finished the season with 54 catches, 858 yards, 11 TD’s, and a 43.1% DVOA (third in the league). Assuming he’s back, it will be interesting to see how they keep the 27 year old involved in the offense now that everyone is back.

3. Tyron Smith – You kind of expect the 9th overall pick to be good, or else you wouldn’t pick him 9th overall. Still, it’s been awhile since the Cowboys have come up with a potential franchise type player on the offensive line. Here’s hoping the play of a Smith shows Jerry the value of investing in your line rather than slapping Band-Aids all over it.

4. Sean Lee – With DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff on the wrong side of 30, it was imperative that Dallas find some young cornerstones for their defense. For the most part, they’ve failed on that end. Anthony Spencer, Marcus Spears, and Mike Jenkins have simply not developed the way they were supposed. So to that end, thank God for Sean Lee! In his second season, Lee not only locked down the MLB spot for the next decade, he established himself as the kind of dynamic, playmaking MLB the Cowboys can build a defense around. With questions at nearly every other defensive position, it’s nice to have at least one of those.

The Bad:

Let’s make a list, shall we?

1. These late game collapses have got to stop happening. No way around it. I don’t know what else to say about this, so let’s just move on.

2. This Jason Garrett thing…I just hate the guy. Maybe he’ll be a good coach someday, but he looks way in over his head right now. Most of all, he looks completely overwhelmed in late game situations. Faced with opportunities to go for the kill against New England and Arizona, Garrett got scared and chose the conservative (aka cowardly) route. And then he iced his own kicker, which I will neither forget nor forgive him for. Ever.

Iced. His. Own. Kicker. Wow.

3. Doug Free took a step back, and the team would be wise to swap him and Tyron Smith. Unfortunately, that won’t solve the rest of the offensive line woes. Kyle Kosier was kinda bad, Montrae Holland, was really bad, and Phil Costa was super extra bad, especially when he was snapping the ball 20 yards over Tony Romo’s head. Repeatedly. In the same game.

4. Outside of DeMarcus Ware, the team struggled to get a consistent pass rush. Anthony Spencer was too easily contained, and the DE’s are not really good enough to be NFL starters. That’s a problem.

5. The secondary…oh, the secondary. So bad. Terrence Newman is washed up, Mike Jenkins is a penalty machine, Orlando Scandrick is horrible, the safeties are a mess, and Alan Ball is quite literally the worst player in the NFL…maybe in NFL history. Since I will quickly fall into a homicidal rage if I continue to dwell on either Ball or the fact that our corners play 15 yards off their man, I’ll just move on.

Key Free Agents:  CB Alan Ball (YAAAAAY!!!), TE Martellus Bennett (YAAAAY!!!), LB Keith Brooking, S Abram Elam, FB Tony Fiammetta (RFA), G Montrae Holland, LB Bradie James, P Mat McBriar, WR Laurent Robinson, LB Anthony Spencer

3 Key Questions:

#1 – Who is expendable on the defense?

In short, nearly everyone should be. The end stats don’t do justice to just how bad this unit was, and everyone needs to be held accountable for that. Essentially, this is a total rebuild. The house cleaning starts in the secondary, where I’m not sure Dallas has a single player worth hanging on to. At 34, Terence Newman is long past his Pro Bowl days, and his $8.016mil cap hit is simply wasted money at this point. He’s the first to go. Orlando Scandrick and his nonsensical extension should be following him close behind, but there’s no way Jerry will admit defeat on him quite yet. Abram Elam and Alan Ball are both free agent, and I doubt either is brought back. That leaves Mike Jenkins and Gerald Sensabaugh as the only two guaranteed returnees. I’m not yet convinced Jenkins is a lost cause, though he’s been one of the worst starters in the league since his Pro Bowl season in 2009.

As for the front seven, there’s plenty of work to be done there as well. Anthony Spencer should most definitely NOT be brought back, though the Cowboys are apparently considering franchising him. That would be an incalculable mistake.

Here’s the real problem; you just can’t replace an entire defensive unit in one season. Not effectively at least. So the real question is who the Cowboys should center their attention on. Since the secondary was the biggest problem, the most attention should be placed on them. Ball and Elam should be allowed to walk, and Newman should be cut. That leaves only two starters and one dime corner to replace, which is very doable. And if Dallas can clear up enough cap space, perhaps they can address their now vacant ILB position. It won’t immediately fix the defense, but it’s certainly a start in the rebuild.

#2 – How many touches can they get for Dez Bryant?

I bitterly complained about Bryant’s lack of consistent involvement last year, and I’m going to keep complaining until the coaching staff wakes up. Bryant is, without a doubt, the most dynamic offensive weapon the Cowboys have. Yet, he never seems to be treated as such. Here’s a quick list of guys targeted more than Bryant:

Catch Rate
Dez Bryant
DeSean Jackson
Jerome Simpson
Nate Burleson
Michael Crabtree
Darrius Heyward-Bey
Jabar Gaffney
Dustin Keller
Greg Little
Nate Washington
Kellen Winslow
Antonio Brown
Mike Williams
Brandon Pettigrew
Pierre Garcon
Brandon Lloyd

Jerome Simpson? Darrius Heyward-Bey? Jabar Gaffney? What’s wrong with this picture?! Bryant had a higher catch rate than all but four of these players, and his 21.9% DVOA was far away the highest. So, why is he not seeing more passes? Some of it had to do with nagging injuries, and some of it had to do with the abundance of talent around him. Those reasons make sense, and it’s why Bryant will never see the number of targets that a Roddy White or Calvin Johnson will. But to limit him to barely above 100 is insanity. Worse yet, the team seemingly ignored him on critical drives, despite his uncanny ability to fight for extra yards after the catch.

Bryant still has some work to do in order to achieve his ultimate potential as an All-Pro level receiver, but he’ll never get there if the Cowboys don’t take the reins off him a bit more. Most people probably view him as simply a deep threat – think a better version of DeSean Jackson – but that isn’t the truth at all. Bryant has fantastic hands, and is one of the best at using his body and strength to shield away defenders and create additional yards after the catch. Given that, it is beyond me why he wasn’t utilized more on screens and short slants. Not only would that allow Bryant to get more touches and make more big plays, it would also hide the weakness on the offensive line by allowing Romo to get the ball out quicker. A competent offensive coordinator would have jumped all over this…Jason Garrett, not so much.

#3 – Can Tyron Smith play LT?

This one’s not getting enough play in my estimation. Prior to last year, Dallas hadn’t invested anything higher than a third round pick on an offensive lineman since 2004. Not surprisingly, the offensive line has been a running joke for some time, and the closest thing to a “franchise” player was Mr. False Start himself, Flozell Adams. So yeah, Tyron Smith is kind of a big deal. He took a few weeks to get his feet under him, but by the end of the year he looked like the dominant offensive lineman Jerry Jones thought he drafted. His move to LT was always an inevitability – Smith was made for the position and #9 overall picks generally don’t stay at RT – and if he can make a successful transition then the line as a whole will improve tremendously. Doug Free is better suited to the right side anyways, and I expect the protection to be much better on the outside now that the players are in their proper positions.
Draft Thoughts: 

There are four players, and four players only, that the Cowboys should be considering. I’ll rank them in order:

4. G David Decastro – I love Decastro. Love, love, love him. He’s exactly the type of nasty interior lineman every team is looking for, and he’d provide a huge boost over either Holland or Kosier. Unfortunately, the realities of the pass defense rule him out. There’s just no way a team with as many defensive holes as the Cowboys can take a guard at this spot, especially with so many good defensive backs on the board.

3. S Mark Barron – Barron is easily the best safety in the draft, and goodness knows how badly Dallas needs an upgrade at safety. Believe me, I wouldn’t be upset if he was the selection, but I wouldn’t go this route if I were Jerry Jones. For one thing, I think it’s easier to find a safety than a CB. Since the next two guys I’m looking at are corners, that immediately drops Barron to third on my list. For another thing, I’m hesitant to invest such a high pick on a safety that “needs to improve his coverage skills.” A decade ago, that wouldn’t be a huge problem. In today’s NFL, however, that scares the crap out of me. Haven’t the Cowboys already been down this road with Roy Williams?

2. CB Dre Kirkpatrick – Tall, physical, athletic…what isn’t to like? Kirkpatrick was extremely productive at Alabama, and he should definitely be high on the Cowboys’ wish list. Personal problems aside, Kirkpatrick just looks like an NFL star, and his size would be perfect for a team that really struggled with bigger wide receivers. Still, I wonder if his “physicality” isn’t being overrated. Remember, you can’t actually touch people anymore if you’re a defensive back. I’ve seen far too many of these types fail in the NFL to think Kirkpatrick is a sure thing, and I’d much rather have a pure cover guy, even if he isn’t quite as big. That leaves us with…

1. CB Janoris Jenkins – Jenkins has been severely downgraded due to the personal problems that led to his dismissal from Florida. To that I say…so what??? Jenkins was a top 10 talent before everything went down, and scouts have not backed off that sentiment over the past year. While he doesn’t have the size of Morris Claiborne, his cover skills and ball skills are reputed to be just as good. And in a Rob Ryan defense, it’s absolutely vital to have guys you can put on an island. Jenkins could very well be that guy.

Summary Thoughts:

I think if I weren’t a Cowboys fan, I’d feel much more optimistic about 2012. The return of DeMarco Murray, a potentially improved offensive line, and another step forward for Dez Bryant could lead to one of the league’s top offenses. Meanwhile, a few solid draft picks and a free agent or two could lead to a vastly improved defense. But that’s when the Cowboys fan in me comes out, and I think back to all the “coulds” and “shoulds” of the past, and I realize I’ve been down this path too many times before. At this point, I’m through trying to predict the Cowboys. The talent is there, and has been for some time. It’s just a matter of harnessing it and finishing off games. I’d love to feel some true optimism, but I’m afraid it’s all been beaten out of me. Thanks a lot, Jerry.


  1. Given that the phrase "personal problems" appears in 2 of the 4 draft profiles you did, I would say the Dallas Cowboys may be closer than you think to returning to their "glory days" form!

  2. I was kinda hoping nobody would make the connection, but yeah I did kinda recoil after writing that.

  3. Which is worse; personal problems or personnel problems? Pretty sure there's a league rule that forces the Cowboys to choose one or the other.