It’s always one thing or another with these Cowboys. They started 7-4, but finished at 8-8 and out of the playoffs after dropping two games to the Giants in 4 weeks, losing the 1st one when Miles Austin lost a wide open touchdown in the sun and failed to catch it. In that game, they blew a 12 point lead to lose by 3, 37-34. In addition to 2 losses to the Giants, the Cowboys also dropped winnable games in Arizona and at home to Philadelphia, two non-playoff teams. In fact, you could argue that their struggles started 2 weeks prior against Washington, as they needed overtime to beat the last place Redskins. The next week, they only won by one against the lowly Dolphins, which was of course followed by their 1-4 slide.
Last year, I don’t really think you could blame Tony Romo. Yes, it’s easy to pin their week 1 loss to the Jets and their week 4 loss to the Lions on him for late turnovers, but they wouldn’t have even been in those games had it not been for him. Romo led the offense to 24 and 30 points respectively in those 2 losses and led the offense to 23.1 points per game on the season, 15th in the league. A leaky defense, which ranked 16th with 21.7 points per game allowed was more of a problem, particularly their 24th ranked pass defense. Their defense was especially bad late in games.
Romo had a very strong season, ranking 4th in the league in QB rating in what was dubbed the year of the quarterback. He completed 346 of 552 (66.3%) for 4184 yards (8.0 YPA), 31 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He did this despite struggles around him offensively and a nagging rib injury that bothered him early in the season. He was sacked 36 times behind a young offensive line that allowed 39 sacks total. He had a series of injuries to his running backs that left Sammy Morris seeing significant carries on their stretch run. Injuries at receiver left them young and inexperienced there as well until Laurent Robinson inexplicably stepped up.
Romo once again has a young supporting cast, but at age 32, all of the pressure is on him to lead this team to the Promised Land. Even owner Jerry Jones says their Super Bowl window is closing, perhaps in an effort to motivate his aging quarterback. In a loaded NFC and a stacked NFC East, he may find that very tough to do.
He gets a lot of heat for never getting it done on a big stage with high expectations, but any calls for Romo to be benched or traded are absurd. He’s not an elite quarterback on the level of Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or either of the Mannings, but he’s still a top-10 quarterback or so. He’s always had a 60% or higher completion rate and a YPA above 7.5. In 3 full seasons as a starter, he’s surpassed 4000 yard and 25 touchdowns each time and he was on pace for both of those numbers in injury shortened years in 2008 and 2010.
He has a career completion percentage of 64.5, a career YPA of 8.1, and 149 touchdowns to 72 interceptions. You can do a lot worse than him. I think he could win a Super Bowl with the right pieces around him. I’m just not convinced he has them right now coming off an 8-8 season, which ironically is actually the worst record a Romo quarterback team has ever had. He’s not too bad.
At running back, Romo has good supporting talent, but durability is the major question. DeMarco Murray will be the lead back. He took over for an injured Felix Jones and kept the job after Jones returned last year, up until an injury of his own, an ankle injury, ended his year. Murray averaged 5.5 YPC on 164 carries for 897 yards last year as a 3rd round rookie, but you do have to note that 253 of those yards, on 25 carries, came against a Rams team that surrendered separate 200 yard performances to both Murray and Chris Wells and was generally awful against the run.
Murray is a talented back, but he’s had issues with durability throughout his career, including his days at Oklahoma. There’s a reason he was available in the 3rd round last year. He might not make it through the season again this year. Behind him, the Cowboys have Felix Jones. Jones has talent, but has never lived up to being taken in the 1st round in 2008. He’s incredibly inconsistent and injury prone. The Cowboys actually tried to trade him heading into his contract year for a mid round pick on draft day, to no avail. If he has to carry the load in Murray’s absence, the Cowboys could be in trouble. Their #3 back is Phillip Tanner, who has 22 career carries. The 2011 undrafted free agent may see an increased workload this season.
Similar to running back, they have a lot of talent at wide receiver, but durability is a question. Miles Austin missed 6 games with injury and was limited in several others last year, catching just 43 passes for 549 yards and 7 touchdowns after back-to-back 1000 yard years. Dez Bryant, meanwhile, only missed one game, but admitted after the season that a lingering quadriceps injury limited him for most of the season. He also admitted his conditioning wasn’t great. He is having what’s being called a productive offseason, for what it’s worth, so the 2010 1st round pick could finally unleash his talent in 2012, after 63 catches for 928 yards and 9 touchdowns last year.
With injuries to the starters last year, the Cowboys needed a 3rd receiver to step up. Early in the season, the Cowboys relied on Kevin Ogletree to do so, but his frequent brain farts on the field lost him the job. Laurent Robinson, previously a career journeyman, took the opportunity and ran with it, catching 54 passes for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns. He took a large contract in Jacksonville this offseason though and the Cowboys didn’t replace him, which means it’ll probably to be left to Kevin Ogletree to be the 3rd receiver this year unless 2011 6th round pick Dwayne Harris or 2012 5th round pick Danny Coale can beat him out. Durability and depth are problems at a position that is otherwise talented.
Luckily for Romo, he will once again have Jason Witten to lean on at tight end. The 6-6 265 pounder is as consistent as can be. He hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2003. Since 2004, he’s had at least 64 catches for 754 yards in every season, maxing out with 96 catches for 1145 yards in 2007. Last year he had 79 catches for 942 yards and 5 touchdowns and more of the same can be expected from his this season. He’s also always been a good blocker.
The Cowboys like to use a lot of two-tight end sets. It’s for this reason that they used a 2008 2nd round pick on Martellus Bennett, despite already having Witten. Bennett never quite lived up to being drafted there, but he was consistently one of the league’s best run blockers. He left this offseason for divisional rival New York and the Cowboys didn’t really do much to replace him. They promoted John Phillips, an unproven 2009 6th round pick, and drafted James Hanna in the 6th round of this past NFL Draft, but I don’t think either can be the blocker that Bennett was.
While they have talent at running back and wide receiver, just questions about durability, on the offensive line the problem is more with the talent itself. Things are fine at offensive tackle with Doug Free and Tyron Smith. Free and Smith will be switching sides this season, with Smith going to the left side and Free going to the right side. On paper, that looks like a productive move because Smith is significantly more athletic, while Free’s lack of athleticism won’t be as much of a problem on the right side and his gritty toughness will be allowed to shine. However, switching positions is always a risk, especially for someone like Tyron Smith who was a right tackle dating back to his USC days opposite Matt Kalil.
While Smith is significantly more athletic than Free and more suited to deal with speed rushers, that doesn’t mean he’s not a physical blocker who can help the run game. He was ProFootballFocus’ 4th rated offensive tackle last year with a 13.7 rating and graded out equally well in pass protection and run blocking. He allowed 8 sacks, but sacks are an overrated statistic. He only allowed 1 quarterback hit and 21 quarterback hits, numbers that provide more insight into how he helped keep Romo protected. He was also penalized 7 times.
Free, meanwhile, really struggled on the left side, part of why he’s moving to the right side. He allowed 10 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 34 quarterback pressures, and committed 10 penalties as his -11.9 rating was 53th among 76 offensive tackles. He was above average as a run blocker, however, and in 2010, he was much better with a 17.4 rating overall. The switch is risky because Smith is playing an entirely new position and because Free was once a very good left tackle, but it may pay off.
On the interior of the offensive line, that’s where things are really bleak. Starters Kyle Kosier and Montrae Holland really struggled at guard last year and that’s why neither were brought back. Both, not surprising, are still available on the open market. I don’t know that the guys the Cowboys replaced them with are any better. They signed Nate Livings from Cincinnati, but he graded out with a -10.5 rating last year.
They also signed Mackenzy Bernadeau from Carolina, who is someone I’ll even acknowledge I had never heard of before they signed him. He was a backup in Carolina after being a 2008 7th round pick. For some reason, the Cowboys signed him to a fairly significant contract with intentions of him being a starter, but he had offseason hip surgery which ruined his timetable to become the starter. David Arkin and Ronald Leary will also compete for the starting job opposite Livings. Arkin was their 4th round pick in 2011, while Leary went undrafted this past April. The Cowboys reportedly had a 3rd round grade on him, but the fact that an undrafted free agent could start for this team week 1 shows how pathetic the interior of their offensive line is.
At center, Phil Costa will be given another chance. He was ProFootballFocus’ 30th rated center out of 35 with a -9.7 rating and I don’t think that even takes into account that he led the league in botched snaps. He allowed 3 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 15 quarterback pressures, and committed 2 penalties, while struggling as a run blocker. He’ll need to get things together or he could be challenged by Bill Nagy, a 2011 7th round pick who was actually their week 1 starter at left guard last year (not quite as bad as an undrafted free agent, but still).
Nagy had a -9.0 rating in 4 starts at guard so he might not be any better than Costa. I’m baffled that they didn’t draft a single offensive lineman in the 2012 NFL Draft given their struggles upfront. Tony Romo can’t be pleased about that. Still, they have the most important position figured out, the quarterback, and they could have better luck with injuries at running back and wide receiver. This is still a strong group and not the problem area. Defense is where their bigger issues were.
The Cowboys’ worst group last year was their defensive backs. Credit them for paying a lot of focus to that area in the offseason. They added Morris Claiborne, the draft’s best cornerback, and Brandon Carr, free agency’s best cornerback. However, they added those two at the expense of addressing other needs, like the offensive line, the defensive line, and depth at the offensive skill positions.
As the offensive line is the Cowboys’ worst group offensively, the defensive line is the Cowboys’ worst group defensively. They use a lot of rotation on the line with a lot of different players to mask the fact that they don’t have a lot of talent. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff is easily the most talented of the bunch and he graded out 7th among nose tackles/defensive tackles with an 18.6 rating. Despite being undersized at 305 pounds or so, he was equally good against the run as he was as a pass rusher. Josh Brent, more of a true nose tackle, provides solid depth behind him.
At defensive end, the Cowboys used a rotation of 4 different players at 2 spots. Those 4 players were Jason Hatcher, Kenyon Coleman, Marcus Spears, and Sean Lissemore. With the exception of Lissemore (I’ll get to him later), none of those guys were very good and none played more than 428 snaps. The Cowboys drafted Tyrone Coleman in the 3rd round so he should see snaps at the position this year and they’ve said they’ll be giving Lissemore a bigger role this year, which has led many to suggest that the veteran Coleman (33), could be cut. I agree with that suggestion.
Lissemore, as I’ve already mentioned, was their best player at the position last year. He had a 13.8 rating on just 283 snaps. He wasn’t much of a pass rusher, but he had 18 solo tackles, 8 assists and 16 stops on just 119 run defense snaps, while missing only 2 tackles. He was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd rated 3-4 defensive end against the run, behind Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey. He played all over the line, both end spots and nose tackle, and will have a bigger role this season. We’ll see if the added playing time will help or hurt him, but he’s a potential breakout star, with the key word being potential.
He, Jason Hatcher, and Marcus Spears should get the bulk of the snaps this year at the position, with the rookie Crawford being worked in gradually. Spears was the worst of the bunch with a -3.6 rating. He has never lived up to being a 1st round pick (in 2005) and I’m baffled that the Cowboys gave him an expensive, long term extension after the 2010 season. All in all, this is not a position of strength. Yes, they spent a 3rd round pick on the position, but they were also linked to players like Michael Brockers and Dontari Poe at 14 before they moved up and for good reason.
Things are better at linebacker. When mentioning their linebackers, you have to first mention DeMarcus Ware. Ware leads the NFL with 99.5 sacks over the last 7 years after being the 11th overall pick in 2005 NFL Draft. He’s already 29th on the all-time sacks list and looks like a future Hall of Famer even though he’s only heading into his age 30 season. Last season was no different, as he had 20 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 44 quarterback pressures on 476 pass rush snaps (15.1%). Somehow those 20 sacks didn’t lead the league, but it’s still an incredibly impressive number.
He’s a pretty one dimensional player who doesn’t excel against the run or in coverage, but when you rush the passer as well as him, it doesn’t really matter. He had a 32.6 rating overall, 3rd at his position, but his 35.6 pass rush rating not only paced his position, but was best in the league. 11 penalties is the only major flaw in his 2011 season.
Opposite him, Anthony Spencer has never managed more than 6 sacks in a season despite defenses regularly focusing on Ware opposite him. The former 1st round pick hasn’t really lived up to his draft range, but last year he was actually pretty good. His 6 sacks don’t tell the whole story as he had 9 quarterback hits and 35 quarterback pressures and a 10.4 rating that was 10th at his position.
He was surprisingly given the franchise tag this offseason, normally reserved for the elites of a position, but it does mean he’ll be back this season. He signed that tender almost immediately, knowing that 8.856 million was almost definitely too much for a player that can’t be described as anything better than above average. Victor Butler, meanwhile, provides solid depth and the Cowboys used a 4th round pick on Kyle Wilber, a player who can play inside and out and who has experience in a 3-4 from Wake Forest. Either one of those two could be Spencer’s long term successor.
In between those two, the Cowboys have 3 middle linebackers who will rotate. Sean Lee is essentially an every down middle linebacker. He played 868 snaps last year and had a 13.9 rating, good for 14th at his position. He should have the same role this season. Bruce Carter and Dan Connor will split snaps next to him. Connor was an offseason acquisition from Carolina, a solid player who played well in the absence of some injured players last year. He deserved a bigger role somewhere and the Cowboys gave him it. He had a 4.9 rating last year. Carter, meanwhile, will come in on passing downs. The 2011 2nd round pick barely played as a rookie thanks to injury, playing 41 snaps, but he’s a talented player who might have gone in the 1st round had it not been for his torn ACL.
As I’ve said before, the Cowboys’ biggest weakness last year was their secondary. The Cowboys ranked 24th against the pass with 7.6 YPA, despite 42 sacks, a good number. Their worst defensive back was Terence Newman, whose -9.1 rating was as a result of a -11.2 rating in coverage. Newman was promptly cut this offseason, heading into his age 34 season.
To replace him, the Cowboys signed Brandon Carr to a 5 year, 50.1 million dollar contract. Carr, along with Cortland Finnegan and the franchise tagged Brent Grimes, was one of the top defensive backs in a strong defensive back free agent class. Carr had a very good season last year, allowing just 39 completions on 79 attempts (49.4%) for 511 yards (6.5 YPA), 3 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 7 deflections and 5 penalties in Kansas City. Among cornerbacks who played 75% or more of their teams snaps, he ranked 5th with a 61.7 QB rating allowed. The one concern is that he was always the #2 cornerback with Brandon Flowers and never had to cover the opponent’s top receiver. He’ll also be switching sides of the field this year.
The Cowboys weren’t done upgrading the cornerback position as they traded up to the 6th pick to grab Morris Claiborne, the consensus top cornerback prospect of the draft class. This move sent Mike Jenkins to the bench. Jenkins was a 1st round pick in 2008 and a Pro Bowler in 2009, but he has disappointed over the past two years. He was better in 2011 than 2010, but an upgrade still could have been had, especially as he heads into a contract year. Jenkins is a talented player, but he has inconsistent play because of an inconsistent motor. Claiborne, meanwhile, could struggle as a rookie in coverage. Rookie cornerbacks tend to (even Patrick Peterson did last year), but he has a bright future.
Jenkins was not happy about being moved to the bench and demanded a trade. Though they’ve received interest from at least 4 teams, including the Colts and Lions, the Cowboys are saying publicly that they will be keeping Jenkins. Some still speculate that they are saying this to drive up the asking price and/or to make sure that Claiborne is 100% healthy off of wrist surgery before moving him and that he could be dealt in Training Camp.
If kept, Jenkins will compete with Orlando Scandrick to be the #3 cornerback and play the slot. Scandrick is seen as the favorite as the Cowboys, for whatever reason, love Scandrick in that spot. They signed him to a 27 million dollar contract over 5 years last year. He rewarded them with a -5.6 rating and a 100.2 QB rating allowed and he’s never been much better in the past. Still, GM/Owner Jerry Jones is insisting they don’t regret the extension, a sign that Scandrick is the favorite over Jenkins.
That would leave Jenkins as the 4th cornerback, which, obviously, he wouldn’t like. There was a report that the Cowboys would use more 4 cornerback sets with their 4 cornerbacks, in order to make up for their lack of depth at safety (more on that later). In this plan, Orlando Scandrick would have lined up at free safety on passing downs and Jenkins would play the slot. Scandrick has refused the move to safety, but perhaps they could try the same setup with Jenkins at free safety. At the same time, it wouldn’t shock me if Jenkins was traded. Other teams in the league view him as a starter and they should be able to get a mid round pick, good value for a disgruntled depth cornerback who is in a walk year.
I mentioned their lack of depth at safety, in addition to Michael Brockers and Dontari Poe, they were also linked to Mark Barron at 14 before they moved up. They didn’t take a safety until the 4th round when they reached for Matt Johnson, who is not expected to do anything more than special teams as a rookie.
They have one good safety, Gerald Sensabaugh, a solid player who they gave an extension towards the end of last season. However, opposite him, Brodney Pool will compete with Barry Church for the starting job. Pool signed as a free agent from Jets. He’s a decent player when healthy, but he rarely is healthy and injuries may have sapped his abilities. Church, meanwhile, is a reserve who impressed in limited action last year. The organization is high on the 2010 undrafted free agent out of Toledo. Still, this is a position of weakness and they may be better off converting a cornerback for passing downs.
The Cowboys had been grooming Jason Garrett as a Head Coach for years and there was a lot of buzz about him, so much so that he got several offers to be the Head Coach elsewhere before deciding to remain the coach in waiting in Dallas. Garrett impressed in his 1st year, finishing 5-3 with a previously 1-7 team despite the loss of Tony Romo at quarterback. However, last year, he fell short of expectations in 2011 with an 8-8 record and a botched late timeout that caused him to ice his own kicker in an eventual loss to Arizona. There were even calls for his job, which were a bit premature. He’s definitely better than Wade Phillips. Still, it’s tough to see what all the fuss was about with him before he became a coach.
Overall, this is a solid team. They could be improved on both sides of the football with better health offensively and additions to their secondary, their worst group in 2011. However, they’re still not without holes as their defensive line is average at best, their interior offensive line might be the worst in the league, and they lack depth at offensive skill positions. They put all of their eggs in one basket in the draft with Morris Claiborne and given that rookie cornerbacks tend to struggle, that might not pan out at least this season.
If they were in the AFC, I would have a hard time keeping them out of the playoffs, but they’re in the NFC with 10 or 11 teams that are all above average on paper. It’s going to be very tough for them to sneak into the playoffs. They’re a contender, but they’re also in a stacked division, which they probably won’t win and I think there’s at least 2 wild card teams that are better than them. It’s always one thing or another with this team and I think that they’ll disappoint once again this year and miss the playoffs, even if only barely like last year.
In the division, they’ll probably go 2-4 or 3-3 or so. Outside of the division, they host Tampa Bay, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans. Cleveland and Tampa Bay could be pretty easy, but Chicago is tougher and Pittsburgh and New Orleans will be even tougher still. 2-3 or 3-2 in those 5 games is definitely possible. They also go to Seattle, Baltimore, Carolina, Atlanta, and Cincinnati. Carolina and Cincinnati are winnable games, but Seattle and Atlanta are both tough places to win and Baltimore is another tough team. 2-3 or 3-2 in those games is also possible, so average everything out and give them a 5-5 out of division record and let’s say a 2-4 in division record, that’s 7-9, which seems about right.
Update: No real reason why I’m adding the extra win, but when I made updates elsewhere, I was left needing to assign an extra win somewhere and the Cowboys were right on the 7/8 borderline.
Projection: 8-8 4th in NFC East