The average NFL team has an average change in win total of about 3 from season to season. Just last season, the Texans went from 12-4 to 2-14, the Redskins went from 10-6 to 4-12, the Falcons went from 13-3 to 4-12, the Vikings went from 10-6 to 5-10-1, the Panthers went from 7-9 to 12-4, the Chiefs went from 2-14 to 11-5, the Cardinals went from 5-11 to 10-6, and the Eagles went from 4-12 to 10-6. And that’s a pretty normal year. The NFL is a parity league.
Apparently that’s not the case is Jerry’s World. Rather than displaying parity in win totals, the Cowboys’ last few seasons have been the NFL equivalent of Groundhog Day, with each ending in arguably the worst possible way a season can end. The Cowboys have now finished 8-8 in each of the last 3 seasons, coinciding with Jason Garrett’s three full seasons as head coach. They’re the definition of stuck in the mud and the last 3 seasons have all ended with the Cowboys losing a divisional title game to each of their other three divisional opponents.
That being said, the Cowboys are closer to 4-12 than they are to 12-4. They weren’t as good as their 8-8 record this past season. When you really look at it, the only difference between them and the 4-12 Atlanta Falcons was special teams and turnover margin, two things that are very tough to count on. Their offense is one of the better offenses in the NFL, but they have arguably the league’s worst defense. They ranked dead last, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 77.66% rate, and as a result, they finished 22nd in rate of moving the chains differential, which is much worse than their 8-8 record would suggest.
Things are going to get worse before they get better too. The Cowboys are likely going to be a ridiculous 20+ million over the salary cap, as a result of very poor management by the front office and GM/Owner Jerry Jones. That’s going to force them to restructure some of their big contracts, kicking the can further down the line and ensuring they won’t have any real cap space for another 2-3 off-seasons. They’re also going to be unable to re-sign some of their own free agents like Anthony Spencer, who was hurt in 2013, but who would probably be an asset in 2014, and Jason Hatcher, who was arguably their best defensive player in 2013. Considering the lack of depth they have behind Hatcher at defensive tackle, that could be a catastrophic loss.
On top of that, they’ll have to cut some veterans. Most of the veterans they’ll be cutting probably won’t hurt them, but if they end up having to cut DeMarcus Ware, which they probably will if he doesn’t agree to a pay cut, that would take out another one of their precious few talented defensive players and at another position with minimal depth. Even if he stays around, he’s declining going into his age 32 season.
Sure, the Cowboys could see fewer injuries next season and the return of middle linebacker Sean Lee would help their defense, but he’s just one player and he’s never been able to stay healthy. This is shaping up to once again be one of the worst defensive units in the NFL next season and that’s going to keep them out of real contention. If I had to put money on it right now, the Cowboys are under 8 wins next season, not over.
Things were so desperate for the Cowboys at defensive tackle this season that Nick Hayden not only started at defensive tackle, but lead all Cowboy defensive linemen in snaps played, this coming after he played a combined 22 snaps in 2011 and 2012. He predictably struggled, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked defensive tackle. Their depth was awful as well. Their only functional defensive tackle last season was Jason Hatcher, one of the defense’s saving graces, a fierce interior pass rusher who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked defensive tackle. However, he’s a free agent this off-season and the Cowboys have next to zero chance of retaining him for 2014 given their cap situation. The Cowboys need at least one, if not two or three new defensive tackles this off-season. Very few teams need any position more than the Cowboys need defensive tackles.
It’s not just defensive tackles the Cowboys need. Their defensive line might be in more trouble than any defensive line in the NFL. It was a huge part of the reason why the Cowboys were so awful defensively last season. They had 20 different players see snaps on their defensive line last season and only two, Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware, graded out positively on Pro Football Focus. Hatcher is as good as gone and Ware could be a cap casualty if he doesn’t take a pay cut. Even if Ware is back in 2014, he’s a declining player going into his age 32 season and the perpetually cap strapped Cowboys are going to have to let him go at some point, even if they don’t this off-season. Opposite him, George Selvie was alright as legendary defensive line coach Rod Marinelli did the best he could with this unit, turning Selvie from an NFL burnout to a functional starter, but he was still overstretched and would be better off in a 3rd defensive end role. And of course, their depth at the position was horrible. The Cowboys should add at least one new defensive end into the mix this off-season, even if Ware returns.
This was supposed to be Bruce Carter’s breakout year in Monte Kiffin’s scheme, after all of the comparisons to Derrick Brooks and the comments about his otherworldly athleticism. He lived up to it in coverage, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in coverage grade, but he was awful against the run, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst 4-3 outside linebacker against the run and overall grading out 32nd out of 35 eligible at the position. The Cowboys don’t have much choice but to let him continue starting into his 4th year in the league and hope that the 2011 2nd round pick finally puts it all together, but some competition would be nice if possible. Opposite him is the bigger problem. Ernie Sims was horrific as a two-down linebacker this season. He played both outside and inside linebacker, but his composite grade on Pro Football Focus would have made him their worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker and 2nd worst ranked middle linebacker, despite the fact that he played just 391 snaps. He’s a free agent this off-season and they need to take this opportunity to upgrade the position. Finding adequate two-down linebackers isn’t hard, but it’s still a need.
Sean Lee is a fantastic middle linebacker when healthy, but he’s never played all 16 games in a season and has missed 18 games in the last 4 seasons, including 15 in the last 2 seasons. His injury problems go back to his time at Penn State and were a big part of the reason why he fell to the 2nd round in 2010, despite his rare talent. The Cowboys need a better insurance policy at the position than DeVonte Holloman. Holloman was awful last season as a 6th round rookie, playing just 198 snaps at middle linebacker (3 starts), not enough for him to be eligible for Pro Football Focus’ rankings, but if he was, he would have ranked 10th worst, despite such limited playing time.
Barry Church is an adequate starter at safety, though if the Cowboys were in a better financial position it wouldn’t be a bad idea to upgrade him. They need help opposite him though. Undrafted rookie Jeff Heath predictably struggled last season and 2013 3rd round pick JJ Wilcox wasn’t much better when given the chance. My guess is they’ll give Wilcox another chance to start, but there’s no guarantee that he ever develops into a starter. Only about 1/3 of 3rd round picks do.
The Cowboys’ offense is much better than their defense, but they do have one hole. On an otherwise fantastic offensive line, their weakness is left guard, where Ronald Leary made all 16 starts last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 55th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. That’s not a huge surprise considering he went undrafted in the 2012 draft and then didn’t play a single snap as a rookie. Upgrading him would be a good idea, but they probably won’t get the chance.
Key Free Agents
DT Jason Hatcher
Once a solid reserve and rotational defensive lineman, Jason Hatcher had a breakout season in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end. There was some concern about how he would transition to defensive tackle in a 4-3 in 2013, but he proved to be a perfect fit for Rod Marinelli’s scheme. He wasn’t great against the run, as could be expected of a 6-6 285 pounder, but he had 11 sacks, 7 hits, and 33 hurries on 472 pass rush snaps, 10.8% pass rush rate that’s absurd for an interior defensive lineman. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked defensive tackle overall and 4th ranked defensive tackle in terms of pass rush grade. He’s a perfect fit for both a 3-4 scheme and a penetrating 4-3 scheme, though his size won’t fit all schemes. That’s one minor concern, with the other being that he’s going into his age 32 season, but he should still command a sizeable contract.
DE Anthony Spencer
From 2008-2012, Anthony Spencer was a top-11 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including 4 as an every down starter and topping at #1 overall in 2012. As a result, he was franchise tagged by the Cowboys twice, but he played just 38 snaps on his 2nd franchise tag in 2013, missing most of the season with a knee injury. Between the knee injury and the fact that he’s going into his age 30 season, he might be met with a relatively cold market this off-season and be forced to settle for a one-year prove it deal, but if he impresses on that deal, there should be time for him to get another multi-year contract and big payday next off-season.
G Brian Waters
One of the best interior offensive linemen of his era, Brian Waters was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked guard as recently as 2011. He didn’t play at all in 2012, but he unretired for the 2013 season and played pretty well in 7 games for the Cowboys before going down for the season with a triceps injury. Now going into his age 37 season and coming off of a significant injury, there’s a very good chance he just retires again, but if he wants to continue playing, he can still help a team on a one year deal. He’s made it known in the past that he wants to stay close to home in Texas and I don’t think it would be a bad idea at all by the Cowboys to bring him back and plug him in at left guard, where they have a need. He’d come cheap, a positive for a cap strapped team.
Cap Casualty Candidates
WR Miles Austin
Cutting Miles Austin would only save the Cowboys about 400K on the cap, but it would save the Cowboys 6.5 million in pure cash and they could get even more cap savings by cutting him as a post-June 1st cut. It’s hard to see him back with the team given their cap issues. Miles Austin’s career has been completely derailed by hamstring problems. He struggled mightily this past season, catching just 24 passes for 244 yards on 342 pass routes, ranking 2nd worst in the NFL among eligible wide receivers in yards per route run. The Cowboys have a good set of young receivers with Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and Dwayne Harris so they really have no need for Austin. Going into his age 30 season, Austin will be limited to one year deals on the open market this off-season. He could be a cheap bounce back candidate though, as he caught 66 passes for 943 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2012.
OT Jeremy Parnell
Parnell is a fine swing tackle, but he’s not going to be a starter on this solid Dallas offensive line, so the cap strapped Cowboys will probably just cut him, to save 1.5 million on the cap. They need all the breathing room they can get.
C Phil Costa
The same is true of Phil Costa, a backup center. They can save another 1.5 million by cutting him.
DE DeMarcus Ware
DeMarcus Ware has a base salary of 12.25 million for 2014 and a cap number upwards of 16 million. That’s simply too much for a cap strapped team like the Cowboys to take on, especially with Ware aging, going into his age 32 season. Ware still played well last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 4-3 defensive end, but he missed the first 3 games of his career and had a career low 6 sacks. If he doesn’t agree to a pay cut, I’d imagine they’d cut him, saving close to 7.5 million on the cap.