Redskins Recon: What About Them Cowboys?

Continuing my Redskins Recon look at our opponents in 2014 I'll take a look at our arch rivals the Dallas Cowboys. Here I'll take a look at some of their weaknesses and strengths coming into the new season.

Ahhh the Dallas Cowboys. Everyone's favourite villain. Where to start? Jerry Jones? Tony Romo? Dez Bryant? Will it be 8-8 again this year or much worse? Well let's give them a fair trial and try look at what is going right in Dallas, before we look at everything that is going wrong - obviously.

What is strange about this team is that their strengths and weaknesses are split almost cleanly by offense and defense, which probably highlights the team's focus over the years.

In terms of the offense, the Cowboys have traditionally been a passing team for years. This is their identity. So much so that the Cowboys are perennially one of the teams who use the least amount of play action in the league. That said, whilst the Cowboys seemingly have got it wrong in their assumption that you need an effective running game to succeed with play action, when they do run a fake, it usually pays off more than other teams.

The Cowboys passing offense uses the Erhardt-Perkins system. If you would like to learn more about this read this article. They have some key players in this offense, who I will go into in a bit more detail below, but their play book comprises of plays that key in on Dez Bryant and Jason Witten in particular, with all sorts of curl routes, screens, crossing routes and TE option plays mixed in to give Romo choices about where to throw the ball.

Instead of going into the detail of their playbook, and how it looks on the field I also strongly recommend you read this.

And that leaves us to take a look at some of the components of this offense....

Pro Football Focus ranked the Cowboys offensive line 4th overall in 2013 saying the following:

Stud: They got good play out of both tackles but Tyron Smith (+28.3) was the pick of the bunch. The 23-year-old is already one of the best left tackles in a league filled with good ones.

Dud: No player earned a lower grade than Ronald Leary (-9.4). The former undrafted free agent was largely decent but had a tricky middle spell to his season where he gave too much ground in pass protection.

Analysis: When things go wrong in Dallas they get magnified. But the truth is their line was a pleasant surprise as they opened up some big holes for DeMarco Murray and gave Tony Romo ample time to work with. While the tackles were the stars of the show but Travis Frederick came in and really added something to the run game.

Now I take this with a pinch of salt as the 5th ranked team was the Washington Redskins, and I am not sure how many of you would agree with that. However it is not unfair to put the Cowboys offensive line so high on this list. They did perform well in 2013, not least against the Redskins. I will always remember the final drive of one of our games last year when Romo was taking the team downfield behind some great pass protection by this line. On one play in the red zone they gave Romo a full 7 or 8 seconds to make his game winning pass. That is the sort of pass protection we dream about for RGIII.

*Snaps out of day-dream featuring a huge bomb of a touchdown from RGIII to D-Jax*

Ahem, yes where was I? What is more impressive is that the Cowboys turned their line around within a short period of time, after having one of the softest lines in football not too long ago (pay attention Redskins coaching staff!). This gave rise to the infamous 2013 Draft, of which rumours still circulate about the trade with the 49ers and then an apparent reach for centre Travis Frederick, who was listed as a second rounder. Frederick has since proven the Cowboys right in his first season with a solid performance. For the conspiracy theory fans out there, one interesting rumour is that this pick was made at the request of Tony Romo who wanted to bolster his protection prior to signing his (huge) contract.

This upgrade of the line started a couple of years before that however when they picked up Tyron Smith (1st round pick) and Bernadeau (UFA) in 2011. Ronald Leary was then added (again another UFA) in 2012, before the Cowboys picked up Frederick in 2013. In truth this line is much better against the run, than the pass, however they are certainly on the right path here, and providing the necessary protection and blocking for two of their biggest playmakers (Romo and Murray) is the key to this offense, as it is with any.

Tony Romo ended his 2013 early with a ‘herniated disk' which sounds very painful. Apparently he is ahead of schedule in his recovery (hmmm seems familiar?!), but any type of back surgery commands respect and could impact his often flakey passing mechanics. Before that injury Romo was having one of his typically steady years, throwing for 3,828 yards, 31 TDs and 10 INTs, but of course the timing of those interceptions is the key factor in how people remember his performances. Questions will naturally circulate about how well Romo can recover from this latest injury at his age (33), and he will always face criticism about his ability to win in clutch situations, but if you are looking for a QB who will consistently perform at a good level then Tony Romo is not a bad place to start. There will always be detractors,and he makes himself an easy target for rival fans with his clutch interceptions. The article I linked to above does show that he is often lazy in his mechanics, but he is certainly a good QB and runs this offense well enough to get the team into playoff contention year after year.

DeMarco Murray is probably one of Dallas Cowboys most underrated threats, partly because he is underused. He has seen the biggest benefits from the strong offensive line mentioned above and should continue his form into 2014 with this line in place. He is a talented running back that could easily be the star of the Cowboys' offense if used more frequently. To put things into perspective how little the Cowboys use him; Alfred Morris has had 70 more carries than his Cowboys counterpart despite having a year less in the league (Murray - 541 attempts v Morris - 611). Murray has better hands and is more of a pass threat coming out of the backfield than Alf, but in terms of pure running ability he is right up there with the best in the league. Despite his limited attempts in the Dallas pass happy offense, he has averaged more yards per attempt per season than Alfred Morris, and even scored more TD's than Morris in 2013 despite getting nearly 60 less carries. Reports out of Dallas seem to suggest that they are seeing the light and will run with Murray more in 2014, which should worry any team facing the Cowboys this year. One of the only knocks on Murray is is proneness to injury. He missed a lot of time at college and then a further 9 games in his first two years in the NFL.

And so we come to Dez Bryant. As good as Calvin Johnson? One of the best WRs in the league or a high maintenance pain in the a**? In my mind, there is no question that Bryant has the tools and the skill to be just as dangerous as the Detroit Lions #81, but it all comes down to a couple of things:

1) Attitude and approach to the game. When was the last time you saw Calvin Johnson in the news for negative reasons? When was the last time you heard about his bad attitude or him sulking? Never. Johnson is a model pro and proves it week in week out on the field. Bryant may certainly have cleaned up his game, and is definitely the victim of prejudice due to his past antics (see the reactions to his ‘rant' on the touchline in last years game vs - ironically - Detroit), however he could still learn a thing or two from Megatron. The fact remains that the Cowboys are spending a lot of effort enforcing a strict set of behaviour rules on Bryant who is now 25 years old, and to me this speaks volumes.

2) Consistency. Bryant goes through periods where he is unstoppable, and his end of season numbers show that he is starting to pull together some sort of consistency. This is something he needs to maintain in 2014, as well as proving it against the better CB's in the league. We all know how well Bryant traditionally does against DeAngelo Hall...

That all said, Bryant is a star for the Cowboys, and any team in the league would love to have him playing for them. If he can continue to mature he will be a major weapon for years to come (although a contract is on the horizon, and see below about cap space).

So looking at the above, the Cowboys have some great pieces in place on offense, and we have not even mentioned TE Jason Witten. Adding some depth (especially at WR following the departure of Miles Austin) will be ideal going into this year's draft, but as we will see below, the Cowboys have much more pressing needs on the other side of the ball.

Welcome to the dark side...

As we all know the Redskins and Cowboys were punished by the league a few years back for front loading contracts during an uncapped year in 2010. What you may not realise is that whilst the Redskins were fined $36 million each of the two years, the Cowboys' fine was much a more lenient $10 million. Coming into 2014 there was much excitement in Washington around free agency as the Redskins finally had some cap space having served their penalty. Yet in Dallas the Cowboys were hugely over the cap and looking at releasing players and reworking contracts yet again. I am not sure how the Cowboys managed this, but they are really paying the price now, and will continue to do so for the next few years.

The recent free agency window started badly for the Cowboys. They lost proven veterans DeMarcus Ware (Denver), Anthony Spencer (FA) and Jason Hatcher (Redskins) as deals could not be agreed. The feeling in Dallas is that they would have liked to have kept these players, but longer term they will have more room to add younger blood and save money. Whilst I don't disagree with this philosophy, their defensive line in particular is paper thin, and the defense as a whole lacks playmakers. Losing these players will hurt.

Let's not forget that the Cowboys had the worst defense in all of football last year. And the year before that they weren't much better. Yes I know coming from a Redskins fan this is a little like the pot calling the kettle black, but I think the Cowboys are really going to struggle to fill holes and then go on to improve in this area.

To be fair, they have a handful of good players, namely:

  • Sean Lee (LB) - one of the better ILB's in the league - but very injury prone
  • Barry Church (S) - breakout season for the 26 yr old, led all DB's in tackles (not always a great team stat when your safeties are recording high numbers of tackles)
  • Brandon Carr (CB) - Solid player, but not elite CB in the same ranks as Revis and Sherman
  • Morris Claibourne (CB) - Coming off injury and yet to prove his high draft pick status

But that is pretty much it. Further evidence of their depth issues can be found on the defensive line where the team has about 2 players who are proven starters. You need 4 players to start in their (now infamous) 4-3 system and any good team will have further depth in this area to compensate for injuries and rotation. As mentioned above their best players just left for other teams, so I would expect the Cowboys to pick up a defensive lineman with at least their first draft pick. But this is Jerry Jones we are talking about. Anything could happen.

It is hard to see how the Cowboys will ‘bounce back' on defense in 2014. Having Lee and Claibourne fit again will help, but there is just nothing on that defensive line to put pressure on opposing QBs. Added to this, the upheaval in the coaching staff and constant switching of schemes over the last few years, and you will get some long lasting damage. Then layer on top the cap issues that dog them every year (and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future), and you have a recipe for disaster. Unsettled players won't know who is coming or going, coaches are starting from scratch, and of course it takes time for schemes to bed in effectively. Jerry has some work to do.

Unless the Cowboys have an amazing draft in 2014 and bolster that leaky defense, I really can't see them doing very well this season. Whilst they will score points and win a few shootouts, they are paper thin all over the field, and a couple of injuries to key players will expose their roster's soft underbelly. There is serious potential for this to be a bad year for the Cowboys, and they could even be contenders to finish last in the NFC East. Furthermore,there is seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to cap space. Sure teams can always restructure and make moves, but the Cowboys are always struggling in this department and this is really starting to affect their ability to keep proven veterans on the team. You have to wonder how they will manage to work in Bryant's new contract, when they keep restructuring other big contracts and pushing money into future years.

So there is my recap of the Cowboys. As always I could be wrong on a lot of these points, and they do have a habit of proving me wrong on many occasions but I do think time is catching up with them.

Next week, I'll take a look at the last of our divisional rivals, the New York Giants. I am particularly excited about the title of the article which came to me in a fit of rare genius, so keep your eyes open for that.

In the meantime, what do you all think? How do you see the Cowboys performing in 2014?

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