The Dallas Cowboys are an interesting team in that they have one of the most lopsided rosters in the league. They have a high calibre offense with some serious weapons, but on defense it is a game of catch up after losing some experienced veterans and drafting a whole host of youth. The Cowboys also have two new coordinators, who don't bring anything drastically new to the table, but will be looking to make an impact in their respective areas. So let's have a look at this team in more detail.
In terms of the offense, the Cowboys have traditionally been a passing team for years. This is their identity. The Cowboys' passing offense uses the Erhardt-Perkins system, and it works well for them year on year. As before, if you would like to learn more about this, read this article. They have some key players in this offense, who I will cover in more detail below, but their play book is comprised 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, all designed to give Romo choices about where to throw the ball on every play.
This year it is a more confusing arrangement in terms of the coaching staff in Dallas, as PFT recently wrote:
The Cowboys have an offensive-minded head coach in Jason Garrett and an offensive coordinator in Bill Callahan, but it's passing game coordinator Scott Linehan who's running the offense in Dallas.
The early thoughts on Linehan is that he likes to stretch the field and move his players around. So we may see Bryant in the slot more, or 2 TE formations using Witten and Gavin Escobar. Others think it will be a bit more of a seamless transition with him having a similar style and pedigree to previous playcallers. Linehan has a good reputation coming out of Detroit where he helped the team dominate in terms of passing with similar weapons to the ones he finds in Dallas. Let's have a look at those in more detail.
I want to start with the offensive line as they are becoming the stand out unit in Dallas. 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 small 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.
A rebuilding of the Cowboys offensive line started a couple of years ago and is further enhanced this year by the drafting of Zack Martin (G) with their first pick. This gives them even more depth and choice along an already strong group. 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 their playmakers is the key to this offense, as it is with any.
Tony Romo will certainly be happy with extra protection, not least as he ended his 2013 season early with a ‘herniated disk', which sounds very painful. Apparently he is ready to return and will be playing as usual in the regular season, but any type of back surgery commands respect and could impact his often sloppy passing mechanics. The only true test of the success of this surgery is when he starts taking contact, which may explain why the Cowboys are so keen to invest in that offensive line. 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 (34), 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. (You can discuss whether you agree with that in the comments!). Behind him, the Cowboys are having trouble getting Kyle Orton to commit to another season, leaving Brandon Weeden. If Romo does go down that could develop into an interesting scenario.
DeMarco Murray is probably one of Dallas Cowboys most underrated threats, mainly because he is underused. He has seen the biggest benefits from the strong offensive line mentioned above, and he should continue his form in 2014 especially 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 into perspective just 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 FroMo, and 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 YPA 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, however as we shall see below the leaky defense may stick a fork in that theory. One of the only knocks on Murray is his 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 his maturity and ability to put together a consistent string of performances. Last year he had periods where he was unstoppable, but then got shut out in others. Some more help at WR might help, especially with the departure of Miles Austin. The Cowboys expect Terrance Williams to continue to prove he is their number 2 WR on the roster in what will be his second year, and they had a good year from Cole Beasley as a bit part player too. They also drafted Devin Street who could step in as the slot receiver, unless injury hits either Bryant or Williams, so maybe that help is taking shape? What also might help is Linehan's experience with Calvin Johnson in Detroit. Things are falling into place for Bryant and it could be a big year for him.
So looking at the above, the Cowboys have some great pieces in place on offense, and we have not even mentioned TEs Jason Witten or Gavin Escobar who are legitimate threats in their own right too. The Cowboys will be a challenge as usual for the Redskins defense, and getting to Romo is now more difficult than ever.
On defense it is a much more interesting story. Free agency started badly for the Cowboys. They lost proven veterans DeMarcus Ware (Denver), and Jason Hatcher (Redskins) as deals could not be made with the Cowboys salary cap situation. 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. They brought in Henry Melton(recovering from ACL surgery last year) from Chicago to try to shore up their depleted defensive line.
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 hypocritical, but I think the Cowboys are really going to struggle to fill big holes and then go on to improve in this area.
To be fair, they have a handful of good players, namely:
Sean Lee (LB) - Oh yeah, he got injured and is out for the season already, a huge loss. They recently picked up Rolando McClain to fill Lee's spot.
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 though)
Brandon Carr (CB) - Solid player, but not elite CB in the same ranks as Revis, Peterson, and Sherman
Morris Claiborne (CB) - Coming off injury and yet to prove his high draft pick status so a lot to do this year
But that is pretty much it. The Cowboys obviously knew that defense was a major problem going into the draft, and despite picking up an offensive lineman and wide receiver relatively early, they then spent every other draft pick on the defensive side of the ball, namely:
DE - Demarcus Lawrence
LB - Anthony Hitchens
DE - Ben Gardner
OLB - Will Smith
S - Ahmad Dixon
DT - Ken Bishop
CB - Terrance Mitchell
That is seven draft picks on defense. With that kind of turn around it is impossible to predict what this defense is going to do. Can they find some instant starters amongst the free agents and draft picks? Can they replace the players they lost? I doubt it.
The one positive move they made was to relieve Monte Kiffin of playcalling duties and promote Rod Marinelli from defensive line coach to DC. Marinelli will not change from their infamous 4-3, but Dallas hopes he will bring some of his success with the Bears, particularly in terms of turnovers. I guess the thinking is that if they can get their offense the ball more, then they stand more of a chance. This article gives you a good idea of what this might mean when the Redskins face the Cowboys. If that theory doesn't work however, then this defense looks like it may seriously hold back the team once again.
I have read both optimistic and negative expectations in Dallas articles and blogs about this team going into the 2014 campaign, but the general consensus is that they are looking at another 8-8 season. I am not so sure. It is hard to see where they have improved on the defensive side of the ball, but then we all know how the Cowboys always manage to find something from somewhere. That said, if one or two players get injured or under perform on this team then it could be a disaster for the Cowboys. The pressure on their offense to score every time they get on the field could also get too much to bear. By week 8 the Redskins will have had plenty of time to get a good look at the Cowboys and how this is all playing out, but it is quite clear that along with our defense, these games could well be shootouts.
Keys to the game:
Can the Redskins pass rush create any pressure on that strong Cowboys offensive line?
Target that linebacking crew in both the running and passing game.
Feed the ball to Alfred Morris. Mainly because I love watching him run against the Cowboys.
Can DeAngelo Hall keep Bryant quiet as he has done before?
Can the Redskins' offense outscore Dallas' offense?
How do you see the Cowboys performing in 2014?