By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) The Dallas Cowboys are an enigma.
Every year, I marvel at a roster oozing with talent at critical positions and project greatness, and every year, I get duped. The Cowboys have found ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory – see last season’s games against Detroit and New England – be it from curious play calls, or on-field meltdowns. But this is the Cowboys year, right? Maybe?
For Jason Garrett’s sake, this better be the Cowboys year. I’m not sure which is hotter, Garrett’s seat, or quarterback Tony Romo’s wife? The Cowboys ostensibly fixed their biggest flaw on defense – their secondary – and return a talented group of play makers on offense, so excuses will be hard to come by.
Yes, the interior of the Cowboys offensive line is still iffy, but that’s not endemic to Dallas. How many teams in the NFL are truly content with their offensive lines? Having a quarterback who is nimble in the pocket has become a must in the NFL, so Romo’s ability to keep plays alive with his feet is a boon for the Cowboys offense.
2011 was certainly the year of the quarterback, but Romo’s production was somehow lost in the shuffle. Romo had the third best completion percentage (66.3), fourth best quarterback rating (102.5), fifth most touchdown passes (31), and his 10 interceptions were the second least for quarterbacks with more than 500 attempts (Aaron Rodgers had six). Those are gaudy statistics.
However, Romo’s inability to get it done in crucial moments – specifically in December – has been a limiting factor. Recent NFL history has shown that teams who enter the playoffs playing their best ball, run the table in January. This doesn’t describe the Cowboys. The Cowboys must find a way to sustain and replicate the performance they had in Week 1 against the Giants over the course of a season.
Romo throws to a gifted group of receivers. Miles Austin is as good of a route runner as you’ll find in the NFL, Dez Bryant has off-the-chart physical gifts, but maturity is an issue, and while tight end Jason Witten isn’t what he used to be, he is still featured in the offense.
The centerpiece of the Cowboys rushing attack is second-year tailback DeMarco Murray, who shined in a few games in his rookie season, albeit against inferior run defenses. Murray is a powerful down-field runner, but he lacks first-step quickness, so the Cowboys signed fullback Lawrence Vickers to pave the way as his lead blocker.
The Cowboys primarily operate out of three personnel groupings on offense:
- 2WR, 2RB, 1TE (Bryant, Austin, Murray, Vickers, Witten),
- 2WR, 2TE, 1RB (Bryant, Austin, Witten, John Phillips, Murray),
- 3WR, 1RB, 1TE (Bryant, Austin, Kevin Ogletree, Murray/Felix Jones, Witten).
Bill Callahan was hired this off-season to be the offensive line coach and also holds the title of offensive coordinator. Garrett, however, still calls all the offensive plays. The Cowboys have been operating with more tempo this season, frequently out of the shotgun, where they’re just as apt to run a draw as they are to pass. Felix Jones is now the primary kickoff returner, but is used in the passing game as a third-down back.
The interior of the Cowboys offensive line is an issue. Free agents Mackenzy Bernadeau (Panthers) and Nate Livings (Bengals) were brought in to start at guard, but they’ve been routinely pushed around. Left tackle Tyron Smith is the building block of this group. With rare athleticism for a man his size, Smith is the prototypical left tackle of the future.
So much focus and blame for the Cowboys shortcomings has fallen on Romo’s shoulders and Garrett’s grey matter, and some of which is justifiable; however, it has been the defense – specifically the secondary- that’s repeatedly failed the Cowboys. There’s no doubt there’s been a talent issue, but in 2011, the lockout also played a role.
The Cowboys brought in Rob Ryan to coordinate the defense last year. Ryan runs a complex, high-pressure scheme, where the corners must be sound in press-man coverage. Last season, Ryan didn’t have the talent to effectively run his scheme, and the pass defense struggled, ranking 23rd in the league.
A concerted effort was made to improve the secondary this past offseason. The Cowboys brought in big-ticket free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr (Chiefs), and traded up in the first-round to select LSU’s Morris Claiborne. The early results have been impressive, as the Cowboys are allowing a mere 137 passing yards per game, the second best mark in the league.
Having cornerbacks who can play press-man coverage allows Ryan to use his safeties in different ways, typically as cover linebackers and blitzers. However, the Cowboys are experiencing some early-season depth issues at safety, which will significantly alter their scheme.
Free safety Barry Church was lost for the season this past Sunday to a torn Achilles. With Gerald Sensabaugh already nursing a calf injury, Mana Silva and Danny McCray are the projected starters for Monday night’s game. Carr moved over to free safety this past Sunday, but can’t be viewed as the long-term solution.
Having a pass rusher like DeMarcus Ware will help out any secondary. Ware is amongst the best pass rushers – and all around defenders – in the NFL, who must be accounted for on every snap. Anthony Spencer is the other bookend, and is off to a fine start in 2012. Seeing that the Bears have major issues along the offensive line, they will have their hands full with this duo.
Linebacker Sean Lee has emerged as one of the premier coverage linebackers in the NFL. Given the less-than-desirable situation brewing at safety, Lee’s ability to drop into the deep middle on passing downs will be leaned upon. Bruce Carter won the job as the other inside linebacker, and has played well to start the season.
The Cowboys have been frequently operating out of their nickel personnel in a 2-4-5 alignment, with Ware and Spencer on the line, Lee and Carter at the second level, then a variety of combinations in the secondary. Given the uncertainty at safety, it will be interesting to see what Ryan deploys against the Bears. The Bears have had major communication issues all season long on their offensive line, so I anticipate a lot of delayed blitzes from the secondary.
There’s no doubt the Cowboys have the talent to contend this season. But that’s been the case for years, and they just haven’t been able to put it together when it matters most. It’s clear from the moves made this offseason that it’s a win-or-bust attitude in Big D. Plastic surgery or not, Jerry Jones’ face won’t be able to fake a smile if the Cowboys are once again watching the playoffs from their couches next January.
When the Bears have the ball: J’Marcus meet DeMarcus. Keep an eye on where DeMarcus Ware is lining up. Typically, Ware is lined up on the weak-side of the formation, but given J’Marcus Webb’s struggles, I expect to see Ware lined up over No. 73 a lot.
When the Cowboys have the ball: Keep an eye on the Cowboys personnel groupings. The Bears defensive line is legit and the Cowboys line is weak up the middle, so pay attention to which side the Cowboys are fanning their protection to, or if they’re keeping in tight ends and running backs to chip. There’s a trade-off to keeping in backs and tight ends to protect, as it leaves you with fewer eligible receivers out in routes.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.