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Cowboys 2014 Season Preview

September 7, 2014

The Cowboys season is set to get underway in about 4 hours and I thought I’d preview their upcoming season and what I see in store for them. Unfortunately the Cowboys are about as volatile and complex of a team as there is in the NFL so I had to break it down into two viewpoints. The first vantage point is the pessimistic view of the 2014 Cowboys and trust me it was an easier one to write. The second vantage point is the optimistic view of the 2014 Cowboys. Finally I combined the two views and gave my win-loss prediction and how I see the season turning out. Enjoy!

Glass Half Empty

It's half empty because it's water not beer.

It’s half empty because it’s water not beer.

Living rooms go eerily quiet across the country as the announcer sums it up, “The Saint have scored on their first 6 possessions of the game and now Romo is down after taking a vicious blind side hit. If this is his back the Cowboys season is over.” The headlines the rest of the season would spell it out for everyone: “Tony done for the year, Cowboys season with it.” “Passing on Manziel looking bad in hindsight.” “Jones preaches optimism as Cowboys lose 5th straight by double digits.” “Cowboys sign Tim Tebow to keep AT&T stadium packed full despite 1-10 record.”

Tim Tebow as the Cowboys savior?

Tim Tebow as the Cowboys late season ticket sales savior?

This season could end horribly for the Dallas Cowboys and anyone who doesn’t at least acknowledge that possibility isn’t being honest. Last year the Cowboys gave up more yards than any team in NFL History. This season they will be playing without DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee who were widely regarded as their three best players on that defense from a year ago. The two players the Cowboys are relying on the most on their defensive line, Anthony Spencer and Henry Melton, both missed the entire 2013 season due to injury and have only recently begun to practice. There is a chance that one or both of them never has an impact for the Cowboys this season. Their top defensive draft pick, DeMarcus Lawrence, broke his foot and will miss at least the first 6 games and could miss the entire season if the Cowboys get off to a slow start and the coaching staff plays it conservatively with him. Their top linebacker, Sean Lee, tore his ACL and will miss the entire season. He wasn’t just their best linebacker but he was the defensive play caller and the leader of the defense. His loss was devastating to the team on a physical and psychological level. Their best cornerback, Orlando Scandrick, tested positive for Ecstasy and will miss the first four games of the season. In both the 2013 regular season and the 2014 preseason Scandrick was the one player on the Cowboys roster that could consistently play man coverage at a high level. The Cowboys face the 49ers and Saints during Scandricks’ suspension. Both teams were among the “Final 8” in last year’s playoffs and would have been favored even if the Cowboys had Scandrick starting. The Cowboys safety duo of Barry Church and JJ Wilcox is considered one of the strengths of the team. Neither has made a Pro Bowl, combined they only have 25 starts to their name and neither is expected to be anything more than an average starter. Again, this is considered one of the strengths of the team. Dez Bryant is one of the 3-5 best wide receivers in the game. Everyone knows this and therefore Bryant will face more double teams than at any other point in his career. Jason Witten is 32 years old and on the decline of his career. Terrance Williams is going into his second season and shouldn’t be expected to be an offensive focal point yet in his career. Gavin Escobar was non-existent as a rookie. DeMarco Murray has missed 11 games over the past three seasons due to injury. Cole Beasley is 5’8. These are the five players that will have to play well to keep teams from double teaming Bryant on every single snap. There are issues with all of them. Romo had offseason back surgery. It is the second back surgery of his career. His back does not allow him to practice more than a few hours at a time. He also had to be given numerous days off while he built up his back’s strength. He has missed more days of practice in training camp than in any season of his career. It would be a surprise if the offense was clicking on all cylinders right out of the gate due to Romo’s limited practice schedule. He turned 34 this year. Troy Aikman had back and head injuries which caused him to retire at the age of 34. He has been adamant this offseason that all is not well with Romo and when asked if Romo’s best days were ahead of him he said, “I don’t necessarily think that would be the case with him, not just because his age….the back injuries that he’s had, that’s a big unknown. That’s a significant injury and I know that from experience. No one really knows yet how this back is going to hold up. To say that his best years are ahead of him, I wouldn’t agree with that.” The Cowboys have been 8-8 the past three seasons with a healthy Romo in the prime of his career. What would the Cowboys record be if Romo’s play finally begins to slip? What would the Cowboys record be if Romo has an injury plagued season like he did in 2010 when he missed 10 games? All is not right in Cowboy Country.

Glass Half Full

Now that's a glass that gets me optimistic!

Now that’s a glass that gets me optimistic!

I am often amazed at the pessimism of the Dallas Cowboys fan base. This year it is to new levels as everyone sees the same old terrible defense as last year. I understand the logic behind the argument, “The 2013 Cowboys defense was historically bad. It set numerous records for ineptitude and this year’s version is missing the three best players from that horrific defense. They will be the worst defense in NFL history.” I think there is some validity to that but I also think that it is a biased argument that has numerous flaws in its logic. First off there is the argument that this is a historically bad defense. Yes it did set numerous records in futility yet many of the record set like first downs in a game and yards given up are not nearly as important as the one key factor: points allowed. By this statistic, the most important indicator in my opinion in evaluating a defense, the Cowboys were barely in the bottom quartile. The Cowboys in 2013 were 26th in scoring defense and were only 2.1 points behind the Denver Broncos who were 22nd in scoring defense yet still made it to the Super Bowl. This is not the NFL in the 1980s when every championship level team had to have a dominant defense. This is the era of the spread offense with no contact rules and innovative play calling that has accentuated the skill of numerous elite quarterbacks. I don’t want to sidetrack the discussion but I honestly do think that Dallas still has one of those elite quarterbacks in Tony Romo. Last year the top six teams in scoring defense all made the playoffs. Last year the bottom eight teams in the NFL in scoring defense did not make the playoffs. So obviously you cannot be one of the worst defenses and still make the playoffs yet it then gets hazy as the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos both made the playoffs while being the 9th and 11th worst scoring defenses while the Cardinals and Dolphins both didn’t make the playoffs while having the 7th and 8th best defenses. The difference is that those poor defensive teams had Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning at QB while those good defensive teams had Carson Palmer and Ryan Tannehill at QB. With the Cowboys having one of the Top 10 QBs in the league in Tony Romo they don’t need the defense to be very good for them to still have a shot at the playoffs. Most analysts disagree with me but the numbers prove me right as there is a higher correlation to elite offenses making the playoffs than to elite defenses making it. In 2013 nine of the top twelve defenses made the playoffs while ten of the top twelve offenses made the playoffs. It happened again in 2012 as eight of the top twelve defenses made the playoffs while ten of the top twelve offenses made the playoffs. It is better to have an elite offense than an elite defense in the NFL and the Cowboys have an elite offense. Last year they were 5th in the league in scoring and seemed to finally show signs of becoming the dominant offense they should have been these past few years. Many people have the incorrect notion of Dallas being consistently a dominant offense yet last year was the first time under Garrett that they finished as a Top 5 offense. The previous time it occurred was 7 seasons ago in the 2007 season. Dallas finished 13-3 that year and had the #1 seed in the NFC. We all know how that ended but the point is that Dallas was an elite offense last year and elite offenses can hide a plethora of issues for a team. I fully expect Dallas to be as good if not better on offense in 2014 as the two issues that previously were holding the Cowboys back appear to have been solved. The first issue was the offensive line. At one point the Cowboys had one of the 5 worst offensive lines in the NFL as 22 straight years of Jerry Jones not drafting an offensive lineman in the first round finally caught up with him. To his credit though, he did change his opinion on the concept and has now drafted an offensive lineman with a 1st round pick in 3 of the past 4 drafts. With Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin all in their early twenties and under contract for the next 3 seasons, the Cowboys have a chance to be a dominant offensive line.

This is the Cowboys future

Forget Bryant and Lee, THIS is the Cowboys future.

The other issue was Jason Garrett’s play calling. I’ve always considered him an overrated offensive mind and as a play caller he’s just downright bad. Every year there are at least 2 games where everyone but Garrett knows the Cowboys should run the ball yet they somehow don’t. Every year the Cowboys struggle in the red zone settling for far more field goals than they should. Every year the Cowboys run an offensive system that fails to incorporate crossing routes, rubs and bubble screens which are three of the “newer” aspects of offenses around the college and pro game. Garrett has stubbornly stuck to his Norv Turner/Air Coryell offensive system which is a timing based system that does little to help its receivers get open. It has infuriated me watching Garrett’s medieval offense these past few years while Chip Kelly, Darrell Bevell and Mike McCoy have been so innovative. It is not surprising that both Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers had their careers revived when they met up with Mike McCoy. He calls plays to get guys open schematically and would never force Romo to throw 10 back shoulder throws a game to be successful. Thankfully the Cowboys hired Scott Linehan this offseason and Garrett appears to be completely out of the play calling loop. With the Cowboys having one of the better offensive lines in all of football and Jason Garrett no longer calling the plays I would be surprised if the Cowboys weren’t a Top 5 offense. With that level of production coming from one side of the ball the Cowboys only need to be a below average defense to be legit playoff contenders. Everyone talks about the Cowboys being historically bad last year AND no longer having their top 3 defensive players (DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee) which is true but Ware was banged up all year and largely ineffective. In 2012 the Cowboys had Ware and Spencer yet it was Spencer who was considered the superior player that year (Profootballfocus ranked him as the #1 3-4 OLB in the NFL that year, well ahead of Ware.). I mention this because Spencer returning seems to be completely inconsequential to Cowboys fans and Ware leaving is considered devastating. The fact is that Ware hasn’t been the “old Ware” since 2011 and having Spencer off an injury plagued season might be better than having Ware off his injury plagued season. Also Sean Lee missed 5 games in 2013 and wasn’t himself in 3 other games so the Cowboys basically only had Lee for half a season. Finally, Jason Hatcher was a Pro Bowler in 2013 and Henry Melton, who was signed to replace him, was a Pro Bowler in 2012 so I don’t expect any noticeable drop off in production from that position. If you accept that Spencer and Melton for Ware and Hatcher is basically a wash then the difference between the 2013 and 2014 Cowboys will be whether 8 quality games by Sean Lee is more important than having an improved Morris Claiborne, JJ Wilcox, Brandon Carr and defensive coordinator. That last one might be the most important as I can’t stress enough how bad Monte Kiffin was as a playcaller so I fully expect there will be major improvement in defensive performance just from the switch of Kiffin to Marinelli.

"Jerry why did you hire me?!"

“Jerry, I’m so old! Why did you hire me?!”

I’m not trying to sell you that the 2014 Cowboys defense will be good but I could see them “regress to the mean” and go from a terrible defense to just a below average one. If that occurs the Cowboys could be nipping at the heels of a playoff berth just like they have been the past 3 seasons.

Conclusion

Everyone knows that the Cowboys have a good offense and a bad defense. The question is just how good the Cowboys will be this year on offense and how bad the defense will be. Call me optimistic but I don’t expect the Cowboys to regress from their Top 5 offensive ranking last year and think that many people are being a little too harsh on the defense. My Dad is in full agreement with Bill Simmons, unknowingly of course, with a 3-13 prediction. Profootballtalk has them ranked as the 24th best team in the NFL (the record would be somewhere around a 5-11 mark). Bob Sturm (The Ticket), Calvin Watkins (ESPNDallas.com), Steve Dennis (sideline reporter for the Dallas Cowboys) and Chris Arnold (The Fan) all have them going 6-10. I’m a little more optimistic as I have them going 7-9 yet was waffling on whether to put them higher not lower than that mark as the Cowboys are so absolutely stacked on offense that I could see them pulling off a Saints 2009-2011 type season in which their offense was so dominant that it didn’t matter that their defense struggled. Of course Romo’s back, Linehan taking over the offensive play calling, Marinelli taking over the defensive play calling, health of the offensive line (they have a great starting 5 but almost no depth behind it), health of the defensive line (Anthony Spencer, Henry Melton and Demarcus Lawrence are their top 3 guys and all are coming off major injuries) and Orlando Scandrick’s suspension all are wild cards on this season. It’s funny that the team I’ve watched for the past two decades is also still one of the hardest teams for me to predict. I know the Seahawks will be great, the Giants will be terrible, the Jaguars will be much improved and the Patriots, Broncos, Saints and Packers will all be in contention for the title. Yet the Cowboys, Redskins, Chiefs and Falcons are the four hardest teams to predict for this NFL season as any of them could go as high as 11-5 and as low as 3-13. That isn’t a great place to be as a Cowboys fan but I suspect we will have some clarity early in the season as I am predicting they beat the 49ers in Week 1 and are 2-2 or 3-1 when a quarter of the season is complete. It would immediately put to bed the dire talk about their defense setting NFL records and give the team some hope that the playoffs are a real possibility. Or the Cowboys get blown out by the 49ers in a few hours and we realize that Dallas is in for a long season, something the pessimists have been preaching for months now on talk radio.

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