At the end of the 2009 season, the Cowboys roster seemed stacked with talent. Anthony Spencer helped the defense close out the regular season with two shutouts versus division rivals forcing one fumble and two and a half sacks in those two games. Spencer finished the season with six sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles as well as two recovered. He also ranked third on the team in tackles.
During the disastrous 2010 season, Spencer faced a lot of criticism for never taking that next step many fans and pundits expected. He only managed five sacks, two fumbles, one recovery, and a few less tackles in 2010. Though other players played far worse than him, and far worse than their respective 2009 performances, Spencer seemed to be condemned more than others because of the high expectations he created after 2009, and because of his high draft spot.
It is still too early to consider the debate quelled, but so far Anthony Spencer is playing very good football and on the way of removing the "Almost" Anthony moniker. Rob Ryan has him lining up as a linebacker and as a defensive end, and at times is also flipping him to the right-side of the line. Spencer has not only been solid against the run, he has also been good in coverage, sometimes even pressing slot receivers as he covers the short zones or flats. And, of course, Spencer is facing far less criticism because he has started off hot in the beloved "sacks" stat column, having managed a sack in each game this season.
But while Spencer is quieting critics, other old questions still linger. Let's take a closer look...
Mike Jenkins: Was his Pro Bowl season an anomaly?
In 2009, Mike Jenkins showed he could be a very capable NFL corner. He finished the season with five interceptions, nineteen pass breakups, and was recognized in his second year in the league with Pro Bowl honors. However, in the infamous defensive collapse of 2010, Jenkins was one of the worst offenders. He appeared to lose both confidence and ability in one fell swoop. With safety issues behind him, Jenkins tried too hard to compensate and ended up drawing a lot of pass interference penalties. Suddenly, he became terrible in coverage as he toned down his physical play to avoid penalties. Eventually, he was not only scared of being beat deep due to no safety help, but even just scared of being beat. Things got even uglier as he started making some questionable (non)tackling decisions. He finished the season with only one interception and with half as many passes defensed.
Well, Jenkins hasn't quieted too many critics, but he seems to have improved from last season's fiasco. There is a worry that his issues are based on something far more difficult to fix than technique, and he perhaps lacks the confidence and mental fortitude to play corner in the NFL. He has been battling injuries for most of training camp and even into the regular season, but Jenkins cannot be criticized for a lack of effort. He has tried to play through injuries, and though suffering from a neck/shoulder stinger issues he did not back down from some tough tackles Monday night versus the Redskins. Like Terence Newman, these Dallas corners still need to prove they have the ability to perform the way they have done in past Pro Bowl seasons. Mike Jenkins is working and playing hard, but questions still linger.
Tashard Choice: Is it really a hard choice?
The Dallas Cowboys have four running backs on the 53-man roster. Felix Jones is battling through his own injuries, but answered a lot of questions about his toughness and ability against the Redskins while gaining over 150 yards on fourteen rushes and three receptions (8.2 yards/rush and 13.3 yards/rec). Choice did not have as much luck, and looked to have lost his vision as he rushed five times for merely seven yards. Rookie DeMarco Murray looked to have better vision and burst on his two carries for six yards. In fact, so far this season, Choice has fifteen attempts and a yard less than attempts to show for his efforts (.09yard/rush). Murray has a third less attempts and just about twice the yards.
Before the start of the season there was a lot of discussion about Choice's ability to pass block and his efforts on special teams, so much so that Choice responded to "the rumors." Well, he certainly hasn't answered any real questions and "the rumors" persist. His worst display may have gone unnoticed by fans, but it was a dismal effort on a terrible read. Against the Jets, the Cowboys have a 3rd & 4 from the 11-yard line and the Jets send only three rushers. Here is how Choice read the situation, and his decision and attempted pass protection.
While the result of the play was a first-down completion to Kevin Ogletree (something to discuss later) I don't think Tony Romo would subscribe to the "no harm no foul" theory at the conclusion of this play. Choice makes a bad decision with poor execution which results in Tony Romo taking a big hit.
Choice decides to not block the edge rusher on this blitz and instead attempts a chop block on the wrong defender which could have been flagged as a penalty. He was also lucky the first-down wasn't called back.
These pass protection questions still linger for Tashard Choice, and not only has he not answered them adequately, he is suddenly starting to raise other questions. If Choice can't run or pass-block as well as Murray, and he doesn't provide as much ability (perhaps effort) for the special teams units, will he last much longer on the team? If Murray continues to prove himself, would the Cowboys keep Tanner's upside over Choice's questions if the roster spot is needed?
Kevin Ogletree: Will he ever be consistent?
Ogletree came into this season needing to prove he has continued to progress and can become a capable starting receiver in the NFL. Ogletree began his Cowboys career making training camp highlights, but then faced some "lack of effort" questions the past two. It should be noted that Ogletree has made a few clutch third-down receptions this season, but considering the opportunities allotted to Ogletree with the injury to Miles Austin, he still hasn't shown any consistency and can still be a liability. Both of these were displayed on Monday night versus the Redskins.
For the sake of avoiding a turnover argument, let's ignore the fumble by Ogletree on the Cowboys second drive of the game and consider it a great defensive play that any receiver could have fallen victim to (though not necessarily true). Even then, Ogletree did not have a good game as a starter. He had no receptions in the first half, though one for no gain was called back on a holding penalty. By the end of the night, in a rivalry game as the starting receiver with Miles' absence and Dez Bryant in-and-out of the game, Ogletree managed only three receptions. He also made several key mistakes in the game.
The Cowboys opening possession in the second half reached past midfield and had gained 40 yards before Tony Romo threw an interception. On the play, Romo takes some punishment to his fractured rib as the Redskins blitz and rush six defenders, while the other five are in man-coverage with the Cowboys receivers and Jason Witten. After the snap, this is how the play had developed.
Perhaps Ogletree was thinking he had to take the deeper route to make the first-down on 3rd & 18 or didn't notice the blitz. Whatever he was thinking, he wasn't on the same page as Romo. This interception will only be reflected on Romo's stat sheet, but it was Ogletree's mistake. Ogletree takes a step towards the inside, this is the decision-step, where he either continues the route to the inside and come under the coverage, or makes the double-move and tries to get over the defense.
You can see Romo has already decided that Ogletree should continue as is, likely the hot-route on the blitz, because the defender's back is towards the inside. Romo is pulling the trigger and throwing the ball for this route, yet Ogletree decides to run the double-move and try to beat the defender over the top. It looks like a terrible throw, but it is actually just a bad decision...by the receiver.
The defender has realized Romo has thrown the ball and has already begun to track it while Ogletree has just finished his double-move and has no idea the ball is in the air. This was a gutsy play by Romo. He has seen the blitzer coming in unblocked and knows he is going to take the hit if he throws the ball instead of stepping up into the pocket and maybe scrambling. This seems to be the hot-route throw and it goes terribly wrong because of Ogletree.
Later in the game Ogletree had a chance to make a big play and become the hero for the week by getting the only Cowboys touchdown of the night. In fact, he had this opportunity twice. On the possession following the interception, Ogletree has his first shot at redemption with a deep route on third-down. Romo makes a beautiful throw into a tiny window showing trust in his receiver, and Ogletree simply couldn't seal the deal and hold onto the touchdown. It was a tough catch to make, contested well by the defender who managed to knock the ball out for an incompletion, but starting NFL receivers make these receptions.
The second chance for redemption was an even worse display by Ogletree. Again, a poor decision by the wide-out with the Cowboys on the 5-yard line facing a third-and-goal, down by four points in the middle of the fourth quarter. Dez Bryant isn't on the field, Romo is directing the young and new receivers on a bunch formation, and he goes to the most veteran Cowboy receiver on the field who has the under route. Ogletree decides to hold the defense and ends the route with a hitch, while Romo throws the ball expecting him to continue the route.
With Laurent Robinson (again) joining the Cowboys and managing to have a good game after only a few days of practice, Kevin Ogletree may see fewer chances to redeem himself. The veteran receiver put on a clinic against the Redskins that young receivers should watch. All night Robinson was stepping into the catch. Don't be lazy on receptions, attack the ball, and by doing so, Robinson managed to gain a lot of yards after short catches, out-stepping the defenders while making the reception. He also helped Romo save a busted play from one of the bad snaps (prior to Ogletree interception) by again coming back to the quarterback and the ball. While he only had as many receptions as Ogletree, he saw fewer opportunities and managed forty more yards.
Some old questions still linger for the Dallas Cowboys. Even one I have not highlighted, as Martellus Bennett still hasn't done anything to be recognized this season after returning from injury. He didn't have a great Monday night either. The game versus the undefeated Lions will provide the team a challenge and it could provide some answers too; perhaps even some roster shake-ups as a result of those answers.