Perception versus Potential: How to Best Improve the 2011 Dallas Cowboys

The 2010 NFL season - a season that will live in infamy - was the most disappointing in franchise history.

A sad and painful truth. 

The Cowboys were tied with the Redskins for the worst record in the division.  Only in 1960 – their first year in the NFL – did the Cowboys have a worst start to a season and that only because in 1960 the team went 0-11.  The 2010 Cowboys set a franchise record for the most points allowed in a season; an incredible 436 total points which averages to over 27 points a game.


Now, there have been seasons with worse records, but extenuating circumstances make this a clear-cut facepalm provoking season.  Not only because some players quit on the field while others regressed in play and/or proved so inadequate that they got the head coach and defensive coordinator (beloved son of a Bum, Wade Phillips) fired by midseason. 

The 2010 season will go down as the most disappointing in franchise history primarily because of the perception and potential heading into the season.

Not since the Dynasty Team of the early 90’s had there been so much hope heading into a season.  In 2009, the ‘Boys won their first playoff game in over a decade with the karmic treat of sweeping the hated Philadelphia Eagles for the third victory in one season.  The Defense was ranked #2 in points allowed (250) and the Offense was ranked #2 in total yards (nearly 400/game).  There was continuity in the coaching staff for the first time since Tom Landry had the helm.  The roster was loaded with young talent and the draft brought with it the next dynamic #88 at WR.  Cowboys Stadium, the billion dollar entertainment and architectural wonder, would host Super Bowl XLV and the team had a legitimate chance (perception and potential) to be the first team to win the Super Bowl on their home turf.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen…

Leaving an impact crater of apocalyptic proportions with the hope a phoenix will rise from the ashes.  The dust has yet to settle.  Coaching positions still need to be filled, yet fans have begun to look to the future.  The Super Bowl hasn’t even been played, yet the Cowboys faithful are creating mock drafts and strategizing.  The uncertainty of the CBA still threatens a 2011 lockout, yet daily, new posts appear on BTB as we debate the best course for the future.  But trying to make decisions with the wounds of the 2010 season still fresh can lead to dangerous and faulty deductions.  In the wake of emotional torment, we risk misinterpreting our potential and relying on false perceptions.

THE DEFENSE                          


One of the top defenses in 2009, The Cowboys suddenly became one of the worst in 2010, ranking 23rd in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed.  The secondary had more holes than Swiss cheese and the pass rush was softer than the aforementioned cheese.  The defense needs new starters on the D-Line, in the LB core, and in the Secondary.  The team is desperate for a better defense and it must start with a more dangerous pass rush to help a secondary that needs at least one starting safety.  In the upcoming draft the team MUST look to improve on the defensive side of the ball.  This is top priority and Von Miller, Cameron Jordan, and Prince Akumara are the best of the realistic picks at #9.

The above seems a common and logical perception of the team and its needs in 2011.

Add a little desperation and exaggeration caused by a devastating season, the perception suddenly becomes:

The first thing we must do is improve the pass rush and the front seven to cause more sacks and help a struggling secondary that allowed far too many big plays.  Suddenly, the defense that caused so much pressure and pitched a couple of shut outs in 2009 didn’t get after opposing QBs enough.  We need new defensive ends, we need to find an OLB that can match Ware’s intensity and pass rushing prowess. Spencer is a bust. Jenkins is not the CB we hoped.  Terence Newman is too old to play. We have no capable safeties.

But the desperation to improve the defense is more a result of a bitter experience from the past season than a realistic expectation of our potential.  The 2010 defense was painful to watch, a shadow of its former self.  But did all the players suddenly lose their talent? Were we just fooled by them in 2009? Did they simply regress and ruin what should have been promising careers?  Was the pass rush really that bad?


# of Sacks

League Rank

Adjusted Sack Rate

League Rank











There is a common misconception that the pass rush was terrible this year compared to last. This is partly because we got less sacks, and though the ranking went from Top 10 to middle of the pack, the team only had 7 less sacks (less than half a sack difference per game).  It is also hard to find stats for QB hits and pressures and with Coach Pasqualoni calling fewer blitzes and some 3 man rushes, we are left remembering a lackluster pass rush.  But closer comparison of 2009 and 2010 shows the drop off is not as big as our emotional response leads us to believe.

Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate ((described here)is a statistic aimed at calculating the effectiveness of a team’s pass rush.  As you can see, the Cowboys had the same adj. sack rate in 2009 and 2010.

Now, consider that Spears, our starting DE, had a season ending injury early in the year, the secondary was playing far worse than last year, and top it off with a team suffering from diabetic shock from too many cupcakes…is our defense truly terrible?  Yes, it had a terrible performance in 2009 and it does require talent infusion.  But does it actually already have the potential in-house to improve on last year’s efforts?


The defense that allowed the 2nd fewest points in 2009 had only one new starter heading into 2010.  Yes, we learned the impact of having the worst safety in the league is catastrophic.  Alan Ball was out of position and made CBs look like they got beat when in fact it was blown coverage by a safety.  Miscommunication before snaps ensued, CBs tried to do too much because they didn’t trust that they’d have safety help, PI penalties occurred frequently, and bad coverage allowed QBs to get rid of the ball and avoid the pass rush.  Perhaps most importantly, the defense suffered through bad coaching and scheming.  It became evident that the league had caught up to Wade’s predictability and he called far too many ILB blitzes with Keith Brooking even though he proved ineffective time-and-time again.  The defense seemed stale, lacked aggression and creative blitzes, and their performance became rancid.  But remember, the change to Coach Garret and Pasqualoni’s new style of play calling did stem the hemorrhaging.

It started to become clear that all the players didn’t suddenly lose their talent.  In fact, with a different coach and training camp I bet this same defense, and team as a whole, would have performed MUCH better…will perform much better.  Is there any question that Rob Ryan could have gotten more out of this defense in 2009 than Wade did? 

Let me first make clear, I firmly believe Rob Ryan will be the greatest addition to the Dallas Cowboys defense.  His innovative schemes, background in multiple 3-4 defenses, aggressive nature, and history of getting the best out of his players are worth getting excited about.  Did the 2010 season show us the true level of the players’ talent and potential?  In some cases, yes. 

I would say Igor Olshansky, Alan Ball, and Keith Brooking’s seasons were enlightening.  A week after Wade asked the team not to celebrate after touchdowns, “his guy” Igor decides to become the Russian Dancing Bear after making some tackles against the run; he made matters worse when he decided to speak ill of the offense and coaches (including the future HC) when talking to the media about the Cowboys’ woes in the running game.  Perhaps you’ll get a chance in Houston, but let me show you the door.  Alan Ball is clearly not a starting caliber FS.  Thanks for trying, but game over.  Keith Brooking is a warrior and lasted longer than many expected, but his play is finally in decline.  Maybe you can start for another team, but the Cowboys would now require your services only as a backup and locker room leader.

But how about the rest of the defense? 

Marcus Spears (FA), Anthony Spencer, DeMarcus Ware, Mike Jenkins, Terence Newman (all under contract) are all 1st round picks.  While Newman is in the golden years of his career, Spears and Ware are in their prime, and Spencer and Jenkins are young players with room for improvement, I believe Rob Ryan will have them all playing at a higher level next year.  Add the beast known as Ratliff, and we have more potential weapons in our defense than most teams.  Yes, we MUST sign a starting safety or two, though young guys like AOA, Church, and McCray could surprise us in 2011. And if need be, Sensabaugh is available as a merc for the year.  Yes, Sean Lee will have to take over for Brooking and we need to find an understudy for Bradie James.  But do we really have dire needs for a Top 10 draft pick for the defense?

Setting aside the emotions raised by such a disappointing season and performance, does the defense have potential to improve in 2011 without the addition of a 1st round draft choice? Absolutely.  The biggest reason is Rob Ryan. The next is the progress of some young players.  Logically, Jenkins and Spencer should get back on track with better coaching and more support from teammates.  Scandrick showed improvement down the stretch, and though we need to find an understudy for Newman, is CB the greatest team need?  Again, Ratliff is a beast.  Spears’ absence was felt.  Bowen, who will need to be resigned, has shown the potential to be one of the best (by PFF grading) 3-4 DEs in the league.  Even though PFF grades are cumulative and Bowen didn’t start the entire season and remained a rotational DE as opposed to fulltime starter, he still graded out as a Top Five 3-4 DE.  And let’s not forget the recent quote about Rob Ryan’s reaction to Bowen’s potential…“unbelievable.”

The progression of Brent at NT and the potential of Lissemore at DE is also something to be excited about.  Even without an introduction of a 1st round rookie, the front seven of the defense next year seems to have more talent and depth than the 2009 Defense.  Rob Ryan should have a field day creating D-Line schemes with Ratliff, Bowen, and Lissemore as 1 gap pass rushers, and Spears and Brent as space eating big men.  Sean Lee has shown glimpses of excellence, though he’ll need to get stronger to avoid injury, and Victor Butler makes plays whenever he is asked to rush the passer.  Will drafting Von Miller or Cameron Jordan really provide great value with our #9 pick?  I am not saying they won’t be great players or the defense wouldn’t improve, but will they upgrade the team more than utilizing the #9 pick for other needs?  Will it maximize the team’s potential?




Even without franchise QB Tony Romo leading the team for the second half of the season and dynamic rookie Dez Bryant suffering a season ending injury late in the year, the Cowboys offense averaged nearly 25 points/game (tied for 7th in the league) and over 360 yards/game (7th in the league).  The team achieved the third highest total passing yards in franchise history.  Statistically, the offense was not much worse than in 2009.

The team is stacked with offensive firepower. The return of Tony Romo, the emergence of Felix Jones as the starting RB, the rejuvenation of Miles Austin, the continued progress of Dez Bryant, and the consistent Hall of Fame performances from Jason Witten promise that the Cowboys will continue to have one of the top offenses in the league in 2011.

Please ignore the giant elephant in the room…we hope he can play on the offensive line.


Now, this is a growing debate amongst fans.  Many recall watching our offense struggle on the O-Line.  QBs had little time in the pocket and our offense relied heavily on one or three step-drops this year.  The offense was uninspiring in the running game and had a difficult time converting short yardage 3rd downs and TDs.  However, many will cite the offense’s productivity as proof that the O-Line was not as bad as many perceived it to be.  A series of great posts by OCC also show that the O-Line graded better than most of the critics thought.  Dallas ranked above average in team run blocking, though Football Outsider’s grades/rankings show a mighty drop from 4th in 2009 to 12th in 2010. Astonishingly, the O-Line graded above average in pass protection.  The Cowboys were 13th in least amount of sacks allowed and 15th and 14th against QB hits and pressures, respectively.  In fact, the O-Line grades as high as 7th in PFF’s pass blocking productivity!  But is this an expression of player productivity/performance or a testament to how well Garrett’s play calling protected our aging O-Line?



Avg. Yards/Pass

QB Rating

Plays of 20+ yards

Plays of 40+ yards











Now, we can debate the QB ratings dropped due to Kitna leading the offense for much of the year.  But half as many 40+ yard plays while still having an above average (90+) QB rating surely means the playbook and offensive strategy was different.  In 2009 the Cowboys ranked 4th in yards per pass play. This year they're tied for 10th with more check downs and passes to RBs.  Yes, the offense was effective, but did Garrett compensate for an aging and underwhelming O-Line by sacrificing some big play ability from the offense?

Most importantly, while the O-Line grades out a bit above average, does this mean we have few needs and a lot of potential at the O-Line positions?  Can we expect them to play “just a well” next year?  This is where things start to get complicated.


Masking pass blocking deficiencies is much easier to do through schemes than it is for run blocking.  For one, you can use TEs and RBs to help.  You can also protect them with shorter routes and plays where the ball gets out of the QBs hands quicker.  These are things we saw often in 2010.  Now, the running game is a different story. You ask your linemen to put a “hat on a hat” and beat their man.  Sure, blocking schemes do make a difference, but coaches can do much less to help out an inferior O-Line in running situations.



Doug Free

Kyle Kosier

Andre Gurode

Leonard Davis

Marc Colombo



















Every offensive lineman performed worse in 2010 in run blocking than they did in 2009, all but Doug Free.  Is it coincidence that the only O-Lineman to improve his run blocking this year was the only one that wasn’t over 30 years old?  This is what is often forgotten in the debate.  We can question whether the offense was limited by the play of the offensive line, whether we could have had a more explosive passing game (and more competent running game) if play calling wasn’t protecting the O-Line, and even whether the O-Line needed to be protected.  But there is little debate when it comes to the potential of this line next year.  Does anybody really expect anyone other than Doug Free to improve?  Does anyone think Kosier, Davis, Colombo, or even Gurode will play better next year when their average age will be about 33?

The way I see it:

Free is the future.

Gurode went to the Pro Bowl yet again, and while he did not play as well this year as he normally does, he was still above average.  But considering his age and degenerative knee condition, what can we expect from him next year or the year after?

Kosier tried his hardest. The O-Line did seem to miss him when he dealt with injuries this year.  But can we expect him to play better next year or to even finish the season missing fewer games? Doubt it.

Mr. Bigg is getting old and slow.  His interviews mirrored his play, slow and heartless.  I don’t know if he still has it in him.  Certain plays he does seem to still pack a punch, but I don’t know if he is willing to fight to tap into it every game and every play.

Colombo is Old Yeller.  We loved your heart and loyalty to the team. You used to be nasty and vicious (even without rabies), but PFF just graded you as the 76th best (of 78) OT in 2010.  Unfortunately, it is time we put you out of your misery.

We MUST find a starter to replace Colombo at RT.  Looking in-house for potential from our young guys, things look dim for 2011. Phil Costa showed he could be the future after Gurode.  Brewster is still a question mark and should probably be switched to OG.  Young has potential and even surpassed Alex Barron on the depth chart by the end of the year, but is he ready to start in 2011?  I think Young can prove to be our best back-up OT in 2011, but I seriously doubt he should become our starter.  Now, look at the two teams in the Super Bowl.  They have had to rotate O-Linemen all year due to injuries and had the depth to hold up and make it all the way to the Super Bowl.  Do we have any real depth at the O-Line?


So, is the #9 draft pick too high to select a RT (or swing tackle)?  Debatable, especially considering the 2011 draft class, but I personally don’t see any issue with having two OTs that can play LT if needed (due to injury).

Should we reach for an O-Linemen at #9 when BPA seems to be DE or OLB?  This goes back to potential.  Bringing in a 1st round OT will improve this team more than drafting a 1st round CB, DE or OLB, even if they are rated higher as overall prospects.  How much better will Von Miller prove than Spencer (coached by Rob Ryan and not Wade)?  Is Cameron Jordan THAT much better than Spears or Bowen? 

The greatest improvements we can make to the 2011 Cowboys – besides coaching, but that revolution has already started and I am excited about JG and RR – is fixing our O-Line (especially RT) and finding at least one starting safety.  However, since the 2011 draft has no safety rated in the top half of the 1st round (some think no 1st round safeties period), it seems a simple conclusion to take an OT with our 1st round pick.  In fact, our need for a starting OG (to replace or backup our old guys in 2011) means we should also spend a high pick there.  We don’t have enough talent in-house to find a replacement and our current predicament shows why you can’t depend on big money Free Agents to solidify the future of your O-Line.  Especially with the CBA uncertainty meaning free agency may not be until after the draft, which gives players and their agents a lot of leverage during contract negotiations – it would be a team’s last chance to fill a hole.  We need to draft high caliber O-Linemen in this draft, not just 4th or 5th round projects...we don’t have enough time for that.  It is time to put an end to this vicious cycle.


So what do you all think?  What is your perception of our potential and how do we MOST improve the 2011 Dallas Cowboys?

I see 3 options.  Should we go with BPA approach which at this point seems to be on the defensive side of the ball?  Do we take our first choice of OT at the #9 spot?  Do we trade down and get one of the best OT (though not necessarily our top choice) and an extra draft pick?

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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