Everyone points to a 1-7 start to the 2010 season as a reason for pessimism going into the off season. The draft helped push a few over the edge. After all, Dallas only drafted an injured ILB and a small-school CB to help a defense that gave up 27 points per game.
Well, Free Agency would help fill the holes on D, names like Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins and Michael Huff were all linked to Dallas. None of those free agents became Cowboys, and two went to division rival Philadelphia. So much for fixing the 2010 version of the Cowboys, you know, the team that started the season 1-7. As a matter of fact, the Cowboys decided to re-sign Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Gerald Sensabaugh, the same guys that helped to give up 27 points per game last year.
Close up shop, the 2011 season is doomed. How can we compete against the Eagles who brought in All-Pro's and Pro-Bowlers, the always tough Giants and the Redskins? Ok, well at least the Cowboys will be better than the Redskins.
Well, for everyone who points to the start of the 2010 season, I give you the second half of the 2010 season. The Cowboys were able to turn around the season and go 5-3. "So what?" you may say, that is not so great. Well, 5-3 is equal to 10-6 over a 16 game season, which is not bad.
Dallas beat the Giants, Lions, Colts, Redskins and Eagles during that span. Their losses were to New Orleans by 3 points, Philadelphia by 3 points and Arizona by 1 point. The Cowboys outscored their opponents 233 to 204 in the final eight games, a point differential of 29. To put that in perspective, if the Cowboys had played the entire season the way did the final eight games, they would have had a point differential of 58. The Eagles finished last year with a point differential of 62, the Giants 47; both teams finished 10-6.
It could be argued the Cowboys were playing like a 10-6, playoff contending, team.
Granted, the defense was still giving up an abysmal 25 points per game, but suddenly the D was able to create turnovers. The offense was scoring 29 points with a backup QB, a one-legged RT and their most dynamic receiver on the sidelines (whether due to injury or the teams' reluctance to start Dez).
The majority of the offense returns for 2011. Romo will once again be the field general with several weapons around him. He'll even have a new toy in DeMarco Murray and possibly a rejuvenated Kevin Ogletree, a focused Martellus Bennett, a healthy John Phillips and rookie receiver Dwayne Harris. The offense will not lack for talented players at the skill positions.
The Achilles heel for the offense has been the offensive line though. After all, nothing moves on offense unless the offensive line pushes it there. The offensive line is still a major question mark for the Cowboys. The release of Leonard Davis helped shed a player who was no longer playing up to the money he was being paid. However, there is no replacement on the roster that inspires 100% confidence.
Montrae Holland has been solid but unspectacular at right guard and reports of him showing up out of shape has led many to believe he may not make it past the final cuts this training camp. Another reason fans have felt Holland may be expendable are the reports of rookie guard David Arkin having a good camp thus far. No one is saying Arkin is ready for primetime, but the ‘Boys may have found themselves a player in the fourth round.
Phil Costa is another player who has turned some heads at training camp. He is not a dominant player; but he is solid, a hard worker and has good fundamentals. At this point he may only be a backup, but if thrown into the starting lineup he will not embarrass himself.
According to reports, rookie offensive tackle and first round pick Tyron Smith has had his share of struggles in camp. This is to be expected of a 20 year old rookie going against DeMarcus Ware. Encouraging though, are reports of Ware working with Smith and his daily improvement. Smith will have every opportunity to replace Marc Colombo at right tackle, although he will have to beat out last year's sixth round pick Sam Young, who has received high praise early in camp.
This year's offense will still only go as far as the offensive line will allow. The line may struggle to replace both Colombo and Davis, especially if they are replaced by rookies. But there is no reason to think an offense that scored 24.6 points per game (7th in the NFL) cannot put up similar production in 2011.
But optimism abounds for the Cowboys offense; it is the defense which has caused some to go on suicide watch. This article is meant to be a shot of Kool-Aid for those in need, but it is hard to look at the defense and not cringe a little bit.
The Alan Ball experiment was a failure. Jenkins and Newman both did not play to their potential. Gerald Sensabaugh was inconsistent. Outside of DeMarcus Ware, the pass-rush failed to intimidate. The defense gave up 33 passing touchdowns, good for 31st in the league. We have already documented the 27 points the defense was giving up per game.
The biggest reason for optimism for most is new Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan. The thought is Ryan's complex scheme will help this defense play more to the 2009 version, which only gave up 15.6 points per game.
If Jenkins and Newman rebound from a disastrous 2010 campaign, it will go a long way to making this defense respectable. Bringing back Sensabaugh helps, but the Cowboys still feel a safety short. Reports from camp indicate the young safeties on the roster are not ready for a starting role.
Rumors persist of safety Abram Elam making a return to the Cowboys roster. An Elam/Sensabaugh tandem would be considered an upgrade from last year's safeties. Elam makes sense because of his familiarity with the Ryan defense and his ability to line up the secondary. Make no mistake; Elam can also play a little football, last year he had 63 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, 10 passes defended and two forced fumbles to go along with two fumble recoveries.
Statistically speaking, Sensabaugh was one of the better safeties last year. Most Cowboys fans would argue that does not pass the "smell test", the fact he had to settle for a one-year contract for 2.5 million would suggest NFL GM's agree. In 2010, Sensabaugh had 57 tackles, five interceptions, two sacks and 10 passes defended. The truth probably lies somewhere between the stats saying Sensabaugh is one of the best safeties in the league and Cowboys fans saying he is one of the worst.
A few days ago I wrote an article where I came to the conclusion Ryan has the tools in place to get this defense to 50 sacks for 2011. A safety tandem of Elam/Sensabaugh would fit perfectly into the scheme. In the article, I used Ryan's previous stint in Cleveland to figure out the secondary would have to produce five sacks in 2011 to help the team reach a goal of 50. Elam and Sensabaugh had four sacks between them in 2010. Add in Orlando Scandrick, (who quietly had a solid season last year) and his 2.5 sacks in 2010 and you have a secondary that can pressure the quarterback.
The best reason to be optimistic about the defense is this; they do not have to be dominant for the Cowboys to win in 2011.
In 2010, The San Francisco 49ers gave up 346 points, or 21.6 per game, which ranked them 16th in the NFL. If the Cowboys defense can simply be average and only give up 21 points per game, the Cowboys offense should be able to outscore teams. As a reminder, the Cowboys were scoring 29 points per game at the end of the season, with a backup QB.
I'll give you exhibit A: the New Orleans Saints. The year the Saints won the Super Bowl they led league in scoring with an amazing 31.9 points per game. Their defense gave up a pedestrian 21.3 points per game, good for 20th in the league. They finished the season 13-3 and champs.
Exhibit B: 2006 Indianapolis Colts. The Colts scored 26.7 points per game (2nd in the league) while giving up 22.5 (23rd in the league). They finished the season 12-4 and Peyton raised the Lombardi over his head.
Am I saying the Cowboys are going to win the Super Bowl? No, I am not. I am saying if the Cowboys can have a prolific offense and pair it with an opportunistic defense that only gives up 21 points per game, there is reason for hope in 2011.
So back away from the ledge my friends. Turn off ESPN or NFL Network, stop reading the blogs, websites and magazines crowning the champs before a single game is played. Everyone is 0-0, not even a preseason game has been played yet. There is reason for hope, so let the sunshine in.