The Dallas Cowboys are now just four days away from getting some live game action to kick off the 2011 preseason. After a disappointing 6-10 campaign in '10, the team has many questions that need to be answered. What I've attempted to do here is identify 5 specific items that the team and individual players must accomplish to consider Jason Garrett's first full season a success.
Often imitated, never duplicated, 'Top 5' has been getting worn out recently by other Cowboys outlets. '5 Things Left to Wonder' will be making it's return soon after we lace them up Thursday night. For now, let's dive into five things that will truly signify a successful season by the Cowboys in 2011.
In the five seasons that Tony Romo has been at the helm of the Cowboys, the team's top three receivers have approached or topped 3,000 yards three times. Each time, the team went on to make an appearance in the playoffs.
In 2010, the top three receivers totaled a little more than 2,500 yards between them. Austin led the way with 1,042 yards, followed by Jason Witten with 1,002. Dez Bryant's rookie season was cut short with 562 yards in 13 games, but with only four catches in his last three games, it's doubtful he would have amassed the necessary yards.
In 2008, Terrell Owens and Witten combined for over 2,000 yards (1,052 and 952 respectively) but didn't have the third component as the next highest was Patrick Crayton at 550 yards. 2,500 yards between the top three just isn't good enough for Garrett's offense.
In 2009, Miles Austin arrived with 1,320 yards. Combined with Witten's 1,030 and Patrick Crayton's 622, the top three arrived a nose hair shy 3,000 yards. In '07, the team throttled past the marker, falling 3 yards shy of 3,200 by the top three (Owens 1,355, Witten 1,145, Crayton 697). Even in 2006 when Romo appeared midseason in relief of Drew Bledsoe, they were able to achieve this (Owens 1,180, Glenn 1,047, Witten 754). Heck, they even threw in a 1,000 yard rusher that year with Julius Jones (this tidbit will resurface a little later).
4 - Somebody on the defense other than DeMarcus Ware needs to register more than 10 sacks.
For all the stunts and crazy combinations that Rob Ryan is preparing to unleash on the league, DeMarcus Ware is the key to everything. Moving him around the field, up and down the line should allow other players to get plenty of opportunities. I really don't care if it's former first rounder Anthony Spencer or fourth-rounder Victor Butler. Heck, I'd settle for 10 sacks between the two of them.
The last time the Cowboys had two players tally double digit sacks was 2007, when Ware teamed up with Greg Ellis, Anthony Spencer's rookie year. Some might feel that the Cowboys as a team need the sacks, but it isn't as important to have another individual reach that plateau. Well, 2008 the Cowboys had Ware with 20, Bradie James with 8, Greg Eliis with 8 and Jay Ratliff chipped in with 7.5. No playoffs. I'll concede that the team had 2009 success with meeting this threshold, but Spencer and Butler combined for 12 sacks- surpassing the line. '07 and '09 threshold met, playoff appearance. '08 and '10 threshold not met, sitting at home.
3 - Sean Lee has to take over the starting position sooner rather than later.
Honestly, I'd like to see it by week 1, but I don't want to seem unrealistic. The truth is, if Sean Lee had first round talent that was available in round 2, he should be starting after having a full season under his belt. I'm appreciative of the job Brooking's done in his two years in Dallas, but there is nothing spectacular about him enough to hold off a young player with a first round grade.
With Brooking's early camp injury, Sean Lee appears to be ready to take on the responsibility from the various camp reports we've seen. His 2010 advanced stats show that in limited snaps he was a good run defender (+6.6) and pass defender (+3.3). Rob Ryan's unique packages should also allow him to post improved pass rush numbers based on additional opportunities.
2 - Felix Jones must rush for over 1,000 yards or he will officially become a bad first round pick.
Felix was drafted in the first round of 2008, under the label of complimentary back. Now that Marion Barber is no longer on the team, Felix has to step up to the plate and deliver. Before he put on extra pounds to ready himself for a heavier workload, Felix was everything you wanted from a B back. In 2009 he led the league in yards per carry at 5.9.
By cutting Marion Barber loose, the Cowboys lost their "get a first down" back. Barber gained a first down on over a quarter of all his carries, good for fourth best among running backs in the NFC. You'd imagine Jones will at least get the opportunity to convert the short carries more often in 2011. Combined with a return to a 5 yard per carry average, Felix should be well on his way to over 1,000 yards if he is everything we fans defend him as.
The Cowboys haven't had a 1,000 yard rusher since Julius Jones in 2006. You remember Julius don't you? If Felix is truly a first round pick, he needs to be able to at least perform as well as Julius freakin' Jones, right?
1 - This team has to make the playoffs.
Duh. I don't really subscribe to the theory that improved discipline and execution without results can be looked at as a large positive step forward. We know the stats on playoff churn, and there's no way anyone will convince me that the Cowboys aren't one of the non-playoff teams that should make the jump this year. Playoffs or bust.