Fearless Season Prognostication: The Return Of The O-Ring

About this time last year, living up to my moniker, I offered up a less-than-popular prediction post for the 2010 season, in which I asked that we tap the brakes on any playoff talk. The central thrust of my argument was that the Cowboys were immensely talented but would only go as far as their declining offensive line would carry them. As we are too well aware (please stop the memories!), that team was stricken by ailments much more fearsome than an aging O-line. Nevertheless, there are a couple of valuable takeaways from both the article and the season that followed it.

First, the Cowboys coaches obviously felt that O-line was the position group of greatest concern (and any detailed review of the offensive playcalling demonstrates that Jason Garrett was clearly trying to disguise its many deficiencies). They have spent this offseason radically overhauling that unit. More importantly, however, is the viability of the theory I used to substantiate my thesis: the O-ring Theory. As with most good things here on BTB, this idea was brought to us by O.C.C., in a terrific "gridiron academy" post. According to O-ring Theory, an otherwise equal production process (i.e., a collective entity such as a football team) is only as strong as its weakest link.

This applies not only to the weakest position group on a given team, but to the weakest link within that group. In 2010, I thought that would be the O-line, and was particularly worried by the presence of Alex Barron. At the dawning of the 2011 campaign, however, I feel a strange calm when I think of the big uglies, even in the likes of Kevin Kowalski and Jermey Parnell. What I feel much less secure--even downright uneasy--about is in the play of their brethren in big ugliness, the defensive line. Before I continue, however, I'd like to offer a couple of thoughts on what transpired defensively last year.

Those thoughts, and a season prediction, after the jump...

One of the recurring Cowboys memes with which I have taken issue in recent months is that the biggest defensive problem in 2010 was secondary play. Every time I hear this, I'm reminded of something former Cowboys cornerback Ike Holt said about the Eagles corners on a defense sporting Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons: they don't have to be good; they only have to cover for 2 seconds. A terrific pass rush can cover for mediocre secondary talent; conversely, no corner, not even Deion Sanders (and certainly not Nnamdi whats-his-name) can cover an NFL-caliber receiver for five seconds.

A particularly vexing image from last season involves middle linebackers Keith Brooking and Bradie James blitzing the A-gaps only to be deftly picked up by the opposing offensive line. Other than generating interior pressure, what such a maneuver accomplishes is that it ensures one-on-one matchups along the rest of the defensive line. The problem last year is that nobody--other than DeMarcus Ware--was winning these desired matchups. In particular, the down defensive linemen were repeatedly stonewalled, and failed not only to move, but even to dent, the pocket. As a consequence, a pass rush that had been so fierce at the end of 2009 was toothless; opposing quarterbacks operated in a clean pocket, leisurely surveying the field.

As with the offensive line, the Cowboys pass rush had been in decline in the past couple of years. Other than a glorious stretch at the end of 2009, when Anthony Spencer caught fire, Dallas has proven unable to replace Greg Ellis' productivity. Although Ellis became a significant pain in the patoot, he provided a pass rush complement to Ware that gave opposing offensive coordinators sleepless nights. Other than 2008, when Ware exploded, accumulating 20 sacks, and 2006, when Ellis injured his Achilles, the two men had roughly the same number of sacks each season they played opposite one another. The opened up the middle for the likes of Jay Ratliff.

Since Ellis' departure (and because Spencer has failed to duplicate his productivity), Wade Phillips was forced to generate pressure via other means. In 2010, that meant dialing up more frequent blitzes--and more blitzers. Sadly, all this accomplished was to expose the Cowboys' secondary. We could take this as an indictment of Phillips (and, judging from their offseason behavior, that seems to be exactly what the Dallas braintrust is doing), but the fact remains: for parts of 2009 and all of 2010, the D-line was unable to generate consistent pressure or to take advantage of the favorable one-on-one matchups that blitzing creates.

But wait, there's more. Since the end of the season, the Cowboys have lost Stephen Bowen, who many believed to be their best pass rushing down lineman, and added Kenyon Coleman, a stout run defender who has never flashed much in the way of pass rush skills. The preseason games haven't presented overwhelming evidence that 2011's pass rush is likely to be any more potent than 2011's. If you are a rival offensive coach, who, other than Ware, scares you on third and long? Coleman? Spears? Hatcher? Lissemore? Butler? To compound this, the guys who ARE scary have reached the age--Ware is 29; Ratliff is 30--where pass rushers historically begin their decline (for further thoughts on this, go here).

Thus, when the Interwebs were all a-flutter about drafting Prince Amukamaura or picking up Asomugha in free agency, I held that such moves would be treating the symptom and not the disease. If Dallas can't get to the quarterback in 2011, we're not likely to see better secondary play, even if Orlando Scandrick plays up to and beyond his new contract (I think he will) and Mike Jenkins returns to his 2009 form (which I'm betting on as well). As I look at the team Jason Garrett has assembled, I think the offense will be more balanced (and more potent) than it was last year; that the special teams will be considerably stronger, as Joe DeCamillis's core guys will be more seasoned; and that the back seven is solid, if unspectacular--and even trust that the Cowboys will find a reliable kicker by mid-season. The open question is the pass rush and, by extension, Dallas' ability to defend the pass. 

Consequently, the Cowboys will go as far as their pass rush takes them. It's difficult, if not impossible, to determine how far this might be, as there are so many uncertainties at play at the game's second most important position group (recall Jimmy Johnson saying that his teams always won with elite quarterback and defensive line play): will somebody emerge opposite Ware? Can Rob Ryan's scheme generate a pass rush exceeding the seemingly limited abilities of its individual parts? Will defensive line coach Brian Baker coach his guys up? Can Dallas' defensive linemen find ways to slash and penetrate in a two-gap system?

I love Garrett and the cultural changes he's effected at Valley Ranch, but those are some mighty big questions. They may be answered, and quickly--as soon as Sunday night. Until they are, however, my elation at the way Garrett has turned this organization around must remain tempered by the gnawing suspicion that the Cowboys are a defensive line overhaul away from being a formidable playoff contender in what looks to be a fiercely competitive NFC landscape.

So, until I see more consistent defensive pressure, I'm going with 9-7--while reserving the right to revise that assessment immediately upon seeing evidence to the contrary.

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