After any quick analysis, it is easy to see that BtB Nation has moved swiftly and definitively on into discussion about the offseason. It is a natural progression, our Cowboys being nearly two weeks removed now from their final game of the disappointing 2011 campaign. If one didn't know better, it would be easy to think the entire football season is over.
But it is not. While we Dallas fans are focusing on draft boards and staff acquisitions, fans of some teams are still focusing on the game of football. The divisional round is approaching quickly, leaving 4 teams in the NFC left to battle for a chance at representing our conference in the Super Bowl. In a surprisingly dull wildcard round (in the NFC, that is) the two better teams actually managed to win their game and continue on. This leaves us with the a pretty consensus top 4 here in the NFC: The Saints, Packers, 49ers, and Giants.
So what do they all have that we don't, huh? What makes them the class of the NFC while we eagerly await late April early for the second year in a row? Let us take the time to evaluate fully what makes these teams go, and why our Cowboys fail to emulate this. Cowboys fans, especially on this website, are currently torn between two paths leading to highly differing results. The first is to elite-ify the offense. Make it one of the top 5 units in the league, presumably by focusing on the Offensive Line early in the NFL Draft. The other path is to competent-ify our defense, making the unit at least respectable by either adding talented corners or ferocious pass rushers, or more likely a combination of the two. Perhaps, after our examination is complete, we can determine which path our Cowboys should take. Let's find out, shall we?
For comparison's sake throughout the article, I will provide the Dallas Cowboys 2011 Regular Season Stats.
The Dallas Cowboys
Offense: 15th in PPG, 11th in Yards, 7th in Passing Yards, 18th in Rushing Yards
Defense: 16th in PPG, 14th in Yards, 23rd in Passing Yards, 7th in Rushing Yards, +4 Turnover Ratio
Ok, now that that's out of the way, let's get to work. Time to get down and dirty in the swamps of New Jersey in our first stop
The New York Giants:
Offense: 9th in PPG, 8th in Yards, 5th in Passing Yards, 32nd in Rushing Yards
Defense: 25th in PPG, 27th in Yards, 29th in Passing Yards, 19th in Rushing Yards, 0 (even) Turnover Ratio
Difference Maker Unit: Defensive Line- Tied for 3rd in league in Sacks.
The Giants are a team we know all too well. They have beaten us 7 of the past 9 times we have played them. As we can see, they are a strong offensive team, putting up numbers in the top 10 in 3 out of 4 offensive categories. And if Brandon Jacobs could run the ball half as well against other teams as he does against Dallas, they would have a formidable running game, too. But the offense is not the elite unit on this team. That title belongs to, and has belonged to for quite some time, the defensive line. I remember watching the two 4th-and-Inches the Falcons had last week. After they failed, the announcers proclaimed both times "Now that;s Giants football!!!" Players like Osi Yumeniora and Justin Tuck and formerly Michael Strahan have ravaged the league for years. Now they have added the freak JPP, who might be the best of the bunch. They rely upon their D-Line to wreak havoc in the pocket and upon opposing running backs. When this unit is playing at the top of its game, this team is good enough to win a Super Bowl (see: 2007-08). Or ask Tom Brady if you don't believe me. If the Giants are going to beat the Pack this weekend, it will be because Aaron Rodgers is on his back all afternoon.
Next team up is no stranger to Super Bowls. They have won more Super Bowls in the past year than we have in this millenium
Offense: 1st in PPG, 3rd in Yards, 3rd in Passing Yards, 17th in Rushing Yards
Defense: 19th in PPG, 32nd in Yards, 32nd in Passing Yards, 14th in Rushing Yards, +24 Turnover Ratio
Difference Maker Unit: Passing Offense- 51 Passing Touchdowns (1st), Highest QB rating ever recorded (Rodgers)
It is no secret who the Packers are. Aaron Rodgers, now in his 7th season, leads the NFL's most prolific passing offense in the league. They can put up points in a hurry, and then are like Pringles: Once they pop, they just don't stop. Defensively, they give up a whole lot of yards, but surprisingly few points, comparably. This is likely because of the massive amount of turnovers they create, giving their offense even more chances to score the ball. We already saw this team win a Super Bowl based on this formula, and no one that follows the NFL would be surprised if they do it again this year.
Next up a rival from days gone by, one we have all been reminded of way too much after Sportscenter highlighted the 30 year anniversary of "The Catch"
Offense: 11th in PPG, 26th in Yards, 19th in Passing Yards, 8th in Rushing Yards
Defense: 2nd in PPG, 4th in Yards, 16th in Passing Yards, 1st in Rushing Yards, +28 Turnover Ratio
Difference Maker Unit: The Front 7 (1st in Rush Defense, Only 3 Rushing TDs allowed, T-1 in Rushing YPA)
The Niners have transformed almost overnight from an NFC doormat into an NFC contender. They boast the best defense in the NFC, stifling opposing attacks with their stout play up front. NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are absolute monsters at the linebacker position and fly all over the field. They also boast a solid veteran DE in Justin Smith and a stud rookie in Aldon Smith, who led the team with 14.5 sacks. We saw the ferociousness of this team first hand this year, and it resulted in a punctured lung and a broken rib for our star quarterback. The secondary is solid but not spectacular, relying on two good safeties in Goldson and Whitner and two veteran corners in Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. No one will mistake Alex Smith for Joe Montana, but he does a solid job playing the role of game manager. Frank Gore is still Frank Gore, and is a major weapon on the offensive side of the ball. This teams Super Bowl chances lie on the shoulders of their defenses ability to stop the elite offenses in the NFC
One more team. Possibly the hottest team in the league entering this weekend...
Offense: 2nd in PPG, 1st in Yards, 1st in Passing Yards, 6th in Rushing Yards
Defense: 13th in PPG, 24th in Yards, 30th in Passing Yards, 12th in Rushing Yards, 0 (even) Turnover Ratio
Difference Maker Unit: Offense (pick any stat, really. They are all high.)
The 2011 Saints look a lot like they have since Drew Brees and Sean Payton took over: a superb offense, amazing efficiency, a catalyst in the form a of quick hybrid player that plays RB and WR, and a team that scores a lot of points. Darren Sproles has flourished in his role as the new and improved Reggie Bush, and the Saints offense has flourished along with him. They possess playmakers all over the field, with receivers such as Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, and Devery Henderson all contributing. The emergence of TE Jimmy Graham has pushed this offense to new heights. The defense gets by, and does not create as many turnovers as they have in years past. Yet, Gregg Williams is a crafty coordinator and gets the most out of this bunch. If they can survive the Niners this weekend, they will likely get another shot at the high-flying Packers after losing in Lambeau in the first game of the year (one of the most exciting games we saw all year).
Alright then. Deep breaths, everyone. Take a second to digest all the information that was just thrown your way. Now close your eyes, clear your mind, and think: Why aren't the Cowboys on this list? Why is our team playing golf while the players on these teams are fortunate enough to play football. If you remember back to the Cowboys stats I laid out in the beginning, something was missing that was included in the evaluation of all other teams. The "Difference Maker Unit". I assure you this was not an accident. This was a realization. What is the Cowboys difference maker unit? Where do we succeed at a much higher rate than does the rest of the league? Nowhere, my friends. Being about as mediocre as a team can possibly be, the Cowboys have no prevailing strength. They have no identity. Sure, we know what they aren't. We are absolutely not a shut-down defensive team, with our secondary hemorrhaging points like a hemophiliac does blood. Our front 7 is a fair unit, but surely not one we could win a Super Bowl relying so heavily on. The offense has been solid for years, but the lack of superior performance is troubling. The skill positions are all truly skilled, but the lack of an offensive line mitigates their effect.
So what do all these teams have in common? Well, aside from the fact that they all have two-name cities they are based in (strange, right?), they all have identities. They all have units that they can look to to win games with confidence. Whether it be passing, or rushing, or defense, or turnovers, or whatever, teams need to know where it is they hang their hat. Our Cowboys did not know this during the 2011 season. We need to determine where it is we can most proficiently assure ourselves an elite unit, and upgrade accordingly. For this reason, I say we focus on the O-Line in March and April. Get players that can come in and not only have an immediate impact on their position, but also benefit greatly the positions around them. Making our offense a unit on par with Green Bay and New Orleans is a realistic goal. We have similar, and sometimes even superior talent at most positions. Where we are most desperately lacking is the O-Line. Upgrade their and we, ladies and gentleman, have liftoff.