As I take in all of what was the 2011 Dallas Cowboys campaign, I'm left with the feeling that there are a number of ways to get to your destination, but that you need to put together a map if you want to get there. We've debunked myths and called out good, bad and ugly of 2011. With that behind us, we can start to look forward. To that end, let's focus on the six critical changes that stand between Dallas and the ultimate glory of a sixth bling. Here's the plan;
First, Jason Garrett needs to add a true offensive coordinator. I believe Garrett can become a good, if not great, head coach in this league if he takes the time to focus on his craft and masters it. The problem is that he is going to be reluctant to give up the thing he knows best - the X's and O's of offensive strategy. Unfortunately, that has to take a back seat because it distracts him from what is most important; the good of the team. As long as the HC is doing double duty in Dallas, it will be just as bad as an Owner also acting as the GM. Oh, wait a minute...anyway! It's still somewhat unknown as to what Bill Callahan's responsibilities will look like. Will he be calling plays? Will he be more of a background guy? Freeing Garrett up from the play calling will allow the team two pairs of eyes on the game both when Dallas has the ball and when they are on defense. He'll be able to better evaluate the performance of his three units and their leaders. It's the right thing to do.
Second, Dallas has to invest in its pass rush. Of the 5 guys who regularly play face-to-face with opposing offensive linemen, only DeMarcus Ware could be considered a pressure player. Coleman, Ratliff, Hatcher, Spears, Geathers and Spencer (wow, just writing those names was painful) cannot be counted on to beat their men on a consistent basis. If you look at playoff teams with good defenses, almost all of them have a minimum of two pressure players up front who are then flanked by players who can beat their opposing number and create plays at critical moments. If you looked to the draft to do this, then guys like Brandon Jenkins, Dont'a Hightower or Whitney Mercilus might be available at #14. But I would go a different route and try and find a more proven commodity here, only because Ware's clock is ticking and we need someone who can deliver 10 sacks in 2012, not 2014. My choice for that role? Arizona's Calais Campbell. He looks like a future star and his position, having played the three-technique in Arizona, has been a Cowboys weakness since the day they moved to the 3-4. The intention and hope here is that he wins the one-on-one matchups that he would get playing opposite #94. He's young and could be a long-term fixture at DE.
Third, Dallas needs a big time, heady presence in the middle of its offensive line. People keep talking about an OG as the answer to all that ails us, but there's no OG worthy of #14 (yes, that includes DeCastro) mainly because I don't think Guards should be drafted that high. I submit Branden Albert, a fine player in his own right, who was more highly touted than DeCastro and drafted at #15, as foundational evidence. In addition, a great OG can look pretty poor playing next to a sub-par center while the reverse is seldom true. Speaking of that position, we haven't had what anyone would call a cerebral center since Mark Stepnoski left. As Dallas looks to become more balanced and lean more on the budding superstar that is DeMarco Murray, it makes sense that they're going to need a center that can fend off bull rushes by beefy nose guards but who can also get push in the middle and pull and trap when needed. Here is where I would look very closely at Wisconsin's Peter Konz in the first round. Now, my initial reaction was that #14 might be too high to take Konz, but the fact is that you have to get the player you want when you draft in the top 15. Most sites have him pegged in that 15-20 range and I don't call getting a stud center a reach, ever. This is a draft that has some pretty easily identifiable blue chippers, but what sets Konz apart is that the center plays a far more important role in an O-line's (and thus, an offense's) performance than a Guard ever would. Konz is widely regarded as the best center to come along since Alex Mack was taken by Cleveland and they have Peyton Hillis (certainly not the runner that Murray is) running untouched through the A-gaps against some of the best run defenses in football. Flip Tyron and Free, add Konz and you could insert OCC and KD Drummond at Guard and still have the makings of a top-flight O-line.
Fourth, assuming that Brent Grimes isn't pining over the idea of coming to play for the Cowboys to the point of giving them a huge discount, Dallas will need to add a cornerback in this upcoming draft to replace the necrotic Terrence Newman. That's the bad news. The good news is that this is the deepest draft in years at the CB position and there are 6-8 CB's who could go in the second round this April. It seems like Dallas will have a shot at one of the top 8 CB's with their second round pick. I am not prepared to mock anything or anyone (yet), but I like the CB's in this draft class a lot. Take one in round 2 if it makes sense.
Fifth, continue the purge. Dallas has more "dead money" on its salary cap than any team in the NFL. The difference is that much of that dead money is being paid to players currently on the roster (see what I did there?). Most teams release players once they've passed a point where their salaries are no longer commensurate with their contributions to the team. Not Dallas. If the Cowboys are truly interested in changing their fortunes and holding true to Jason Garrett's rhetoric about accountability, then they are obligated to do right by the players who will be long-term contributors and take out the freakin' trash. Beyond the Newman's and Brooking's of the world, there are others who need to find work on teams who are better than Dallas, so as to level the playing field relative to talent.
Sixth, and you probably expected this if you've read any of my past rants, Dallas must add a true Nose Tackle and move Ratliff to the three technique. I don't care if it is Antonio Garay or Aubrayo Franklin or Kelly Gregg or Konishiki, but Ratliff needs to be at NT only in 3rd and long situations when Dallas puts their best penetrators on the field. Rat's sands are falling through the hourglass of time and his days of being able to take on double teams by Centers and Guards are numbered. His in-season performance drop-offs start much earlier now than when he was 25 years old. It's just too much to ask of a 295-pound guy to play the O-gap, regardless of where he says he "likes" to play. 320 lbs. is the minimum to play the plugger in the Ryan 3-4 and, optimally, you'd like to see a guy in the 330-340 lb. range there.
Again, one thing I know is that there are a lot of ways to end up at the same place in the NFL. Instead of signing Campbell and drafting Konz, could Dallas sign Nick Hardwick and then draft Dontari Poe and achieve the same goals? Sure. Draft Quinton Coples in round 1, Ben Jones in the 2nd and then sign Brent Grimes and Sione Pouha? Why not. The point is that Dallas has problems to solve and not a ton of money to solve them with, but they won't be able to beat the Eagles and Giants, both of whom made Dallas look silly too often this year because of the holes discussed herein, unless they chart a course toward making some changes and building quality depth in the trenches, where this team continues to falter each December. Follow this plan to a much more competitive football team in 2012 and one that could challenge the Eagles and Giants for divisional supremacy.