Now that the regular season has reached it's conclusion, there's going to be lots to discuss. It's funny, because as the season crashed to an inglorious ending, it was becoming more and more difficult to author worthwhile topics. With the arrival of the offseason comes the arrival of possibilities. The end of 2011 leaves little doubt in anyone's mind that there is plenty of building left to be done. However, we now have months on months to analyze and espouse on what we think the best schedule of change will be.
Last offseason was what is called in the technology field as a "one-off" scenario. A one-off is basically whenever a tried and true cookie-cutter methodology of attacking tasks cannot be applied to the current situation. Your solution can use the general parameters of the template, but specifics will be one-off from the norm. The 2011 Lockout changed everything.
Teams couldn't supplement their rosters with free agent signings as soon as the season concluded. This meant clubs entered the amateur draft process with many more holes to fill than they would in previous seasons. Once the rookies were acquired, teams weren't allowed to sign them or UDFA's, but more importantly, every rookie was locked out of the all-important OTA's and mini-camps. Heck, only first-round picks were given playbooks. No minicamps or open facilities meant no off-season conditioning program, so a six-time Super Bowl champion like Mike Woicik saw his impact minimized.
Speaking of those workouts, teams with new coordinators and systems, like say the Cowboys and defensive head hauncho Rob Ryan, weren't able to teach their schemes to the new or current chess pieces. Once the lockout was finally lifted, free agency became a mad scramble and new acquisitions didn't have a full offseason to digest their playbooks or acclimate to their new neighbors. Teams were also forced to make quick judgment calls on players that they considered moving on from, such as the Cowboys did with several members of their offensive line.
In reality, the 2011 offseason was probably a ten-off, but you get the point. Obviously these circumstances affected each of the 32 NFL teams, but just as obviously some were more affected than others.
Head coach Jason Garrett knows all too well what he had to navigate to reach the 2011 season, and what decisions he had to make in short order. For what it's worth, Garrett defended his preseason roster moves that may have hurt the team in the short run, but were made with long-term ramifications in mind.
"We said it right from the outset: We made some decisions in our organization where we moved on from some older players that probably would have given us maybe a better chance to win right now, because we wanted to take it in a different direction," Garrett said. "We did that for a lot of different reasons. We understood that. You heard me stand at this podium and say, 'There are going to be some growing pains with Tyron Smith, with some other (young) guys.' That's a part of the league. That's happening in 32 cities around this league. I'm not saying that's specific to us, but you just have to understand that situation. You make those moves, and you move forward."
Garrett would go on to mention that he is excited about the core of young players that this team has to develop around.
"When you think about some of the younger guys we've added to our program in the last couple of years we do believe there's another level coming," Garrett said. "You think about Sean Lee, you think about Dez Bryant, you add Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray and some of these guys that we drafted, they can be the cornerstones of our team as we go forward. To add those to the more veteran guys that we mentioned who are really some of the elite players in the league, we feel like there is a foundation that's been developed throughout our team.
Unfortunately, outside of those guys and the requisite superstars Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten and Jay Ratliff, the Cowboys really only have a bunch of JAGs. There are some that show potential, like oft-injured cornerback Mike Jenkins who hurt his shoulder, again, defensive ends Jason Hatcher and Sean Lissemore and even soon-to-be right tackle Doug Free. But potential gets coaches fired.
The Cowboys young star that is probably the most-maligned is second-year wideout Dez Bryant. Bryant's ability to absorb the playbook and expand his route tree is often referenced when he's being slighted. Yet most would be hard pressed to find a player that fights any harder than he does while on the field. The Cowboys drafted him to be their number one receiver; well to be at least 1B to Miles Austin's 1A, but a headliner nonetheless. Dallas will need even more production out of Pro Football Focus' 11th rated receiver (as measured going into the season finale).
Dez says he feels like he did OK in his second year, though some may wonder if his assessment of the season indicates he realizes where the team really stands.
"I feel like I did OK," Bryant said Monday. "I feel like it could have been 10 times better, but as a team, we played well. In a couple of our games earlier in the season we fell short in games we should have won. If we won those games we would have never got to this point, but you know, things happen."
Playing in 15 games, albeit a couple early ones slowed with a leg injury, Dez accrued 63 catches for 928 yards and nine touchdowns. Those are decent stats on the surface, but one only needs to look at Terrell Owens' 2007 (81 catches, 1,355 yds, 15 TDs) or Miles Austin's 2009 (81 catches, 1,320 yards, 11 TDs in 12 starts) campaigns to witness what can be accomplished by a top receiver in Jason Garrett's offense.
With as tumultuous a 2011 offseason as Dez had, all eyes will assuredly be on him and the progress he makes toward those benchmarks. Folks should remember, that although he has played two seasons, Dez has never had a full off-season regiment to digest this Cowboys offense. It should finally happen in 2012.
Another of the young stars of the 2011 season had his campaign cut short. Rookie running back DeMarco Murray was lost for the year on December 11th due to an ankle injury. Regardless of the success Felix Jones had in the first couple of games where he returned to starter status, the Dallas offense definitely missed the vision that Murray displayed. Fortunately for the Cowboys, his rehab appears to be right on schedule.
Murray wouldn't discuss the specifics of his rehab only to say things are going well. He's not expect to run for six weeks but should be on time for the start of the offseason program that begins in the spring.
"Yeah, I’m doing fine just going along with what we planned," Murray said. "It's looking good."
Regardless of what anyone says, the Cowboys are in the process of trying to rebuild their organization. The lost 2011 offseason affected them as much or more than any other organization. Regardless of the fact that every fan knew this, you still see people wanting drastic change made throughout the organization. For my money, now that Dallas will have access to the entire offseason calendar on top of a season of going to war, it will be interesting to see what they can build on top of this foundation.
"We just have to get better and that's what we told our team," Garrett said. "It starts with me as the head coach, our coaching staff needs to get better, our players need to get better. And that starts when we come back and reconvene in March. There were a lot of good things that happened to our football team this year. There were a lot of disappointing things as well. We didn't play consistently good enough football throughout the year and we'll go back and evaluate all that stuff and get better as an organization."