Hunkering down to watch some wildcard football this weekend, I was struck on numerous occasions that the brand, or quality of football I was watching was, in most instances, noticeably higher than that I had seen from our beloved 'Boys during the 2011 campaign. Sure, this could be attributed to the fact that these teams were facing one-and-done situations, and were therefore laying it all on the line in terms of energy, determination and focus. But I don't think these were ever really in short supply for Jason Garrett's Cowboys, who prepared well and competed hard all season. No, what was confirmed for me was the simple fact that the Cowboys never were (or at least never played like) a playoff team.
With that in mind, I wondered: what do they need to become one? What do these teams have that the Cowboys lack--or at least need a little more of? So, I've prepared a list of one thing I saw from each wildcard round team that I would like to see in this Cowboys team in the next couple of years, as they work to include themselves in this lofty company. Here, game by game, are the characteristics I would like the Cowboys to adopt:
CIN: Faith in a much-maligned front office: In a post-game article on the Bengals' SBN sister site, Cincy Jungle, Jason Garrison wrote:
For the first time in recent memory, some Cincinnati fans have found themselves happy with the team's management. I find myself approving of the majority of the moves Mike Brown and the front office made, from the draft, to free agency, to trading Chad Ochocinco and Carson Palmer, to selling out their stadium with ticket deals and lowering prices in 2012. They give me hope for the future as well. They, as well as the players, have set up this team with a good shot at sustained success in this league.
For decades, Bengals fans have seen the team's root problem as its ineffectual, family-run front office. Sound familiar? In this moment, with faith in Jerry Jones at an all-time low (and anger at an all-time high), I'd love to be writing something along these lines about the Cowboys' 2012 offseason.
More wishlist goodness after the jump...
HOU: Defensive end play: I think most of us are thrilled with the Tyron Smith pick in last year's first round; he certainly lived up to the # 9 pick, and should be an All-Pro for a decade. In April, the other likely candidate at the ninth pick was Wisconsin "5 technique" (3-4 defensive end), J.J. Watt. Saturday's Bengals-Texans tilt gave the nation a first-hand look at Watt as well as his line-mate, Antonio Smith. Both men wreaked havoc all afternoon, dominating the line of scrimmage and getting consistent, intense pressure on Cincy QB Andy Dalton.
Consider: the Texans best pass rusher, their equivalent of DeMarcus Ware, was lost for the season. Yet other guys have stepped up, and they managed to generate 44 sacks, with Watt and Smith nabbing 12 between them. As many on this site have noted, however, sacks are not the be-all and end-all; every Texans game I have watched this season, I have seen 3-4DEs being disruptive, getting penetration, and making the kind of athletic plays that Watt made on his amazing pick six. For the Cowboys front seven to vault to elite status, they'll have to get similar play from their five techniques. What would Dallas' pass rush look like had Ware, like Williams been lost in game five? Its just too awful to contemplate...
DET: Dez Bryant uses his body like Calvin Johnson: On several occasions en route to his staggering 211 yard receiving total, Lions wideout
Megatron Calvin Johnson used his big, 6'5" 236 pound body to shield defenders, getting between them and the ball. This was particularly effective on several contested passes. Because Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford trusts Johnson to use his superior athleticism to make plays, he is more willing to throw into tight coverage. In the 6'3' 220 pound Dez Bryant, the Cowboys have a physical freak in the Johnson mold. For Bryant to achieve elite status, he'll need to learn to use his body in the ways Johnson does--and Tony Romo will have to trust him as Stafford does Johnson.
NO: Offensive weapons and identity: After the 2011 draft, I opined that Jason Garrett was trying to build a multiple offense that looked much like that Sean Peyton has built in New Orleans: three or more receiving threats; tight ends capable of running down the seam and also of working underneath combo routes with a stable of running backs--each of whom offers a different skill set and poses a different kind of threat to a defense. Add to this a tough, mobile offensive line who can block on the interior as well as the perimeter, and a quarterback who can makequck decisions and quickly distribute the ball to multiple targets.
By drafting Smith, as well as the tough, mobile David Arkin and Bill Nagy--and by picking up DeMarco Murray to compliment Felix Jones--Garrett took important steps in that direction. As we know, problems in the interior of the line and a bevy of injuries to skill position players (Dallas has its full complement of skill guys--Bryant, Miles Austin, Laurent Robinson, Jason Witten, Murray and Jones--all healthy and available for exactly nine plays), prevented the Cowboys' offense from realizing this dream--or, really, anywhere near its full potential. Moreover, the O-line's inconsistency and the constant shuttling of skill personnel seemed to prevent Dallas from finding an offensive identity. The Saints are very clear about who and what they are--and that confidence infuses everything they do. The Cowboys, by contrast, appear tentative and unsure. I'd like to see that change in 2012...
ATL: Ummm...Nothing. They looked really, really bad.
NYG: defensive line play: For the Giants, its starting to look a lot like 2007, when they rode their dominant defensive line to a surprising Super Bowl win. The NFL has, without a doubt, become a version of Madden--everybody's open all the time--and numerous quarterbacks are taking advantage. As the Giants showed in 2007, when they beat Romo, Brett Favre and Tom Brady en route to a Lombardi, a tremendous pass rush is the only thing capable of negating a top-tier quarterback.
And, when New York's D-line can dominate they way they have in the last three weeks, the rest of the personnel doesn't much matter. With a below-average linebacking corps and a deeply suspect secondary (made more so by the loss of Aaron Ross just after halftime), New York was able to obliterate a peaking Atlanta offense, which had averaged 40.5 points a game in the last month. I've said this before, and I'm a-gonna continue to say it: the Cowboys defensive priority has to be making the "front five"--the three down linemen plus the two outside linebackers--more dynamic.
PIT: Proud warrior mentality: I'm not inclined to invest much in narratives about "mental toughness" in football; I think its a lot easier for a team to be mentally tough when they have more talent than their opposition. That said, there are teams that embrace a certain way of winning that emphasises physical play and the work of the big uglies in the trenches. Moreover, there are certain organizations that tend to embrace the "next man up" philosophy that Garrett is trying to instill in the Cowboys--the notion that second-stringers should be expected to come into a game without that unit missing a beat.
For as long as I can remember, the Steelers have been at the top of both these categories, an assertion much in evidence on Sunday afternoon. Going into the game, they were already without center Maurkice Pouncey, running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore, and free safety Ryan Clark. Then, during the game, they lost Defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel and left tackle Max Starks. That's a lot of injured dudes, but the Steelers continued to compete (as they did at the beginning of 2010, when they fought to a 3-1 start without star QB Ben Roethlisburger), and, with almost a third of their starters sidelined, still fought back from a 20-6 lead to tie the game, almost winning in the final minute.
Although Garrett is working hard to change this aspect of the Cowboys' culture, the star-driven sensibility that reigns at Valley Ranch has often prevented the Cowboys from playing this way. As a result, they have faltered and seemingly quit when their quarterback has fallen (remember the 34-14 shellacking at the hands of the Rams in 2008?). So, change here needs to happen at the organizational level. I'd love to see some evidence of that transformation in the coming year.
DEN: Offensive line transformation. In the past three years, the Broncos have managed a transformation of sorts in their offensive line's identity. A unit that, under Mike Shanahan, was undersized but featured a group of good foot athletes, had gotten much larger without losing agility. The O-line I watched on Sunday was both very physical and quite mobile. Without any real passing threat this season, they have managed to lead the league in rushing, which is quite a feat. On Sunday, with theSteelers selling out to stop the run, they still ground out 131 yards on the ground. More importantly, they serve as the heart of the Broncos team--much like the Cowboys O-lines didin the 90s.
I'd love to see the Cowboys current offensive line transformation yield similar results. In moving away from big, but ponderous, linemen, Dallas' front has indeed become more mobile. Against teams like New England, however, their lack of physicality (or brute strength) became a liability. I'd like to see the Cowboys continue to prioritize good foot athletes on the O-line (see New Orleans section above) but with increased toughness and physicality (and, frankly, raw power). The Denver offensive line reflects the priorities of theircoach, John Fox, who values physicality up front. This is a value that could be embraced more warmly at Valley Ranch.
So, there it is, BTBers: Rabble's list. What did you witness this weekend that you'd like to see more of in Big D? If so, go to the comments section and let 'er rip!