I know it sounds defeatist, not a true blue fan etc to 'write this year off'. But mentally I've already started to prepare myself for another 8-8...or maybe a 9-7 and playoff-missing finish. This team's only chance is dramatic improvement in wide receiver and o-line play with something being heard from our long lost running game.
Do I think some patches are possible for the offensive line, the root of this team's current struggles? Can we get some underappreciated players back like Anthony Spencer to give our defense some greater rush and turnover capabilities to help the struggling offense out? Will Matt Johnson ever see the field in the NFL? Find out after the jump...
First, let me just start out by saying the most infuriating thing has to be our receivers led by Dez Bryant regressing (I didn't realize the Senator was starting to play more like the Witten of old, his stats were fairly impressive against the Bears talented LBs though I realize most of his yards probably came once Chicago was in their deep cover 2). Nothing ticks me off more than ignorant fans league-wide seeing only the stat line that Romo threw 5 INTs while not knowing how many balls were dropped and how our wideouts were likely responsible for at least two if not three of them.
Even Victor Cruz to his credit after getting butter fingers in game one has come back strong after Week 1 while our guys seems to struggle with the same issues week in and week out (that suggests coaching, but what did Jimmy Robinson have in Green Bay that he didn't here? And if coaching improved our o-line play from the Tampa game since the Bears have a better front than the Bucs, why can't it fix the wideouts?).
Now thanks to Monday night's debacle I also get to enjoy hearing Bears fans calling in up here deluding themselves that Jay Cutler is mentally tough, clutch, waaaaay better than Romo etc etc...until the Texans and Niners games in November create another meltdown for Mr. Dancing with the Stars (I prefer Mr. Gisele Bundchen for Tom Brady too).
Second, of course the issue that's contributing to all of the other issues -- Romo's, the receivers -- is the offensive line. Like a demonic carney game of whack-a-mole from hell, just when you think Carr and Claiborne have solved the Cowboys most glaring weakness from last year...an offensive line that was mediocre to bad manages to get worse. Let's face it, Dez wouldn't have to recognize the hot read and break off his route up field if Romo had more than three seconds to throw the ball. Perhaps the most annoying thing for me as a Cowboys fan is watching other NFL teams that have struggled with their o-lines for one or more games 'patch' their holes -- while the right side of our line keeps getting brutally exposed ever since the Seattle game. Consider some examples from around the league:
PATCHING THE GAPING HOLE ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF OUR OL? OTHER TEAMS THAT SEEM TO HAVE DONE IT
1) The 4-0 Arizona Cardinals o-line looked pathetic in preseason even against vanilla defensive game plans, especially after losing one of their starting tackles in Levi Brown. How did they right the ship? As far as I know they're not starting former Cowboy Pat McQuistan, who might have been worth keeping over Manu Silva. Maybe their D is just so awesome it's giving them some of the best starting field position in the league (I bet the OCC could confirm this with some stats jujitsu). And they do still have Larry Fitzgerald.
2) The Philadelphia Iggles despite their penchant for winning games by one point after lots of turnovers have managed to get three wins despite losing two starters on their offensive line. And the Eagles managed to keep their own 'beat down' at the hands of Arizona off Monday Night Football, so that ESPN writers can go on overrating them.
3) The Bears offensive line looked like something found dead on the road at Lambeau less than a month ago. Yet they only gave up two sacks, only one of which could've affected the outcome of the game. Certainly having Victor Butler instead of Anthony Spencer to do deal with opposite Ware and lots of help from their defense kept Jay Cutler fairly comfortable before the Cowboys turnover melt down started. I really thought Ware would sack Cutler at least twice after seeing JaMarcus Webb get absolutely torched by Clay Matthews. I thought Cutler would throw a pick to Sean Lee while trying to hit Kellen Davis down the seam.
But poor, abused LT JaMarcus Webb got a lot more help from his coach and the tight ends and backs, while the rest of our rushers didn't make the play. Now Bears fans will get to imagine their o-line is fixed at least until they hit the nasty part of their schedule with the Niners, Texans, the 2nd Packers game, and Seattle by which I expect another Cutler sideline meltdown. Nonetheless Da Bears could easily make the playoffs at 10-6 despite getting swept by the Packers, and losing to the Texans, Niners, Cardinals and Seahawks. They could even claim the final wild card spot at 9-7 (after losing one game to Detroit) with the head to head tiebreaker over us!
4) After giving up eight sacks in the black hole that is Seattle's stadium, the Packers seem to have righted their leaky o-line ship. So have the Niners after getting embarassed by the Vikings, who have Jared Allen and....who else rushing the passer? Both teams of course, as many BTB commenters will remind us, have more talent on their o-line than Dallas thanks to multiple high draft picks. But the Packers also have a much better receiving corps at this time.
5) In perhaps the scariest stat I can present here, the Washington Redskins have scored nearly twice as many points as our Cowboys this season. Granted they haven't exactly faced a muderers row of defenses yet, but they did outscore our total against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with an offensive line that was also plagued by injuries this preseason.
TEMPORARY HELP IS ON THE WAY?
Thank heaven, now that the Cowboys have 52 roster spots and one wide open it appears some help, either in the form of former Callahan student Colin Baxter or more likely our old friend Montrae "Lumpy" Holland, is on the way. Texas native and former Patriots Super Bowl guard Brian Waters is also a strong candidate to be signed this week, at the ripe old age of 35 (if it were up to me both Dockery and Bernadeau would be cut to make room for Lumpy and Waters). But again you have to be pretty desperate to see Lumpy and a guy the Pats didn't bring back as the solutions to your problems when we all know how Holland struggled against the quicker pass rushers last year. And Kevin 'Killer' Kowalski won't be back from PUP until Week 6 against the Carolina Panthers (where he might show he's capable of playing center, sliding Ryan Cook to RG and keeping Lumpy or Waters in reserve instead of Dockery).
HOW THE COWBOYS CAN SLOW THE PASS RUSH BLITZKRIEG GOING FORWARD
In surveying the wreckage of blocking schemes (including our own) across the NFC through one quarter of the season, our old friend Raf Vela made a good point last week at the Cowboys Nation blog. Basically Raf's thesis is that teams who stocked their o-lines with 320 pound guards and right tackles (including the Packers and 49ers who have not scrimped on high draft picks for OL) are struggling to deal with the quicker, nimbler pass rushers (he also had another post about an increasing preference among GMs for drafting mobile QBs, but its logic applies to o-linemen as well).
Particularly in the NFC, offensive lines are stil built along plodding lines that might have succeeded in the early to mid-2000s, when the league-wide arms race favored size as much as quickness. But now they're getting exposed as teams copycatting off the Giants example of stockpiling pass rushers (though the Vikings haven't quite done this) embarass their front fives. In the case of Chicago, the Bears may have actually improved upon the 'NASCAR package' model, as the G-men never had as many good linebackers behind their front four as the Bears have this year (counting tweener OLB Shea McLellin in their LB ranks, of course).
THE PENDING 'COLLEGE TACKLE MOVING INSIDE' REVOLUTION
What is needed to restore the pendulum back toward passing efficiency and away from multi-sack turnover fests (including great defenses making rookie-run mediocre to poor offenses like the Seahawks look suddenly good) is a whole new breed of dancing bears. To put it in Cowboys terms, offensive linemen more like Tyron Smith and less like Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings. Even Ryan Cook, let's recall, used to play right tackle for the Minnesota Vikings when he first entered the league. Odds are there are going to be several more 'busts' at tackle moving inside and getting picked up (even off their couches) by o-line desperate teams around the league before this season is over. Believe me, if the coaches were confident Doug Free wouldn't get lifted into Romo's face, they would have already tried to move him inside and give Jeremy Parnell a go outside.
It's not that you want to go back to light weight but nimble zone blocking linemen like Mike Shanahan successfully used to spring multi-1,000 yard rushers back in the late 1990s. But you need 305-310 pounders who are almost as athletic if not more so than the 240-275 pound rushers (ala former Longhorns fullback/hurdler Henry Melton) they're taking on. In other words, it's not just about carpet bombing offensive line with high draft picks, but getting a particular type of offensive lineman (or salvaging the linemen you have, like Doug Free, by moving them inside after a full offseason to adjust while making your swing tackle Jeremy Parnell more solid against bull rushers and ready to start). Since cloning Tyron Smith four times is not an option, that means drafting either SEC stud guards and tackles (sexlilkitty had a run down of some top prospects from the recent Texas A&M-Alabama game) or finding less heralded but athletic left tackles who can switch to the right side or hold up inside.
Of course if you're Julius Peppers or JPP and you still have a nasty bull rush move, you can roll some of these lighter weight guards. But hey, if your QB is mobile and the tackles hold up you can always roll out like Romo did in Game 1 against the G-men, right?
THE 2013 DRAFT BY ITSELF IS NOT ENOUGH -- WE NEED TO HIT ON TALENT FROM WITHIN AND PRIOR 'JAGS'
Of course, since nearly every other team in the NFC is going to be looking to draft OL in the top 100 picks as well, Dallas is not going to have an easy time following several BTBers prescription for a turnaround (besides there's also the issue of it taking significantly longer to develop an o-lineman than a comparable defensive lineman, with that cognitive gap being reflected in sacks and stuffed runs). Which is why the finding another team's 'castoff' (or even our own struggling RT who can bulk up a bit this offseason to play inside), as the New York Giants have managed to do for several seasons now, is critical. If there is anything I respect about Tom Coughlin, it's his ability squeeze better play out of a banged up, perhaps over the hill o-line (did you hear that Invictus?).
Despite the chorus of 'just draft a bunch of OL already 1 - 2 - 3', we also have to admit this team is going to have too many other needs -- primarily at safety (thanks to the Barry Church injury) but also at outside linebacker. Everyone could see Monday night what this D looks like when it has to rely on Victor Butler opposite Ware on non-passing downs. Keeping Anthony Spencer is going to be very difficult with a flat salary cap. Hence we'll be lucky to use one of our picks in the first three rounds on an offensive lineman -- and if we want to draft a second OL in the third, the price could be as high as a 2nd in the 2014 draft plus a 4th or 5th this year to do it. I'd rather finally hit on one of our late round o-line picks, at least as a backup, than give em' up. Perhaps we could find a badly needed blocking TE in the 4th round in an unlikely place -- for example using a 6th or a 7th on Louisiana Tech's current starting center as a '4th TE/Jumbo' blocker who could develop his hands (you can never have enough smart football players whether you get em' in the late rounds or as undrafted free agents -- and this kid might be able to finally set up a decent blocking wedge on returns or punt protection).
So we're going to have to make our one top 100 pick on an offensive lineman count -- most likely by drafting one of the top centers in the 3rd to replace Costa while letting Arkin and Killer K battle for the backup center spot. Given that both Bernadeau and whoever is the fill in at RG this year won't likely stick around for the long term, at least part of the solution at guard must come from low-cost free agency ....or within.