Every Monday, Sports Illustrated's Peter King offers up an edition of "Monday Morning Quarterback," wherein he analyzes Sunday's NFL action. Over the years, King has developed a few pet ideas that he returns to each week: coffeenerdness; aggravating travel stories; a weekly "fine fifteen," and many more. Of all of these, the one that I like best is his "Ten things I think I think," a vessel for a slew (he often finds a way to squeeze in more than ten items) of unconnected musings, predictions, and observations. Today, in the same spirit, I offer up a "Rabblesian" compendium (well, five...) random thoughts about the Cowboys' season:
1. We're witnessing the changing of the guard on the D-line. Watching the team in training camp, it quickly became evident that the defensive coaches had a difficult set of decisions to make regarding which players to cut and which to keep. Not only were there as many as ten NFL-caliber players vying for seven spots, but there were some notable age discrepancies among the candidates. On one hand were salty veterans like Jay Ratliff, Kenyon Coleman, Jason Hatcher and Marcus Spears; on the other could be found fresh-faced youths brimming with potential such as Ben Bass, Josh Brent, Tyrone Crawford, Clifton Geathers and Rob Calloway. To me, the burning question was: will they keep the vets, and risk losing the young bucks to other teams, or keep the youngsters, and risk going into the season with inexperienced troops.
As it turned out, they went with the vets, which turned out to be a shrewd move, as they managed to sign the young guns they really wanted, Bass and Calloway, to the practice squad (Geathers was picked up by the Colts in October, and is now on their active roster). This week, Dallas put Coleman on IR and promoted Bass to the 53-man roster. My guess is that Coleman has played his last snap in Dallas, and I wouldn't be surprised if, given the development of Crawford, Spears will be elsewhere in 2013. Although Hatcher and Ratliff are likely to return, I wouldn't be shocked to see their snaps diminish as Sean Lissemore, Crawford, and Bass come on.
2. The injury that has forced the Cowboys coaching staff to adjust the most is...? Barry Church. All offseason, we heard that, with the acquisition of cornerbacks Mo Claiborne and Brandon Carr, the Cowboys were going to dial up exotic blitzes and play a lot of "zero" coverage. In fact, we saw a lot of this in training camp, where the daily battles at the line between Dez Bryant and Brandon Carr were not always pretty, but fascinating sight to behold. In camp, you'll recall, it was Church who immediately seized control of the free safety position, showing a complete understanding of the scheme, terrific communication, and surprising coverage ability and range.
The problem is that, unlike Carr and Claiborne, who are backed up by very capable players, Church had no one behind him. Do we need any further evidence of this than the sight of Carr, the multi-million dollar free agent corner, playing safety against Tampa Bay? Since then, special teams ace Danny McCray has filled in at the position - but he's the kind of player that a coordinator feels he needs to protect (precisely because he's the kind of player the opposing coordinator wants to exploit). Since week three, therefore, priority one has been to protect McCray, which has limited Rob Ryan's callsheet far more than has the loss of Sean Lee. Whodathunk it?
3. I think the Cowboys will (and should) re-sign Anthony Spencer. In part, this is because of how well he is playing this year, which is awfully well, thank you very much. But there's more to it: with the emergence, in the past two seasons, of Lee and Bruce Carter, and the continued excellence of Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys now have the makings of that which has propelled the otherwise ho-hum Giants to two Lombardis in the last four years: a dominant unit capable of taking over a game. Next season, assuming Lee's return to health and a Spencer extension, Dallas is likely to have the best linebacking unit in the NFL (yes, even better than San Francisco's). With so many playmakers come endless opportunities to dominate and to confuse opponents.
Although they have long had a nice collection of "talent," Dallas hasn't had a dominant unit. As a result, opposing coordinators could scheme to take away, or avoid, the strongest element of a given unit without fear that the others, suddenly freed up or enjoying single coverage, would take advantage. Giving Kyle Wilber, or a highly-drafted rookie, Spencer's spot would give opposing offensive minds exactly what they'd need to take Ware out of games. I'd prefer some havoc-wreaking, thanks!
4. The offensive adjustments are working, slowly. After a disastrous October, during which the Cowboys turned the ball over 13 times and compiled a awful -8 turnover ratio, Dallas has zero turnovers in the month of November. Although it would be easy to put this on Tony Romo's narrow shoulders, I suspect that the turnaround is the result of myriad little adjustments to the offense, particularly the passing game, that have served to limit the turnover risk. Part of this has to do with the receiver play. People inside Valley Ranch have noted that, early this season, Dez Bryant and Kevin Ogletree had as many as six blown assignments a game, plays in which they mis-read the defense and ran the wrong route, or ran the right pattern the wrong way. Do you think its coincidence that, in the last two turnover-free games, Ogletree has lost snaps to Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley? And, although he's not losing snaps, I'd bet the game-day playbook has fewer option routes for Bryant...
5. November Reign? Thanks to this curtailing of turnovers, and to the emergence of a reliable defense, the arrow is pointing up in Dallas. Much has been said about the Cowboys easy upcoming schedule (it is) and Romo's record in November (now a staggering 20-3), and the victory over the Eagles was the most comfortable of the season. Before we start ordering playoff tickets, however, I think its important to remember a couple of things:
- In the fourth quarter last Sunday, the Cowboys scored via kick return, interception and fumble recovery, the first time this had been done since 1966. That's 46 years! In other words, the scoring explosion that we saw on Sunday was an aberration of historic proportions, and not likely to be repeated.
- Take away all those plays, two of which were essentially the result of lucky bounces, and what remains? An offense that can't run consistently, gets overwhelmed by the blitz, and has failed to reach the 300-yards-in-total-offense mark on three occasions already this season. If not for those "easy scores," in Philadelphia, we almost certainly would have watched them struggle to eke out a close win, or let another close one slip away.
For the season to actually turn around, our Beloved 'Boys will have to either a) continue to collect "easy scores" at a high rate or b) engineer some kind of substantive offensive turnaround. Whaddya think, BTBers: which, if either, of these is the more likely?