The Cowboys struggles in 2012 can be summed up by struggles up the middle on both sides of the ball, which have come about from a nasty combination of organizational philosophy and injury misfortune.
A couple of years back, I authored a post which began with a look at baseball. More specifically, I started off wih the old baseball adage that a championship-caliber team must have defensive strength up the middle. Having strong glove-men at catcher, shortstop, second base and center field, the thinking goes, will help your pitching staff by getting to more balls in the outfield gaps, holding runners from taking extra bases, turning more double plays, etc. This makes sense; if we divide a baseball field into radiating quadrants extending out from home plate, we'd see that most balls are hit to the middle two quadrants, where these players do their work.
Turning to the the legendary sabermatrician, Bill James, and his statistical formula for "win shares," I showed that championship teams do tend to be stronger at catcher, second base, shortstop or center field than at first base, third base, left field or right field. With this in mind, I wondered, might we apply this to the Cowboys, specifically to the 2010 team's precipitously declining defense?
Since 1978, the NFL has become increasingly a passing game; as a result, "edge players" are thought to be the most important (and, by extension, receive the largest contracts). In a 3-4 defense, these players are outside linebackers and cornerbacks (and, to a lesser degree, defensive ends). At that time, it was quite clear that Dallas had built its defense with edge play in mind, investing first-round picks in the starters at those four positions between 2005-08. During the 2010 campaign, this strategy was sorely tested, however.
in 2010, the middle of the Cowboys defense was manned by two 7th rounders, a fourth rounder and two free-agent pickups (the D-line was rounded out by the forgettable LDE Igor Olshansky, another FA pickup). What this suggested was a clear dropoff, if not in talent then certainly in terms of the application of resources given to the various positions - inside or outside. That year, you may recall (probably with horror), opposing offensive coordinators spent the season preying on the weak middle of the Cowboys defense, the inside linebackers and safeties in particular.
Since then, the Cowboys seem to have tried to rectify this disparity - to a degree. The most obvious position that has been boosted by an allocation of resources is at middle linebacker, where second-rounders Sean Lee and Bruce Carter have emerged as three-down players. At safety and nose tackle, however, Dallas has continued to scrimp. Who backs up seventh-round NT Jay Ratliff? Two other seventh-rounders, both picked up in 2010: Sean Lissemore and Josh Brent. At safety, the Cowboys are making do with a bevy of undrafted free agents (Barry Church, Danny McCray) and street free agents (Charlie Peprah, Eric Frampton). 2012 fourth-rounder Matt Johnson is, we must remember, a third-day, small-school selection.
The philosophical and financial investment in "edge" players applies to the Dallas offense as well. They have first-rounders at receiver, left tackle and (backup) running back, and much lower picks up the middle. Consider: they began the season with the following players slated to battle it out at center: Phil Costa (UDFA), Kevin Kowalski (UDFA), Bill Nagy (seventh rounder). Quarterback Tony Romo? Another UDFA. Whoever emerged as the starter from this crew was supposed to line up next to guards Nate Livings (UDFA) and MacKenzy Bernardeau (a Panthers 7th rounder in 2008).
And here's the rub: not only have the Cowboys been chintzy when it comes to up-the-middle-resources, they have also suffered an incredible rash of injuries at these positions - and these have hit where the team is weakest. For a long stretch during training camp, none of the above OC candidates were able to go - and this has continued through the first ten games; the only one who has seen a single snap, Costa, has only played in one full game and parts of two others. At nose tackle, Ratliff (who was also bitten by the injury bug throughout camp) had been in and out of the lineup all year; key rotation guy Lissemore has missed the last five games with a right ankle injury. At safety, Church and Johnson, for whom the team had high hopes, have been lost for the season.
Although the Cowboys defense hasn't experienced the same crippling mismatches in the middle that they did in 2010 (thanks to the aforementioned emergence of Lee and Carter), due to resource allocation and injuries, they they are certainly not dominating the middle - and the defensive braintrust has had to tweak their gameplans accordingly. In a recent blog post, Bob Sturm demonstrates that Rob Ryan and company enacted a fairly radical philosophical shift after game five - not coincidentally the game they lost Sean Lee. In weeks 1-5, Dallas sent five or six rushers on 36% of all pass attempts; in weeks 6-10, this number dropped to 14%. The losses of Church and Lee, Sturm suggests, have resulted in the Cowboys offseason defensive plan - play tight man-to-man and get pressure by blitzing - to go out the window.
Similarly, the astonishing injury history at center (think about it: Bernardeau is essentially the team's fifth-string center, after Costa, Kowalski, Nagy, and Cook) has made it impossible to establish any continuity in the middle of the offensive line - and, given the strategy to invest in low-round picks and "coach 'em up," the only way to build a competent O-line was by developing that continuity. We may never know whether this plan might have worked (watching offensive line coach Bill Callahan in training camp gave me hope that it could), or what these players were capable of, because they simply never had a chance.
And, as a result, Tony Romo has spent the season running for his life. He's another up-the-middle player. Oh, and he's another UDFA. Just sayin'