The hardest thing to do in the NFL is to correctly evaluate your own roster, and it is the Cowboys' biggest offseason task. How good the Cowboys are at that task will ultimately determine whether they'll become a competitive NFL franchise again.
Earlier in the week I noted that it was Optimist Monday, so I looked at the positive aspects that were to be found in the snapcount from the Saints game. Today, the Christmas holidays notwithstanding, is Pessimist Wednesday, so I'd like to address a couple of issues that have been softly percolating just beneath the surface of Cowboys Nation for a while now.
Many observers have drawn parallels between where the team is this year and where it was last year at the exact same time - one win away from the postseason. Just like this year, last year's team stood at 8-7 after Week 16. Last year's team had a scoring differential of +39, this year's team has a -14 scoring differential. Two thoroughly average teams, regardless of the outcome of Sunday's game against the Redskins.
Just like last year, we could look back on the 2012 season and argue that the Cowboys were actually better than their W/L record indicates. After all, we were just a little unlucky during the course of the season, losing by a couple of inches here and a couple of inches there. And surely, all those injuries on defense prevented us from playing up to the level we could have. Heck, if the defense had stayed healthy, some might argue that the Cowboys would have been ready for a Super Bowl run this year!
You think I'm kidding? Let's go back one year: the Cowboys had just lost the season finale in embarrassing fashion to the Giants by 31-14. The Cowboys finished the season 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, the first time since the 2004 and 2005 seasons. At 8-8, the Cowboys were an average team, and had been for quite a while. Everybody knew it, except perhaps the most hardcore Cowboys fans - and perhaps Jerry Jones, who had this to say immediately after the Giants game:
"Just hours ago I thought this core group had an opportunity to go very far into the playoffs," Jones said. "So I'm very disappointed. I'm frankly surprised that we didn't do better and that we didn't win this ballgame.
[... Not until] right up until the end of the fourth quarter did it really dawn on me that we probably weren't going to be in the playoffs. And that's a shame, because we've got a team in here that I think is good enough to play and play well, but we didn't show it tonight."
"We've got a team in here that I think is good enough to play and play well?" No we don't Mr. Jones, no we don't. And please, stop all the talk about how talented this roster is, or how a roster with this much talent should have produced better results. Stop it right now. The talent on this team got us to 8-8 last year and to 8-7 so far this year.
And here's the thing that worries me the most about that particular comment, and any subsequent attempt to put a positive spin on the 2012 season:
The hardest thing to do in the NFL is to correctly evaluate your own roster; to judge the quality of the individual players; to assess their potential for the next season and beyond. The history of the NFL is littered with examples of teams that misjudged their own players, expected them to play well (and paid them to play well) even though they were not capable of doing so. This is why you often only begin seeing significant improvements in a teams' fortunes when that team makes major changes.
The Cowboys may win against the Redskins on Sunday and make the playoffs. They may even win a playoff game or two. But that does not change the fact that
- The Cowboys rank 17th in sacks this season with 34 sacks after 16 games, and most key defensive linemen will be on the wrong side of 30 next year: Ware (31), Hatcher (31), Ratliff (32), Coleman (35) and Spencer (29) could make the Cowboys front five the oldest unit in the league next season - if no substantial changes are made.
- The Cowboys have allowed a defensive passer rating of 95.7, higher than that of last year's 8-8 team (88.4) and higher even than the 92.8 of the 2010 team that went 6-10. In fact, that 95.7 is the worst value in franchise history, ahead of the 94.2 allowed by the 6-10 team in 2004 and the 93.9 given up by the 1-15 team in 1989. The Cowboys pass defense is showing ineptness of historic proportions.
- The Cowboys' O-line was a mess for large parts of the year. Granted, they have improved over the course of the season, but in all honesty, this year's unit is not one bit better than last year's unit, and the Cowboys made wholesale changes to the line in order to make sure there would be no repeat of last year's performance. Yet here we are with the same issue all over again.
- At safety, Gerald Sensabaugh will turn 30 next year and has four years left on his $22.5 million contract extension. The Cowboys have already decided that playing next to Sensabaugh in 2013, assuming Sensabaugh stays healthy, will either be Barry Church, who has started all of four games in his NFL career and is out with an Achilles tear, or Matt Johnson, who hasn't yet played a snap of NFL football. Is that a good enough plan? Danny McCray, Eric Frampton and Charlie Peprah add more questions than answers at the position.
As fans, we like to focus on the draft and, perhaps to a lesser extent, on free agency as the key avenues via which teams can improve their fortunes in the NFL. But if a team does not have the ability to correctly evaluate its own players, they'll mess up in the draft and in free agency as well. The ability to accurately self-scout and self-evaluate the players, the coaches, the staff and everything else around the franchise is the key to success in the NFL.
That process has already started for the Cowboys a while back and will be concluded over the next few months. It is the Cowboys' biggest offseason task. How good the Cowboys are at that task will ultimately determine whether they'll become a competitive NFL franchise again. Right now, they are not. And a potential win over the Redskins and perhaps a playoff win won't change that one bit.
If the Cowboys make some surprising, perhaps even shocking moves, you'll know they are on the right track. If you hear talk about "taking advantage of a closing window" or "building around the talent already on the team", then prepare yourself for another .500-ish season in 2013.
Sorry for raining on the parade.