I love the premise that Jason Garrett has for conducting a draft properly: sign free agents to plug needs so that you can draft the best player available.
And, based upon what we saw last year, you have to say the Garrett approach to finding gems in the free agent arena isn't bad (Robinson, Bailey, Fiametta, Radway, and Holmes). And I can't complain about the free agent signings so far this year, either. We've upgraded seriously at corner and inside linebacker. We've probably upgraded at fullback, as much as I liked Fiametta. We've upgraded at backup QB. At safety, I'll take a wait and see approach. Ditto for the interior line. But at worse, those areas are at least a push.
It's certainly possible that Holmes or Radway could step up in a serious way, but the Cowboys have some big shoes to fill with the departure of Robinson. Certainly, there seems to be a new vigor in the Cowboys coaching and scouting departments, with the Garrett philosophy asserting itself. Maybe we need to give the Cowboys the benefit of the doubt and say that they see on their existing roster legit possibilities for replacing Robinson. Plus, you'd hope that Bryant is ready to break out and that Austin doesn't spend half the season nursing injuries, which seemed to cut into his effectiveness even when he was on the field.
Still, when I look at this team, at least one of the top three areas hasn't been addressed at all: improving the pass rush from the front seven. Yes, I'm glad we resigned Spencer. No, I don't think he's worth the franchise tag. But maybe he'll sign for less per year and, worse case, it's just a year. And yes, having a corner like Brandon Carr and upgrades at ILB will improve the coverage ability, which will help the pass rush. But other than that, I don't see where the pass rush is going to come from, apart from Ware and a prayer.
As Frank Sinatra sang, the best is yet to come (after the jump).It's possible that Spencer will finally have that breakout year that earns him even bigger dollars over more years. But we've been waiting for that breakout season for the last four years. So there's no reason to believe it will happen now. And if it does happen, I'd regard it as deviation from the norm. More importantly, when you take into consideration the number of pass rush attempts by Spencer, as the ever-sage O.C.C did here, or compare Spencer to other NFL OLBs, as Kegbearer did magnificently in this post, you can't help but think we'll get more or less what we have gotten and that what we have gotten ain't bad.
Because Ware is so dominant, there's no real mystery which OLB is going to rush the passer. And because our nose tackle is not big enough to consistently collapse the pocket, both Ware and Spencer have lots of pressures that don't turn into sacks. Again, I hope that better coverage by the combination of Carr, Carter and Connor gives Spencer, Ware and others that extra split second to convert more pressures into sacks and hits.
And what evidence is there that the Cowboys will get a lot of production from their current collection of DEs? I'm not seeing it. And given how much Ware does rush the passer, additional pressure has to come from the NT or one of the DEs. Otherwise, you have to blitz. (This ain't rocket science).
Ever since the Giants manhandled our offensive line on the Giants' 2007/2008 march to the Super Bowl, I've had deep respect for the ability of a pass rush to win football games. If you don't remember that game and season, let me refresh your memory with a fresh coat of visual pain.
The Cowboys had beaten the Giants twice during the regular season and had drawn a first round bye as the NFC top seed. In the first half, the Cowboys looked like they were clearly the better team. Barber was running wild, rolling up 101 yards by half-time, and the Cowboys offensive line was dominating. Still, the score was tied at 14-14 at half time, with the Cowboys giving up a 52 yard touchdown pass to start the game and then Manning driving the Giants 71 yards in 47 seconds to end the second half.
The second half was a different story. The Giants defense stiffened, giving up only a field goal to the team that had scored 76 points in the two regular season games and 14 points in the first half. The key was pressure. If there wasn't a holding penalty, Romo was running for his life. Even though the Cowboys only gave up two sacks, Romo was screaming at his team in the huddle as he took one vicious hit after another. Giants 21-17.
This year, the Giants again dominated the Cowboys in the last game of the season and again a big part of the equation was the Giants' ability to get pressure on Romo. Surely, in all this painful recollection, there's something we can learn: pressure by the front four matters. Yes, dial up the blitz. But to win football games, you have to be able to pressure the QB without bringing the house and opening yourself to the big play all the time.
I'm not sure there's a player left in free agency, now that Mario is signed, that will give the Cowboys more pressure from the front seven. Maybe they think someone like Lissemore will be an answer. I don't know.
To me, real improvement will have to come in the draft. And that approach precludes a pure Best Player Available approach. Plus, guys who can get to the QB consistently are scarce so it might mean trading up. I would like to see them land a legit nose tackle. And maybe that's a safer path in the draft. But PBA? I don't see it quite yet, not if making the playoffs in the tough NFC East is the goal.