We are now at a stage in the season where the Cowboys need to take a long, hard, candid look at their players, and make some tough decisions about free agency and (later) the draft. Here's my take on why a tinge of optimism is necessary in the process.
First, some warrant for the optimism. 8-8 doesn't sound like much. It isn't much. We didn't beat a lot of winning-record teams. On the other hand, we didn't lose to very many losing-record teams. We lost some close games we should have won. We also won some games we could have lost. I think that this particular 8-8 season doesn't tell us we're going to the Super Bowl. But it also doesn't tell us we stink. Think of it this way--we beat the Redskins twice, who beat the Giants twice, who won the Super Bowl. It's hard for me to look at this picture and say we're consistently underperforming the best teams in the league--or consistently playing at the level of the best teams in the league.
Second, some background on why we might be getting better. An off-season is not a small thing. Does Rob Ryan's tenure really have a chance to work when he doesn't have his players for a real off-season? Does Jason Garrett's? That's on the coaching side. I'm not as disappointed in the Yugglies as some seem to be. We have a new O-line coach, we have some people healthy who weren't, and we've switched Tyron with Free. A lot of young guys are getting more time to get used to the NFL, and a lot of guys who haven't worked together will have time to figure out how they're going to gel as a unit. Remember, again, that when Costa was hiking the ball all over the field, and Romo had a punctured lung, we beat the Redskins, who beat the Giants, who won the Super Bowl. It simply isn't the case that we can't advance without signing lots of new O-linemen.
The same could be said of our pass rush. Taken together, it is above average--although not as great as it needs to be. The old, tired line that everyone else should get more sacks because Ware gets so many is a fallacy, and should be retired. Every statistic I can find shows that when you have one elite pass rusher (and very few teams have this), everyone else tends to get less sacks--not more. I know that Ware might like another really hot rusher to complement him. But guess what? They'll still double-team Ware, and Ware will still be the one (by talent, and by scheme) who gets to the QB most often. Because of Ware, we have a rush that teams fear. And the only stat-driven analysis has shown that our secondary has allowed more non-sacks to be receptions--which means that the REAL way to help Ware is to give the opposing QB fewer open receivers to hit. Spencer will keep doing his job of sealing the edge.
Why do I think all this hopeful talk is realistic? Don't I realize that with same-old Spencer, and same-old interior line, Romo will sometimes get sacked, and the opposing team will sometimes hold off the rush? Of course I do. But this is the NFL, not Neverland. The question is whether this O-line, with a little more training and a better job at tackle (Free was terrible at LT this year!), can put us in a position to win. The question is whether Ware, with his current complements on the line, can put us in a position to win.
And the reason that this is the real question is that replacing everyone is simply unrealistic. All we're going to do is pursue a grass-is-greener strategy that will bring in more people who won't pan out either. Unless we overpay for one or two big names, and that will put us in salary cap hell, and we won't be able to respond to the inevitable injuries and changes. No thank you.
Why not just incrementally increase a fundamentally sound team? We have to replace the oldest (for his position), worst-performing guy on the field--sorry, Newman. We have to look hard at our growing options on the interior, and be ready to axe anyone who isn't ready--sorry, Costa. We have to draft people who have a chance to be dominant players for years to come--perhaps a Bruce Irvin in the second round, perhaps an Ingram or even Kuechly in the first, perhaps a DeCastro as a safe bet on the inside (though it's been decades since a guard was considered worth a #14 pick), perhaps a safety that we think will really play well for years and years. But we also have to be willing to be patient, to use the draft to go after those gems, and not expect to throw away our whole roster in favor of a bunch of mid-range draft picks that we expect to contribute on the first day.
A piece here. A piece there. As it becomes available. Making the most of what we have. If that's Spencer, there are worse things. I feel really sorry for the teams that were considering drafting Spencer for their main pass-rusher, because they don't have anyone better. That's pretty pathetic. But Ware isn't pathetic, and Spencer is functioning O.K. to seal the edge across from Ware. That's not a problem we have to solve right away. Pick up someone to provide some more push in the middle. Get someone that we think can become Ware in a few years (my money's on Irvin). Keep churning the people we've already got on our roster, seeing what they can show us.
If the price is right, we can add a high-price free agent pick up--not because we think that this is the year, but because they'll give us value for years to come. If, as is more likely, the price isn't right, we can bring in some people and plug them in where they help us. Frankly, this will largely be back-ups, a third corner here, a swing guard there. That's O.K. We have some difference-makers already. And chasing a "solution" to every problem at once means only that we won't solve anything.
Hope is realistic, because hope means making the very best of what you have--and pursuing what you can realistically get. Despair is unrealistic, because despair means giving up your assets to chase a pipe dream because you've already decided that what you have isn't enough. Let's look at this off-season, not through the eyes of fixing everything ("Oh my goodness, they didn't get a ___") but of having serviceable people at every position, with a couple new gamers that can really help us win. And then let's sit back and see how it develops.