For those fans who like their glass half-full here are 5 shots of Kool-Aid to quench your thirst as we struggle through the downtime before training camp. There are also fans that have developed a hardened “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude towards the Cowboys, adopting a “trust but verify” approach to a team that has recently specialized in unfulfilled expectations and broken dreams. For this latter group of fans I offer 5 shots of caution.
(1) Tony Romo
In spite playing behind possibly the worst offensive line of his tenure and key injuries to his top receivers, Romo was still able to produce a career year. Garrett’s obsession with avoiding turnovers and negative plays appears to have successfully indoctrinated Romo. Facing a withering assault of blitzes and stunts up the middle of Dallas’ porous interior line, Romo still threw for 4184 yards and 31 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions and 5 fumbles with a QBR of 102.5. His 15 turnovers was his 2nd best job protecting the ball next to his 13 turnovers in 2009. With 26 turnovers in 2007, 22 turnovers in 2008, 13 in 2009, and 15 in 2011 we see a very positive trend. Look for Romo’s evolution as an elite NFL quarterback to continue in 2012. If his supporting skill players stay healthy and the offensive line can improve, don’t be surprised to find Tony Romo in the MVP discussion this season.
(2) Demarco Murray
Last season Demarco Murray burst onto the scene with scintillating big play ability. In spite playing behind an offensive line that was a work in progress Murray posted an impressive 5.5 yards per carry and seemed to transform an offense that struggled with inconsistency. If Murray can pick up where he left off last season and develop a solid rapport with Lawrence Vickers expect big things from this second year player.
(3) Carr, Jenkins, and Clairborne, LLP
Provided that Jenkins' shoulder heals in a timely manner, the Cowboys cornerbacks will argue their case as the top trio of corners in the league. After drafting Clairborne, I immediately had visions of Buddy Ryan’s 1993 Oilers' defense that played the most aggressive press coverage and attacking style I have seen in my years watching the NFL. Rex and Rob both employ their own modern version of their pop’s 46 scheme known as the "Bear Front." Rob now has the tools he needs to deploy his entire playbook and opposing quarterbacks are on notice. The addition of Carr and Claiborne will allow Rob Ryan to field a Cowboys defense that is going to the saltiest, in-your-face group we have seen from the Boys since the mid-90s.
4) Defensive Turnovers
The 2011 Cowboys defense recorded 15 interceptions (17th in the league) and forced 13 fumbles (16th in the league). For a team that had major liabilities in the secondary, the turnover production was respectable. The emergence of Hatcher and Lissemore, Sean Lee with 2 hands, Carter and Conner, and the addition of Carr and Claiborne are all factors that make it hard to imagine there won’t be improvement in turnover production by the defensive unit. Turnovers… sudden change opportunities, are one of the biggest predictors of victory in the NFL. Look for Garrett to leverage this increase in sudden change opportunities to improve the offensive scoring production, become more aggressive with play calling, and deliver knockout blows with 9 routes and Sluggos to Dez and Miles.
(5) The Deep Ball
A staple of Garrett’s offensive philosophy has been to stretch the defense with vertical passes. In 2011, an inconsistent running game and the offensive line’s inability to protect Romo contributed to a timid offensive approach from Garrett. Dallas attempted only 157 vertical passes (routes greater than 12 yards) in 2011, ranking near the bottom of the league (27th) in vertical attempts.
An increase in sudden change opportunities, an improved rushing attack, and better protection from the offensive line should all allow Garrett to be more aggressive and allow Romo to get his vertical groove back in 2012.
1) Offensive Line Continuity
The offensive headwinds caused by poor offensive line play were front and center in 2011, when it took a mere 5 quarters of football for Ahmad Brooks to easily shed the block of an aging and broken Kyle Kosier and deliver a crushing hit on Tony Romo that left him with a broken rib and punctured lung.
In spite Jerry Jones admission that he made a huge mistake last season in evaluating the ability of the young lineman, he did nothing in the draft and arguably very little in free agency to address the problems on interior of the offensive line.
Jones brought in a player in Nate Livings who while more experienced than the young guards on the Cowboys roster was the definition of inconsistency in his 4 years as a Bengal. Mackenzy Bernadeau could not win a starting job on one of the league’s worst teams, so there is no evidence and only hope that he is going to be an upgrade at the other guard spot.
Phil Costa, the weakest link in last year’s very inconsistent offensive line, will hopefully have serious competition for his position. The bad news is that if Costa is beat out, the Cowboys are guaranteed to begin the season with a different starter at every single position on the offensive line. And unless Costa and Nagy both win starting jobs, when the Cowboys open the season against one of the league’s most dominant defensive lines, not a single offensive lineman will have played a regular season game paired with the player immediately to his right or left.
While most fans will welcome new faces on the offensive line, there is no other unit that depends more on experience together and continuity to perform effectively as a group. Expect growing pains with this group.
2) Lack of Veteran Depth at Wide Receiver
The 3rd receiver on the Cowboys is anything but a part time position. Dallas runs about 30% of their offense from Garrett’s "S11"…a shotgun formation with 3 receivers. In addition to being on the field in for 1/3 of the offensive plays, because of injuries the 3rd receiver is all too often called on to play starting minutes. Either Bryant or Austin has been absent due to injury in 30% (11 of 32) of the games in the past 2 regular seasons. It seems ironic that Jerry Jones has been talking up the importance of having 4 starting caliber cornerbacks but seems content to enter the 2012 season with only 2 proven receivers from a position group likely to account for 5 roster spots.
Achieving productivity as a receiver in the NFL typically takes a considerable amount of game experience for even the most gifted and polished college prospects. It’s a huge gamble expecting a dependable and productive 3rd receiver to emerge this season from the inexperienced collection of undrafted free agents, projects and late round draft picks that makeup the Cowboys depth at wide receiver.
3) The Schedule
In 2011, Dallas’ non-division games were against relatively weak opponents; only two non-division opponents earned a playoff birth. In 2012, Dallas’ non-division opponents include five 2011 playoff participants with 3 of those 5 games on the road; and 3 of those 5 games will be played in December. Two other non-division opponents, Seattle and Chicago, both won postseason games in 2010. Nothing needs to be said about how tough division games are season in and season out in NFC East. Make no mistake. The 2012 season is a gauntlet.
4) Inconsistent Pass Rush
Last season teams were successful 40% of the time converting 3rd downs (21st in the league). So how do explain being the 4th best in the league in Pass Rush Productivity, yet 21st in the league in getting teams off the field on 3rd down? The answer lies in the fact that Dallas was last in the league when you calculate the ratio of sacks to opportunities on 3rd down. In short, the Cowboys racked up a lot of sacks, but the majority of those sacks were on downs other than 3rd down. In an excellent post by Rabble on the Cowboys lack of success getting 3rd down sacks, he makes this point.
"If [the] correlation between third down sack ratio and success is to be believed, the Cowboys will have to take down the quarterback more frequently on the money down. Think about it: a key third down sack might have won any one of six close games last season: Jets, Lions, Patriots, Cardinals, and either Giants contest. Had Dallas enjoyed Baltimore's sack ratio (with 140% more sacks in the same number of opportunities), the mind boggles at how different the season might have been."
5) Red Zone Problems
In 2007, Garrett’s first season as an offensive coordinator, the team scored an amazing 50 touchdowns (2nd in the league) and set the bar for the team’s offensive potential. Since 2007, Garrett’s offenses have never come close to performing at the 2007 level, failing to crack the top 10 in scoring offense the next 4 seasons. Last season Garrett’s problems getting offensive points on the board continued as Red Zone problems plagued the team early in season. Prior to Robinson joining the team in week 5, the Cowboys were a very disappointing 29th in red zone efficiency.
By season’s end 87% of Dallas’ touchdowns were pass plays. That was the most lopsided balance of pass/run ratio for touchdowns in the NFL in 2011, and helps explain why a team with a 4000 yard passer finished the season ranked 20th in Red Zone efficiency and only 15th in scoring. If the Cowboys are going to prove that the offensive scoring production in 2007 was not a flash in the pan, the team must improve its red zone balance and overall red zone efficiency in 2012.
What are your thoughts about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats moving in to the 2012 season Cowboys season?