This post marks the beginning of my third season covering the Cowboys here at BTB. I came to the front page just before the bell rang to usher in the 2010 season, making a splash by predicting the reigning division champs would fall to 9-7. After fending off the torches and pitchforks, I again predicted a 9-7 final tally in 2011. Although these predictions were identical in terms of record, my reasoning was quite different in each instance. In 2010, I held that the team would go only as far as its aging offensive line would manage (which wasn't far; a beat-up Tony Romo went down for the count in week six); last season, I thought it was the defensive line that would be the team's weak link. With both predictions, I was at once right (those units indeed lagged) and wrong (other units that I thought would be strong also underperformed).
So, what to make of 2012? Let's start with the good news: This offseason, the Cowboys have done a very good job addressing the problems that plagued the 2011 defense. In particular, they have turned two woefully undermanned units, cornerback and inside linebacker, into positions with an enviable combination of talent and depth. Other positives abound: the starting safeties possess more playmaking potential than the 2011 edition; with the addition of Tyrone Crawford, the development of Sean Lissemore and the return to health of Jason Hatcher, the defensive line appears more dynamic; the depth at outside linebacker should allow all-world DeMarcus Ware to stay fresher longer.
On offense, Dallas boasts several strong positions: at quarterback, they have as good a 1-2 punch as any team in the league; with the emergence of DeMarco Murray, the running back corps boasts varied talents, and has clearly defined roles; with John Phillips replacing Martellus Bennett as the number two tight end (and with surprise rookie James Hanna moving into Phillips' role), the Cowboys are more versatile and dynamic at tight end; in Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, Dallas belongs in any argument about the NFL's best pair of starting wideouts...
What's the bad news? Is there any, or will 2012 be nothing but puppies and daffodils? Make the jump to find out...
And this brings us to the bad news: the offensive line. Last year, Tony Romo was a Jedi in the pocket, seemingly using the force to dodge the oncoming rushers that knifed through the Dallas O-line as easily as a hot knife through butter. Typically, rookie sensation Tyron Smith would stonewall his man, while right tackle Doug Free would allow his to get around the edge in record time, forcing Romo up into an already-collapsing pocket. The interior line - consisting of center Phil Costa, right guard Kyle Kosier and a gallimaufry of left guards - was the offense's weak link, to such a degree that their weakness dictated game-planning and in-game strategy.
Consider: why didn't Dallas call time out late in the Arizona game so that the offense could get Dan Bailey a more make-able field goal attempt? Because Jason Garrett rightly concluded that it was more likely they would suffer another O-line breakdown, lose yardage, and negate the miraculous work by Romo and Bryant that got them into field goal range in the first place. In short, the offense was often handcuffed by shoddy line play; this was particularly evident against the better (and bigger) defensive fronts: New England, Philadelphia, the Giants, Arizona.
Unlike the defensive positions of weakness, the Cowboys didn't solve the problem with a high-profile free agent or an early-round draft pick, choosing instead to acquire bigger bodies in an effort at establishing a cleaner pocket for Romo. Judging by the team's offseason plan and their conduct at training camp, two things become clear: first, they believe that an offensive line can be successful by focusing on cohesion rather than elite talent; second, Dallas realized going into the season that they had neither elite talent (other than Smith) nor, with four of the five starters being new additions or playing new positions, any cohesion. More on that in a bit...
In the last two prognostication posts, I have gestured towards O-ring Theory, which holds that an otherwise equal production process (i.e., a collective entity such as a football team) is only as strong as its weakest link. Applying this to the offensive line back in 2010, out resident numbersmith, O.C.C. postulated what he termed "The O-line Conundrum":
The four theories above all assume an upward trajectory of each player's quality and performance. But what if there is a drop-off in a player's performance? Following O-ring theory logic, a decline in the play of one Cowboys offensive lineman would have a knock-on effect on all the other linemen, the extra TE's needed for blocking assignments, a more nervous QB etc., etc. This would not be a good place to be in, so here's hoping the coaches have plans in place that would ensure a consistently high quality of the O-line.
What O.C.C. suggested back in 2010 continues to have application: it might not matter how many Pro-Bowl caliber skill position players the Cowboys possess, as the offense will play to the level of its weakest link: the O-line. To extend this, that unit will play to the level of its weakest member - and there are several candidates for this ignominious distinction: to my mind, the likeliest lads are OG Phil Costa, BTBs favorite whipping boy, and RT Doug Free, who appears to be far removed form his excellent play in late 2009 and 2010.
So, we have two narratives that appear to be competing for dominance in 2012: 1) at many positions, this iteration of the Cowboys has more talent and depth than they have in recent years, which will help them greatly over the length of an NFL season, an attrition battle during which the bulk of a 53-man roster is called into action, and 2) an offensive line that was suspect in 2011 will continue to plague them in the upcoming campaign. Which of these narratives will out-wrestle the other and become the season summary? Before answering this, allow me one further discussion.
As I suggested above, it was clear from the team's behavior at training camp that they know quite well that this season depends on the degree to which the O-line can cohere and play well. Throughout camp, one unit was consistently the first on the field and the last to leave: the offensive line. One coach was repeatedly seen working one-on-one with players after the morning walk-throughs: Bill Callahan. Callahan is the team's most important offseason acquisition, because he's charged with transforming Dallas' shakiest position group.
And I think he's up to the task. I really enjoyed seeing him coach the big uglies at camp; he and Wes Phillips worked them hard, demanding that they focus on technique and not allowing the slightest deviations from proper form. Over the course of the preaseason, (and despite the fact that he didn't have his starting five together on the field until about a week ago) Callahan's guys have been steadily improving. In the preseason opener, at Oakland, they were horrific: confused, inept, physically overmatched. After the game, Callahan and Phillips calmly refocused on the basics, and the unit got steadily better. The next week, at San Diego, Romo enjoyed a mostly clean pocket. In the Rams game, he had an eon to find Dwayne Harris deep. Against Miami, the team rushed for 238 yards.
Unless the O-line suffers a slew of injuries, I think they will continue to improve. This progress may be slow and halting. There will likely be maddening steps backwards. But I think they will get better, such that, at season's end, they will be an effective, if not dominant, group. So, the burning question is: how much will their growing pains hurt the team in the season's early weeks? I don't know the answer, but I do think the schedule makers did the Cowboys a favor by giving them an easier early slate. Following this logic, by the time the schedule gets tougher, the O-line will be better.
This team still has some soft spots in the roster that will have to be addressed in the coming offseason: safety depth; youth and explosiveness along the D-line; more reliable receiver depth; an explosive pass rusher opposite Ware. I don't think they can realistically compete for a division title (not to mention conference dominance) until these are filled. In 2012, bolstered by a strong defense, strong play from the offensive skill positions and an improving O-line, the Cowboys can compete for a playoff berth. I have them finishing 10-6 and earning a wild card spot.
What do you have, BTBers? Hit the comments section and let your season predictions rip!