4-4. .500. Average. Mediocre. With half their season in the books, the Dallas Cowboys are once again trying to get off the spot they have been stuck the past two seasons, and failing. Their fans are feeling like they are trapped in a Stealers Wheel song.
This is certainly not where the team planned to be. The main reason, I think, is that this is not the team the coaches and staff thought they would have at this point. Literally.
There are two aspects to that. One, that I believe applies primarily to the offense, is that they did not have quite what they thought they did in their personnel. The other, which is more descriptive of what is happening with the defense, is that these are not the players they expected to be here.
The offensive issues, as always, stem back to the offensive line. The Cowboys have three-fifths of the issues in pretty good shape, with both tackles and the center position looking like they are in capable hands. But the guard problems are back. With Brian Waters out, likely for the year according to Jerry Jones, the solution they seemed to have at RG is now gone. That leaves Mackenzy Bernadeau to come back in, which may put some of Doug Free's vast improvement in jeopardy, since Waters seemed to be a stabilizing influence on him. But Bernadeau may not be the biggest issue.
Ronald Leary has been the weak link on the line all season. The UDFA and Jerry Jones' pet cat has consistently looked the worse of all the Dallas offensive linemen, at least since Waters came on board. It doesn't matter where you go to get an evaluation of his play. Pro Football Focus has him as the worst of the linemen (and, in a slightly encouraging note, showed Bernadeau with a positive grade in his work against the Detroit Lions). If you distrust PFF, you can look at what Bob Sturm (who also doesn't like PFF) or Bryan Broaddus have said about him lately. Both feel like he is the least effective of the linemen.
Once again, the Cowboys may be another draft away from really getting the line issues fixed, and there may be some real validity in the argument that Larry Warford would have been a more valuable pick than Gavin Escobar. Regardless, the issues Dallas has had with pass protection in several games has seemingly made Tony Romo a little leery himself, and he may be getting rid of the ball a beat too quickly to find the receivers he needs. Sturm covers this on one play in his latest Decoding Callahan post, which also points to Leary as the reason Romo feels the extra pressure on the play.
This has made Romo less effective. Given how poorly he has done since the dazzling play he exhibited against the Denver Broncos, the question becomes whether he is just too gun-shy now to get the job done. If he cannot recover some of his old style and presence on the field, then things may just not work out.
The defense's problems with injuries have been discussed a lot already. Monte Kiffin now finds himself having to try to make do with less talented and experienced players than he had been expecting to. He was brought in to install a new scheme, which is hard enough. Now he is having to rebuild the defense on the fly at the same time. If you think about it, he is trying to do now what is supposed to be done in the offseason and training camp: Identify players, bring them in, teach them their roles, evaluate their performance, and select the best ones. This is all without the advantage of numbers. Instead of having a group of potential players vying for one or two spots, the team has to release one player to bring in another, as has happened with the release of Jason Vega to make room for Everette Brown. Vega is not much of a loss, admittedly, but this is a slow, time-consuming process while the season is underway and the team is operating under the restrictions of the 53-man roster.
Now, in addition to being short-handed on the defensive line, the team is also running out of bodies in the secondary. Injuries are a part of the game in the NFL, but once again, the Dallas D seems to be suffering more than its share of them. And they came into the season behind the curve on day one with the losses of all the defensive linemen.
It is more than a little ironic that the Cowboys are having so many personnel problems when the early returns on this year's draft class are so good. Leaving out the arguments about the Escobar pick, Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, J.J. Wilcox, Joseph Randle, and UDFA Jeff Heath all look to be excellent additions to the roster, with all of them having stepped up to a starting job as needed (Fredbeard of course has started from day one, and TWill was effectively a starter as the third WR to open the season). All have done well under the conditions. They may not be stars at their positions, but they are not glaring weaknesses, either. And B.W. Webb is going to get his chance to prove himself with Morris Claiborne expected to miss at least a couple of games. Jakar Hamilton is also going to have a chance to contribute as a backup and special teams player now.
That, however, is also a summation of why the Cowboys are having such struggles getting above the .500 mark. Jason Garrett and company have what I think are good ideas and take steps to enact them, only to have the pieces break on them. In the case of the NFL, the pieces are your personnel. When they keep falling apart on you like they have for the Cowboys the past few years, the only thing to do is go back and get some more. And that is a slow process.
This leaves the team with a very murky view of the rest of the season. Instead of going forward with their plans, they are trying to adjust the plans to try and make things work with what they have. As the roster becomes more filled with street free agents and practice squad callups, the resulting team deviates more and more from the plan.
From here on, the outcome of the season is going to fall more and more on the coaches, who have to find ways to make this rather motley roster work. Almost nothing is working the way it was expected to. And so far, the coaches have only been able to get things to fall into place half the time.
Stuck in the middle again.