Under Jason Garrett, I've been impressed at the consistency I've seen in the Cowboys. I've already posted about how "surprised fans" seem not to have noticed that most of the things that have happened were predictable and predicted. Here's my second take on why "fans who want an identity' seem not to notice that we already have one.
Our offense spreads it around
There are teams that have one runner and one receiver who are going to beat you. But even if you think Dez is up there with Calvin Johnson (questionable) and that Murray is up there with Adrian Peterson (more questionable), the Cowboys aren't that team.
The Cowboys are, and have been, and will be, a spread-around-the-ball offense. This does not mean we are passive, only taking what the defense is giving us. It means we go into a game already intending to get touches to a lot of different dangerous offensive players. Of course, we'd be stupid if we didn't take advantage of the looks the defense is showing us in order to decide when to feed which players. But the basic gameplan is to give a decent chance for Dez, Austin, Witten, Murray, Dunbar, Beasley, Williams, and Hannah to hit the other team from every side.
This is not a pound-the-rock team, it is a feed-the-weapons team. The Cowboys' offensive identity doesn't care as much about whether a play is a run play or not--it cares about whether the play is effectively using our weapons. Often, the very games in which we wonder why our RBs are not receiving more handoffs are games where our RBS are being very effective in the passing game. We can hit the other team with a running attack--or a screen pass.
Other articles have noticed the impressive stats on how many players on the Cowboys teams have significant yards compared to other teams. I'm also impressed by how many players we have made look dangerous. This has included breakouts like Laurent Robinson, rookies like Williamson, and even receivers who aren't that great--like Ogletree--who still dominated in one or more games. (Remember last year's Giants opener?) Our drafting is therefore about continually cycling in more dangerous weapons to spread the ball to--and if that has not (yet) worked for Escobar, it has worked for Williams.
When our O is not clicking, then you will notice that many of our weapons--runners, receivers, tight ends, QB--are having trouble being effective. But there is no single answer--run more, feed Dez more. In the very games when Dez has more yards, you also see some missed opportunities for more targets to Williams or Witten or Beasley or Hannah. Success in one area opens up more success in another. We aren't taking what they give us--we're hitting them from every side.
Our defense is flawed and limping, but becoming opportunistic
Our defense has also had its own identity for some time--speed over bulk, for example. But mostly it has been an identity (under Garrett) of trying desperately to get things together more quickly than things are falling apart. JG's first year, the secondary was so bad that we had to overhaul it, while also quietly trying to build a dominant strength at LB. Our improvements, however, were slowed by injuries--and the slow regression of the D-line has been hastened by injuries. Sometimes, "progress" looks like finding ways not to fall completely apart when your best players aren't on the field.
Yet this year, the D does seem to be taking on a new, Kiffen identity. They are swarming the ball. They are tougher in the red zone. They are opportunistic about turnovers and defensive points--but also about drive-killers at crucial parts of the game. All of these characteristics explain why they are only mediocre in points allowed (and why the Cowboys still have a winning record), when they are so historically terrible in yards allowed.
Our organization fixes things--but often a little late
This organization has had its share of problems in the last few years, or we would have seen more playoff success. But I'm always confused by people who do not think we are working on these problems.
JG inherited an aging O-line with little depth. In three years, major free agent money and draft pick investment, coaching investment and creative experimentation, have gone into improving the O-line. Is it still a work in progress? Sure. Do they need to get better at evaluating talent? Maybe, especially in lower rounds. Of course, the "fix things" mentality that led to Tron and Fredbeard had its opportunity cost--we could have gotten Aldon Smith (who would certainly have made our D-line woes look better) or Sharif Floyd (the jury is still out, but a top-rated D-lineman is nothing to sneeze at). Much the same thing could be said for the secondary, where "fixing things" is not complete, but has certainly received effort--and with the opportunity cost of spending two first-round draft picks on a CB who is still waiting to emerge as a game-changer.
My main complaint is that we fix things late--instead of looking ahead (for example, at the fact that our D-line was aging). But sometimes, you don't have the luxury of solving tomorrow's problem before you take a good stab at yesterday's!
We've also made some real progress on other issues of the Cowboys' game: Turnover differential, red zone percentage differential, and special teams jump to mind. I might also add that if there is such a thing as "being built to win in your division," we have turned a corner there as well. Admittedly, the major problem--we can't beat a good team with a good passing attack to gash our D--has not been fixed. But there are signs that we are working on it--most drastically this past Sunday, when we made the deliberate decision to let a Lee-less D be run over but not give up too many passing yards. Will this work against a real QB? . . . .
We are a pretty good team
My final point is that our "identity problems," as fans, often have an all-or-nothing approach. "Mediocre" often means nothing more than that we are not a bad team. ESPN may talk throughout our bye week about whether JG's job is safe 'if he doesn't win any more games"--but why deal with this weird hypothetical? Put differently, how many NFL coaches have never had a losing season?
If you want us to blow up, have several bad years, and dream that this means lots of draft picks will make us a Superbowl contender--fine, you can dream. This team, however, has an identity, which is more about progress. And the progress is coming. Most teams have a worse record, and are not sitting on top of their division.
This year we've been blown out once, at our gimpiest, before our bye week, against one of the league's best teams. Otherwise, we played close with two of the league's other best teams (Kansas City before it lost its two top pass-rushers; the Broncos) and fought to a draw with middle-of-the-road teams (barely losing to Chargers and Lions, winning the others). If you look at our remaining games, none has a particularly fear-inspiring passing attack, like those of the teams that have beaten us this year. (This depends on Rogers' health, of course.) Barring more injuries, it's most likely that we win three out of these five--which no doubt seems "mediocre" to some, but is almost certainly good enough for a 9-7 division win.
In the playoffs, we will meet some of those six or seven teams who are clearly better than we are. Unless we are really lucky, we won't go far. That isn't what any fan wants.
But the bigger picture is that other very good teams start losing games when their vital pieces get injured. Injury has slowed, but not obscured, our progress from year to year. We have an identity--and it isn't the identity, yet, of a Superbowl-favored powerhouse. It is the identity of a gimpy, exciting, and surprisingly persistent team that keeps me watching and hoping every Sunday.