After a tumultuous season for the Cowboys, there are two more games left to play in the regular season, and as improbable as that may sound right now, two wins can still land the Cowboys a playoff spot.
Fresh off two gut-wrenching losses to Chicago and Green Bay, this week's headlines have been dominated by knee-jerk commentary about how the Cowboys have the worst defense in the league, how Callahan's play-calling is atrocious, why Jason Garrett should be fired, why Jerry Jones is Satan's Spawn for using the word "show" to describe a game, or why DeMarcus Ware is terminally ill on his deathbed. Heck, there were even reports of some nutjob burning his Romo jersey.
Going by this week's headlines, you'd think the Cowboys were 2-12, and certainly nowhere close to the (admittedly disappointing) 7-7 that they are in reality.
As a fanbase, we have a tendency to overreact to everything. Two good games and we're booking tickets for the Super Bowl, two bad games and we want to fire every coach on the staff, and just as precaution, fire everybody else who was ever on the Cowboys staff in the past, just to make sure.
But what gets lost among all the handwringing and gnashing of teeth is that some Cowboys players are having great seasons, just as some players are having terrible seasons.
So today we're going to look at those players who have (quietly for the most part) delivered a fine season so far. To do that we'll look at those Cowboys players who rank at or close to the top (at least top 20) within their position after 14 games as per their Pro Football Focus grades. Keep in mind that the grades are cumulative - if two guys get the same grade for each game, but one guy has 10 games to the other guy's 14, the player with 14 games will have the higher total grade. Also note that the grades are not comparable between positions, i.e. Tyron Smith with a grade of 23.2 is not three times better than Jason Witten with a grade of 7.2. With that out of the way, this is how the Cowboys players rank:.
|POS||Player||Position Rank||Qualifying Players||Percentile||Season Grade|
'Position Rank' shows the absolute rank within a position group, 'Qualifying Players' shows how many players are ranked in that position group, e.g. Dez Bryant is ranked 12th out of 112 wide receivers who've played at least 25% of their teams' snaps.
You'll immediately notice that the defense is under-represented versus the offense and versus special teams, and given how the season has unfolded so far, that's not really a surprise. Football Outsiders rank teams across all three phases, and they have the Cowboys as the number 10 offense, the number eight special teams, and the number 31 defense, all of which is reflected in the table above.
The most pleasant surprise on the offensive side of the ball is that three Cowboys offensive linemen rank among the top at their respective positions, including the Cowboys' rookie center who is ranked as the fourth best center in the league by PFF.
Packers defensive tackle Ryan Pickett told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that the Cowboys have the best zone scheme in the league. And while it took a while to get it running (excuse the pun), the Cowboys have now figured out the zone blocking scheme, according to right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau.
"Up front, we have a better understanding of the zone, how to approach the blocking and techniques," Bernadeau said. "It’s just, as the season progresses, you’re supposed to get better. Obviously, that’s what we’ve done."
And obviously, that's reflected in the grades above.
Right tackle Doug Free (22nd, +14.3) narrowly missed the top 20 list, but is a definite asset to a line in which only UDFA Ron Leary (54th, -9.3) does not have an above average grade.
Topping the list on offense is DeMarco Murray, whom the PFF graders show as the fourth-best running back in the league despite missing two full games and exiting a third injured. Of course, when you have this type of player at your disposal, the best thing is to not play him in second half of games. Everybody knows this.
On defense, only three players make the list, and their presence obscures some less than savory grades of the players playing next to them: Where Jason Hatcher is the 8th-ranked defensive tackle, Nick Hayden (-28.1) is the 68th and last-ranked defensive tackle in the league. I still haven't figured out whether Hayden is truly as atrocious as PFF make him out to be, but it's not looking good for Hayden.
Similarly, Sean Lee is playing next to Bruce Carter (-8.2) and Ernie Sims (-22.5). Carter ranks 29th out of 34 qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers. Because Sims has played both inside and outside linebacker, he doesn't have enough snaps at either position to qualify for the positional rankings. However, his -22.5 grade would place him last among all OLBs in the league and second-to-last among all ILBs.
Conspicuous by their absence: the entire Cowboys secondary. Orlando Scandrick's +0.6 grade is the only positive grade in that unit, and that grade is only good for 54th out of 109 cornerbacks.
Finally, we know that Dwayne Harris and Dan Bailey have had a great season on special teams, but punter Chris Jones has flown a bit under the radar, so it's nice to see him get some recognition here.
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