Everyone likes top-10 lists. Well, here are my top 10 reasons why Dallas will be better in 2013. Like Letterman, they are in reverse order. In the comments, please offer up your own.
10. Anthony Spencer will be rushing the passer all the time. Last season, Spencer got 11 sacks, but he rushed the passer on only 318 snaps, compared to 454 for DeMarcus Ware. And once Ware got dinged up and Sean Lee was out, Spencer was the undisputed best player on the Dallas defense. At defensive end, Jonathan Bales thinks he's going to get about 500 rushing attempts this season. With Rod Marinelli coaching him up, Spencer could pair up with Ware to become a terror for opposing offenses. Sure, DE might be a little more physically taxing, but Spencer will be in his prime. And someone else noted -- maybe KD Drummond -- that he'll be matched up against a lot of rookie or 2nd year right tackles. I look for a big year out of him in 2013.
9. Better tight end depth and play. Dallas still has Jason Witten, who should have a better start to his season absent a spleen injury. There are some who are concerned about Witten's falling YPA last season, but I'm not one of them. I think much of that had to with having no running game, and Romo having little time to pass, so Witten was forced into a lot of short passes to help move the chains. I think Witten will have an improved YPA this season, with fewer balls needing to go his way. Behind and alongside Witten last year, we had John Phillips and the rookie James Hanna. Phillips was never the same guy after he blew out his leg and lost the 2010 season. Last year he caught only 8 balls. Meanwhile, the team didn't really use Hanna until the end of the season, with 7 of his 8 catches coming in the last 4 games. This year, Hanna should be ready to display his speed by the opening game, and Escobar has to be a better receiving option than Phillips, especially in the red zone. Plus the team has Dante Rosario, who's had seasons with as many as 32 catches. This TE group won't be as good at blocking as Witten and Bennett were, but it should be able to exceed Bennett's high of 33 catches, and get into the end zone much more frequently.
8. Better running back depth and play. DeMarco Murray played in 13 games in 2011 and 10 last season, running for 897 and 663 yards on around 160 carries each year. It is unlikely that the injury bug will cause him to miss as many games in 2013. I would expect Murray to log at least 200 carries this year, and have a shot at 1,000 yards. This will come from two things: 1) better offensive line play, and 2) Dallas playing from ahead more often. Behind Murray, the picture looks much better as well. Dallas drafted Joseph Randle, a very durable back from Oklahoma State to carry the lead role if Murray goes down again. 111 carries, which is what Felix Jones had last year, would be nothing to Randle, who had 274 carries in 2012. Plus, it shouldn't be difficult for Randle to do better than Felix's anemic 3.6 YPC. As the change-of-pace guy, Lance Dunbar also appears much stronger as a second-year guy than as a rookie. Overall, this is a much more prepared running back group than Dallas fielded last year.
7. Better offensive line play. The offensive line could hardly be worse than it was last year. Dallas had the worst rushing attack in the history of the franchise. We were starting (1) an emergency guy at Center all season -- Ryan Cook -- (2) a free agent guard nicknamed "the turnstyle" by his former team's fans who had surgery and missed almost all the pre-season preparation -- Mackenzy Bernardeau -- (3) a right tackle whose skills were in free fall, causing him to be the most penalized linemen in the league, and who regularly whiffed in run blocking and pass protection -- Doug Free -- (4) a left guard who also was hurt during preseason, and who lacked mobility in run blocking -- Nate Livings -- and (5) a left tackle who had been switched from the right side after his rookie season, and whose family was hounding him for money to the point where he was forced to get restraining orders against them -- Tyron Smith. Behind this sorry group the team had little depth, as starting center Phil Costa was hurt for all but 1-1/2 games, Kevin Kowalski was out until late in the season and unusable when he returned, David Arkin was not ready for prime time, and Derrick Dockery was too old and slow to be effective. Only Jeremy Parnell provided any decent depth, and "decent" may be stretching it.
This season it's a different story. We have another first round pick, Travis Frederick, to plug into the middle of the line. After left tackle, many are of the view that center is the next most important position, and Frederick seems to be holding his own. He has to provide better line calls, more stable snap timing (Cook was the reason we had so many false starts early on last year), more mobility, and better anchoring against inside rushes. Dallas's best running game, by far, last year was the one game Phil Costa played. So it's possible Frederick by himself could make a dramatic difference in the O-line play. But we also have much better depth. Phil Costa is back healthy again, as is Kevin Kowalski. David Arkin seems almost ready to hold his own. And Ron Leary has moved from the practice squad to contending for a starting job. Plus, Doug Free looks rejuvenated, even without Jeremy Parnell breathing down his neck yet. This is not a Pro Bowl line. But it's likely to be a much more competent line, perhaps better than the 2011 line, and certainly much younger.
6. Bill Callahan calling plays, and Jason Garrett as the walk-around guy. Without seeing this in action yet, I'm just projecting here. But Callahan's offenses in Oakland from 1999-2002 were ranked 8th, 3rd, 4th, and 2nd in scoring in the NFL. That's a much better record than Dallas has achieved during Jason Garrett's 6-year tenure, which has ranked 2, 18, 14, 7, 15, and 15 in points in Garrett's years. Dallas has done much better in the yardage department under Garrett -- 3, 13, 2, 7, 11, 6 -- so it's not as if Dallas doesn't have people to move the ball. The points scored have just been underwhelming. I'm hoping/predicting that it's going to change for the better in 2013.
5. Better wide receiver depth and play. Last year Kevin Ogletree was the third WR, Dez Bryant was largely underwhelming for the first 8 games, and Dwayne Harris was mostly unused. This year, Dez Bryant is being talked about in the same sentence as Megatron, Terrence Williams, who led college football in receiving in 2012 (1,832 yards, 97 receptions, 18.9 YPC average) is likely to take Ogletree's job as third WR, and Dwayne Harris (who caught no balls until the Cleveland game) and Cole Beasley are both likely to be much more reliable and better. Add in a healthy Miles Austin, and Dallas might have the best wide receiving group in the NFL. If not, they aren't far from the top. Williams' development may be the key here if he can make teams pay for focusing all their attention on Dez Bryant. Even if he's not hot right out of the gate, he has to be much better than Kevin Ogletree, who had only 3 games last year with more than 28 yards.
I don't have a ranking for special teams improvement, so I'll sneak it in here. Having Dwayne Harris as the full time punt returner (he didn't return any punts in 5 games) after ranking 2nd in the NFL in yards per return will be another boost. These returns can win games.
4. Easier schedule. In 2012, outside of the 6 NFC East games, Dallas had 1 game against a 5-11 team, 3 games against 7-9 teams, 1 game against an 8-8 team, 3 games against 10-6 teams, 1 game against an 11-5 team, and 1 game against a 13-3 team.
In 2013, Dallas is looking at: 1 @ 2-14, 2 @ 4-12, 2 @ 7-9, 1 @ 7-8-1, 2 @ 10-6, 1 @ 11-5, 1 @ 13-3.
After cancelling out teams with the same records, in place of 1 @ 10-6, 1 @ 8-8, 1 @ 7-9, and 1@ 5-11, Dallas has 1 @ 7-8-1, 2 @ 4-12, and 1 @ 2-14. Cumulatively, that's 30-34 in 2012 versus 17-46-1 in 2013.
Plus, the bye is later in the year, when guys are more likely to need the R&R.
3. Defensive health. Last year, Sean Lee missed 10 games, Jay Ratliff missed 10 games, Barry Church missed 13 games, Bruce Carter missed 5-1/2 games, Orlando Scandrick missed 5-1/2 games, and DeMarcus Ware was banged up with a hyperextended elbow and shoulder brace. All of these guys are back, except Jay Ratliff, who has a hammy twinge and is still recovering from hernia surgery. That's a lot of Pro Bowl talent on the defensive shelf. This year we've lost Tyrone Crawford for the season, but he played fewer than 20 snaps a game and had only 20 tackles and no sacks, so it's likely he can be covered better than any of the starters listed above. I would also throw in Mo Claiborne being in year two, and having a veteran safety like Will Allen as pluses on the defensive side.
2. Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli coaching the D. Hand in hand with better defensive health is who Dallas brought in as defensive coordinator and d-line coach. If you look at how his defenses performed, Rob Ryan had a much better reputation than was deserved. Here are the year-by-year rankings of his defenses in points allowed: Oakland, 31, 25, 18, 26, 24; Cleveland 21, 13; Dallas 16, 24. Never in the top-10, and only once in the top-15. That's not good.
By comparison, here are the defensive rankings in points allowed for Monte Kiffin: 8, 2, 5, 3, 7, 8, 1, 4, 9, 8, 21, 3, 10. That's 13 seasons, 12 of them in the top-10, 6 of them in the top-5. The year before Kiffin came, Tampa's D was ranked 12th. The year after he left, 27th. The man just knows how to mold a top-10 defense.
Rod Marinelli, who was with Kiffin for 10 of those years in Tampa, has also done well on his own. With the Bears the last 3 years, his teams were ranked 4, 14, 3.
Given this track record, I think it's probable that Dallas will have a top-10 defense in 2013, and it's going to make a HUGE difference.
1. More turnovers on D, fewer turnovers on O. I've already written a detailed post on why I think Dallas will improve its turnover differential by 20-25 in 2013. It's based on 1) Kiffin and Marinelli's track record at coaching up turnovers, 2) a return to the mean on defense, as Dallas forced only 16 turnovers last year, after averaging 27.5 turnovers per year from 2005-11, and 3) a return to the mean on offense, as Romo had 19 picks last year, but only 10 and 9 his two prior full season years at QB.
Turnovers can turn around a team almost by themselves. For example, San Francisco went from -1 in TO differential in 2010, when they finished 6-10, to + 28 TO differential in 2011, when they finished 13-3. That's a +29 swing. I don't think Dallas can achieve that. But if we get a TO differential swing north of 20 turnovers, it's going to be worth several extra wins.
These are my top-10 reasons why I'm drinking the Kool-Aid and predicting great things for the Dallas Cowboys in 2013. How about you?