2013 training camp and preseason is just around the corner. After OTAs, many roster projections and discussions of the changes on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball (plus a new special teams coach), BTBers and even casual Cowboys fans are stoked at what this squad has to offer.
As Kegbearer points out in this excellent post, the youth and depth that Jason Garrett has constructed this roster with entering his third full season on the job is the best reason for optimism in the face of the usual doubts about injuries, the offensive line and the secondary (the three Horsemen of two consecutive 8-8 finishes). And the law of averages would suggest that this year the number of injuries should go down -- including with more savvy management of a certain no. 2 receiver's temperamental hamstrings. But all it would take is for a couple of tweaked hammies or interior offensive linemen to be held out for many practices this training camp to evoke groans of 'here we go again' -- not unlike, if you're a Giants fan, watching your corners go down in preseason.
The following are my top seven reasons for optimism about this season, paired with areas of concern. Nearly all of my concerns, not surprisingly, revolve around injuries and depth despite the undeniable improvement in the talent at the bottom of this roster. Surprisingly to some BTBers, the offensive line is not the group I'm the most concerned with. That would be our defensive line, upon which the success of any Monte Kiffin/Rod Marinelli 4-3 defense rests (just ask the Giants last year when their talented but injured pass rush never could make up for a dinged up secondary).
1. The conversion to Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli's simpler, more attacking defense should result in more sacks, pressures, and consequent turnovers for this defense. So despite some coverage mistakes by the young safety (Matt Johnson or J.J. Wilcox) starting opposite Barry Church, turnovers overcome a few big plays given up deep. The Kiffin/Marinelli system also allows the Cowboys' depth players and any free agents signed off the street to pick up the system faster.
-1. Despite great expectations of more strip sacks/fumbles and interceptions, young players in the secondary continue to struggle (particularly the safeties) and Brandon Carr can't live up to the sky high expectations of his contract and the level of play he set in the latter half of the 2012 season. The root of the secondary's struggles? Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher both beginning to show signs of their age and decline, and the backups not getting enough pressure in relief of a nicked up Demarcus Ware or even a previously indestructible Anthony Spencer succumbing to the injury bug.
Simply put while I think if one of the Cowboys starting interior OL goes down they have some decent depth there, I fear the drop off between our starters and our backups along the defensive line is far more steep. How to address this? Perhaps picking up a veteran cap casualty to bolster the defensive end rotation in September is warranted, especially if one of our young DEs gets hurt.
2. With new and emerging weapons in James Hanna and Gavin Escobar, the Cowboys should finally be able to capitalize on their top 5 offense between the 20 yard lines and score more touchdowns, thus alleviating the slow starts that forced Tony Romo to throw too much and play from behind an incredibly high percentage of the time last year.
-2. Escobar proves to be a bit too lumbering to be an effective red zone weapon with defenses keying in on him and Dez down in the red zone. Hanna shines splitting deep seams and taking advantage of safeties cheating towards Dez Bryant's side of the field early on, but injuries derail his blooming potential and he and Escobar prove to be liabilities in the run game.
3. The offensive line finally gels in Bill Callahan's second full season under the tutelage of former Houston Texans blocking guru Frank Pollack. Ronald Leary bumps Nate Livings off the roster by seizing the left guard job next to Travis Frederick while David Arkin pushes Mackenzy Bernadeau to play his best football or move on. Kevin Kowalski captures Ryan Cook's swing guard/center job on gamedays with Phil Costa bringing up the rear as the third center option. The result along with more 12 formations and the emergence of the young backs behind Demarco Murray is the best Cowboys running game since 2009 with far greater hope for offensive line continuity in the future.
-3. Despite appearing solid in training camp our big bodied interior OL prove to be not quick enough to pick up the stunts while the slimmer backups can't handle bull rushers. Doug Free reverts to his poor play from last season while 26 year old project Jeremy Parnell still can't pick up the nuances of our blocking scheme and stays stuck on the bench despite being more physical than Free.
4. Dez Bryant is so dominant teams routinely cheat/bracket coverage to his side of the field, resulting in single coverage for Miles Austin, Jason Witten and our young receivers shredding opposing defensive zones. Dez continues to be the hottest receiver in fantasy football shutting up the Cowboys/Romo haters in your public league.
5. The combination of a healthy Sean Lee and Bruce Carter plus Devonte Holloman and/or Justin Durant is feared by opposing offensive coordinators, forcing them to keep backs and tight ends in to chip while reducing dunk and dink/read options. RG3 gets an introduction to the end of the zone read as a workable offense from too many big hits.
Bruce/Lee pick up right where they started last year as tackling machines and also pick off passes in zone drops and forcing fumbles too. Opposing quarterbacks who once feasted on the middle of the field and shredded us with their slot receivers and tight ends find more rushers in their face and take coverage sacks deep in their own territory, resulting in Romo finally having short fields to work with.
-5. Either Lee or Carter can't stay healthy and the young linebackers like Brandon Magee prove to be overmatched in either size or speed in coverage.
6. Special teams under new coach Rich Bisaccia emulates his success for the San Diego Chargers, finally turning what had been a liability for Dallas in the field position battle into a strength. Darth Bailey continues to be nearly automatic on field goals of less than 50 yards. Lance Dunbar and Dwayne Harris prove to be a potent one two punch on kick and punt returns.
-6. Cutting Danny McCray in favor of Jakar Hamilton at the fifth safety spot proves to be a mistake as the Cowboys miss their guided missile shutting down opposing return men. Darth Bailey gets a bad case of the Nick Folk yips.
7. Schedule/Intangibles - Tony Romo starts out hot against a Giants secondary he basically torched in both games last year, minus the interceptions of the second contest. Dez dominates the Giants corners who look good on paper but can't play man and can't stop our two-TE attack or the run while playing zone. The Cowboys take advantage of an apparently soft September schedule to start 3-1 or even 4-0 to build momentum for the tougher part of the schedule later in the year.
-7. The Giants get in Romo's head this opener and pick him off by exotic blitzes and coverages as they did in game 2. The Cowboys fail to break the curse that hasn't had them beat the Giants at Cowboys Stadium yet. The Kansas City Chiefs with their deep secondary and stout front prove to be much tougher opponents than their 2012 record would indicate. The St. Louis Rams stun the Cowboys with an upset at Cowboys Stadium. Jason Garrett's 2013 edition starts to look like the previous 8-8 W L W L W L editions and the front office denies BSPN super secret pinky swear source rumors that Garrett is on the hot seat.