Anyone who has been reading my fanposts over the last few months should know that I'm pretty excited about the Cowboys prospects in 2013. I think this may be the best team since 2007. I've laid out 10 Reasons Why Dallas Will Be Much Better in 2013. I've predicted an 11-5 record, good enough to win the NFC East. And I think the team may be good enough to win some playoff games, with a shot at making the NFC Championship and the Super Bowl. Indeed, given the age of the roster, I have argued that this is the year when the Cowboys will have their BEST shot at achieving these goals. I believe all these arguments to be sound.
I don't think Dallas is close to being ready to accomplish all of these things YET. To get this off my chest as much as anything, I've decided to write this post with a focus on what Dallas still needs to fix if the team wants to reach the promised land this year.
1. THE OFFENSIVE LINE. It always comes back to the offensive line, doesn't it? We've had 3 preseason games, and in each game, the offensive line has become demonstrably worse. Against Miami, the team rushed for 170 yards -- 5 ypc -- with a line of Smith, Leary, Frederick, Arkin, and Free. Backup tackles appeared fairly quickly, and Costa came in to push Frederick to guard, moving Arkin to the bench, but the interior line looked great for the most part. The next game, Bernardeau started at right guard and the team could muster only 70 yards on the ground, at 3.5 ypc. Then last night, Leary was out, with Arkin at left guard and Bernie on the right. The team mustered only 40 years at 2.8 ypc.
This is NOT the trajectory one wants to have.
Clearly, the team desperately needs Leary back at left guard. But it also needs a solution at right guard, and Bernardeau is not it. Is David Arkin the solution? Certainly he's better than Bernie. But he's also had plays where he's been pushed around, and you wonder what a defensive coordinator could do with a game plan to exploit his continued lack of strength.
Is Nate Livings the solution? He might be. But we'll have no way of knowing until his knees are healed enough for him to play.
I believe that Dallas needs to do whatever it takes to sign Brian Waters. Now that we've heard that talks are "dead" I'm even more adamant that the Dallas brass should pony up some additional money to bring Waters into the fold. My guess is that the sides are about $1-1.5 million apart. I base this on the difference between what Dallas offered Brandon Moore ($2 million with incentives), and what Waters played for in NE in 2011 ($1.5 M base + $1.75 M incentives = $3.25 million).
When you have the most valuable sports franchise in the US, worth $2.3 billion, why would you put its success at risk over a likely $1-1.5 million difference between your offer to Brian Waters and what he may want to return to the field. Because this article says that Waters is ready to play, if it's the right situation. Think about that.
Consider the marginal value of having Brian Waters at right guard instead of Nate Livings, Mackenzy Bernardeau, or David Arkin. Is that worth upping the ante to Waters to the point where he decides to unretire?
Then think back to these numbers: 170, 70, and 40, and 5 ypc, 3.5 ypc, and 2.8 ypc. These are the declining rushing numbers in the first three preseason games.
The Cowboys cannot afford to field an offensive line that can't run block effectively. We've been down that road last year. It yields a team forced into S11 formations on almost 50% of offensive snaps, with the worst rushing attack in the history of the franchise. It yields a team that's 6th in yards, but only 15th in points.
The choice seems to be between upping the offer to Brian Waters, or put the season at risk again where one or both of your guards -- Leary, Livings, and Bernardeau -- are injury risks or just incompetent, and the healthiest guy -- Arkin -- has never played in a regular season game and continues to be underpowered. Please, just bite the money bullet and go with the proven Pro Bowl guy and be done with all the hand wringing over the O-line.
2. THE DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD. The area that concerns me the second most right now is the defensive backfield play. Mo Claiborne has yet to play, so we haven't seen how much he's progressed from last year. Matt Johnson continues to get banged up. JJ Wilcox has shown he can tackle but hasn't shown he can cover. While BW Webb has looked challenged at tackling AND covering.
Right now, there seems to be lots of room in the middle of our defense for opposing QBs to exploit.
We may have two stars outside at CB, but they are as yet unproven in Kiffin's scheme, and they were very disappointing last year in forcing turnovers. Barry Church and Will Allen haven't worked together much, and seem to allow too much space when the field is open, although they've done a better job in the red zone when the field is compressed. From my point of view, there is a lot of space for improvement here.
There's no potential Brian Waters fix here. We just have to hope that Johnson gets healthy that the backfield play improves as guys get comfortable and experienced with the Kiffin scheme.
3. MISTAKES, MISTAKES, MISTAKES. We didn't see the first team offense against Miami, and lo and behold, it might have been our best offensive performance. It lacked any kind of explosive passing game, but it ran the ball effectively, committed almost no penalties, and because of two turnovers, both of which led to TDs, we won the game.
In game two, the first team offense was handed the ball deep in Oakland territory on a turnover, only to see a nice first down run negated by a Jason Witten holding call. 3 points instead of 7 followed. A later drive was also stalled in the red zone with a motion penalty on Ron Leary (a second pre-snap penalty was overcome on the drive), and the FG try was blocked. 0 points instead of 7.
For the starting offense, that's 2 games and at least two quarters, but only 3 points and two turnovers, even though Tony Romo was 6-8 for 88 yards against Oakland, and 7-10 for 142 yards against Arizona. We moved the ball, we just didn't translate it into points. This is the typical pattern under Jason Garrett's offense.
Look at the Garrett offense over the last 6 years. Only once have we ranked higher in points scored than in yardage gained -- 2007.
2007 - 3rd YPG, 2nd PPG
2008 - 13th YPG, 18th PPG
2009 - 2nd YPG, 14th PPG
2010 - 7th YPG, 7th PPG
2011 - 11th YPG, 15th PPG
2012 - 6th YPG, 15th PPG
Why the disparity? One reason is the abundance of turnovers and penalties that Dallas has committed. These drive-killing mistakes are apparently not yet purged from our starting offense.
After the preseason games, Romo, Witten, Garrett and others have said they will get these things fixed, but they have to actually get them fixed. Meanwhile, the media continues the mistake-prone narrative for the Dallas Cowboys.
Contrast that to a team like Seattle, which swarmed one of the best teams in the league -- Denver -- to the tune of 33-7 at halftime last night.
How can the Cowboys become a team like Arizona or Seattle was last night -- i.e., a team that forces mistakes and punishes teams for making them instead of continuously wasting opportunities to score?
4. WILL THE COWBOYS GET AND STAY HEALTHY? Last year, the injury bug decimated the Cowboys defense. Sean Lee and Jay Ratliff both missed 10 games. Bruce Carter and Orlando Scandrick missed 6 games. DeMarco Murray missed 6 games. Phil Costa played only one game.
This year, we've so far lost two guys for the season -- Tyrone Crawford and Alex Albright. But we've also continued to see injuries leave the offensive line unsettled -- with knee scopes for Nate Livings and Ron Leary, a knee injury to Kevin Kowalski, and leg problems for Jeremy Parnell. We also lost Terence Williams for two games to a concussion. On the defensive side, Spencer has missed all the pre-season games with a knee scope, Jay Ratliff missed all of training camp with groin and hamstring issues, Matt Johnson got injured in the Miami game, and Mo Claiborne has yet to play in the preseason.
Hopefully this will all clear up soon. But it's been disruptive for the O-line and defensive line and secondary, and you have to wonder whether it will hurt us to begin the season.
5. THE PASS RUSH. To run Kiffin's D, you've got to be able to bring pressure with 4 guys. You can project Dallas having 4 great starters, once Spencer returns and Ratliff finally gets on the field. But only one of these guys is under 30, and all of them but Hatcher had injury issues during the season last year. Ratliff missed 10 games, Spencer missed 2, and Ware was dinged up the second half of the year.
Behind these guys we have 4 very unproven reserves. Nick Hayden wasn't even in football last year. George Selvie is on his 3rd or 4th team. Ben Bass was a UDFA who got injured shortly after he was activated by Dallas last year. Kyle Wilber made only 5 tackles last year. Sean Lissemore is the most experienced backup, by far, but he's also the one who may have been passed on the depth chart.
Like the defensive secondary, we aren't likely to go outside the team for a fix, so we're going to have to make do with what we have. If the guys stay healthy, it could be a team strength. If they don't, the fall off from starter to reserves may be steep.
6. SPECIAL TEAMS. The first play we put our starting punt returner in, he fumbled the ball. We have yet to have any decent punt returns, and almost all kick offs we've run out the end zone have ended up short of the 20. We also allowed a big return by Oakland right after we took the lead 17-16. Let's just say the jury is out on our new ST coach, Rich Bisaccia.
That's enough venting for now.
Which way is the team going to go?
Dallas could correct these things and have a great season.
They could also cheap out on the O-line, struggle with the running game, find out the Kiffin defense isn't ready from day one, continue making mistakes on offense that cost the team points, lose important contributors, and suffer from the lack of youth and depth on the D-line. We also don't really know whether Callahan is going to call a better game than Jason Garrett.
I'm sticking with 11-5. But I would sleep a lot better if the team bit the bullet and met Brian Waters' demands, giving it enough strength on the O-line to actually run Garrett's full offense. That, in turn, could help cover for the defense, which might have some growing pains as it buys into Kiffin's scheme.
What do you think will happen at this point?