After thinking about it carefully, I decided to START this FanPost before rather than after our match up with the St. Louis Rams this weekend. I wanted to look at this team's long term needs without the temptation to overreact to whatever we see on Sunday (though I'm still expecting a win, and have a much better feeling about the Rams coming to our house than beating the Chiefs in theirs). In the past, I would have put together some sort of near mid-season mock Cowboys draft, but since the draft depends on the philosophical issues and performance we're going to see hashed out over the next three months, I thought I'd outline the primary questions that need to be answered before the Cowboys go on the clock next May.
1) What if defensive end (as opposed to a 3-tech) is not an urgent need in this upcoming draft?
The emergence of journeyman George Selvie at LDE for the Cowboys has been a pleasant surprise, along with the play of our "no name" defensive tackles in both games. Assuming Selvie doesn't fade down the stretch and provides quality snaps in relief of Anthony Spencer and his bad knee (and possibly comes in for Ware too when the Cowboys actually get a significant lead), does Selvie starting in his prime at age 27 allow the Cowboys not to spend one of their top three draft picks on a defensive end? Or is George likely to return to the patterns that had him bouncing around the league, if given a cap friendly 2 or 3 year deal? And what about Caesar Rayford?
One thing's for sure -- with Jay Ratliff likely playing his last season as a Cowboy, Dallas will be in the hunt between 12 and 21 for a 3-technique DT like Ra'Shede Hageman or LSU's Anthony Johnson. Thanks to what looks to be a strong quarterback and offensive tackle class, the Cowboys just might be able to get their man and make us forget about missing out on Sharif Floyd. 3-tech is still the direction I expect Dallas to go on draft day 1 with the newly acquired David Carter or Drake Nevis starting at the 1 spot in 2014, and Nick Hayden as the backup 1. I'm also wondering if the prospect of quality DEs sliding into the 2nd or 3rd round and Caesar Rayford providing quality snaps as the backup SAM DE or Tyrone Crawford switching to his college position creates less urgency in the front office to draft an end.
2) If offensive line (at least in pass protection) isn't this team's biggest problem in scoring, what is? How to get enough 'splash plays' to beat the toughest defenses in the league?
As BTBers have widely lamented this week, the things we think won't be problems (Doug Free, or the play of Romo and the wide receivers now hampered by injuries) tend to become problems, while the issues we presume will be problematic -- offensive or defensive lines -- seem to be less sticky as the Cowboys seek to rise above mediocrity. Which naturally brings up the question of scheme, as well as whether we koolaid drinking fans are overvaluing our talent versus the rest of the league.
On the matter of implementing the Kiffinelli defense as well as Bill Callahan's alleged dunk and dink offense that makes us pine for Romo's gunslinger days, ScarletO wrote an excellent post calling for patience from the fans after the KC loss. We all know Dez's back won't stay tight forever, and Romo's ribs should be feeling slightly better this week, allowing for some deep balls against smallish, aggressive corners like the Rams.
Hopefully Jason Garrett and Callahan had a heart to heart this week about getting weapons like James Hanna or Dwayne Harris open running quick hitches out of the back field for actual yards after the catch (indeed @BryanBroaddus listed Harris as the Cowboys 'secret weapon' this week). And when it comes to sending Hanna down the seam to exploit the gap between the Rams backers and their safeties, if anybody should know T.J. McDonald's shortcomings as a rookie safety out of USC, it would be his old college coach Kiffin.
My gut tells me though that the approach of doubling or bracketing Dez is going to continue all year, except from teams that view their cover corners as truly elite. If Dallas other weapons including Murray, Miles and TWill prove unable to make noise by midseason, it calls into question not only the playcalling/schemes but also the personnel -- namely whether Jason Witten has 'lost a step' and the threat he once posed to the middle of the field combined with Gavin Escobar's slowness have hampered the offense.
I also think that to successfully run a more West Coast style attack like Callahan's requires guys who are explosive after the catch. We know Dez is one of the best players in the league in this category, such that even against a top 10 defense like the Chiefs he can almost win the ball game (and probably would have without back spasms and with better play calls in the red zone).
But what if a more explosive weapon out of the back field is needed when the running game gets stuffed and Dez can't carry all the load? For those of you saying 'just improve the line' (and of course, we need a starting right guard to replace Brian Waters, a long term answer at right tackle if not Jeremy Parnell, and a better G/C swing man than Bernadeau), I give you Sunday night's Seattle beatdown of the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers.
2b) How can Dallas win when the other team stuffs the run?
There are some elite defenses in this league -- and the Chiefs by mid-season may be in that company -- that can stuff any running game, no matter how potent it may be against middle of the pack teams. Seattle proved that, and so did the Chiefs on Thursday night against the previous fantasy football yards and scoring machine Shady McCoy. That's where having our own Shady combined with much better wide receivers than Philly comes in.
If Lance Dunbar can't fill this role due to fumbleitis, don't be surprised if the Cowboys draft D'Anthony Thomas in the 2nd round in 2014 to be what Dunbar was supposed to be in this attack (and also give us a truly dangerous return man/speed demon, something we've all been pining for a long time here at BTB).
3) How big is a need for an offensive tackle to replace Doug Free?
Who would have thought that Doug Free would grade out as a top 10 right tackle after two weeks of the season? Free certainly looks better than the Eagles tackles that gave up 3 1/2 sacks to Justin Houston in little over a half of work. And although Doug doesn't get much push in the run game, his return to 2010 form has been a godsend to this offense and may yet allow it to rediscover its old explosiveness.
Jeremy Parnell's campaign to replace Free has been derailed by training camp injuries, and it looks like 2014 is the earliest opportunity for Parnell to displace Doug. However, Parnell seems to deliver a little more power in the running game.
Nonetheless, in 2014 Parnell will be entering his 5th year in the league, and if he's not ready when healthy to start if asked and demote Doug Free to the swing tackle job, he's probably not the long term answer opposite Tyron Smith. Which is why I expect Dallas to draft a developmental tackle by the 4th round in 2014 and possibly move Darrion Weems, who has been spared from exposure to waivers, to the right guard position. The Cowboys have kept Weems on the 53 for a reason, and they also know he played guard in Oregon's highly prolific rushing attack in college. Maybe our right guard of the future is already on the roster as a tackle, and when Garrett looks at Weems he thinks of a 'young Nate Newton'?
Since this FanPost is running a little long, I'm breaking it up into two parts. Part 2 will be published next week after the Rams game. In the next FanPost, I explore what Dallas can do personnel wise to tighten up the pass defense (hint, go bigger at corner/nickle safety like the Seahawks) and what kind of QB Jason Garrett may be looking for to succeed Tony Romo or provide Alex Tanney with some competition for the backup spot.
Oh and yeah, my prediction for Sunday -- 30-24 Dallas. Cowboys finally capitalize early thanks to 2
Max Starks Joe Barksdale enabled first half sacks and a possible Nick Hayden strip fumble/tipped ball interception for six defensive points sparked by Jason Hatcher abusing the Rams guards in the 1st quarter. After the Rams give up a second short field due to punting from deep in their end zone, Tony gets the Cowboys offense its first TD late in the 1st quarter with a back shoulder to Dez over an outmatched Janoris Jenkins to ease the home crowd's frustration over dunking and dinking down the field.
Given that the Rams corners are small but love to play aggressive and jump routes, Dez may bust a double move for a big gain down field early. Given the Rams lack of experience and talent at safety to double team him (especially out of the slot), only Dez's back is going to stop Dez this week.
I expect the Rams will rally from a 13 points deficit with some big play completions to Jared Cook and a long bomb to Tavon Austin in the 3rd quarter. But Dallas slams the door with another interception late courtesy of J.J. Wilcox picking off a ball intended for Cook, and the Cowboys exploit the short field for a TD to my man Gavin Escobar. Dan 'Split Em' Bailey earns a game ball for three FGs, with one a 51 yarder!
The Cowboys running game will continue to grind for yards, finish below a 100, mostly accumulated in the the 4th quarter when the Rams D wears down. But at least Lance Dunbar doesn't put it on the carpet this time. Stat lines:
Romo 29/39 for 313 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, sacked three times, twice by Quinn
Dez 9 108 yards, 1 TD
Harris 3/22, one 38 yard return
Escobar 1/3, 1 TD
Murray 3 catches for 20 yards, 20 rushes for 79 yards
Dunbar 2 catches for 17, 3 rushes for 16 yards on the ground
Tanner 2 rushes for 4 yards
Dallas Defense 4 1/2 sacks (3 1/2 in 1st half) Ware 2, Hatcher 1, Selvie 1, Hayden 1/2
2 INTs (Lee on tip drill, Wilcox), 1 forced fumble, 1 TD, 4 TFL
Just win baby!