This is going to be a 2-part postmortem on the 2013 Dallas Cowboys' season. Part 1 is my take on the plusses and minuses from this year, which I believe you must look at before devising a plan for going forward.
Going into the season, I predicted an 11-5 finish. The Cowboys certainly could have gotten there, with a little better play and a little better bounce of the ball.
We lost by 1 point to Kansas City.
We lost by 3 points to Denver, when we had the ball and the clock in our favor in a tie game late, but a Tony Romo pick on a record-breaking 500-yard passing day turned what could have been a catapulting win into a devastating loss.
We lost by 1 point in Detroit in a game where we generated 4(?) turnovers, and led by 6 with a minute to go, and Detroit backed up in it's own end.
We lost by 1 point to Green Bay in a game we led 23-6 at halftime, where two late picks, no second half running attempts, and NO defensive stops in the second half sealed our fate.
We lost by 2 points to Philadelphia, where a late pick prevented what could have been a relatively easy 40-yard drive to a winning field goal.
That's 5 heartbreaking losses in an 8 loss season.
You could even add the loss in San Diego where we took a 21-13 lead into half, but couldn't get going on offense until a final drive ended at the 1 with a fumble by Terrence Williams who was trying to stretch the ball into the end zone.
If you count those as 6 winnable games, and we win even half of them, the Cowboys could have finished 11-5.
But we didn't. So, what was good, and what was bad?
1. Turnovers. Dallas finished +7 in the turnover department on the season, after finishing -13 in 2012. This is a 20-turnover swing. This really helped the team end up 5th in the league in scoring, even though we were only 16th in yards gained. It's also why our defense, which finished 32nd in yards allowed, was 26th in points allowed.
The problem here was that down the stretch, the team started losing the turnover battle. We were -2 against Philly, and those turnovers clearly cost us the game and the NFC East title. We were -1 against Washington, but pulled that out with a gutsy game-ending TD drive. We were -1 against GB, where we likely would have won had we been even. So that's -4 in the last three games.
FYI - the top 4 teams in turnover differential in the NFC (Seattle, SF, Philly, Carolina) and the top 3 in the AFC (KC, Indy, NE) all made the playoffs.
2. The offensive line. Everyone blamed the poor offensive line as the reason we failed in 2012. In 2013, the line came through with a bang up effort. These are the PFF grades for our linemen.
Tyron Smith - 5th in the NFL with 28,8. 2012 - 3.8. Gain 25.
Doug Free - 20th in NFL with 17.9. 2012 - (-10.1). Gain 28.
Mackenzy Bernardeau - 20th in NFL with 8.5 (even though this is cumulative and he missed about 400 snaps). If you add in Brian Waters' 2.9, it would pull Bernardeau up to 16th. 2012 - (-4). Gain 15.4.
Ron Leary - 53rd in the NFL with -7.9. As a rookie, this is not horrible. But the performance is down compared to Nate Livings' 2012, which was 11.3. Loss of 19.2.
Travis Frederick - 7th in NFL with 13.2. This is a gain of 7.5 over Ryan Cook's 5.7 from 2012.
Gains? +25, +28, +15.4, +7.5, -19.2. Overall gain for O line from 2012 to 2013 - +56.7.
3. Red zone TD efficiency. After finishing 2012 at 51%, ranked 20th in the NFL, we finished 3rd in 2013 at 68%. This is by far Dallas's best ranking in the Tony Romo era. It's the only time we cracked 60%.
4. Terrence Williams. As a rookie, he finished 3rd on the team with 44 catches for 736 yards, or 16.7 per catch. He has made Miles Austin's release obvious. We should have no doubts about him going forward.
5. Dwayne Harris. He averaged 30.6 yards on kick off returns, which was second highest for anyone with 20+ returns, and his 12.8 yards per punt return was second only to Devin Hester for returners with more than 20 returns. Harris also did double duty as a punt coverage guy, beating opponents, making tackles, and forcing turnovers.
6. Special teams. In addition to Harris's exploits, the team was very good at covering kickoffs, ranking 7th with 20.8 yards per return (tops was 18.8). Also, Dan Bailey was 28 for 30 on FGs, for a 4th best 93.3%. He was also 6-7 beyond 50 yards, tying him with Denver's kicker, who benefits from the high altitude.
1. The defense. We were 32nd in the NFL in yards allowed. We gave up multiple games of 400+ yards, and set all kinds of records for being really bad. I'm not even going to look them up. But I'll give one example. The Detroit game. We won the turnover battle 4-0, yet lost the game 31-30, because we gave up 488 yards passing (329 to Calvin Johnson) and 143 yards rushing. Those are COLLEGE numbers.
2. The pass rush. We finished 25th in the NFL with 34 sacks. It was the same number as in 2012. DeMarcus Ware finished with 6 sacks, by far the lowest total of his HOF career. You have to wonder if, with the recurring injuries he's having, whether he'll ever be close to earning the value of his current contract. Ware was ranked 8th by PFF for 4-3 DEs, mostly because of a +8.5 in run support. George Selvie ranked 28th. The lone bright spot was Jason Hatcher, with a +26.8, but this was negated by a -27.4 for Nick Hayden.
Early in the year, the team showed enough in the pass rush to win games. But there were plenty of games where we got no pressure, and it was pretty easy for teams to carve us up.
3. The underutilization of resources. There were several examples of this. Lance Dunbar was used in 1 game -- the Oakland game. He had 12 rushes for 82 yards, and a catch for another 12. His 94 yards on 13 touches -- he touched the ball EVERY down he was in the game -- were the best on the team. Unfortunately, he also finished the game done for the year. Why wasn't he used more? He offered a real change of pace as a runner, and we'd seen it in the preseason.
Gavin Escobar was another underutilized guy. As a 2nd round pick, he finished with only 9 catches on 15 targets, or less than 1 per game. What's up with that? Sure, he wasn't the best blocker in the world. But why not send him down the seam to use his height to an advantage?
DeMarco Murray was also underutilized in several games. The perfect example was the second half of the Green Bay game, when a running game could have burned enough clock to close out a win.
Dallas finished 24th in the NFL with 1507 yards, but was tied for 7th in YPC, at 4.5.
Dez Bryant was another weapon where Dallas didn't do enough to find ways to get him open, or keep feeding him when he was hot.
4. Losing the close ones. I mentioned this at the outset -- Dallas lost 6 games it could have won with a little better strategy, a little better play, a little better something. We did win a few games that were tight or where we were behind late -- Minnesota, @ NY, @ Washington. But overall, things did not even out in the close ones, or we would have won the division.
5. Injuries. I'm not sure you can just chalk this up to chance. Every team has injuries, yes. And sometimes injuries can't be helped. But with all the hamstring injuries the Cowboys have suffered, for example, you wonder if something can't be done to change the preparation and improve the team's health. Especially on defense, where for two years in a row the Cowboys' game day rosters have been a turnstile with new guys showing up every week. Why was Philly much healthier? Does it have anything to do with how they practice and train?
Overall, this was a team that underachieved. There's no way they should have lost the division to a rookie head coach leading a team with essentially a rookie QB, coming off a last-place 4-12 finish from a season earlier. In 2011, the Cowboys weren't as good as a Giant team that won the Super Bowl. In 2012, the Cowboys could have and should have beaten Washington, but wouldn't have gone anywhere in the postseason had they done so. This year, the Cowboys should have had enough left in the tank with their veterans -- Tony Romo, D Ware, J Hatcher, J Witten - combined with their up and coming guys -- Dez, S Lee, T Smith, B Carter, B Carr, B Church, Murray - and rookies Frederick and Williams to make a go of it, not just in the regular season, but even in the postseason. All they needed in the end was to gain 1 game over 2012 to win the division and get the 3rd seed and a home playoff game. They couldn't do it. Sad.
Part II will map out some ideas on going forward. It's going to be a challenge to improve next year, given how cap-strapped the team is going to be, and the further aging of now-overpaid former stars.