This is part II of my end-of-season overview. Just gotta get some stuff off my chest.
I'm going to break this down into four areas -- Coaching, Offense, Defense, Special Teams. I'll talk about the draft within the sections on offense and defense.
1. Head coach. It's pretty clear that Jason Garrett's job is safe for another year. I think a case could be made for letting him go, but I think the stronger case is for keeping him. The potential is still there for long-term success, and there's no obvious better alternative on the market. Plus, despite the adversity and tough losses the team has taken, it has never quit under Garrett the way that it quit on Wade Phillips in 2010.
2. Defense. As for Monte Kiffin, I'm fine with letting him go. I'd also be fine with keeping him. If he goes, I hope the team elevates Rod Marinelli to DC. The biggest improvement on D from 2012 to 2013 was winning the turnover battle. This is the culture that Kiffin and Marinelli brought to the team, and it has to remain for the Cowboys to have any chance at success going forward. On defense, the biggest needs are personnel rather than coaching.
3. Offense. I would let go of Bill Callahan, however. The biggest plus for Callahan was the red zone efficiency. Without this, we would have not been in the race until the end. Not sure how much credit he deserves for the improved O-line play, but this was obviously another big plus. Overall, however, I think he underutilized the resources he had. If you match up Romo, Dez, Witten, Murray, Austin, Williams, Beasley, Escobar, Dunbar, Harris, and Hanna with other teams in the league, and give them an offensive line with an overall +56.7 grade from PFF, you should do better than what Dallas did. This could be an offense that takes over and wins games. But it too often seems like an offense that tries to play just well enough to squeak by.
Who would I replace him with? Good question.
The best way to look at it is Sean Peyton v. Jason Garrett. This has always been Garrett's offense, even under Callahan. That's been decent, but almost never dominant. We need a Sean Peyton-like O coordinator. Someone who can take this team to the next level.
1. QB. I get the sense that Tony Romo is near the end of the line. Dallas won't be able to pull the plug on him in 2014, but it needs to get ready to, and not let his decline linger for 3 more years. I also think with his back injuries, that Romo won't make it through another season without missing games. So we need a backup QB we can groom into Romo's successor. Kyle Orton is not it. I wouldn't be looking to invest a 1st rounder, but I would be looking for a steal like Russell Wilson or Nick Foles. A mobile QB who can also pass the ball.
2. Offensive line. With Smith, Leary, and Frederick, we have young left side that can grow together. Smith is about to cost a LOT on a new contract, but it's a necessary expense. Leary and Frederick will remain cheap for a few more years. Bernardeau had a very good year, and can be penciled in as the right guard for next year. But his replacement should be drafted this year. Doug Free is also a decent value at right tackle, and might be kept on beyond 2014 depending on next year. Is Parnell good enough to replace him? If not, we need to consider drafting another tackle.
3. Wide receiver. Cut Miles Austin. That's an easy choice. That leaves Dez, Williams, Beasley, and Harris. We need to add a 5th guy, but I would try to do this on the cheap. We have too many other draft needs. Look for another Laurent Robinson or UDFA.
4. Running back. Murray is good for another year, but he's not going to be worth a second contract. Too easily injured. Joseph Randle doesn't have enough speed to be an adequate replacement, and Phil Tanner disappears in the regular season. What we really need is a durable Lance Dunbar. Where can we get him? We can't afford spending a high pick here, but if we can find Murray's 2015 replacement in the 4th round, it would be worth the investment.
5. Tight end. Use what we have better than we did this year. Jason Witten may have to be cut loose to save money at some point, but I don't think it should be in 2014.
Overall, our offense is pretty well set. We'll need backup O-linemen, a more durable speed/overall back than Lance Dunbar, and a QB who can eventually replace Tony Romo, but these are not MUST-HAVES in 2014. They are improvements we need to put in the proper priority slots.
1. Defensive line. This is going to be the #1 challenge of the 2014 season. What do we have? George Selvie, Nick Hayden, D Ware, Tyrone Crawford, Ben Bass, and a bunch of guys we plugged in during the season.
The first decision is what to do with Jason Hatcher. I think you have to let him walk. He won't be worth the contract he'll get on the open market, and we don't have the resources to franchise him for a year.
What about D Ware? If we were in position to do a total overhaul, you'd have to consider biting the cap hit and cutting him loose. He's been injured the last two years, and looks to be on a downward slope to where he's not going to earn the value of his contract in any year going forward. I just don't think you can do it. Dallas doesn't do total overhauls, at least not coming off 8-8 records. I think you have no choice but to reduce his cap hit in 2014 and delay the crunch day when you let him go, and just hope he can bounce back with double-digit sacks.
George Selvis is a keeper, and might be extended pretty cheaply into 2015 or beyond. Dallas could do worse. At the very least he's a valuable rotational guy who can cover both the weak and the strong sides.
Who knows what we have with Crawford, Bass, et al?
Dallas needs to spend it's #1 pick here, and probably a second top pick as well.
2. Linebacker. Will Sean Lee ever stay healthy? With his neck injury, you wonder. Remember when Dallas could have drafted Brockers and Wagner instead of Mo Claiborne? Wouldn't you make that trade?
Aside from D-line, the weakest link in Dallas's defense was at linebacker. Bruce Carter earned a -9.8, 32nd ranking from PFF. No other OLB even earned 25% of Dallas's snaps. Sean Lee ranked 7th for ILBs, but only played 717 snaps, about 300 fewer than the top guys.
What is the plan for fixing this? Give Bruce Carter another year to see if he can figure it out? Let Holloman and Wilber fight it out for strong side OLB? Cut Durant? All seem likely.
Dallas is going to have to invest in the draft here. Probably a 2nd rounder.
3. Secondary. The cornerback situation isn't like to change much in 2014. Scandrick has been kept on fairly cheaply for several more years. Carr's contract isn't friendly enough to think about cutting him soon. And you have to hope Mo Claiborne will finally begin to pay some dividends in 2014. That should give Dallas 3 quality CBs. That's not how they ranked. PFF had Scandrick as the 37th CB, with a 3.7 score. Carr was 59th at -0.9. Claiborne was 90th at -6.6. All might look better with a pass rush, and Claiborne finding a way to stay healthy.
Safety is the bigger issue. Barry Church finished 40th, at -0.5. JJ Wilcox was -2.7 and Jeff Heath was -4.8. To this thin group, Matt Johnson will make a third attempt at making it through pre-season and onto the roster. Of these, Heath has no business playing 600+ snaps. Wilcox was strong in run support but weak in coverage. Since he's still learning the position, the latter might be fixed. The easiest fix might be a good free agent, but Dallas doesn't really have the cap money. Yet we can't afford to spend a high draft pick here, with so many other needs.
Overall, the secondary needs to be fixed by investing in the pass rush.
Leave well enough alone. We finally have a very good return man, a great placekicker, and a good ST coach. We could use a better punter, but if we improve our offense, we won't have to punt as much.
My remarks above don't really convey the gravity of the situation for Dallas.
I think it's going to be very hard for Dallas to stave off the decline that seems inevitable as some of its key players -- Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, and Jason Witten -- fade. Romo's career can best be extended by strengthening the running game. Ware's career can be extended by providing pass rushing threats across the line. And Witten's career can be extended by phasing in Escobar and Hanna.
But something fairly dramatic needs to happen to turn this into an offense that earns it's 5th place scoring total with a comparable yardage ranking.
And on defense? The first priority needs to be to figure out to stay healthy. Next, we need 4-5 new starters among our front 7. Once that is done, we can consider how to improve at safety. And then we need to hope that better health and a better pass rush improve our CB play.
Once again, we will have too many holes and two few draft picks.
The Draft? In priority, I would rate our needs as: DT, DT/DE, LB, OG, QB, RB, OT, LB 2, S, WR.
It's going to be a challenging offseason.
****** UPDATE ********
Nothing new happened, but I thought I would add a postscript.
The most critical decision the team has to make in the next 2 years is how to phase out Tony Romo. I'm not a cap expert, but with $55 million guaranteed, Dallas can't afford to cut or trade Romo in 2014 or 2015. But they need to be rid of him by 2016. By then, if he's able to play -- and it's very interesting to hear from Troy Aikman that BACK PAIN, not concussions, caused him to retire -- he won't be anything better than a league average QB. His escapability will have declined. He won't be able to make the throws or plays he once did. Etc. And unless Dallas has built a defensive juggernaut and solid running game to win without needing much from Tony Romo, as Tony declines, Dallas will decline, to the losing side of the ledger, not just 8-8.
The D Ware decision is a similar one on the defensive side. He's going to have to be cut. The question is when. Bruce Smith had a ton of sacks from the age Ware is now until he was no longer able to go. So it's possible that Ware could rebound.
You can make a case to do this right now. Unfortunately, it's not going to happen. So we all just have to endure another offseason attempting to plug holes, hoping it can happen fast enough to prevent or slow the inevitable decline.
If we want to leap ahead, we need the next Tony Romo and D Ware. Young guys who can lead the team to the Super Bowl the way Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick did, and Russell Wilson might.