Trending Dallas Cowboys Players In 2013: A Tale of Two Halves

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

We look at which players trended up and which players trended down over the final eight games of 2013.

At the halfway point of the 2013 season the Cowboys were 4-4. They jumped out to a 7-5 record before ending the season at 8-8. And while their record suggests the Cowboys were an average team over most of the season, that doesn't mean that the Cowboys players all had average performances throughout the season.

An NFL season with its 16 games goes by so fast that we often base our assessment of a player on the initial impression we get early in the season, and often don't bother to revise that opinion as the season progresses. But as with any NFL team, some Cowboys players were better in the second half of the season than they were in the first half and vice versa.

Doug Free and Barry Church for example impressed with their early season form but regressed as the season progressed. Yet as we look back, we'd probably add their performance to the plus side of our Cowboys ledger. Mackenzy Bernadeau is the exact opposite: written off by many after a particularly weak start to the season that saw him lose his starting spot to Brian Waters, he improved as the season wore on. He's not a Pro Bowl player, but his play over the last half of the season was much better than many are giving him credit for.

Which is why today we turn to Pro Football Focus and their grades to see which players were trending in the second half of 2013 - both up and down. To understand which players where trending in which direction, I looked at all players who had at least 200 snaps for the season, and who had at least 30% of their snaps in either half of the season. That excludes players who missed significant time with injuries, like Sean Lee (+8.7 grade for the season), Brian Waters (+2.9) and Morris Claiborne (-6.6), or players who saw action late in the season as injury replacements, like Jeff Heath (-4.8) or DeVonte Holloman (-13.0).

Quick note on the grades: The average grade, or what you would typically expect from an average NFL player, is a zero. A negative grade denotes a below average performance, a positive grade denotes an above average performance as graded by PFF. Also, these grades are cumulative, meaning that if you add the grades for the first and second half of the season, you get the total grade for the whole season.

With that out of the way, here are the Cowboys players who trended up in the second half of 2012:

Players Trending Up in 2013
Player 1st Half Grade 2nd Half Grade Change
Tyron Smith 5.0 23.3 18.3
Mackenzy Bernadeau -3.0 10.5 13.5
Jason Witten 1.6 10.3 8.7
Travis Frederick 2.6 10.6 8.0
Orlando Scandrick -1.2 3.9 5.1
DeMarco Murray 5.5 10.0 4.5
Justin Durant -2.2 0.7 2.9
Gavin Escobar -0.7 1.0 1.7

The table above is sorted by the change in grades between the first half and the second half, and it highlights the players who stepped up their performance, most notable among them Tyron Smith. Bernadeau and Frederick both also rank fairly high with their second half grades, which coincides with a noticeable improvement in the line play as the season wore on. Jason Witten also struggled a little early in the season but was back to his old self later in the season. Rumors of his imminent demise proved to be completely unfounded as his 11.7 yards per reception for the season were just 0.2 yards below his career high.

Another pleasant surprise here is DeMarco Murray. Not only did he become the Cowboys' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006, he's also PFF's 8th-ranked running back despite missing two games.

Next up: Players who dropped off.

Above average players trending down in 2013
Player 1st Half Grade 2nd Half Grade Change
Cole Beasley 2.1 1.0 -1.1
Tony Romo 6.4 4.6 -1.8
DeMarcus Ware 11.8 0.8 -11.0
Doug Free 16.6 2.3 -14.3
Jason Hatcher 22.0 5.3 -16.7

This table features players that had an above average first half according to the PFF grades and dropped off in the second half to varying degrees, but still remained above average. Beasley and Romo drop off only marginally, so no real reason for concern. Ware and Hatcher struggled with injuries in the second half, and while their performance was still above league average, that is still a significant drop for a defensive line unit that was already struggling in the first half of the season.

The biggest head-scratcher is Doug Free. We have no information about an injury Free may have been struggling with in the second half, but his performance over the last eight games was erratic, with three bad games, three good games and two average games. Which Free will we see in 2014, and do the Cowboys have a (draft) plan for what to do if they don't get the Free they expect?

And now for the players trending down in the second half:

Below average players trending toward average in 2013
Player
1st Half Grade 2nd Half Grade Change
Terrance Williams 0.2 -0.6 -0.8
Ronald Leary -3.9 -5.5 -1.6
Brandon Carr 0.6 -1.5 -2.1
Drake Nevis 0.1 -2.6 -2.7
J.J. Wilcox 0.2 -2.9 -3.1
George Selvie 2.1 -2.5 -4.6
Jarius Wynn -2.0 -8.6 -6.6
Barry Church 6.1 -6.6 -12.7
Dez Bryant 12.0 -1.0 -13.0
Ernie Sims -3.8 -18.7 -14.9

Obviously, there are different degrees of "trending down." Most of the guys at the top of this table (Williams, Carr, Nevis, Wilcox and Selvie) are hovering at or around league average with their grades. One good game could have pushed them above league average, but they are where they are. Ronald Leary also didn't move much, but he started out below average and remained there.

The biggest drop-offs are also the most concerning drop-offs. Ernie Sims had the biggest drop-off when he was thrust into a starting role, but not many people expected much better of him, and he will likely be replaced this season anyway. So while his performance, or lack thereof, was a big issue in 2013, it probably won't be in 2014. But that's different for Dez Bryant and Barry Church who both had significant swings in their performance over the course of the season. No team in the league has superstars at every position, or even half of its positions. But when your supposed stars start playing like JAGs, then you're in trouble.

Final table: below average players who improved:

Below average players trending up in 2013
Player
1st Half Grade 2nd Half Grade Change
James Hanna -8.7 -1.2 7.5
Kyle Wilber -4.3 -2.8 1.5
Nick Hayden -14.1 -13.3 0.8
Miles Austin -1.8 -1.2 0.6
Bruce Carter -5.0 -4.8 0.2

James Hanna is another player whose performance in the first half saw him written off quickly, but for what it's worth, he had the biggest improvement in this last group. Like Bernadeau, that doesn't make him a future Pro Bowler by any means, but I don't think he's in any immediate danger of being released. Same thing holds for Kyle Wilber, whose position change to Sam linebacker may have been his career saver. As for the other three guys, who knows what their future holds. Was 2013 just an off year for Carter? Does Hayden have a future as a backup with the Cowboys? Which team will take a chance on Miles Austin in 2014?

So there you have it. Some players were better, some were worse in the second half. That in itself is not surprising, in fact, it is to be expected. But this type of breakdown highlights some of the key issues the Cowboys faced in 2013 and need to address in 2014:

The offensive line looks to be in good shape, but the Cowboys may have to start planning ahead at right tackle. The wide receivers as a group had a noticeable drop-off that coincided with an improvement for the tight ends - and a move away from the much-anticipated 12 personnel to three-wide sets.

On defense, we've talked at length about the injury situation, and how it affected the entire defense. Scandrick and Durant are the only defensive players with a significant improvement in their second-half performance. And this overall drop in performance on the defensive side of the ball is highlighted in the following final chart. Although technically not permissible, I've added up the grades for the 14 offensive and 14 defensive players in the tables above. Here's the result:

Cumulative player grades by unit, 2013
Player
1st Half Grade 2nd Half Grade Change
Top 14 Offense +33.9 +64.1 +30.2
Top 14 Defense +10.3 -53.6 -63.9

For the Cowboys, it's all about defense.

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