Much of the collective attention of NFL fans over the past weeks and months has been focused on their team's rookie class, the college free agents and the tryout players who made the roster. Along the way, many a fan has caught a little underdog fever, rooting for the player least likely to make the team instead of rooting for an established starter.
As Cowboys fans, we are particularly susceptible to underdog fever. After all, the Cowboys have a rich tradition of taking little-known players and turning them into starters, and sometimes even stars. But even if some of the underdogs in this year's rookie class do make the roster and eventually turn out to be stars themselves, when we look ahead at the 2014 season, it'll be on the Cowboys' veterans to get the team to the postseason.
Last year, the Cowboys rookie class played an unusually high 12.3% of the team's total snaps. Even if this year's rookie class could reach that number (which is pretty unlikely), it would still only be a minor part of the overall snaps that are taken by the veteran players.
With the onus for the 2014 season thus squarely on the shoulders of the Cowboys' key starters and personnel groups, we'll now take a look at their 2013 performance and split the season into two parts, where one part of the season will be good, and the other will be less so. The logic here is that if we can get more of the good performances in 2014, the team is bound to improve.
It may be hard to believe now, but there was a palpable excitement about the new defense in Dallas almost to the halfway point of the season. In fact, here is a sampling of headlines after the Cowboys' Week 7 win over the Eagles that saw the Cowboys at the top of the NFC East with a 4-3 record: The DMN's David Moore wrote about a "new and enhanced" Defense 2.0 in Dallas, the New York Post wrote about how "Bringing in Monte Kiffin was a smart move by the Cowboys," and USA Today wrote that Brandon Carr was "worth every penny".
The past few weeks, he has been worth every penny, used for extensive man-to-man assignments against some of the league's most dangerous receivers:
-- Last weekend, Carr did the majority of the work in limiting DeSean Jackson to three catches for 21 yards. Jackson entered the game ranked second in the NFL with 589 receiving yards, averaging 17.3 yards per catch.
-- Two weeks ago, he kept Washington's Pierre Garcon in check (6 catches, 69 yards),
-- When Peyton Manning shredded the Cowboys in Week 5, Carr handled DeMaryius Thomas (5 catches, 57 yards).
Carr has fallen out of favor with a lot of Cowboys fans, and while it may be convenient to some narratives to view him as an over-paid underachiever, it's important to remember that Carr can play like a top CB in this scheme.
What we want to see again: Over the first seven games of the season, Brandon Carr played some very good football, averaging a 50% reception rate and a defensive passer rating of 60.9. Just for perspective, had Carr maintained those numbers for the rest of the season, he'd have had the eighth best reception rate of all corners in the league and the seventh best defensive passer rating. But that's not what happened, as the table below illustrates
|Brandon Carr's tale of two seasons|
|Targets||Receptions||Reception Rate||Yards||Yards per target||TD||INT||Defensive Passer Rating|
The part we didn't like so much: Everything went south for Carr in the second half of the season. Where he played like a top ten corner in the first seven games, his performance in the remaining games ranks him close to the bottom of the league.
What we want to see: Bryant caught eight of his 13 touchdowns in his first eight games, dropped only three passes and had just one fumble.
The part we didn't like so much: Bryant had a solid 608 yards on 48 receptions in his last eight games, but caught only five more TDs, dropped the ball eight times and fumbled twice.
What we want to see again: Romo threw 31 TDs, the second highest total of his career. His interception rate of 1.9% was the second lowest of his career.
The part we didn't like so much: With 7.2 yards per attempt, Romo recorded the lowest season average of his career.
What we want to see: Over the first half of the season, a healthy George Selvie recorded five sacks, seven QB hits, 23 hurries and would have been on track for a double-digit sack season.
The part we didn't like so much: While it's almost unfair to complain about the performance of a street free agent playing on the Cowboys line last year, Selvie would only notch three sacks, four QB hits and nine hurries over the remaining eight games.
The Defensive Line
What we want to see: The Cowboys signed five veterans to shore up the defensive line: Jeremy Mincey, Henry Melton, Amobi Okoye, Terrell McClain, and Anthony Spencer. We would like to see all of them play. Supplement the free agents with returning players like Tyrone Crawford, George Selvie, Nick Hayden, and a handful of rookies - and perhaps we'll get to see those mythical waves of rushmen converging on the opposing quarterback.
The part we didn't like so much: 20 different players took snaps on the defensive line over the course of the 2013 season. Do Not Want.
What we want to see: DeMarco Murray sprained the MCL in one of his knees during the second quarter of the Dallas Cowboys' 31-16 victory over Washington in Week 7. He sat out two games, but once he returned, he ran all the way to a Pro Bowl berth. Over the final eight games, he ran at 5.5 yards a pop, and 87 yards per game. Over a full season, that Y/A average would have ranked him No. 1 in the league, and he'd have been second only to LeSean McCoy in total rushing yards.
The part we didn't like so much: Murray missing time with an injury
The Pass Defense
What we want to see: The inept Cowboys pass defense got a break by playing the equally inept NFC East offenses, and recorded a defensive passer rating of 75.3 in the six division games. No surprise then that the Cowboys went 5-1 in those games. If the Cowboys pass defense had held all other opponents to that rate as well, they'd have been ranked the fourth-best pass defense in the league as measured by defensive passer rating
The part we didn't like so much: The Cowboys had to play ten games against non-NFC East opponents, and gave up a 107.7 defensive passer rating in those games en route to a 3-7 record. Just for reference, the worst pass defense in the league last year, the Oakland Raiders, notched a 105.1 defensive passer rating over 16 games.
With the frustration over another 8-8 finish fresh on everybody's mind, it's easy to forget that the Cowboys sat at 5-4 with a one-game lead in the NFC East after nine games. As you can see from the above, almost every player and every unit had stretches last season where they played some good football. Unfortunately, nobody was able to sustain that performance over the entire season.
To be successful in 2014 the Cowboys must find ways to play at a high level, but much more consistently than they were able to last year.