We love to speculate, don't we? We as fans will always argue this subjective "truth" we hold in our hearts. Who is on the rise? Who is on the decline? Are we Super Bowl bound? Are we dumpster diving come October?
That's really the only fuel for the BtB fire right now, isn't it? Sure we have minicamps now, we had OTAs, and I'm sure we will be much more excited come July 24th when training camp begins and we get to see (or hear) what happens in the training camp battles.
However, until then we can only speculate, can't we? Is Zack Martin going to make us the league's best O-line? Is our defense going to step up and show its form from early 2013? (they did force the most turnovers in the league as of week 4, before Demarcus Ware's injury)
John 9 Williams speculates that there are 5 real reasons to be optimistic about the Cowboys' next campaign starting on September 7th against the vaunted San Francisco 49ers. I'm all for it. I believe most of his arguments to be solid. The game being how it is, as heartbreaking as it can be, as frustrating as it's become... here are the 5 reasons to be extremely pessimistic about the 2014 Dallas Cowboys.
(This list is ordered 5-1, counting down from 5th most significant to first most.)
5. Sean Lee
Let's call this the tale of two games... however, I really should call it the tale of two stat lines: LeSean McCoy: Week 7 against Dallas: 18 Rushes for 55 yards, Week 17 against Dallas 27 rushes for 131 yards.
The memory of that mid-October game when the Dallas Cowboys beat up the Philadelphia Eagles was that of Sean Lee evading blockers on his way to set the edge against the man some call "Shady". Sean Lee was the real enigma that day. And when it came to shutting the Eagles' run game down, Sean Lee exhibited an artistry in the singularly most important trait a Mike Linebacker can have when stopping the run of an outside-running team like Philly: He didn't bite inside, he set the edge. This allowed his Sam or Will Linebacker to attack the gap and forced "Shady" outside where he was met by Sean Lee all game long.
Holloman, for all of the praise we are heaping onto him, is worthy of plenty of it. For a 6th round pick out of the university of South Carolina, Holloman has shown a great nose for the ball, especially in the pass game. I am personally very fond of this play....... (if you can see it)
However, truth is in the last game of the year it was apparent that Holloman likes to shoot gaps in the run game. His responsibility calls for him to shadow the RB and only shoot inside when the running back does. Holloman was fooled by McCoy's double moves many times that night. Often he would come up with a run stuffing play, but he would also leave the edge in our 4-3 scheme vulnerable against a speedy runner like McCoy.
This year, we have games against running-teams like Houston (Arian Foster), San Fransisco (Carlos Hyde/Frank Gore/Colin Kaepernick), Seattle (Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson), St. Louis (Zac Stacy, Tre Mason, Tavon Austin), Chicago (Matt Forte), Tennessee (Bishop Sankey, Jake Locker), the Redskins (RGIII, Alfred Morris, Roy Helu).
Holloman, if named the starter as many expect, will have his work cut out for him learning to not get stuck on blocks in the run game. If his tendency to take straight angles on sweep plays continues we could be in for a long season, or worse, an injury to Holloman as we saw in week 12 when he was held out of the Giants game (he was slated to start at SAM) for a spinal contusion.
There are many optimistic ways to look at Holloman replacing Lee, a "transition", an "influx of young talent", and while they all may be true, the biggest doubt I have is that it will ever be referred to as an "upgrade". When your defense was as putrid as the Cowboys' last year, this must raise a concerned brow, no?
While it has been argued here often that Scott Linehan uses passes on running back screens as a quasi-run game, it should be noted that last year one of the Cowboys' most frustratingly avoidable problems was their inability to commit to a solid and effective run game.
Emmitt Smith gave insight to the psychological effect this "pass first" syndrome has on the offensive line, and the psyche of the offense in general, pointing out that offensive linemen need to be able to fight back by run blocking or else they get tired of absorbing abuse. Emmitt's point is that it is this very abuse that leads to mental, physical weakness and lag in the fourth quarter of games. I take Emmitt's point as being: if you don't fight in the trenches all game, how are you expected to do it in the fourth quarter?
Solid point. If we are to underutilize our run attack, we are not going to be very effective at wearing the OTHER team down. As good of an offensive line as we have (3 First Round Picks, a 4th ranked line last year), and as good as some of our best guys graded at run blocking (Frederick, for example rated out at +17) we only ran the ball a paltry 336 times as a team, an average of 21 attempts a game. This metric is telling, as 70% of the teams in the top 10 in rush attempts made the playoffs last year. Another one of them, the New York Jets, finished with the same record as the Cowboys with a rookie Quarterback at the helm.
Running the ball wins games. You can give me all of the statistics in the world to prove it doesn't, and I would still say it matter-of-factly, "if you give me a team that has been fighting in the trenches for four quarters against a team that has been pussy-footing around and getting cute, I can tell you 90% of the time which team wins.
When you take into account that the only team that ran the ball less than the Cowboys was the Atlanta Falcons, it astonishes me that the Cowboys accumulated even 8 wins last season. The commitment to a successful run game under Garrett has been non-existent. I hope for this to change, but I have seen nothing in the game plan the last 3 years that speaks to any such commitment. Without a commitment to eating clock and getting solid gains this defense will struggle and Tony Romo will be forced into improvisational situations in the fourth quarter that have burnt him in the past.
3. Thin Defensive Personnel
We are relying on a 2nd year 6th rounder (Holloman), a meat-and-potatoes veteran (Durant), and a rookie 4th rounder (Hitchens) at MLB. We are relying on a second year 3rd rounder (J.J. Wilcox), a 3rd year 4th rounder who has never been healthy enough to play a snap (Matt Johnson), and a safety who missed the whole 2012 season (Barry Church) to man our safety spots. We are relying on an under-performing first round pick (Morris Claiborne), an under-performing star (Brandon Carr), and an over-achieving 5th rounder (Scandrick).
When it comes to your defensive backfield, that is a pretty volatile depth chart. I would label it a "boom or bust" depth chart. The variables just seem to outweigh the realistic expectations of this group.
Maybe Wilcox will return to week 7 form where he broke up a pass that was meant of DeSean Jackson, showing impressive closing speed in the act. However, maybe Barry Church's play comes back down to Earth. Maybe Morris Claibornie lives up to his billing as "future best corner in the game" prior to the 2012 draft. However, maybe the defensive line, manned by two unheralded free agents and a volatile ex-Probowler coming off injury gets too little push and Claiborne is hung out to dry all year.
This defense simply is not deep in any regard, with its one standout group (the DBs) being heavily dependent on outside factors such as pressure, and scheme.
And when it comes to scheme, I've watched every snap and have yet to see why Brandon Carr is supposed to be a "Man" corner when he is made to look foolish when covering man on nearly any route in the tree last year. Remember, it was Carr on Megatron nearly exclusively last year, most unfortunately at the end of the game on a slant when he was beat badly to set up the infamous "fake clock". Food for thought.
2. A tougher schedule than it seems
We must play the NFC West, which had 3 teams of at least 10 wins, and the AFC South which entering last year looked to have two contenders in the Texans (a Super Bowl pick by many), and the Colts (an oddsmaker's favorite to win at least one Super Bowl under Andrew Luck). Couple that with the fact that we must play both teams responsible for our two most recent blowout losses in the Bears and the Saints, and factor that in with the fact that by default, the NFC East cannot fathomably be worse than it was last year.
Even the "gimme" teams on the schedule like the Rams and the Jaguars had great drafts and could very well be very tough outs. While I believe this team will never lose faith under Garrett, I could see them losing a significant amount of games. It saddens me to say, but the floor of this schedule could mean we are going up against teams week in and week out who are hungry, mean, and playing with something on the line.
We will have a hellish stretch of games that sees us playing 3 times in thirteen days only to have to play three times in 12 days after the bye! and inbetween, did I mention they are going to LONDON?! This is going to be a very trying schedule logistically, and opponent-wise. If the Cowboys are to stand any chance they must be a much improved team from last year, which leads me to the most important pessimistic observation of the list:
1. Jason Garrett does not learn quickly from mistakes.
Garrett is a great team leader. He motivates, he is consistent, he preaches and practices accountability. Guys love to play for him and never want to leave. He deserves quite a bit more wins than he's gotten, I believe... and I believe he would have achieved plenty more if one thing were different about him - the man is simply inflexible.
On a broad spectrum, Jason Garrett is a very creative man. He moves in broad, sweeping motions very gracefully. He steers the team towards the right direction with a methodical "process" in hopes to turn the ship in the right direction with enough steam to win.
Sounds great. For a GM. However, a coach must make crunch-time decisions that effect the outcome of ball games. A coach must make decisions while thinking forward to future outcomes..
For example, if you are Jason Garrett, and Tony Romo has just thrown a fourth quarter interception and your team WILL LOSE BY 3 if you let them run the clock and kick a field goal, let them score. I know, it's radical, it makes no sense, but if your team hasn't forced a punt all game and you're clinging to the hope that your defense is going to win it against Peyton Manning, you're betting on the wrong horse.
I understood his logic of "empowering the defense to get a stop", however, my friend, you have Peyton Manning over there running the show from twenty four yards out. I would bet hard that if you purposely missed a tackle on the first play Demarius Thomas would likely run it in without having been coached by John Fox to not score.
Had Demarius scored that touchdown, we would now have 1:40 and three time outs to try to drive eighty yards to tie the game. At 1:40 left in the game, when the chips are down, that is when great coaches make great decisions. Is letting them score fool-proof? Of course not. But it is an option. And Garrett often overlooks critical game management choices en leu of going his tried-and-true path.
I could have mentioned not running in the Green Bay game or time management in the San Diego game. I could mention asking Romo to pass the ball nearly fifty times against he Giants in week one, or deciding not to run against the Bears dead-last rush defense. These are all possibilities to highlight Coach Garrett's lack of flexibility. For the Cowboys to be successful, in game and over the arc of this season, Garrett needs to anticipate challenges, highlight personnel strengths and avoid the pitfalls of operational complacency.
If he does not become a more diverse play caller and a less predictable leader, the Cowboys are doomed to never EXCEED expectations. While I do agree, his level headed approach hasn't cost them too many games, it certainly hasn't won them many that they weren't expected to win. And that is because, in my humble opinion, the greater the competition, the greater the need becomes to zig when they expect a zag. The greater the pressure, the more wild winners should become, at the very least in spirit.
Every now and again Garrett has to shed his passive ways and let those firey locks be a representation of his ultimate risk. A great poker player is sometimes called on a bluff. But without bluffing, he would only ever break even.
Thanks for your time.