I have to make a confession: I secretly love this time of the year.
Seriously, I get giddy as a twelve year old school girl in anticipation of the upcoming season. OTA's and mini-camps are just enough to tease you with the promise of things to come, and the training camp battle to wear the Star on Sundays is just around the corner.
Confidence abounds, and optimism bubbles forth from the spring of eternal hope.
Unicorns leap gumdrops on top of rainbows, while Blue and Silver glitter falls from the heavens like rain.
As a result, I have to remind myself not to travel too far down the rabbit hole of unrealistic expectations, especially because I know how much I want to.
With that in mind, and training camp quickly approaching, I force myself to try and remain as objective as possible when looking at where the 'Boys currently find themselves. Objectivity is really not that easy when your interest in your team borders on obsession. I'm a firm believer that you can't know where you're going if you truly don't know where you are starting.
So, the questions I find myself asking are these: where are we as a team, and given our current personnel and coaching staff, what can we reasonably expect heading into the season.
Reasonable is what I try to focus on. Well, I at least try to try.
As a side note, and possible legal disclaimer, any projections, predictions, or prognostications on my part include the following caveat : barring unforeseen injury
We know our targeted destination, of course, the playoffs. And, in order to get there we need to win games. Every coach I've ever heard, at some point has brought up the simple mathematics of winning football: win on offense, win on defense, and win on special teams. You win all three phases, you'll win the game.
I know I didn't do anything there but state the obvious, but sometimes that helps me focus.
On offense, I think most would agree that we have a pretty decent squad in place. Sure, there are some question marks heading into training camp, and injury situations we may have concerns about (Romo's back, I'm looking at you). But, barring the injury bug hitting us hard, I think it's a reasonable expectation that this offense finishes in the top 12 in both yardage and points scored, with the very real possibility of being top 5 in either one or maybe both. Of course there are areas where we need to improve, such as third down conversions, but with the addition of another first round lineman in Z Martin, and new playcaller Scott Linehan, I think we will improve on first and second downs, giving us more manageable third downs. I want to come back in a different post maybe, and take a closer look at the offense and how they will address some of the evils of last year.
Because this unit is a little further along than some of it's counterparts, well, one counterpart in particular, I'm going to save that discussion for later.
In short, we can hold our own offensively in just about any game we play, and we have a legitimate shot every game to win the offensive phase.
Special teams probably has the least amount of question marks. We have an ace kicker, pretty darn good returner, and are fairly solid across the board. Maybe some questions about the punter, but hopefully we'll be seeing less of that guy on the field anyway (insert smiley face emoticon).
Again, I believe we have a legitimate shot every game to win the special teams phase.
Now we get to the weak link in the chain: the defense.
It's definitely no secret that this is where we need the most improvement. On the surface, it looks pretty bleak, still tarnished and bruised from the collapse of last year's unit. Add in the loss of (future HOF'er) Demarcus Ware to the Broncos and Jason Hatcher's 11 sacks to the hated 'Skins and the dark shadow lurking across the defense gets darker...and shadow-ier. On top of that, a season ending injury to Sean Lee further complicates the situation, to say the very least.
Oh no, the unicorn has fallen off the rainbow and the glitter has lost a little of it's luster. What are we to do?
Well, hold on for a second there skippy. It's not quite time to panic yet. I believe the worst of the doom and gloom is on the surface, and if we look a little closer there may be a ray of hope creeping into the pit of defensive despair. Or should I say a Rod of hope?
(Yeah, I know...pretty lame, but I wanted the whole foreshadowing thing to happen...)
First, I want to look at what Jerry and Jason and the gang did (or didn't do) for the defense this off-season. At first glance, it might appear that they didn't do much, but I would submit that it is exactly what they didn't do that is very important. No high priced big-name free agents in a frail attempt to stick a band-aid on things. We didn't overpay for Julius Peppers or Jared Allen, or anyone else based on name recognition. This tells me three things: 1) That the front office is beginning to understand the concept of building through the draft and developing players, 2) that they have faith in the young players they have right now, and 3) they realize this is not going to be a one year fix. Make no mistake, Jerry could have restructured a few more contracts to free up cap space if he had wanted. It was a conscious decision not to, and a step in the right direction.
Defensively, well, we weren't very defensive last year at all. But it's not only the less than stellar results from last season, it really has been the last couple of years actually. There are a few stats I think that make more of an impact on your W-L record than others, and one stat I pay particular attention to on defense is points allowed. Over the past four seasons, we've finished in the top 20 in points allowed only once (16th in 2011 at 21.7 ppg), while finishing 26th (27.0 ppg) and 24th (25.0 ppg) the last two years. Definitely something we need to address. Third down efficiency is also an area where we must get better. Last year, opponents converted 43.3% of their third downs, good for 29th in the league. For perspective, we allowed 40.1% in 2012, and 39.7% in 2011, good for 23rd and 22nd in the league respectively.
Bottom third of the league in these two areas is not helping us win games.
In my opinion, one of the most underrated and overlooked things the front office did in the off season was promote Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator. If there is a single, somewhat hidden, factor that is going to make this defense greater than the sum of its parts, it will be his direction on defense. I know that's a lot of faith to place in someone who never takes the field of play, but I believe his past history suggests he will have that type of impact.
If we look at his most recent tenure as DC in Chicago, I think we can see his impact on the field. Just for a refresher, he joined the Bears as a DL line coach in 2009, taking over as DC in 2010 and running the defense in the Windy City until 2012.
In 2009, with Coach Rod on the D line, the Bears gave up 23.4 points per game (tied for 21st in the league). That same year, the Bears D allowed their opponents to convert 41.2% of third downs, ranking them 27th in the league. In his first year as DC in Chicago, Coach Rod's defense improved dramatically in both categories, giving up only 17.9 points per game (good for 4th in the league) and dropped the third down conversion rate to 34.7% (good for 6th in the league). His defensive totals dropped a little in 2011, giving up 21.3 ppg (14th) and a third down conversion rate of 34.9% (10th). But rebounded yet again in 2012 with 17.3 ppg (5th) and 35.5% conversion rate on third down (6th).
I don't believe for a second that the turnaround with the Bears D happened by accident.
The win-loss record over those seasons show the improvement as well. In 2009, the Bears went 7-9. In 2010, they went 11-5, in 2011 they went 8-8, and in 2012 they went 10-6. Two out of three years were double digits in the W column. I know the 8-8 record in 2011 doesn't inspire much confidence, but not only was that the lockout year, but the Bears also lost both Cutler and Forte mid-season, losing 5 of their last 6 games.
Is it reasonable to expect that kind of drastic increase from the Dallas defense this year? Can we go from bottom 1/3 of the league in points allowed and third down conversion rate to top 10 in both, like Coach Rod was able to do in Chicago in his first year as DC? Probably not. I'm not sure we have the personnel right now to make that kind of jump. But, I do think we'll improve significantly with him at the helm. Even with all our questions with personnel, I think it's reasonable to expect that we'll finish somewhere in the 15th to 18th range in both categories, allowing somewhere in the neighborhood of 23 to 24 points per game and a 38%-ish third down conversion rate.
The big question is how? Given our current stable of players with multiple areas of concerns, how do we get the improvements that we need?
Better play from our linebackers? Absolutely. Better play from our safeties and corners? No question. But it all starts with the D-line. The highlight plays come from the linebacker and safety positions, but don't get it twisted, the D-line is the motor that drives this defense. And you better believe Coach Rod knows it. Play on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage. Penetrate into the backfield. Pressure the QB. This will be a major area of focus for Coach Rod, and where I believe we will see the most improvement.
There has been a precedent already set.
In 2009, before Rod became the DC in Chicago, the defense posted 35 sacks and 45 tackles for a loss. In 2010, first year as DC, they posted 34 sacks and 53 TFL, in 2011 it was 33 sacks and 63 TFL, and 2012 it was 41 sacks and 57 TFL. The sack totals stayed fairly consistent, with a small spike the last year, but the tackles for a loss made a pretty decent jump each of the first two years before leveling out a little in his third year. That tells me he focused on playing on the opponents side of the line. Another way you can tell? In 2009, Chicago was 23rd in the league in rushing defense (126.4 ypg). In 2010, the Chcago D jumped to 2nd (90.1 ypg), was 5th (96.4 ypg) in 2011, and finished 8th (101.7 ypg) in 2012.
Three straight years of top 10 run defense. Didn't happen by accident.
Want more? It's a passing league right? Ok, then. To me, passing yardage alone can be a misleading indicator. If your opponent can't run the ball, they will simply pass more frequently which inflates the yardage total. I believe a more accurate look at how you're affecting the QB as a defense is to look at your opponent's passer rating. In 2009, Chicago allowed a passer rating of 92.3 (13th in the league). Top 15, not too bad, better than average. In 2010, with DC Rod manning the ship, the opponent's passer rating plummeted to 74.4 (3rd best in the league). 2011 saw a passer rating of 79.3 (8th) and 2012 produced a rating of 71.3 (2nd). So even though the sack numbers didn't increase that much over his tenure as DC, the opponents passer rating took a considerable nose dive. I think you can attribute a large part of that to pressure on the QB, making him uncomfortable, forcing him into bad decisions, and rushing his throws. But you have to be on their side of the line in order to do that.
Three straight years of top 10 nightmares-for-opposing-QB's. Didn't happen by accident.
Again, is it reasonable to expect the same kind of jump that Chicago made? I don't think so. They had different players on that Bear's D, and I don't think our personnel are quite to that point in their development...yet. But I do think we see some noticeable improvement this year.
I know there are some who are skeptical about the quality of our rushmen. The simple fact of the matter is that just about everyone of our D-lineman comes with some sort of question mark, weather it's injuries, talent, consistency, or whatever. I'll be the first to admit to this, and I'm not afraid to say that I have a little apprehension about the guys we have right now. Talented but unproven. As a group, I think they have a ton of upside but they will have to work like hell to achieve it, and more importantly, sustain it.
There is one major thing I think this group of guys have going for them. As opposed to last year, when the Cowboys basically had to post an ad on Craigslist looking for lineman, this year every single one of these guys is here because Coach Rod wants them here. He's pulled in specific guys because of specific things they do well. He's stressed versatility among his choices so they can do their specific things in various places along the line. Granted, some will do better than others, some won't make it out of training camp, some will surprise, some will disappoint, and a few will really excel.
At the end of the day, I see Coach Rod putting together a squad that will likely be solid, but not spectacular. Not yet anyway.
But I think solid production from our D-line is enough to make our entire defense a little better. Somewhere between average and slightly better than average, and that I believe, will be enough for us to win the division and get in the playoffs.
I'm not sure if that's an entirely reasonable expectation, maybe more like cautious optimism.