Eating Crows and I Told You So’s: Jason Garrett and The 2011 Dallas Cowboys in Review

Eight-and-eight, .500, out of playoff contention. These are your 2011 Dallas Cowboys. A team that had every opportunity, right to the very last game, to put naysayers like yours truly in their place. A team that had every chance to show they were ready to take the next step. It’s a bitter taste. It’s bitter to see a team with so much potential, so many times when it looked like they were coming into their own, to end their season in absolute mediocrity.

Four months ago, I wrote about why Jason Garrett, for all his talents, is the wrong man to lead the Dallas Cowboys to the promised land. I presented some criticisms and made a few predictions. Now, with a couple of weeks to digest the 2011 Cowboys season, it’s time to look back and see what was accurate, what missed the mark, and more importantly, what happened to the Dallas Cowboys this year.

1. The Window Is Still Closing

What I said at the beginning of the season:

"There is simply too much at stake. These are prime years for guys like Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and DeMarcus Ware, with the downward slope in sight. There is simply too much talent at stake to risk it on a man who has never led a team before."

Another season in the books, and the core of the Cowboys are another year older. As this article from the Mothership indicates Tony Romo had one of the best seasons of his career, and it was all for naught. Romo stepping up his game has been a long time coming, and in a year where he was (relatively) healthy the whole season through, the team as a whole just could not get it done. It’s a shame that, as BloggingTheBoys' Tom Ryle put it, the team wasted Tony Romo's best season to date.

Moreover, DeMarcus Ware had another banner year on a team that couldn’t make the playoffs, and continues to fight nagging injuries. Add in Jason Witten, who may have just had a down year, but seems to have his window closing as fast as anyone’s. This nucleus of players is getting older and the Cowboys are running out of time to take advantage of some of the cornerstone talent they have assembled.

To the point, while no win or loss can be placed one on man’s shoulders, Jason Garrett and his staff did have some significant coaching miscues that cost the team dearly. JG icing his own kicker is the obvious error, but there were multiple issues with working the clock, using timeouts, and game management, particularly in the fourth quarter. These are the kinks that have to be worked out by a man who’s never carried the big whistle before.

Wisely, JG wanted to be Offensive Coordinator even when Jerry Jones appeared to want to make him the head coach right out of the starting gate. He knew that he needed to learn the ropes and acclimate to leading a team. Well, in the midst of that acclimation process, the heart of this team is getting older, slower, and shorter on time.

2. The Roster

What I said at the beginning of the season:

"The Cowboys have had a receiving corps that other teams would kill for. The team has consistently had one of the most stacked backfields in the league. Dallas’ secondary has long been suspect, but the Boys have also been able to boast a talented linebacking corps and some punishing bodies on the defensive line. . . . I never bought into the chatter that the Cowboys had the most talented roster in the NFL, but undeniably, there have been enough tools available to make Dallas a consistent contender. And there still are."

It’s hard to look at receiving corps with Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Laurent Robinson and consider it anything but a dream. Austin was his superb self, when he could stay on the field. Injuries aside, he’s a character guy, and I expect him to be back in full force in 2012. Dez did quite well, but seemed to be one of the players hurt the most by the shortened off-season. The leap from first to second year is often one of the most significant, and I hope a full off-season with the training staff will pay even greater dividends. Of course, Laurent Robinson was the free agent pickup of the year. I really hope Jerry & Co. find a way to keep a player as in sync with Romo as Laurent was this year. All-in-all, the receiving corps. lived up to the billing.

The backfield remains stacked. Felix Jones did middling work, but seemed to step it up when competition made his job a little less secure. DeMarco Murray obviously met all expectations and then some. I hope that he can continue this momentum into the next season. Phillip Tanner was another pleasant surprise, and a credit to the scouts. There are no problems in the Cowboys' backfield.

The crow-eating comes from my comments about the defense. DeMarcus Ware is obviously unassailable. Sean Lee is the brightest young star on the defense, and he pleased everyone with his superior performance. Jay Ratliff did a fairly good job on the line, and there were even flashes of brilliance from guys like Sean Lissemore. That’s pretty much where the love ends, though.

As Kegbearer’s superb piece Grading the Pass Rush explained in more detail, the front seven are not necessarily the Cowboys’ biggest weakness. Nevertheless, the decent if underwhelming Anthony Spencer, the amiable but aging Keith Brooking, and the unknown quantity of Bruce Carter do not necessarily give us anything to crow about among the linebackers. As KB noted, guys like Jason Hatcher and Josh Brent seem to be improving, but the Cowboys defensive line could use some serious bolstering as well. In the end, the front seven are not Dallas’s most glaring weakness, but it’s difficult to call them ready for prime time either. There's no doubt that a stronger pass rush from the Cowboys' forward attack may require new soldiers in the trenches. Still, it looks like the team has found its sharpshooter...

What I said at the beginning of the season:

"The Cowboys have had as many as five kickers on the roster through training camp. After David Buehler’s terribly inaccurate placekicking last season, the Cowboys desperately needed to find another solution. Unfortunately, despite the crowd of kickers in camp, that solution never materialized. The ‘Boys are carrying both Buehler and rookie Dan Bailey into the regular season."

Time to eat some major crow. He certainly had to overcome some rocky times, especially in the middle of the season, but Bailey strikes me as the real deal. Buehler was not and is not a long term solution as a placekicker, and it took Bailey’s consistency to help pop whatever bubble Buehler was resting on. I cannot say I loved the team going through camp with five kickers, but Garrett found his man. He and his staff deserve a great deal of credit for hanging onto Bailey and eventually making him the team's number one kicker.

3. What The Cowboys Gained in the 2011 Draft

What I said at the beginning of the season:

"Garrett proved his worth. His first pick in the draft was his best – USC tackle Tyron Smith. Garrett selected someone who will hopefully be a fixture for the future on the offensive line and who could give the beleaguered position group a shot in the arm. He followed this up by picking guard David Arkin in the fourth round. Arkin was a solid pick. You can find serviceable guard talent in the 4th round, and there’s something the Cowboys just love about four-year starters from small schools, especially on the line. At least Dallas was drafting at a position of need. Garrett even added lineman Bill Nagy in the 7th round for good measure. If there’s one thing to be said for Garrett’s draft, it’s that he paid attention to the line."

If there’s anything that Garrett deserves kudos on this year, it’s selecting Tyron Smith as the first player drafted under his administration. Smith has succeeded beyond any of our wildest dreams, and looks poised and ready to make the switch to left tackle. It's certainly still early, but Tyron looks like a player who could be a cornerstone of this team for years and years to come.

In the same vein, Bill Nagy looked fairly good before his season ended with a broken ankle, and could be, at worst, a solid backup on the line. David Arkin has his supporters, though appears to need more time before the team is willing to depend on him. We also had bonus baby/UDFA Kevin Kowalski acquit himself well in relief. Clearly the offensive line stills needs a great deal of help, but Garrett recognized it as a weakness and made a good effort to shore it up through the draft. He deserves big kudos for the attention he paid to this longstanding weak spot.

The other notable pickup through the draft was DeMarco Murray, who had a great rookie season. We were all disappointed with the injury that kept him from taking his success through to the end of the season. Still, he certainly acquitted himself well in his first year wearing the star, and has a promising future with the team.

That does not, however, justifying spending a third round draft pick on a running back.

What I said at the beginning of the season:

"Now don’t get me wrong. Despite my distaste for OU, Murray looks to be a quality back . . . . There’s just one big problem – running back is the position where the Cowboys have the absolute least need. . . .Dallas needed help at approximately a million other positions on this team before they needed another running back. This need includes: another guard, another safety, another corner, another d-lineman. . . . Running back is one of the most easily filled, plug-and-play positions in football. You never, never, spend money or waste draft picks on a running back unless you’re just positive that you’re getting Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson."

To this point, as Peter King discussed in his most recent edition of Monday Morning Quarterback:

"Following a regular season in which none of the six leading rushers in football were drafted in the first round, here were the five leading rushers over the weekend:

As we look ahead to the divisional round, here's an interesting note about the final eight teams left in the Super Bowl derby: Only one, Denver, starts a first-round running back ... and Willis McGahee's on his third team, in the twilight."

The point is pretty clear - it’s hard to maximize the value of each pick when you’re taking a running back high in the draft. Murray’s success this year doesn’t change that. What’s more, Felix’s burst coming back from injury may indicate that what the running game really needed was a dependable fullback like Tony Fiametta, not a highly touted tailback.

For those of you who think we’re getting a Chris Johnson/Adrien Peterson type guy in DeMarco Murray, I’ll just offer this caution. At various points over the last decade, the Cowboys faithful have been ready to anoint Troy Hamrick, Julius Jones, Marion Barber, and Felix Jones, as Emmitt Smith’s heir apparent. It’s going to take much longer than half a season of impressive production to convince me that this pick was worth it, especially with many bigger holes in the Cowboys roster.

Don’t misunderstand me, though. Murray appears to be a tremendous back with a fantastic upside. He’s just not the piece this team really needed, and that point stands even amidst his success.

4. What The Cowboys Need in the 2012 Draft

Tom Ryle did a tremendous overview of what the Cowboys need for next season, and I have little to do but agree with him and shake my head. What I said at the beginning of the season:

"[T]he Cowboys have needed help on the offensive line and in the secondary for at least three drafts now, and Dallas’ war room has done little to address them . . . [A]s in 2009, the Cowboys did not touch the secondary until the fifth round with the selection of CB Josh Thomas out of Buffalo. In a year where the entire defense, not just the secondary, had been suspect, Thomas was one of only two draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. He found himself cut in the move to the 53-man roster, meaning that the 2011 draft made only contribution to an ailing defense that ranked 23rd in the league for total defense last year – one injury-prone rookie linebacker."

Well here we are, a season later, and it’s pretty clear that despite the creativity of Rob Ryan, the Cowboys needed a great deal of help on defense, particularly in the secondary. Again, the front seven were not stellar outside of the consistent greatness of DeMarcus Ware and the out-of-the-gate success of Sean Lee. Help at the point of attack, with Ryan helping to pick guys who fit his system, is a priority. Even just one more player who can make a push to the quarterback would go a long way. But as Kegbearer explained, maintaining a pass rush was also not this team’s most glaring weakness.

That honor goes to the ailing secondary that features an aging Terrence Newman, an injury-prone Mike Jenkins, and an inconsistent Orlando Scandrick. These three CBs are supported by the adequate-at-best trio of Elam, Ball, and Sensabaugh. Season after season, Cowboys fans have watched this unit torched by superior firepower. Whether in free agency or through the draft, the Cowboys absolutely have to make at least one strong addition to the defense backs, and hopefully another solid roleplayer to boot. One thing is for sure, with a defense that has been as down and inconsistent over the past two seasons, some help on the personnel front is very very necessary.

To the same end, inconsistent play on the offensive line has plagued the Cowboys for just as long. Tyron Smith was a big step in the right direction, and hopefully Doug Free can re-prove himself on the right side of the line. Nevertheless, the youth movement was a mixed bag for the O-Line as a whole, and the interior is in need of some further fortification. Whether that comes from the highly anticipated David DeCastro out of Stanford or elsewhere, the line continued to be a problem for Dallas in 2011, particularly against the pass rush of repeat offenders like the Eagles and Giants. Something must be done.

5. Déjà Vu All Over Again

What I said at the beginning of the season:

"I expect [Jason Garrett] will field a decent team as head coach. Dallas will struggle, but they’ll have a shot until the end of the season. Unfortunately, that’s just the same old same old."

If there’s an analog to the 2011 Cowboys to me, it’s the 2008 Cowboys. No, the 2011 squad didn’t have the same high expectations that the 2008 team, coming off a 13-3 season, buckled under, but the parallels are uncanny.

Both teams lost an overtime game to the Cardinals in Arizona where they had a chance to win in overtime, but the Cards’ physical defensive line and the Cowboys special teams miscues doomed them. Both teams padded their resume with blowout wins over lesser teams like the Seattle Seahawks. Both teams found themselves blowing big fourth quarter leads in games that would have gone a long way toward gaining a leg up in the division.

The 2008 Cowboys crumbled against the Pittsburgh Steelers, despite leading by ten points going into the fourth quarter. The 2011 Cowboys likewise crumbled against the Jets, Lions, and Patriots in similar fashion, only worse.

"What, me worry?"

Both teams had an up-and-down start to the season. After the first seven weeks, the 2008 Cowboys were 4-3 and the 2011 Cowboys were 3-4. But, Both teams made it to 7-4, giving the faithful hope that they had righted the ship and would sail into the post-season. Most strikingly, despite their mistakes, both squads entered the final game of the season with a chance to make the playoffs. Instead, both teams lost to a division rival in a contest where they were never really even in the game. Both teams finished in third place behind the Giants and Eagles.

The criticisms that were true for the 2008 Cowboys are true for the 2011 Cowboys. They need a great deal of help on the offensive line and in the secondary. There’s talent there, but it’s constantly hampered by a lack of discipline that shows itself in rampant penalties and a failure to stand tough at the end of games. In both cases, the coaching staff, replete with its own array of errors during the season, could not get the best out of the team.

6. A Prediction for 2012

Obviously, this is incredibly early. We haven’t had free agency, we haven’t had the draft, and we’re not even sure what coaches and assistants will be pacing the sideline next year. I also have much more to say about Jason Garrett’s offense and its trajectory under new OC Bill Callahan. Still, the bad news is that Dallas appears poised to regress next year. The 2011 Cowboys benefited from a manageable schedule and a weak division. Even with a third place finish, America’s team looks to be in for some tough sledding next year.

Of course, you never know what’s going to happen from one season to the next. As a case-in point, this year, the NFL had seven new division winners. Still, in 2012 the Cowboys will play the NFC South, which sent two teams to the playoffs (New Orleans and Atlanta) and the AFC North, which sent three (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati).

They’ll also play a Chicago Bears team that was contending for a playoff spot before Jay Cutler was injured, a Carolina Panthers team that features the likely Offensive Rookie of the Year, Cam Newton, and a Seattle squad that seemed to be putting it together at the end of the season. Add on top of that the Giants and Eagles who both swept us this year, and it doesn’t look pretty.

My prediction is that the Cowboys will regress and finish the 2012 season with a paltry 6-10. As always when predicting a poor showing from the Boys, I really hope I’m wrong on this one. Nothing would please me more than to see Year Two of Jason Garrett’s rebuilding project turn into a big success. I just don’t see it happening. Last year, there was much talk about the "turnaround" JG engineered. This off-season, there’s apt to be much talk about improvement and process and how Garrett is changing the character of this team. In the face of this rose-colored view, I stand by what I said just days before the 2011 Season began:

"If the team had played [as they did for Jason Garrett in the second of half of 2010 for] the entire season, we would have seen the same sort of team that Cowboys fans have seen repeatedly during the Wade Phillips era. It’s a team that is talented but inconsistent, that stands up to big time opponents but has trouble closing the deal. It’s a team that’s right on the edge of playoff contention, but nowhere near reliable enough to warrant great expectations."

Sadly, that still sounds like Jason Garrett and the Dallas Cowboys to me. There are too many holes in the roster. There are too many of the old problems with penalties and fortitude as a team that creep up nearly every game. There are too many of those hiccups almost every new coach faces yet to come. Cowboys are running in place, not moving forward, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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