On Thursday, as we sit in the midst of bye week, our own Tom Ryle authored a superb collocation of thoughts about our Beloved 'Boys. Here. I'd like to follow his lead, offering an assessment of the team after ten games. In fact, I'd like to use those ten games - and their respective win-loss results - as a template. Since the Cowboys currently find themselves at 7-3, I'll present seven positive developments and three not-so-positives for the 2014 campaign.
Week 1: Loss (Turnovers): In 2013, one of the very few defensive bright spots for the Cowboys was their ability to generate turnovers. Not only did they register 28 takeaways, they also had five turnovers returned for touchdowns (two picks and three fumble returns). Most startling, however, was the fact that the Cowboys recovered a league-leading 67.6% of all fumbles (both their own and those of their opponents). On defense, Dallas' opponents fumbled sixteen times, and the Cowboys recovered 13 of them!
That has not continued in 2014. Five times this season, the Cowboys have been on the positive side of the turnover ledger; they are 5-0 in those games. The other five games, when they have been on the negative side (they have not had an even turnover margin all season), they are 2-3. Given that the team that wins the turnover battle wins about 80% of the time in the NFL, the aberration here is the two wins Dallas notched when having more giveaways than takeaways. Had those two games - against Houston and Seattle - held true to form, we're looking at a 5-5 team.
Week 2: Win (Improved Health): By week 10 in 2013, which marked the terrible loss to New Orleans, the Cowboys had ten players on season-ending IR. Against the Saints, they also had six game-day health scratches, five of whom were players expected to be significant contributors (Miles Austin, Mo Claiborne, Jason Hatcher, DeVonte Holloman, and J.J. Wilcox). And, in the following weeks, they added two more players to IR, and had another 29 games lost due to various bumps and bruises. The takeaway is that the team's health declined as the season progressed.
Flash forward a year, and the Cowboys currently have five players on IR, and that includes Ben Gardner and Darrion Weems, both of whom might struggle to make the roster were they at full health. More importantly, they have been getting players back to health rather than losing them to the injury rolls, especially along the defensive line, which was exactly where they were decimated in 2013. So, although they have lost Mo Claiborne, Sean Lee and Justin Durant for the year, the news is generally quite good. A week of rest and this young team will be poised for a strong stretch run.
Week 3: Win (2013 and 2014 draft classes): In the last two years, the Cowboys have gotten away from an established draft trend, which was to target players at the sport's most critical positions (OT; WR; QB; CB; DE) in the first round, in favor of grabbing the draft's best player at a given position. In 2013 and '14 those positions were OC and OG, respectively...and the results have been spectacular. But its not just Travis Frederick and Zack Martin who have made the last two drafts look like good'uns; several guys brought in of late have been significant contributors and/ or show tremendous promise.
Consider: Terrence Williams and Gavin Escobar have made game-changing, acrobatic catches (and both look to be improving blockers); J.J. WIlcox is making strides and certainly looks like he has the toolkit to succeed; Joseph Randle made a big leap forward and has provided the team with two of this year's most important big runs. And perhaps the most surprising - and thus pleasing - development had been Anthony Hitchens' play. He's improved by leaps and bounds, and provided stability at all three linebacker spots during a season in which the position has been plagued by injury.
Week 4: Win (January 28): Why January 28? That's the day that the Cowboys announced the hiring of Scott Linehan as the new OC and Rod Marinelli's promotion to defensive coordinator. Both have done yeoman's work, providing creativity, energy and fresh ideas. In most games this season, the Cowboys coaching staff has won the intellectual battle, both in terms of schematic development and in getting their players ready to play. Linehan's resolute determination to stick with the run has helped to improve the entire team's performance; Marinelli has a bunch of middling talents playing with their hair on fire, making few mental mistakes and swarming to the ball. Nowhere was this more evident than in wins against NFC powerhouses New Orleans and Seattle.
Week 5: Win (Developing young players): Connected to the success of the 2013-14 draft classes is the fact that this coaching staff has proven to be much better than those in the past at getting the most our of their players. On Sunday, when Hitchens ran down the Jaguars speedy wide receiver Cecil Shorts to save a touchdown, I turned to my friend Knowledgeable Cowboys Fan and said, "this team is so much better at developing guys," an asseveration with which he firmly agreed.
I already covered all the players in the last two draft classes who have grown up quickly under this coaching staff. Perhaps this is most evident, however, when we look at low-round and UDFA types. In 2014, Ron Leary, Tyler Patmon, Jeff Heath, Lance Dunbar, Barry Church, Cole Beasley, Joseph Randle, Dwayne Harris and James Hanna, all drafted no higher than round five, have made important contributions to Cowboys wins.
Week 6: Win (We Dem Boyz): I'll throw out another date: March 11, 2014. That's when the Cowboys released both Miles Austin and DeMarcus Ware. Two days later, Jason Hatcher signed with the Redskins. Clearly, Dallas suffered a drop-off in talent by losing these players. At the same time, these losses led to a critical shift in the team's identity. With the likes of Ware and Austin no longer in the fold, players like Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick stepped up as team leaders. Indeed, this was evident at training camp, where it was those two players who most often rallied the troops.
And here's the key: Miles and DeMarcus are nice guys; Dez and "O" aren't. Scandrick is known for his grouchy, competitive, confrontational manner and Dez, while blessed with a nicer disposition, is a nasty, physical competitor. As the team's new leaders, they (plus relative newcomer Rolando McClain) have helped to instill an edge that the team - and certainly the defense - never enjoyed when Ware manned the RDE spot. And one trait both share is that they are never satisfied, no matter how much success they enjoy.
In a recent (must-listen) podcast, our guest, Mike Fisher, addressed the issue of the 2014 defense having "some dog in 'em":
I was talking to Scandrick the other day...and I asked him, "Has the fact that D-Ware's not here anymore freed you guys up to be more you?" And he said, "Yes. DeMarcus Ware's one of the greatest players in history, and I love him to death, but yes." Its freeing other guys up to exert their style of leadership...I said to Scandrick, "You and [Rolando McClain] are cut from the same cloth." And he said, "Yea, from the first day that he showed up here, we became best friends."
Fisher also pointed out that its Scandrick who introduced "We Dem Boyz" as a locker room anthem - and not the Bowdlerized version we hear over the Stadium PA. 2014 ushered in a new leadership class, and they are, frankly, much saltier than their predecessors.
Week 7: Win (Improved N/YA): In 2013, Romo had the lowest Net Yards Gained per Pass Attempt figures of his career. For those of you who are wondering, NY/A is derived as follows: [(Passing Yards-Sack Yardage)/ (Pass Attempts - Times Sacked)]. By this metric, early Romo was not only good but historically good, notching one of the best career NY/As in league history. That said, he has fallen off in recent seasons, and bottomed out in 2013:
In 2014, he has enjoyed a resurgence in this regard, boasting a 7.29 NY/A. He has been efficient and judicious, with an occasional deep pass thrown in. In the process, he has demonstrated that the steady downward movement since 2009 was largely the result of a deteriorating and then inept offensive line (and perhaps a stagnating Garrett-led offense). Welcome back to the elite, Number Nine.
Week 8: Loss (Missing Doug Free): If you assert that Doug Free is the weakest link in the Cowboys' offensive line, you'll get little push-back. Strangely, however, his absence from the lineup (he suffered a foot injury very late in the Seattle game) has corresponded with a noticeable, and month-long, offensive drop-off. Mostly, this has to do with the Dallas' offense's ability to sustain offense. For example, in the season's first six games, the Cowboys converted 40 more first downs than their opponents. In the four games since Free's injury, they are at -7.
And first downs extend into total plays run from scrimmage. In their five consecutive victories after the opening day 49ers debacle, the Cowboys averaged a 68-57 advantage in plays (and if we toss out the outlier, the Rams game, it swells to a 71.5-53 advantage). Since Doug Free left the lineup after being injured at the end of the Seattle game, however, the Cowboys have run eleven fewer plays than their opponents:
NY Giants: 60-59
As several analysts have shown, the 2014 Dallas defense isn't any better than the 2013 model in terms of yards per play (currently they sit at 5.9 YPP, which is a lowly 29th in the league). So, a key to the equation is keeping them off the field. Since Free's injury - and this might be purely coincidental - the Cowboys have failed to do that.
Week 9: Loss (Three NFC Home Losses): Coinciding with Free's absence was the nasty two-game losing streak to the Redskins and Cardinals. While each was a tough loss (both games were within four points late in the fourth quarter), what is particularly galling is that both were at AT&T Stadium. Strangely, the Cowboys are undefeated on the road; all three losses are at home to NFC teams - two of whom the Cowboys figure to be battling with for playoff positioning. Although neither San Francisco nor Arizona looks to be a playoff shoo-in at this point, the fact that Dallas lost to them means that they will probably have to win the division to secure a place at the tournament table.
Week 10: Win (Improving D-line): As mentioned earlier the Cowboys have been enjoying improved health in 2014 and, ironically, the place where that is most the case is precisely the spot where they were absolutely crippled by injuries in 2013. By week ten, Ben Bass, Tyrone Crawford, Edgar Jones and Anthony Spencer were on IR; Jay Ratliff had been placed on the failed physical list; Jason Hatcher missed week ten with an injury and never was at full strength the rest of the way. Similarly, Ware missed games 7-9, and then limped to the finish.
A year later, the Cowboys are preparing to feature a rush line of Spencer, Crawford, Henry Melton and DeMarcus Lawrence for the remainder of the season. They might not measure up to the 2009 version of Spencer, Ratliff, Hatcher and Ware, but they certainly can hold their own against those creaky fellows as they lined up (or stood on the sidelines, or wore a Bears uniform) in 2013's games 10-16.
The perspective from this season's bye week is worlds better than it was from the same point in 2013. As guys like Henry Melton and Anthony Spencer have rounded into shape, and Tyrone Crawford gets more comfortable in the middle, the team's sack totals have risen. After registering a mere seven sacks in the first seven games, the Cowboys have collected nine sacks in the last three contests, with a season-high of four last week against the Jags.
And, unless the offense returns to its absurdly good offense-sustaining ways in games 10-16, its the performance of the defensive line that will dictate their success during the home stretch...