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BTB Mailbag: Is This Jason Garrett's Worst Dallas Cowboys Team?

Once again, we dip into the BTB mailbag, addressing a question about the Garrett Cowboys: is this the Red-headed Genius' least talented squad?

Travis Frederick represents a significant upgrade over previous centers
Travis Frederick represents a significant upgrade over previous centers
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

From Kyle Ragsdale (Gritty Crusader): I don't live near DFW but I was traveling through the area last night and Babe Laufenberg made a statement on his local show that this is the worst team Garrett has had since taking over.  He said it "wasn't even close."  Do you guys believe that to be the case?...Thoughts? Thanks.

No, thank you, Kyle. This is an interesting question to address, particularly at this juncture in the offseason, when hope, after building throughout the fallow offseason, tends to be at or near its peak. Its questions like these that, when answered, can help us to align our expectations reasonably. So, here goes:

This is Jason Garrett's fourth team; we can't count the 2010 season, as he inherited Wade Phillip's team, as well as its demeanor, schematic makeup and utter lack of heart. Here, in a nifty chart form, are Garrett's respective teams' starting lineups:

*2014 starting lineups are a projection by me, some starters obviously could be different.

Position 2011 2012 2013 2014*
QB Romo Romo Romo Romo
RB Murray Murray Murray Murray
FB Fiametta Vickers Clutts Clutts/ Copeland
WR Austin Austin Austin T. Williams
WR Bryant Bryant Bryant Bryant
WR3 L. Robinson Ogletree T. Williams Street/ Beasley
TE Witten Witten Witten Witten
TE2 Bennett J. Phillips Hanna Escobar
LT Free T. Smith T. Smith T. Smith
LG M. Holland Livings Leary Leary
OC Costa R. Cook Frederick Frederick
RG Kosier Bernadeau Bernadeau Z. Martin
RT T. Smith Free Free Free
LDE K. Coleman Coleman/ Lissemore Selvie T. Crawford
DT/NT Ratliff Ratliff/ Brent Hayden T. McClain
DT Hatcher Melton
RDE Hatcher Hatcher Ware D. Lawrence
LOLB Spencer Spencer Durant K. Wilber
LILB/ MLB Lee Lee Lee D. Holloman
RILB B. James Carter
ROLB Ware Ware Carter Carter
CB M. Jenkins Carr Carr Carr
CB T. Newman Claiborne Scandrick Claiborne
CB3 Scandrick Scandrick Claiborne Scandrick
SS A. Elam Church/ McCray Church Church
FS Sensabaugh Sensabaugh Wilcox/ Heath Wilcox
KR D. Harris/ Ogletree Harris/ Dunbar/ Jones Harris Harris
PR D. Harris/ Bryant Harris Harris Harris
K Bailey Bailey Bailey Bailey
P McBriar McBriar C. Jones C. Jones

A look at this chart provides a goodly amount of perspective on the Garrett administration's rebuilding process; although there is evident continuity at the offensive skill positions, many others have plugged in multiple players as the Cowboys work to get out from underneath the loadstone given them by the departing Phillips team: a nasty combo of aging vets and bloated contracts.

But, to Kyle's question: Although I greatly respect his opinions I am inclined to disagree with Laufenberg. Certainly, the 2012 and 2013 teams had more star power on defense - or, at least they did heading out of training camp. But by the end of the season, both of those teams were fielding limping collections of M*A*S*H unit survivors. For my money, the defense as it is presently constituted looks able to outplay the units that closed out the 2012 and '13 seasons.

As for 2011, I can't help but think this team is better than that one. Sure, 2011 boasted younger and healthier versions of the core players - Romo. Witten, Ratliff, Hatcher, Spencer, Ware - but it also had younger, lesser versions of 2014 cornerstones Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray and Dwayne Harris. More importantly, however, is the fact that the 2011 team was hamstrung (pardon the expression) by an inept offensive line. Look at the players manning the middle a mere three seasons ago: A bloated, one-kneed Montrae Holland, the short-armed, undersized (and since retired) Phil Costa, and a gimpy, over-the-hill Kyle Kosier. That O-line was the definition of patchwork. The 2014 team has one of the NFL's most promising lines, and terrific interior depth; should they suffer an injury in the inside, the Cowboys will be able to run out a player superior to any of 2011's interior O-line starters. And finally, its difficult to imagine a more impactful upgrade than Travis Frederick over Ryan Cook (who was, in effect, the team's third-string center).

On defense, the 2011 squad had no shortage of dead weight. Some legit playmakers shared the huddle with guys in precipitous decline (Newman, James, Ratliff) and a couple of stopgap retreads from the Parcells years in Kenyon Coleman and Abram Elam. As with the offensive line, the overhaul on defense is now complete; while Hatcher and Ware's replacements might not fill their departed shoes, I'd happily take this group over the eleven that Garrett and Co. ran onto the field in 2011. So, do I think that this is the worst team of Garrett's tenure? No, and to paraphrase Laufenberg: its not even close.

Ah, but here's the rub: while this team, should it remain healthy, may be significantly better than not only the 2011 team but the 2012 and '13 units as well (because those teams didn't remain healthy), they might not finish with a comparable record. In recent years, the Cowboys have enjoyed relatively easy opening months (that's not to say they have taken advantage of them; Dallas started 2-2 each of the last three years), with murderer's rows coming in December and January.

In 2014, however, there's no soft opening; the Cowboys first six games all range from difficult to downright nasty. We'll know a lot about this team by October 12th, after they have finished playing what are probably the NFC's three best teams (49ers, Saints, Seahawks) as well as a couple of AFC up-and-comers (Houston and Tennessee), plus the uber-talented Rams. Unless they hit some of these squads when key players are missing, the Cowboys will have a more difficult row to hoe in 2014 than they did the previous season.

I'm not trying to be a contrarian or a pessimist here, but its quite possible that the Cowboys play well - up to the best of their abilities - and still open 2-4 before hitting a more manageable four-game stretch leading up to the bye. And, after the bye, its murderer's row time again, with both games against the resurgent Eagles and their "genius" head coach, plus games at Chicago, where the Cowboys were dismantled last year, and against a very tough Indianapolis team. In short, while this may not be Garrett's least talented team, they may well end up with the worst record of any of his squads.

To my mind, this will be the story of the year: can they play well enough, even while losing to better and/ or more experienced teams, to convince the Jones family that Garrett and his coaching staff deserve to stick around long enough for the above delineated roster overhaul to bear fruit? Its an intriguing question, and one that I'll address repeatedly throughout the season.

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