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O-Rings, Weak Links, And Critical Factors For The 2015 Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys are going through some major changes during the bye week. Which one will prove to be the most crucial?

Was Weeden the weakest link?
Was Weeden the weakest link?
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys are experiencing a truly remarkable number of changes to the team in the course of a couple of weeks. Including the last game with the New England Patriots, they have added two key defensive players in Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain, who are almost certainly among the best four or five defenders on the team (and possibly the top two); are looking to bring back a third in Randy Gregory; changed the starting quarterback from Brandon Weeden to Matt Cassel; changed the starting left guard from Ronald Leary to La'el Collins; may be getting back the top wide receiver in Dez Bryant, who will likely be back the following week if not for the New York Giants game; and are potentially shuffling the running back rotation to get more from Christine Michael which is going to have some effect on the roles of Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden. It is hard to think of a team that has been forced into more roster churn in midseason, especially all at once.

That is the kind of change that normally happens between seasons, not in the middle of one. If (a very big if, that) all the changes are positive, they could turn things around for a team that is suddenly in the midst of a real struggle to keep up in the playoff race. However, it is possible that at least one of these moves will not lead to the hoped-for improvement. Given how many there are, that does not necessarily doom Dallas, especially in a division as tight as the NFC East. But is there one thing in particular that has to work out for things to go well for the Cowboys?

This subject is one that has been discussed before, and quite brilliantly. One Cool Customer first addressed it five years ago in his original post on the O-ring theory. (If you are new, or just don't remember it, click the link and read it. You will be smarter afterwards. You are welcome.) The basic premise of that post is summed up in this excerpt.

The O-Ring Theory in essence postulates that in otherwise equal production processes, the worst input factor (or 'weakest link') will determine the overall quality level of the final product.

This week has seen a number of articles from our stable of front page writers, plus a variety of fan posts, discussing which change is the most important, or whether each one is likely to be meaningful or not. This brought OCC's insightful analysis to mind. What does applying that to the current upheaval in the Cowboys' roster tell us?

The defense. After four weeks of mostly waiting for them, the sacks finally came. Tom Brady was leading the league in getting the ball out to avoid pressure, almost unbelievably taking a fraction less than two seconds to get rid of the ball. But he was unable to avoid being brought down five times, and took an additional eight hits without drawing a roughing the passer flag. That bodes very well for the future, especially with Gregory waiting in the wings.

However, even with the improved production from the pass rush, we still saw a familiar pattern emerge as the defense recorded all the sacks in the first half. As time wore on in the game, the rush was just a step slow and Brady started carving the Cowboys up down the field. Yes, the defense was markedly better, and will hopefully continue to be so, but it was not enough of itself.

Collins in at starter. As fans of the team, we had become rather smug about the powerful offensive line Dallas deployed in 2014, and that was back intact for this year. Even the loss of the NFL's leading rusher was seen as something the team could take in stride as long as the big guys up front were plowing the way.

That didn't work out so well, and some have pointed to the dropoff, particularly in run blocking, as one of the key elements in the disappointing start to the season.

The replacement of Leary with Collins is obviously an attempt to get some of that O line mojo back, and may also be a result of Leary still having lingering injury issues. But in an interesting counter-argument to the falloff in performance by the offensive line, Ben Muth of Football Outsiders thinks that the problems of the line are more a result of the other offensive issues and not a cause. He found, after studying video, that Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and particularly Zack Martin are still performing at a very high level. He thinks the issues derive more from the injury problems on offense and the resulting limitations those brought.

It's tough to look good when you're facing eight-man boxes (or seven-man boxes when you're in 11 personnel). It's tough to look good when running backs are only getting what's blocked and nothing more. And it's tough to look good when not a single defender on the field is concerned with getting the ball thrown over his head.

The running back shuffle. The Cult of Christine Michael is rejoicing, because they see him as finally getting his chance to come in and save the running game. But will he see any more success against stacked boxes? That seems a terribly frail reed to hope on. No back does well when they constantly have defenders meeting them in the backfield because there are more of them than there are blockers to get them out of the way.

And when you look at all those things, it brings you back around to the usual suspect.

The quarterback change. Weeden was almost certainly the weakest link, especially in the loss to the Patriots. He played as hard as he could, but the evidence is that he does not have the vision of the field nor the confidence to make the throws that are needed. As Muth observed, no one really respected his ability to hurt them by going over the top. And there was no real reason for them to.

Cassel comes with his own limitations, but there is a consensus, apparently shared by the coaches, that he can make at least mid-range throws to punish a defense that is crowding the line to stop the run. If he can force the other team to respect the pass, then the running lanes should be there. And if Scott Linehan has more faith in his ability to make the throws, then the Cowboys should not be nearly as predictable on first down. A couple of play-action completions for ten or fifteen yards on first down will quickly change the way opposing defenses line up. The Cowboys could also spread the field on first down, if the other team knows that it is more than just a bluff to try and run a delay.

Bryant's return could also be important in this, but it is probably less than 50-50 that he will be ready for the Giants game. The following one against the Seattle Seahawks seems a more likely target, and the Cowboys cannot afford to wait that long to get back on track. If Bryant does make it back coming out of the bye, that is a bonus, not something to depend on.

All the evidence points to Cassel being the O-ring for Dallas until Tony Romo rejoins the team on the field. It is a cliche that the quarterback is the most important single player on the team, but it looks to be the cold, hard truth for the Cowboys at this point. If Cassel provides the team with a noticeable upgrade over what Weeden was providing, then things may work out well for Dallas over the next four or five games.

If he is just more of the same, or fails in a different manner, such as throwing more interceptions, then it will be a long season for all of us.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB


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