An NFL roster is composed of 53 pieces, pieces that can change from game to game. 46 of them will be active each week. The staff assembles them based on health and who they think can help the most. When all the pieces fit well, you have a good chance of winning. But when the pieces just don't go together, you have a mess.
And "mess" is a kind way of putting what the Dallas Cowboys have been this season. With things teetering on the edge of the pit of despair that has been looming before them since the second game of the season, everyone is looking for explanations as to what has gone wrong. There are certainly many ways to approach the situation, but the "pieces" analogy seems to do about as well in explaining things as any.
For the defense, the problem existed from the very beginning. They had lost an important part of the secondary in Orlando Scandrick during preseason. Two other key pieces started the season serving suspensions. The Cowboys gambled that they could survive that with a fully functional offense, but we know how that turned out (and which we'll get to in sickening detail later). Once Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain were available, they were not at midseason form, especially McClain. Although the defense has certainly shown improvement over the past several weeks, it still is not seeing the production it needs in sacks and especially takeaways. The parts are fitting together somewhat, but not well enough. And McClain is now out for the game against the New York Jets, which is not really helpful.
But it is the offense, which has been such a catastrophe this season, where the pieces really turned out to be mismatched.
As with the defense, the offense was missing one key piece from last season at the start once DeMarco Murray left in pursuit of a big payday. The team tried to replace him, primarily with Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden, but Randle was lost to his own demons and McFadden turned out to be the wrong piece for the ZBS scheme Dallas prefers and had mostly prepared for going into the season. This forced the team to try and adapt to utilize him, which made the young and talented offensive line less effective. Because of the failure to have the right kind of back, the line itself no longer fit things as well. Their play, while not terrible, has not been the dominant machine we so enjoyed in 2014. In essence, they became pieces that did not fit as well as they should have.
But the real problems came in the passing game. The most important pieces there were clearly Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. They were the big play combination that other teams had to try and counter. Bryan was injured in the opening game of the season, which forced the other wide receivers to all have to try and step up a position. That never panned out well, especially when Romo was himself injured in game two. He was the most crucial of all. The Cowboys offense was built around his skills and he held things together. Had he remained healthy, he is good enough to have kept the passing game working, but once he was out, the void at backup quarterback quickly became obvious. The acquisition of Matt Cassel to replace Brandon Weeden did not improve things markedly, and has resulted in one lone victory without Romo as the starter.
Bryant is back on the field, but he is clearly not 100 percent. With a far less capable quarterback, the rest of the receiving corps is being largely neutralized by opposing defenses. Of course, Cassel also is a large part of the issue, showing far less ability to read and adjust to coverage than is needed. Although the injury excuse has been harped on all season long, it is hard to argue that the loss of Romo and Bryant, along with the departure of Murray, did not play the most significant part in the failure this season.
The misfit pieces now have the Cowboys with neither a running or passing game that can be considered capable. There simply is nothing to move the ball or score with. We have seen the results in the past two games with the team only converting 10 percent of their third down opportunities, a figure of simply horrendous ineptitude. The tiny sliver of hope the team still clings to for reaching the playoffs depends on fixing those issues. And given what they have to work with, that is almost impossible.
Going into the season, it looked like the team had the pieces it needed, which led to the high hopes for Dallas. But some were not as good as we thought, and others disappeared as the season went on. The results speak for themselves.
It leaves us with having to hope that the Cowboys can somehow turn things around for next season. But it also means that it is entirely possible that they can rebound. The defense is getting stronger as young players like DeMarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, and Randy Gregory develop, and the return of Scandrick and a fully healthy Tyrone Crawford (playing with a shoulder injury) might fix a lot next year. The draft and/or free agency will offer a chance to upgrade the 1 tech defensive tackle position, which is the only glaring deficiency in the front seven. And they might already have some hope there if Terrell McClain can return from his season-ending injury.
Offensively, the team will likely be looking to find better pieces at running back and wide receiver, as well as looking to fix the backup quarterback position and perhaps invest in a possible future successor to Romo. But getting Romo and Bryant back and healthy are the biggest things that the team should be hoping for.
Next year, the process of fitting the puzzle together will begin again. Hopefully, the Cowboys can find and keep all the right pieces next time around. They completely whiffed on it this season, to a degree of futility that is almost beyond comprehension.