No one will argue that the 2015 season was a disaster for the Dallas Cowboys. The team is staring a top 5 draft pick square in the face one year after a strong playoff run. But there are some interesting words coming out of Valley Ranch.
Jason Witten was passionate about this team in his interview with Brad Sham Monday night. It was apparently quite inspirational, though I have yet to listen to it myself. As if infected by that, Jerry Jones went on 105.3 The Fan Tuesday morning and said that the team was closer to a Super Bowl now than it was a year ago.
Yes, you read that right, and yes, he understood the question.
Then, Tuesday afternoon, Mike Fisher, also on The Fan, related a conversation he had with assistants Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli about the team's morale and how they felt about their head coach. Marinelli claimed that no team in the NFL had played as hard as Dallas. Linehan added that he felt that the team had increased their determination and "never quit" attitude this year, saying that this year's scars would make next year's team that much tougher.
Clearly no one is throwing in the towel at Valley Ranch. If anything, they are doubling down, digging in, and preparing to come back and do it all again next year, hopefully with better result.
And, by and large, they are right. There has been a lot to be pleased with in this mess. Sean Lee has been demonic. Darren McFadden has managed a strong running game - since taking over as the starter, McFadden has been second only to that guy in Minnesota, without having any passing threat to keep safeties off of him. DeMarcus Lawrence has become every bit a player worth two draft picks. Byron Jones, Randy Gregory, and La'el Collins have all shown the developmental flashes we hoped for. Lucky Whitehead has finally settled into a role on the team. Brice Butler and David Irving look like very nice practice squad poaches.
But the real story is quite simple. Dallas ranks, for the season through 15 games:
Pass defense - 5th
Run defense - 11th [Editorial note: it was pointed out that Dallas is in fact 22nd in run defense. I made an error in how I navigated the web chart. I have left the error in place for posterity.]
Run offense - 9th
Pass offense - 29th
Kinda says it all, right there. Wonder what might have caused that? Perhaps the lack of a starting quarterback and a miserable year by the team's primary offensive star? Whether because of the injury or not, Dez Bryant has not remotely been Dez this year, and the entire offense, especially the back up quarterback, suffers greatly for that. Between Romo and Dez, over 1/6 of the team's total cap space spent most of 2015 crippled (or playing like it).
So, yes, you really can put this year on those two injuries, with an honorable mention to Lance Dunbar, who at least allowed the checkdown-prone backup quarterbacks to convert an occasional 3rd down.
There really is reason to believe the team is fairly sound. Not to say they can't still improve across the roster, but Romo and Dez actually do make that much difference. For those pointing at Brandon Weeden's success in Houston, or the Steelers' success with Michael Vick and Landry Jones, those only highlight the issue. Vick and Jones combined for five starts, Roethlisberger has ten. Weeden has only had two starts for Houston. Jones won a game by throwing 4 passes against the Cleveland Browns. Vick beat the flailing Chargers.The two combined to beat a good team, the Arizona Cardinals, with the help of a +3 turnover ratio.
But the more important factor is that all of those quarterbacks were throwing to a fully functional #1 wide out playing at the top of his game. Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins are two of the very best receivers in the game and elevated the play of their quarterbacks. As I showed a few weeks ago, Dez Bryant literally did the opposite in 2015.
So, with the idea that this is actually a pretty decent team at heart, what does the Cowboys brain trust do to improve the team? Here's my thought:
Drafting 4th, I did a few runs at Fanspeak's draft simulator and reliably picked QB Jared Goff, RB Derrick Henry, OT Tyler Marz, and WR Mike Williams with my first 4 picks.
I like Goff's pocket presence over Paxton Lynch. Where I think he's worse than Lynch is accuracy, but that accuracy can be refined over Romo's last couple of years as starter.
Henry reminds me of a player I hate: Brandon Jacobs, but I have no reason to believe Henry is that much of a jackass. I don't think Darren McFadden actually needs replacing, now that he's found his footing in the offense. As noted above, Dallas has a top 10 running game without any threat at quarterback or wide receiver. They will be fine there and I toyed with taking a nice DT prospect like Andrew Billings of Baylor with that high 2nd round pick.
Wisconsin is well known for developing offensive linemen and Marz is a classic road-grading run blocker who successfully played LT in college but might make nice replacement for Doug Free.
Clemson's Mike Williams was heir apparent to Sammy Watkins but had a freak injury end his 2015 season early. Corey Davis and Josh Doctson are other intriguing possibilities at mid-round wide receiver.
Some of you are probably noting the lack of defensive secondary players in my draft. There is a reason for this. Free agency looms.
Cuts: Brandon Carr, Barry Church, Andrew Gachkar, Terrell McClain
Tyron Smith and Tyrone Crawford
Total Cap Space: $38m
Ron Leary, 2nd round, $2.35m
Jeff Heath, Original round, $1.54m
Signings, with signing bonus included in the total (merely my best guesses, partly vetted by a simulator):
Lance Dunbar - 3 yrs $6m, $1.5m signing bonus
Rolando McClain - 4yrs, $12m, $4m signing bonus
Morris Claiborne - 4 yrs, $20m, $4m signing bonus
Jeremy Mincey - 2 yrs, $5m, $1.5m signing bonus
Greg Hardy - 4 yrs, $40m, $10m signing bonus, structured so 2017 is the lowest year of the contract. Hardy may want more. If the difference is significant, I let him walk.
Jack Crawford - 3 yrs, $3m, $1m signing bonus
Kyle Wilber - 3 yrs, $3m, $1m signing bonus
Nick Hayden - 1 yr, $760k
Eric Berry - 5yrs, $50m, $10m signing bonus.
This leaves Dallas about $10m in cap space (to sign draft picks and for emergencies) and with a decent little team. If you are not bringing Hardy or McClain back, there's no need to restructure Tyrone Crawford. The downside is that it leaves things tight for 2017 with only $5.2m available space, but Dez Bryant, Eric Berry, and Sean Lee can easily be extended and restructured. Jason Witten may need to be extended, and that would be done at a cap savings. Should Witten, Claiborne, Lee, Mincey, or Doug Free cease to perform, they can all be released for significant cap savings. Merely extending Dez for two years and cutting Doug Free raises the cap to a juicy $19m.
Dallas is in nice shape to capitalize on their misfortune. Like the Indianapolis Colts before them, the injury to franchise players has gifted them a shot at a new franchise quarterback. Unlike the Colts, Dallas has the opportunity to keep their current quarterback for a couple of years as well, and needn't rebuild their defense or find a new star receiver at the same time.
So there is reason for hope, which continues to spring eternal.