Synergy (noun): the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. (From the Google online definition.)
For the Dallas Cowboys, synergy is a very real part of the offensive plan for 2016. Given that a return to offensive dominance is also expected to take some of the pressure off the defense as the team tries to find a way to manufacture a pass rush, it is a real key for the entire team. The concept is one you have probably seen discussed often. A better running game will assist the passing attack, while a legitimate threat by air means that opportunities open up for the ground game. The good news is that Dallas looks to have all the parts in place this year to make it work.
The model for this season is clearly 2014, with Ezekiel Elliott serving as a new and hopefully improved version of that year’s rushing champion, DeMarco Murray. But all the rest of the offense is largely unchanged. The wheels clearly came off in 2015, but that was after losing Tony Romo and a fully capable Dez Bryant for most of the season. In the 12-4 campaign two seasons ago, the Cowboys scored the fifth-most points in the league and had the seventh-most yards gained, largely on the strength of the second-most potent running attack in the NFL. The passing game was actually quite mediocre in most aspects, ranking only 16th in yards gained, but it was extremely effective. Tony Romo wound up with the best passer rating and yards per attempt in the league, as well as having only 11 interceptions while throwing 37 touchdowns. Without the load of trying to carry the offense with his arm, he was able to make much better decisions throughout the year.
Here are the parts that will make up the offensive whole for the Cowboys this season.
One thing 2015 proved was just how vital Romo is to the team. While the backup QB situation is still very much in question, the starter is as healthy as he has been in some time at this point in the offseason. His twice-fractured (just in 2015) collarbone is healed, but more importantly, his back finally appears to be healed as well. The past two years, he was still having issues with it that now seem to be over with. While there will always be concern with every hit he takes, all signs are that he will be operating with more effectiveness than he has for years. If he is only as good as he was in 2014, he is in for another superb seaspn. If he is even better, hang on for a real thrill ride.
Although recency bias has Romo’s stock down with many, he is still regarded as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the league. With better health and a fully functioning crew surrounding him, he may be much closer to the top of that list.
We all are hoping that Elliott is everything we hope he is. The good news is that nothing in the OTAs indicate otherwise. The rookie seems a perfect fit for the Dallas zone blocking scheme, and has very good receiving and blocking skills as well. Additionally, running back is one position where good college players frequently make significant contributions as rookies.
Unlike at QB, there is depth in the RB group. Alfred Morris was brought in as a possible starter before the draft in case the Cowboys did not get the runner they needed. His performance has slumped somewhat in recent years, but the theory is that if being in Dallas could revive Darren McFadden as a runner, it should also afford Morris the chance to return to his previous high levels of play. McFadden himself is a proven backup, even though the team has to adjust the blocking scheme to get the most out of him. Remember that in 2015, Dallas had the ninth-best rushing output in the league, even though the opponents knew that it was all the team really had to attack with in the 12 games Romo was absent, and despite the disaster of the Joseph Randle situation.
Bryant coming back is huge. He has been brought along with great deliberateness, to use Jason Garrett’s preferred terminology, but he is expected to be a full-go for training camp. When healthy, he is clearly one of the top five or so receivers in the entire league. And there is an internal synergy in the receiving corps when he is demanding attention from the opponent. He makes the rest of the unit better. Terrance Williams is going to be challenged as the WR2 by Brice Butler and others, but he does much better when he is lined up opposite Bryant. Cole Beasley has become a very good possession receiver in the slot. And of course Jason Witten is still the security blanket for Romo, showing an amazing ability to get open. Despite his age, he has as much skill and cunning as any tight end in the business.
An often overlooked attribute of this group is that they also take great pride in blocking for the runners as well. They are more concerned with the team’s success than individual stats. That is something you should expect from a Garrett-coached team, despite the lack of respect he gets from so many around the league.
With Bryant back, this is a capable and even dangerous receiving group. There are multiple targets for Romo to work with, and Elliott looks to be part of that equation as well. You can argue about how the receivers rank overall, but it is hard to see them as outside the top ten in the NFL, and top five is not unreasonable.
This is listed last, but it is the foundation for this team. With four first-round worthy players in the starting lineup and one wily veteran to round things out, it is generally considered the best line in all of pro football, however you look at it.
Whether opening up holes or protecting the passer, the Dallas line was very good last year despite the overall woes of the team, and they are not resting on their laurels. It was mentioned on Twitter that they were not satisfied with their own performance and look to come back better this fall. When you are starting where they are, that could lead to an impressive year indeed.
Those are the parts, and it is clear how they all interlock and reinforce one another. With most teams, there is one or more weak units that can be a drag on the rest, but in the Cowboys’ offense, there really isn’t an evident weakness that you can point to at this stage. With just normal health this year, the Cowboys should have one of the best offenses in the league. Their ceiling should be very high. While they still have to prove themselves on the field, especially Elliott, this is just one more reason for optimism this year.