Happy Fourth of July! I hope everyone has a great holiday as we take the time today to celebrate the fact that there are only three more weeks until training camp! Oh, I guess there is that whole separation of Britain thing too that turned out pretty good for us, but that was so long ago. While you enjoy your barbecue, cold drinks, and the inclination to blow stuff up, I wanted to start your day off with some fireworks, BTB style.
Let’s not beat around the bush here. You got a busy day ahead of you.
After the 2015 season, many fans were distraught about the state of their Dallas Cowboys. Coming off a 4-12 season and knowing the team had an injury-prone, aging quarterback in Tony Romo - nobody was sure where the franchise was heading. All that changed over one simple weekend when the Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott in the 2016 NFL Draft. Some will say the Cowboys got lucky there and certainly they did. Sure, so much work went in to the evaluation of these two players and the Cowboys front office deserve the credit for turning their cards in, but Dallas isn’t picking fourth overall without a struggling 2015 season. Who knows if the team even invests in a quarterback that early in the draft if Romo had a healthy season. Whether it’s apparent or not, that broken collar bone was a blessing in disguise.
What the Cowboys have now is amazing. These young stars are the two players that will touch the ball the most (well, besides Travis Frederick obviously). It’s hard to imagine that two guys who weren’t even on the team a little over a year ago will have so much influence over the success of the Dallas Cowboys. The great news is that these guys are very talented.
Despite being a rookie, Elliott completely changed how defenses dealt with the Cowboys. He was their focus. The rookie running back has such a large assortment of skills and could beat you in so many ways. Whether it’s the toughness to finish runs or the speed to break a big one, defenses were forced to allocate resources to stop him. Teams game-planned to slow him down and were perfectly content with letting the rookie quarterback try to beat them.
And that’s where Prescott came in so nicely. Elliott sets them up and Prescott knocks them down. It’s a perfect combination. You really couldn’t ask for a better fit of a quarterback for this offense. He takes care of the ball extremely well and does a very good job putting his passes where they need to be. He’s got the arm strength to stretch the field. And let’s not forget his mobility which allows him to extend plays. The kid is such a poised leader that it’s virtually impossible to rattle him.
What we saw from Dak and Zeke was great last season, but these two are just getting started.
After being the second-best takeaway team in 2014, the Cowboys were the absolute worst in 2015. They had a measly 11 takeaways that season, compared to 31 in 2014. That is a ridiculous shift. Many people pointed to the lack of opportunities the defense had in contrast to the previous season and attributed it to how well the offense was humming when a healthy Romo was under center. A potent offense in 2014 meant opposing teams had to take more chances and pass the ball more. An inept offense meant opposing teams could play more conservative and just run the ball down their throats. It was a taste of their own medicine and it tasted horrible.
This logic was somewhat validated when the 2016 team was able to create 10 more takeaways last season. This didn’t come as a big surprise to many people because there was going to be some regression to the mean and with a better offense, more opportunities would be there. The Cowboys defense came at teams with a lot of energy and the ball was flying loose a lot more last season as the team recaptured it’s strip/fumble tendencies of 2014. But what wasn’t there was the interceptions. Here are the pick totals from the last three seasons:
2014 = 18
2015 = 8
2016 = 9
To the surprise of many, the Cowboys completely blew up their secondary this offseason letting four key contributors walk in free agency. Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox all left for a bigger payday elsewhere. The front office recognized the talent in this year’s draft and decided that they were done being mediocre in the secondary. It was time for an upgrade.
If you look at the traits of the guys they have now, you have to feel good about their ability to take the ball away. So many of their new guys have fluid hips and can move and change direction extremely well. But they all have strengths that should help with generating more turnovers.
Besides the great footwork of rookie Chidobe Awuzie to jump in front of receivers, he also possess the ability to blitz off the edge. His fellow rookie Jourdan Lewis is another player that explodes to the ball quickly. There’s a reason teams didn’t complete many passes against him in college. Second-year corner Anthony Brown doesn’t posses the quickness the rookies have, but he’s got great make up speed and very good hands to make a play on the ball. Even Nolan Carroll’s strength is his ability to close on the ball quickly.
The Cowboys also still have the good players on their team they wanted to keep. Orlando Scandrick is a forgotten one, but his quickness and smarts make him a very good slot corner in this league. Byron Jones continues to get better. He’s not a ball-hawker, but he’s got great instincts and very good closing burst to break up the pass. And finally, there’s Jeff Heath. This is a player worth keeping an eye on. The Cowboys grabbed him because of his athletic traits, but his fundamentals were so raw that he’s been a work in progress for the last few years. But he is finally getting there. And it’s showing up on film. Unlike his safety partner Jones, Heath is a ball-hawker. He had a great game against the Green Bay Packers last year and he’s already picking off passes in camp this year. If there is a breakout candidate for the Cowboys this year, my money would be on Heath.
The Right Kind Of Team
It’s taken a while, but the front office has finally bought into this idea of filling their team with the right kind of players. It’s no longer just about the foundation anymore as it has trickled down to the entire composition of the team. We all know about how top heavy this team is in talent with seven of their players finishing on the NFL’s top 100 list, but this team’s destiny relies on so much more than that. The Cowboys now have depth along the roster and it’s stronger than it has been in a long time. And it’s not just about the skill of the players involved. They have players with the right make up. This is a competitive bunch that is laced with passion. Slowly and surely, the bottom of this roster has been churned with players who love to fight. They are each a leader and are constantly playing for the guy next to them.
It’s a culture in Dallas and it’s contagious. Players know they are on to something great and you better believe they have an extensive group of guys selling out to accomplish something special.
The Cowboys may have been the top seed in the NFC last year, but they will enter the 2017 season with something to prove. No NFC East team has won the division in back to back years since the Philadelphia Eagles did it in 2004. But that’s all about to change this season.
Winning the East again is far from the only thing the Cowboys have in mind this season. It’s time to impose their will on their foes this season. Dallas won’t go undefeated this year and when they lose, it’s going to sting. But more than that, it’s going to serve as a reminder that they are beatable when they don’t perform at the level they’re capable of. I pity the team that has to play them the following week.
The disappointment from last season’s tough divisional loss will be weighing heavily on them as they work hard to ensure something like that doesn’t happen again. I don’t want to mention any names, but there is a certain team in Wisconsin that has a date with a beat down this season. And that date will be in January.