We are just over a week away from the start of training camp for the Dallas Cowboys. Since the conclusion of the minicamp, we have been dissecting every angle we can think about to try and figure out what they might be this year. Along the way, there have also been stories like the resolution (we hope) of the Ezekiel Elliott incident in Las Vegas, the extensions for him and others, and other odds and ends. But most of our stuff has been pieces of the puzzle. Now it may be time to step back and try to get a grip on the overall situation.
In looking at that big picture, something emerged. In what could be an extremely significant development, this year’s Cowboys have managed to finally get the talent of the roster to match what the team wants to do on both offense and defense.
To set the stage for this discussion, let me clarify what I mean. For many NFL teams, getting those to match up is a difficult and often elusive task. The most obvious illustration can be made with just one position, the quarterback. No matter how good the coaching and scheme is for a team, an inadequate QB can derail things, usually in a hurry. Problems can extend far beyond that one player, of course, and affect any position group. A porous offensive line, subpar receivers, a lack of a pass rush, poor coverage in the secondary - all are talent deficiencies that often hamstring teams.
There can also be a problem when teams change coaches and schemes. This year, the Cowboys got Robert Quinn, Kerry Hyder, and Christian Covington in the offseason, and all were available at least partly due to their coaches changing their approach on defense, making the players less valuable to their old teams. For the Cowboys, they all look like very good fits for what Rod Marinelli wants to do with his line.
With the notable exception of Sith Lord Bill Belichick, very few NFL coaches are good at getting the most out of all players. Each coach, especially the offensive and defensive coordinators, have certain traits and abilities they seek. They are often quite good when the talent is a match for the scheme. But when they get that square peg for the round hole they have, things seldom go well. And when the overall talent is just not up to the task, as we saw with the receiving corps in Dallas before the arrival of season savior Amari Cooper last season, nothing seems to work well.
One of the themes regarding the Cowboys this year has been the remarkable talent at the top of the roster and some much improved depth behind it. The starting lineups on both sides of the ball are loaded with Pro Bowl and All-Pro caliber players, while the next man up in some position groups is a guy who could vie for a starting job with many other teams.
For this discussion, the important factor is how well the players fit with what the coaches are looking to do. The team has a rising quarterback, a superlative running back, a potentially dynamic change-of-pace rookie, a team legend at tight end, a wide receiver group that is loaded with speed and excellent route runners, an offensive line that looks poised to return to elite status, stud pass rushers, a rookie that looks tailor made for what Marinelli wants at defensive tackle plus some very good veterans, the best linebacking corps in the league, and a bunch of defensive backs that fit nicely into Kris Richard’s mold.
That offense was apparently built with a lot of input from Kellen Moore, bolstering our hopes he is going to do well his first year as offensive coordinator. The defense finally has all the parts Marinelli and Richard want, with the possible exception of safety, and even there, hope is not entirely missing.
Last year, the Cowboys clawed their way into the playoffs despite season-long issues on the offensive line, that rough start with the WRs, and a defensive line that got worn down by the end of the year. Now, all those issues have been addressed, and the good players from last season are almost all back and look to be in good health by the time the games start to count.
Jason Garrett is a head coach that takes a long view, and he has been instrumental in building this team. The emphasis on loading up on the offensive line is perhaps his signature move, and with Travis Frederick now expected to be back, that could pay off in a big way. The one drawback to the process the Cowboys use to build the roster is that it is time consuming. With the heavy reliance on the draft, things do not happen in a year or two. Now, entering his ninth year as head coach, Garrett finally has just about all the pieces he could possibly want.
That leaves the big question: Do the Cowboys under Garrett truly have a workable blueprint, particularly on offense? The team gives every indication of still being committed to an offense built around the running game, which is markedly out of step with much of the rest of the league and goes directly against the analytics argument that running the ball is just not a path to success.
But the team was able to ride their formula to a lot of success in 2016, with an offensive roster that bears a lot of resemblance everywhere but wide receiver to this one. And arguably this group of wideouts may be better than that year. There is another similarity. In Dak Prescott and Elliott, Dallas had a couple of unknown quantities, and the rest of the league seemed to have a little trouble figuring them out, especially the very unheralded quarterback. Now, they have a rookie offensive coordinator who is showing all signs of thinking differently than his predecessor. As Tony Romo remarked in a recent interview on 105.3 The Fan, change itself can be a benefit due to that element of newness.
“I’ve always felt like change is a good thing, just for change’s sake,” Romo said Wednesday. ”If (teams) don’t really have any data on how this guy calls a game, even if the system’s the exact same, literally if they didn’t change a play, it would still throw off teams in the division or teams that have played against them ... strictly based upon the fact that (this is a) guy they’ve never gone against.”
It will still all come down to whether the Cowboys can put it together on the field. If they don’t, then it may well be time for an even bigger change. The two components of talent and scheme are better matched than they have been since the dynasty of 25 years ago. It is time for it to pay off, or else.