For the Dallas Cowboys, 2009 began with the optimistic view of becoming the first team in NFL history to play in the Super Bowl on their own home field. The reality was that their roster wasn’t dynamic enough to fulfill these expectations and they hadn’t adequately replaced Flozell Adams who had departed at Left Tackle. Subsequently Tony Romo ran for his life until an injury finished his season. Although the Cowboys won 5 of 8 games to finish the season, it makes you wonder how close are they really? Are they a few players away as Jerry Jones and company would like to make us think? Was the improvement shown toward the end of the season a product of Jason Garrett’s coaching or from the fire lit under everyone’s ass when they learned they were all expendable??
Quarterback: Going into his fifth season as the starter, the Cowboys have a good quarterback in Tony Romo. So much is made of what he does off the field that many Cowboys fans don’t recognize he owns all the significant passing records in team history. He’s thrown for twice as many 300 yard passing games as Troy Aikman. Get this: In 2009 he threw for 4,483 yards and 29 TDs, had he not thrown for 36TDs in 2007, those would have both been Cowboy records as well. He has a good arm and can deliver the football from the pocket or on the run. His dropback is fluid and he moves effortlessly when he escapes the pocket. Also he needs to show more daring, when its 3rd and 10, throw to the second level and get the first down and not some 3 yard dump off that achieves nothing. Physically he has the tools to be a great quarterback.
Psychologically, Romo hasn’t shown to be the inspirational leader that the Cowboys hoped he’d be once they released Terrell Owens. He hasn’t dropped his “aw shucks” persona and taken on that of a field general. The type of generalship that Jon “Cockroach” Kitna showed in those last 8 games. You saw him pleading, cajoling and getting in teammates faces, especially after dumb penalties, and played ball from his gut. Last year he completed 209 of 318 passes for 2,365 yards, 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Kitna’s 65.7% completion rating was the best of his 14 year career. Project those numbers over a year and thats a Pro Bowl season. The best he’s ever played and a solid backup.
The best way to get to Romo is to come with delayed blitzes. When he senses the outside rush coming, he’s quick to step up through the gaps looking for space to run or throw. In self scouting you can see the Cowboys are aware of this and they run a lot of draws and delays to the running backs to make it all look the same. Keep defensive ends from coming up the field too quick and opening those gaps between themselves and the inside rushers. Another thing is to keep putting hits on him, there are times Romo will look down at the rush if hit or sacked early. Its yet to be seen if his game changes any coming back from a broken clavicle. Will he be willing to take those hits??However, Dallas is very good at quarterback.
Offensive Backfield: Dallas has the best set of 3rd down backs in the league in Tashard Choice and Felix Jones. The problem is what to do on 1st and 2nd down. Early last year an astute Cowboy fan, Gary Bumgarner, suggested that Marion Barber had really slowed down. The eyeball test didn’t lie. Amazingly over the last 3 years Barber has only averaged over 4.0 yards per rush (league avg.) in only one season. Last season he ran for a paltry 374 yards while scoring 4 TDs. Surprisingly he has not run for more than 1,000 yards at any point of his career. He has run hard, with heart and great determination, but he seems to be this generations Wilbert Montgomery and has beaten the ability from his body early. Along with his high salary and the drafting of DeMarco Murray, we at Taylor Blitz Times think he will be cut before the season.
Felix Jones had his best season while taking over for Barber. He rushed for 800 yards on 185 carries but only scored 1 touchdown. His average per carry was good (4.3 yrd avg) but his touchdown total tells the story. He and Choice are space players, neither have the heft to knuckle up and get that 3rd and 2 or power in from the two like Barber could. Since Felix Jones is supposed to be a homerun hitter, he should have been able to break an arm tackle and take it the distance 4 or 5 times last year wouldn’t you think? Or at least in space, right? Well, out of the backfield Jones had 48 rec. for 450 yards and again only 1 TD. Thats 233 touches of the football and only 2 TDs for a breakaway threat?
Choice seemed like the odd man out last year, carrying the ball only 66 times for 243 yards and 3 TDs. At 5’11 and 212 lbs, Choice should be the starter with Jones as the 3rd down back. Can Choice take the pounding? He did run for 100 yards in a week 13 win over the Colts in a 38-35 overtime thriller. Yet between Choice, Jones or 3rd round pick DeMarco Murray none seem to thrive running between the tackles. So if Marion “The Barbarian” gets released who is going to run the football in goal line and closing situations? Running back is below average for the Cowboys until someone emerges and the pick of Murray was a puzzling one for us.
Receivers: This is where the Cowboys are in the best shape of any unit. Once the Cowboys were out of contention they started to put Dez Bryant in different situations to see what he could do. Bryant came in as a rookie and played with fire and flair, who knew at 6’2 225lbs he would be a good kick returner? He averaged 24.4 yards on 12 kickoff returns and a whopping 14.3 on punt returns, taking 2 back for touchdowns on only 15 attempts. Do you realize projected over a complete season those would be NFL leading numbers in both categories? Throw in his 45 receptions for 561 yards and 6 touchdowns and what do you have? The bench for a certain Roy E. Williams. Look some players just have the it factor and this kid is it. He plays like he wants it and if I were Jason Garrett I’d sick him on defenses 15 times per game. He’s tall, muscular, fast and can jump. The first of many Pro Bowls should come this year with his first 1,000 yard season. Don’t be surprised if he goes over 80 catches for 1,300 yards and 12-15TDs. Terrell Owens has finally been replaced.
How can we be so high on Bryant? Well the first part of that equation is his skill set and the second is he’s teamed with Pro Bowlers Jason Witten (94 rec. 1,002 yds 9 TDs), and Miles Austin (69 rec. 1,041 yds 7TDs). Yikes! This is not going to be easy for anybody to defend. Witten is the best tight end in football. A solid blocker who at TE has the heft to muscle safeties and the speed to get over back pedaling linebackers. Thats two straight years with 94 receptions and with another season like that will have crossed 715 receptions in his career. Guess what? The all time reception record for tight ends is within reach. He was a Pro Bowler for the 7th time and was first team All Pro for the second.
Which brings us to little Miles Austin. Of course we’re kidding here but at 6’3, 215lbs. he is the smallest of the two receivers. So coming up and jamming these guys is going to be difficult. Austin didn’t have quite the year he had in his breakout 2009 campaign but he had to deal with teams really game planning and paying attention to him and had to work with backup Jon Kitna at quarterback. Still he crossed 1,000 yards and made the Pro Bowl a second time. Reminds me of Andre Reed the way he runs after the catch and unlike many receivers you can’t arm tackle him. With Austin, the hope is he keeps playing with that chip on his shoulder. The practice squad guy who finally made good and not fall into that celebrity dating nonsense to get his mind off of football.
What? Oh Roy Williams with an “E” could work out as a really good third receiver to help stretch for first downs. Are you seeing what we’re seeing? This is shaping up to be one of the best receiving corps since the 2007 Patriots. We already told you the Cowboys have a good quarterback who owns the 2 highest touchdown marks passing in Cowboys history at 36 and 29. If Romo comes back healthy… Lets just say that at WR & TE, this is a Super Bowl caliber group.
Offensive Line: Where the Cowboys did their best work on draft day. They brought in T Tyron Smith out of USC with their 1st round selection, then snagged G David Arkin of Missouri St. This offensive line did benefit early on with Tony Romo scrambling. That kept the sack totals down yet they did surrender 31 which was 11th best. It was the 73 hits, 17th allowed, that is unacceptable and sidelined their quarterback for the year. Although they were 16th in rushing with a 1,786 yards in 2010, the Cowboys struggled to push when they needed to. Critical 3rd and 2 power plays saw the marginal success of 59 1st downs up the middle and only 44 times to the strong side which ranked 23rd and 25th respectively. Terrible. What is surprising is that C Andre Gurode was a Pro Bowl selection in 2010.
The Cowboys drafted Smith #1 for him to go into the lineup. They may have finally replaced Flozell Adams if he can beat out incumbent Doug Free at LT. Arkin or 7th round pick C Bill Nagy should push to make both guard spots. Too much improvement is needed at the guard spot for at least one of these rookies to get into the starting lineup. Most likely would be Larkin. By addressing their offensive line in the draft and watching the Packers win the Super Bowl with several young linemen, they should be influenced to go young and live with the consequences. They worked their way up to average with a chance to be good on the offensive front.
Defensive Line: This team needs to pick up a few free agents to solidify themselves on the defensive front. Defensive ends Igor Olshansky, Marcus Spears, and Stephen Bowen combined for 1.5 sacks in 2010. Before you say ‘well they are there to tie up blockers and not give ground in the Cowboy 3-4’, they were 12th in the NFL against the run and gave up over 4.3 yards per rush, which ranked 17th. Thank goodness Jay Ratliff had a Pro Bowl year by not giving up too much ground in the middle or this defense could have finished dead last in all of football. Seriously. Ratliff provided the only push from this unit recording 3.5 sacks where opposing lines could concentrate on him. He needs help. Not signing any defensive help yet, we have tho give the Cowboys a below average grade here.
All Pro OLB DeMarcus Ware
Linebacker: This defense begins and ends with DeMarcus Ware, NFL sack champion for 2010. His 15.5 sacks was the only consistent element on the defensive side of the football for the Cowboys. He’s simply a beast and its imperative that they get some pressure generated elsewhere and he may have a shot at the single season sack record. However at times it seems that he can disappear in games yet its a misnomer. Teams game plan for him and are sometimes successful. Imagine what he could do with a bookend to relieve him of some of the double and triple teams? With all this attention he still has been the All Pro (3 times) and Pro Bowl (5 times) performer out of Troy that Bill Parcells envisioned. He’s the best outside linebacker in the NFC.
Toward the end of the season Anthony Spencer started making some plays and was the most improved defender on the team. He amassed 63 total tackles, had 5 sacks and forced 2 fumbles. Bradie James and Keith Brooking manned the inside linebacking spots. James led the Cowboys with 118 tackles, had 2 forced fumbles and 1 interception. A solid performance. Brooking has proven to be the team’s inspirational leader and was second on the team with 97 tackles and had 1 interception. A player that made a splash in 2010 was linebacker Sean Lee, especially against the Colts and Peyton Manning. He picked him off twice and had a pick six in that game while making several splash plays against the pass and the run. He finished the season with 25 total tackles in a relief role and those 2 interceptions with 1 forced fumble. If James or Brooking go down during the season this kid can fill in without a drop off. The linebacker play in Dallas is well above average. They need the line to keep blockers off of them better.
Secondary: At first glance you want to lambast this secondary for the dismal 26th ranking against the pass yet this is a two fold issue. If the secondary was so bad why did they snatch 17 of the team’s 20 interceptions?? Sure there is some improvement needed at the corner position where Mike Jenkins has regressed from his play a few seasons back and tallied only1 interception. He has to improve, no make that he better improve http://bleacherreport.com/articles/686084-dallas-cowboys-2011-draft-report-card-grades-for-all-eight-draft-picks has high regard for 5th round draft pick Josh Thomas from the University of Buffalo. He will push both Jenkins and Newman (whom Cowboy fans have wanted replaced for 100 years now) for a starting spot. We say that because its going to be hard to move Orlando Scandrick. He was very effective as a blitzer and a nickel back. He made 2.5 sacks, 45 total tackles with 8 passes defensed, nearly matching Jenkins production of 55 tackles, 9 passes defensed with a single interception.
At safety Gerald Sensabaugh led the team with 5 interceptions, tied with Newman for the team lead. He seems a little stiff in his backpedal but that is normally the case with most strong safeties. Free safety is where we and other pundits feel the Cowboys can improve their secondary’s skill set. Watch out for possibly a Darren Sharper signing to put more moxie into their secondary if he comes available. Incumbent starter Alan Ball only defensed 4 passes and had just 1 interception. He had plenty of opportunities while team’s racked up 3,894 yards passing last year. A little more pass rush and this secondary would be decent. Without it and we have to say slightly below average. If Ball starts playing with instinct and can be more of a factor against the pass they can rate as good. Right now have to stay with the present ranking.
Overall: Upon further review, the Cowboys don’t really want to run. Not in the traditional sense and the drafting of another space back is evidence of this. They are going to throw the football and run off of draws and screens. What rugged NFC East?? With the New York Giants and definitely with the Philadelphia Eagles taking more to the air, Dallas is going to be throwing out of 3 receiver sets heavily. Expect every passing record in team history to fall in Dallas this year. Romo should throw for nearly 40 TDs this year if they stay as they are with the running back personnel. The problem is: Did they do enough on defense to improve on their overall ranking of 17th?? Taylor Blitz Times doesn’t think so and Dallas is going to be involved in shootouts and will win most of them. The best they can expect is a 10-6 season where they will be fighting for a wildcard playoff berth. They are too deficient on the defensive line to improve dramatically against the run and in goal line. Garrett is going to take to the air and Jerry World will look like the Transworld Dome of the Rams in ’99. Ask yourself this one fundamental question… You are the defensive co-ordinator facing Dallas on a 3rd and 7. They come out with a three receiver set: an explosive Antonio Bryant, a Pro Bowl Miles Austin who excels after the catch, an All Pro TE in Witten, with a 6’4 Roy E. Williams next to him, and Choice in the backfield. Who are you going to gear toward?? Points will ring up in Dallas…count on it. Playoffs?? Hmmmm??