Dallas Cowboys 2012 Season Preview

In 2011, the Dallas Cowboys were a team looking for redemption after a horrendous 2010 season in which Tony Romo was lucky to escape with a broken clavicle, and not a broken neck. The rest of the team quit on head coach Wade Phillips in such an embarrassing fashion against Green Bay that it forced Jerry Jones to fire Phillips mid-season.

Jason Garrett managed to rally that team to a 5-3 finish, but any momentum gained in those last 8 games was hampered by a prolonged labor dispute that eliminated most of the offseason. That lost time has been largely used an excuse for a defense that struggled to contain the passing game under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

The season also featured some growing pains for Garrett, who may have cost his team a key game in December against the Arizona Cardinals by calling a timeout that nullified a game winning Dan Bailey field goal. Garrett was also second guessed for how he used his timeouts late during the first game against the Giants.

The Cowboys finished the season 8-8 after going 1-4 in their last five games. One more win in those last five contests could have meant the difference between the Giants winning the Super Bowl, or the Cowboys getting a shot in the tournament.

Such is life, and those are the memories that the Cowboys will try to replace as they embark on their 53rd season in the NFL.

Romo Is The Solution, Not The Problem

Put together a list of most criticized athletes in professional sports and you’re sure to find Tony Romo close to the top.

The Dallas Cowboys starting QB exploded in popularity almost immediately after taking the job from Drew Bledsoe in 2006.

Then came the botched hold, the weekend in Cabo, the 44-6 press conference, and the 2nd half debacle against Detroit.

It’s hard not to let the Romo detractors get to you when looking at that rundown of failed performances and bad decisions. That is until you look at the overwhelming statistical evidence that shows that Tony Romo is more than capable of leading the Cowboys to their first championship since the 1995 season.

Here’s how Romo’s last two full season’s compare to those of the last 10 Super Bowl winning QB’s:

 

Name

Completion Pct

Yds

TD/Int

Rating

4th Qtr TD/Int

4th Qtr Rating

Tony Romo (2011)

66.3%

4184

31/10

102.5

10/3

104.4

Tony Romo (2009)

63.1%

4483

26/9

97.6

8/2

103.4

Eli Manning

61%%

4933

29/16

92.9

18/6

111

Aaron Rodgers

65.7%

3922

28/11

101.2

6/2

100.4

Drew Brees

70.6%

4388

34/11

109.6

8/0

115.6

Ben Roethlisberger

59.9%

3301

17/15

80.1

5/5

78.8

Eli Manning

56.1%

3336

23/20

73.9

11/6

83.6

Peyton Manning

65%

4397

31/9

101

6/4

96.9

Ben Roethlisberger

62.7%

2385

17/9

98.6

4/11

58.8

Tom Brady

60.8%

3692

28/14

92.6

5/5

74.6

Tom Brady

60.2%

3620

23/12

85.9

6/4

77.5

Brad Johnson

62.3%

3049

22/6

92.9

5/2

78.9

Romo’s 2009 season and 4th quarter performance was money, but his 2011 year is only eclipsed by phenomenal championship seasons put together by Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Eli Manning (2011).

This isn’t to say that Tony Romo deserves the praises of being an elite level QB. Few players without a title have earned that acclaim. I point to these numbers to highlight the fact that in the NFL the success of the QB is determined by the performance of so many others.

The line must block. The receivers must run their routes. The running backs must hold onto the ball. The defense must keep the other team out of the end zone.

These are the things that have played the primary role in limiting the Cowboys to one playoff win in the Tony Romo era.

Not the man himself.

Does It All Depend On The Line?

Another popular narrative about the Cowboys is the pathetic state of the offensive line. The porosity of the guys up front exposed Romo to a vicious blow against the Giants in 2010 that ended his season early, and the 36 sacks they allowed with Romo as QB was ranked 6th in the NFL in 2011.

There’s no doubt that there is ample room for improvement with the line,  but the move of Tyron Smith to LT and the added depth with the Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau signings this offseason should help.

Here’s a comparison of how the offensive line has performed in the Tony Romo era compared to those of the Super Bowl Champions in those six seasons:

Cowboys

Sacks

Sack %

Rush YPA

SB Champ

Sacks

Sack %

Rush YPA

2011

39

6.4%

4.4

Giants

28

4.5%

3.5

2010

31

5.1%

4.2

Packers

38

6.6%

3.8

2009

34

5.8%

4.8

Saints

20

3.5%

4.5

2008

31

5.4%

4.3

Steelers

49

8.8%

3.7

2007

25

4.5%

4.2

Giants

28

4.9%

4.6

2006

37

6.8%

4.1

Colts

15

2.6%

4.0

2011 and 2006 (much of which can be attributed to a statuesque Drew Bledsoe for 6 games) stand out as ugly years for the Cowboys line. The Packers (2010) and Steelers (2008) proved that you can overcome a poor OL performance and win a title, but those teams’ defenses ranked 2nd and 1st in points allowed. The Cowboys ranked 16th in that category in 2011 (20th in 2006).

Another thing to look at is how quickly the Cowboys offensive line’s performance went from awful in 2006 to their best season in the Romo era in 2007. It’s no coincidence that the 2007 season produced the best regular season record for the Boys at 13-3.

The big change to the 2007 line was the addition of Leonard Davis at RG in place of a retired Marco Rivera, and while his signing was met with mixed reviews the performance of the line was solid up until the second half of the playoff game against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Giants.

There has been much more turnover from the 2011 to 2012 OL than was seen from the 2006 to 2007 OL. In 2006, Flozell Adams, Marc Colombo, Kyle Kosier, and Andre Gurode started 64 of 80 possible starts. In 2007, those four started in 62 of 80 possible starts all at the same position (Gurode would miss the season’s final two games, but return to C in the playoff game versus the Giants).

If the OL can stay healthy in 2012, the Cowboys will replace 37.5% of their starts (30 of 80) with the additions of Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau; and the departures of Montrae Holland, Kyle Kosier, and Bill Nagy. With the shuffling of Doug Free to RT and Tyron Smith to LT, the Cowboys will feature Phil Costa as the only starter on the OL that will potentially start all 16 games at the same position (C) he started at in 2011.

Factor in the addition of Bill Callahan as OL Coach/Offensive Coordinator, and that’s a lot of changes to juggle. Changes that have an opportunity to backfire early in the season as this unit continues to jell together.

You may also want to lower your expectations if you’re expecting Callahan to be the solution to the Cowboys OL woes in his first year on staff. Here are the numbers for the teams in the first and second year of Callahan on staff versus those from the previous season:

Eagles OL Coach

Sacks

Sack %

Rush YPA

Record

1994*

48

7.8%

4.1

7-9

1995

46

8.5%

4.2

10-6**

1996

39

6.6%

3.8

10-6**

Raiders O Coordinator

Sacks

Sack %

Rush YPA

Record

1997*

58

9.9%

4.4

4-12

1998

67

11.4%

3.8

8-8

1999

49

8.6%

4.3

8-8

Jets OL Coach

Sacks

Sack %

Rush YPA

Record

2007*

53

9.4%

3.8

4-12

2008

30

5.4%

4.7

9-7

2009

30

7.1%

4.5

9-7**

* Teams Year Before Callahan
** Playoff Team

In his first two stops in the NFL, Callahan’s lines actually performed worse in the first year under him before improving their numbers in year two. The Jets saw a remarkable improvement in Callahan’s first year, but some of that can be attributed in going from Chad Pennington and Kellen Clemens as their QB’s in 2007 to Brett Favre in 2008.

A bit of a mind boggling thing is that despite the drop in OL performance, the Eagles and Raiders had a 3 and 4 game improvement in record from the year prior to Callahan’s arrival to his first year on staff.

So what should we expect from the Cowboys OL with all the of shuffling of players, and the “Callahan Effect”? I predict that the line won’t perform worse this year than last, but it’s also not going to see the same type of jump in performance that the team in 2007 made.

The good news is that Romo’s ability to avoid traffic in the pocket should at the very least mirror what Favre brought to the Jets in 2008. Looking at the history of recent Super Bowl winners, the Cowboys don’t need a stellar performance from the line to wind up as NFL Champs.

If the Boys can get the sacks back down to around the 30 range, then I like the line’s chances to be good enough to keep them in contention.

The Secondary Is Where The Improvement Lies

The Cowboys defense was overhyped last year from the start. Not from the media and fans, but from the mouth of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

The Ryan family has a long history of boisterous claims, and Rob came out guns blazing. His claims that the 2011 Cowboys defensive roster was the most talented unit in the NFL was laughable to most who’ve followed this team, but I admired what Ryan was trying to do.

This unit needed a change of pace and a shot in the arm from the defensive brain trust, and Ryan brought just that.

Even though the unit underperformed by the standards of a team that is supposed to possess that much talent, Ryan still isn’t completely backing down from that boast. The defensive unit did see an uptick in points (31st to 16th) and rushing yards (23rd to 14th) allowed.

Where this team was absolutely massacred in 2011, and where they have rightfully concentrated most of their efforts at improving in talent this offseason is the secondary.

The Cowboys only moved up from 26th to 23rd on passing yards allowed. They gave up 9 fewer passing TD’s in 2011, but those modest improvements weren’t nearly enough to slow down the high flying offenses of the Eagles and Giants.

Eli Manning averaged 373 passing yards against the Cowboys, compared to 262.5 against the Redskins and 259 against the Eagles. The Eagles (Vick/Young/Kafka) averaged 286 passing yards against the Cowboys and Redskins, but just 228.5 against the Giants. Even the Redskins (Grossman/Beck) averaged more passing yards against the Cowboys (271), than the Eagles (258) and Giants (245).

The nauseating performances from the secondary in week 14 and week 17 highlight what haunted the Cowboys all year. Their inability to cover anybody, make sure fire tackles, and give the lineman and linebackers enough time to pressure Manning doomed the Cowboys season in yet another December swoon.

The additions of Morris Claiborne (6th pick in the draft) and Brandon Carr (5 years, $50.1 million free agent signing) should breathe life into a cornerback unit that allowed Eli Manning 5 TDs to 1 INT in 2012.

The passing yards and TDs aren’t the only troubling numbers from the matchups with the Giants. In fact, in the last six games, Eli Manning has thrown 236 passes against the Cowboys, but has been sacked just 4 times. The Redskins (7 sacks) and Eagles (6 sacks) had more sacks in the 2011 season alone.

 Even a slight increase in the ability of the CB’s to slow down the WR’s might be enough to give DeMarcus Ware and company the extra half second they need to match the sack numbers of the other two East Division rivals who don’t have the most feared pass rusher in the league.

Rob Ryan touched on this in his interview with the media yesterday by saying, “Sacks come and go. You can get there with more coverage and tighter coverage.”

Scheme Familiarity, Sound Familiar?

A lot was made last season about the lost time that the defense had to get familiar with the complex schemes that are the trademarks of Rob Ryan’s defense.

There were no OTA’s and a shortened training camp thanks to prolonged labor negotiations that threatened to wipeout the 2011 season completely, and while some have shot down the notion that those lost days of practice could make such a difference, the Cowboys have stuck to that excuse entering this season.

Barry Church, who will take over at SS this year, stated, “We got a whole OTA session this year to go over Rob Ryan’s defense. Fewer mistakes. We’re going to be communicating (better). There won’t be as many mental errors as there was last year.”

Ryan himself said that he feels the communication is “a lot better.”

It’s hard to imagine OTA’s and a full camp being the difference between Terence Newman and Abram Elam executing basic skills like tackling in week 17, but those guys have been replaced with personnel that is thought to be younger, hungrier, and simply better.

The added time working on the X’s and O’s can only help compliment the talent upgrade that the Cowboys and their fans hope is real.

Injuries That Will Sink The Season

Every NFL team faces injuries. The Cowboys have been banged up for much of training camp, but there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel with many key players who’ve missed time getting healthy.

Jay Ratliff is out, but Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Costa, DeMarco Murray, and Ware are all probable for tomorrow night’s opener.

Jason Witten is doubtful, but he is in New York with the team, and unless the doctors chain him to his locker, I find it hard to believe that he will sit out when his team needs him on such a big stage.

While things are looking up for the Boys on the injury front as of September 4th, there are a several players this team can ill afford to miss for an extended period of time:

Tyron Smith:
Doug Free has proven that he has no chance of being an effective option at LT. Smith is expected to hold down LT much like Flozell Adams did for years.

Combination Costa w/ Livings or Bernadeau:
This scenario would force David Arkin and his zero games of regular season experience into starting C, and then Derrick Dockery or newly acquired Ryan Cook into one of the OG starting spots. There’s a reason those two have not seen key playing time in several years.

DeMarco Murray:

I expect a big year from Murray after the disappointing early end to his rookie season due to injury. Felix Jones is not a player that can be relied on to shoulder the load of full time RB. His performance over an extended period of time will drop, or an injury to him would leave the Cowboys with Phillip Tanner. Good luck with that.

Tony Romo For More Than 6 Games, Or End Of The Season:
No doubt any time missed by Romo is a big blow, but Kyle Orton is capable of delivering a .500 record for this team in the event that Romo misses somewhere from 4-6 games. History shows that a 9-7 record can get you into the playoffs. A playoff berth and healthy Romo at season’s end is enough for anything to happen.

DeMarcus Ware:
Ware is the straw that stirs the drink for this defense. He’s the emotional leader, and he’s the only guy who has consistently put pressure on the QB since Greg Ellis left. This is a no-brainer, but it must be mentioned.

Barry Church:
I’m expecting a big year from Church, and so is Ryan, who mentioned that Church was close to taking over as a starter at the end of last season when he suffered his shoulder injury. This team needs a reliable SS option to pair with Gerald Sensabaugh, who moved to FS last year after the failed Abram Elam signing.

Picks To Click In 2012

DeMarco Murray:
Murray was the steal of the draft for the Cowboys in 2011. The 71st pick in the draft outperformed every RB drafted. His 897 yards (5.47 Y/A) was even was even more impressive considering he didn’t take over as the featured back until game 6 of the season (a special performance against the Rams).

Murray was limited during the preseason due to a banged up wrist, but by all accounts the ankle he broke against the Giants in week 14 is healed and he’s probable for the opener.

I expect at least a 1200 rushing yard season from Murray this year. This a conservative number that I came to by assuming that Murray will carry the ball at a 20 carry per game average (320 total carries) and average at least 4 YPA. The total yards would come to 1280 in this scenario. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him finish between 1300-1400 rushing yards.

 Brandon Carr:

The Cowboys made Carr the jewel of their free agency crop, making sure that he was the first player they focused on when free agency kicked off. I’m betting that Carr rewards the Cowboys for their investment with his best season to date.

He is saying all of the right things leading into the season opener in New York, and I predict he’ll start the season off with an interception of Eli Manning (whose thrown at least one INT in every season opener he’s started in) on his way to a 5 pick season.

2012 Season Prediction

It’s an effort in futility to attempt to pick the outcome of an entire NFL season no matter how much information you’re armed with. There are too many variables that change from week-to-week.

This is why I present to you my optimistic and pessimistic season predictions for the Cowboys in 2012.

Pessimistic Prediction:

Opponent

Outcome

Record

@ Giants

Loss

0-1

@ Seahawks

Win

1-1

Buccaneers

Win

2-1

Bears

Loss

2-2

@ Ravens

Loss

2-3

@ Panthers

Win

3-3

Giants

Win

4-3

@ Falcons

Loss

4-4

@ Eagles

Loss

4-5

Browns

Win

5-5

Redskins

Win

6-5

Eagles

Loss

6-6

@ Bengals

Win

7-6

Steelers

Loss

7-7

Saints

Loss

7-8

@ Redskins

Loss

7-9

The pessimistic prediction is not the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario would be if one or certainly multiple of the injuries that I mentioned previously were to occur. In that case the Cowboys could easily be looking at a 10+ loss season.

This scenario assumes that the line doesn’t take a step forward, DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones prove to be a below average RB tandem, the secondary isn’t near as improved as I think it is, or the NFC East proves to be far too strong for the Boys to handle.

Essentially, this is the bottom of my expectations for this team in the face of the significant hill they have to climb.

Optimistic Prediction:

Opponent

Outcome

Record

@ Giants

Loss

0-1

@ Seahawks

Win

1-1

Buccaneers

Win

2-1

Bears

Win

3-1

@ Ravens

Loss

3-2

@ Panthers

Win

4-2

Giants

Win

5-2

@ Falcons

Loss

5-3

@ Eagles

Loss

5-4

Browns

Win

6-4

Redskins

Win

7-4

Eagles

Win

8-4

@ Bengals

Win

9-4

Steelers

Win

10-4

Saints

Loss

10-5

@ Redskins

Win

11-5

Like my pessimistic predictions, this isn’t the best case scenario for the Cowboys. It’s damn close though.

I assume here that my picks to click come through, the line performs at the 30 sack or less level, the secondary as a whole is as improved as we hope, and the Boys NFC East bunkmates aren’t as good as some think they are.

This is the eternal fan in me that can’t help but think that one day this thing might come together and give the Cowboys a chance to reclaim the glory of 3 titles in 4 years. That Jerry can finally slay the demon of the Jimmy firing/resignation. That Romo’s receivers finish their routes and hold onto the ball when it matters (I’m talking to you Patrick Crayton).

One can dream, and in less than 24 hours we’ll have a good idea of which direction this season is headed.

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