Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
30 Jul 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
It’s same ol’, same ol’ at Valley Ranch. The Cowboys enter 2012 as a talented team with high expectations and a taste of disappointment after last season. The pressure, as usual, is thick.
Because the Cowboys have mastered the art of underachievement, few people these days say this is their year. Instead, people say this is supposed to be their year. There has been a lot of talk about players needing to step up, leaders needing to emerge, potential needing to be realized, etc.
In May, Jerry Jones got in on the action, acknowledging that his team’s window is closing. That fits the hype, but not the reality. The Cowboys’ star-studded offense is led by a quarterback who is 32 but only has six years of mileage on him. Tony Romo’s top receiver, Miles Austin, is 28. Budding star receiver (fingers crossed on off-field matters) Dez Bryant is 23. Budding star running back DeMarco Murray is 24. The offensive line is young at the two most important positions -– left tackle Tyron Smith is 21, center Phil Costa is 24 –- and under 31 everywhere else. Defensively, Dallas’s entire front line is in its prime. Declining inside linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking have been replaced by 24-year-old Bruce Carter and 26-year-old Dan Connor. The star that Carter and Connor will play alongside, Sean Lee, just turned 26. At cornerback, the disintegrating Terence Newman is out, while first-round rookie Morris Claiborne and 26-year-old blockbuster free agent pickup Brandon Carr are in.
Deep down, what Jones probably meant when he said the window is closing was: "This is once again a super talented team —- no way in heck I’m going to stand for 8-8 again." From this, one might surmise that Coach Jason Garrett is on the hot seat. Garrett, a former backup to Troy Aikman, was a familiar name who soared through the coaching ranks a few years ago. When he was promoted to Wade Phillips’s position in 2010, many assumed the Cowboys were getting one of those "energizing, innovative young coaches." Some insiders, however, whispered that Garrett, like Phillips, is much closer to being a Jerry Jones henchman than a Parcellsian trailblazer.
Who knows what’s true? The effect a coach’s personality has on a team is hard to accurately analyze from afar. What can be analyzed, though, is Garrett’s approach and performance as a strategist. From the occasional game-management blunder (see timeout usage in the loss at Arizona last season) to the sometimes-predictable nature of the offense (see play-calling late in the loss at New England), he has certainly left himself open to criticism at times. Really, the only thing saving Garrett from intense media scrutiny heading into this season is the public’s renewed appetite for picking apart his quarterback. Makes sense – that quarterback will most likely determine how far this team goes.
Football America’s hot new word these days is elite. It came into vogue last season with Eli Manning. Manning killed the ensuing "is he or isn’t he?" debate as quickly as he inadvertently started it by leading the Giants to a second Super Bowl title in five years. But instead of just putting the whole "elite" topic in storage and moving on, Football America has eagerly renewed it for Tony Romo.
To debate whether or not Romo is "elite" is to debate the meaning of the word "elite" as much as anything. What’s true is Romo is a better quarterback now than he’s ever been. He has shown improvements in his presnap recognition and postsnap decisions, which has helped make him a more comfortable pocket passer. He has always had a fast release and impressive ability to quickly gather his mechanics in making athletic throws off movement. These are not common traits.
True, Romo has had some gaffes in "clutch" situations. Some of those gaffes, like the interception to Darrelle Revis in Week 1 last year, have been a product of clever defensive strategy. Others, like the two missed throws late in the Week 14 loss to the Giants, have been the product of Romo playing too fast. But Romo’s errors tend to be overanalyzed and overblown.
Less talked about is Romo’s toughness and poise when playing hurt, and his raw playmaking ability -– both traits he displayed in spades last season. For Dallas’s offense to take the significant leaps forward, Romo must, obviously, display those traits on an even more regular basis. Part of the reason Garrett’s system has looked simplistic at times is he’s had to scale things back to help keep Romo comfortable. Though that may sound somewhat limiting, you could also argue that it’s smart coaching and part of the reason Romo threw for over 4,000 yards and had 31 touchdowns versus just 10 interceptions last season. Also, where a scaled-back approach was once the norm in Big D, it has recently become more of a fallback option.
It helps that Romo has a quality cast around him. It’s actually a cast built for a more balanced, vanilla approach. With minimal receiving depth behind Miles Austin and Dez Bryant (fourth-year pro Kevin Ogletree will compete with fifth-round rookie Danny Coale and a slew of undrafted youngsters for slot receiver duties), the Cowboys spend a lot of time in two-backs or two-tight-end personnel. What prevents this old-fashioned model from becoming outdated is the respect defenses have for tight end Jason Witten’s receiving.
Witten’s old-school, lumbering style makes him look somewhat archaic in this age of Rob Gronkowskis and Jimmy Grahams. But in the moments of truth, defenses again and again build their coverages around double teaming the 10th-year pro (especially when he lines up in the slot). This, of course, makes life easier on Austin (one of the smoothest route runners in football), and it should open more downfield opportunities for Bryant. Bryant, however, needs to mature and establish better chemistry with Romo. He’s as gifted as any receiver in the league, yet he was targeted five or fewer times in five different games last season.
A balanced, two-back/two-tight end offense that’s built around a gritty but somewhat unathletic tight end needs to have a viable run game. With 2008 first-round pick Felix Jones clearly lacking the durability to be an everydown back, the Cowboys have shifted their focus to last year’s third-round pick, DeMarco Murray. The 221-pounder showed improved lateral agility and downhill burst as his rookie season progressed. Unlike Jones, Murray doesn’t have sensational acceleration in his first step, which means a lot of his runs require the services of a lead-blocker. Hence the signing of Pro Bowl-caliber veteran Lawrence Vickers. Vickers helped escort Peyton Hillis to 1,100-plus yards in 2010 and Arian Foster to 1,200-plus yards in 13 games last year. Murray, if he can stay healthy (he broke his ankle last December), has the explosiveness to post those kind of numbers.
Murray is capable of also handling third-down duties. He’s an adept receiver and short-area route runner, and he has a precocious grasp on pass protection. Don’t expect the Cowboys to give him all the third-down snaps, though. Jones, while fragile, has too much game-changing speed to ignore. He’s superb on draws (a staple play in Dallas’s offense) and at turning upfield as a swing receiver in the flat. And if (or when) Jones gets hurt, the Cowboys can comfortably give some of Murray’s third-down snaps to darting second-year undrafted pro Phillip Tanner.
Vickers will most likely share snaps with backup tight end John Phillips, a versatile move player who can motion in and out of the backfield or line up along the line of scrimmage. To help pad the depth around Phillips in the wake of Martellus Bennett’s departure, the Cowboys spent a sixth-round pick on Oklahoma’s James Hanna.
Romo & Co. shouldn’t be short-circuited by many blocking breakdowns in 2012, though that’s not to say the Cowboys have a completely reassuring offensive line. Last year’s first-round pick, Tyron Smith, has the natural tools to one day be the best left tackle in football, but he’s still early in the process of honing his pass-blocking technique. Smith is moving to the left side this season, flipping spots with Doug Free, another fine athlete but also someone who struggled far too much with body control in pass protection last year. (It’d be interesting to see if Jerry Jones would have given Free a contract worth $17 million in guarantees last July if he’d known how much Free would struggle in 2011.)
Inside, third-year center Phil Costa occasionally has trouble holding ground against bigger defensive linemen, but most centers do. Overall, Costa held up well in his first full season as a starter. He now has the challenge of playing between the free-agent pickups Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, who make up perhaps the most underwhelming guard duo in the league. Given Livings’s inconsistency with the Bengals and the fact that Bernadeau, a backup for three of his four years in Carolina, is coming off off-season hip surgery, it wouldn’t be a shock to see fourth-round rookie David Arkin crack the starting lineup at some point. Also, the Cowboys are said to be very high on undrafted rookie Ronald Leary, who got some first-team reps in off-season camps. Both youngsters have a chance to beat out incumbent Bill Nagy, who, even before his season-ending ankle fracture last October, lacked power as a run-blocker.
Though much scrutiny is reserved for Romo and Garrett, the reality is it was Dallas’s defense -– which, like the offense, ranked in the middle of the pack in scoring and yardage -– that was most responsible for last season’s disappointment. This team would have won the East if not for its feeble secondary. It also didn’t help that Cowboys defenders, coming off a lockout-shortened off-season, had to learn a multitude of different positions and assignments in Rob Ryan’s immense system.
Obviously, having a full slate of OTAs and minicamps should take care of the preparation issues. More significantly, the aggressive moves by Jerry Jones and his increasingly active heir, Stephen Jones, should take care of the secondary issues. In March, the Joneses released fast-declining cornerback Terence Newman. They used part of the ensuing cap savings to sign Chiefs free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr, a rising press-man defender who has more than enough physicality to warrant his $26.5 million (guaranteed) contract. This move alone may have been enough to salvage the defense. But instead of banking on former Pro Bowler Michael Jenkins -– whose play, thanks to inconsistent technique, has tailed off over the past two years –- the Joneses traded up in the draft to select prized corner Morris Claiborne at No. 6. Jenkins, if not traded, will now spend his contract year behind emerging slot corner Orlando Scandrick.
A pair of press corners can do wonders for Dallas’s scheme. Rob Ryan, like his father Buddy and brother Rex, believes that the key to successful defense is winning early in the down. To win early in the down, you must immediately disrupt the (offensive) timing and rhythm. The objective is to force your opponent to play a more random, disorganized brand of football, leading to turnovers and incompletions. Jamming receivers is a big part of this –- especially when there are blitzes or confusing presnap looks designed for creating a misguided expectation of pressure.
Now that Ryan has two corners he can, theoretically, trust in press-man coverage, he has more liberty to use his safeties as blitzers and extra run defenders. (This is something Ryan’s brother, who has the privilege of coaching Revis, does extremely well.) To help, Ryan acquired one of his brother’s safeties, Brodney Pool. The fluid centerfielder is a comfortable open-space athlete and decent tackler. At strong safety is Gerald Sensabaugh, another standout athlete (he has a plus-40-inch vertical leap).
Because Ryan often puts safeties in the box, don’t expect the meager-tackling Jenkins to get moved to this position. Even if Pool or Sensabaugh were to become unavailable, it might make more sense to invest snaps in fourth-round rookie safety Matt Johnson. Johnson, along with Barry Church, should get meaningful snaps anyway because another staple of a Ryan defense is having a vast array of personnel in sub packages.
The usual centerpiece of the pass-rushing concepts up front is, obviously, DeMarcus Ware. Ryan often uses the eighth-year superstar in the same manner that Wade Phillips used him: as a weakside rusher. In Dallas’s base 3-4, and in many of their nickel and dime packages that feature a de facto four-man front, Ware aligns on the open side of the formation (opposite the tight end), which creates more one-on-one matchups.
Ryan’s defense isn’t meant to be built around just one guy, of course (though if it were, it might still work, given that Ware leads the NFL with 80 sacks over the past five years). Ryan makes great use of his secondary as blitzers (Scandrick is particularly adept in this realm). He also has a respectable, albeit up-and-down, pass-rusher in Anthony Spencer (whose best strength is actually playside run-stopping), and he has defensive linemen like Jason Hatcher, and especially Jay Ratliff, who can penetrate. Still, the Cowboys would presumably like to get more pass-rushing production across the board; they ranked tied for seventh in the league with 42 sacks last season, but 19.5 of them came from Ware.
It’s up to Spencer to step forward. The front office is taking a wait-and-see approach with the former first-round pick after slapping him with an $8.8 million franchise tag. To hedge a bit, they invested a fourth-round pick in Kyle Wilber, though in the immediate future, the Wake Forest product figures to challenge only backup outside linebacker Victor Butler for playing time.
One round before acquiring Wilbur, the Cowboys snagged Boise State defensive end Tyrone Crawford. Crawford, built like a base end, figures to push the much-maligned Marcus Spears for playing time. Spears, who has always been unjustly criticized by fans who don’t realize that his job is to anchor against the run more than to pressure the quarterback, is expecting to have a bounce-back season now that he’s moved from right defensive end back to his natural left spot. If he maintains his roster spot -– which he should, though the five-year contract he signed last season was low on guaranteed money, making him easy to cut -– he’ll still share plenty of his snaps with Crawford, as well as the subtly powerful Sean Lissemore and ex-Brown Kenyon Coleman (a Ryan favorite).
Cornerback was not the only area of weakness this defense addressed over the off-season. Inside linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking were falling fast and becoming significant liabilities in coverage. Both are gone, replaced by 2011 second-round pick Bruce Carter and Dan Connor. Carter is a sensational athlete who, now more than 18 months removed from ACL surgery, has a chance to fully emerge. Connor, a free agent from Carolina, is a highly underrated between-the-tackles thumper who can become a fan favorite if he stays healthy. Connor will only play first and second downs, as Sean Lee, an elite intermediate pass defender (and versatile all-around force), is one of the five best nickel inside ‘backers in football.
Undrafted second-year pro Chris Jones will continue to fill in at punter until Mat McBriar fully recovers from his "drop foot" injury. Jones punted 10 times last season, averaging 42.6 yards per boot. Kicker Dan Bailey was an impressive 32-of-37 on field goals in 2011, missing just one inside 40 yards. In the return game, there’s much debate about whether it’s safe to put Dez Bryant back on punts. Generally, everyone has been O.K. with it ... until Bryant gets hurt. Hindsight is convenient. Foresight says it could be wise to give Bryant, one of the most explosive weapons in football, punt returns just because those few extra touches could placate him enough so that he’ll take it easy on Romo in the huddle. Nine players returned kicks for the Cowboys last year. Garrett might as well roll the dice there, too, and let the fragile but lethal Felix Jones have the job.
As usual, the talent is here. Defensively, the improvements at cornerback should lead to a breakout year. The questions pertain to coaching and consistency in the passing game. If those are answered, this is a Super Bowl contender.
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