OXNARD, Calif. -- The autopsy of the 2011 Cowboys didn't require much forensic science. Jason Garrett's 8-8 team missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season because it blew a staggering five fourth-quarter leads, including a league-record three of 10 points or more.
Not being able to finish games and seasons has been a Dallas specialty of late. Last year's pivotal turning point came late in a Week 14 Sunday night showdown against the visiting New York Giants. Up 12 points with 5:41 remaining, the Cowboys surrendered the game's final 15 points, then watched as their last-second 47-yard field goal attempt by Dan Bailey was blocked, giving New York the dramatic 37-34 win that served as a springboard to its NFC East title and subsequent Super Bowl-winning playoff run.
Costly Tony Romo turnovers and not being able to run the ball effectively enough late in games to help salt away leads -- especially after running back DeMarco Murray broke his ankle in Week 14 -- were culprits in some fourth-quarter collapses. But first and foremost, the Cowboys simply couldn't stop anyone in pass coverage when games were on the line. Teams moved the ball at will through the air against Dallas in crunch time, turning the fourth quarter into a season-long series of nightmare scenarios.
That is why the Cowboys moved aggressively to land 26-year-old former Chief cornerback Brandon Carr in free agency, giving him a whopping $50.1 million over five years, and doubled down at the position by trading up eight spots in the first round to select LSU's Morris Claiborne, the consensus top-rated cover man in April's draft. In essence, Claiborne wound up costing the Cowboys their first- and second-round picks, because Dallas shipped selections No. 14 and 45 to St. Louis in exchange for the No. 6 slot.
Having spent the capital, the Cowboys now expect their investment to turn their most glaring weakness into a strength.
"When we made our evaluations of last year, we didn't cover well enough on the back end,'' said Garrett, entering his second full season as Cowboys head coach. "We just knew we had to address that situation, and it starts with the personnel. We thought a lot of Brandon Carr in free agency and we targeted him as our No. 1 guy. We felt Morris Claiborne was the best defensive player in the draft, so we targeted him, too. We feel like the corner positions are marquee positions and are worthy of the resources, whether it's draft picks or dollars.''
So far, the Cowboys' plan for improvement at cornerback has been quite the mixed bag of results. Carr has been sensational, setting the pace for the secondary and impressing all with his playmaking, as well as his dedication and commitment level. But Claiborne is off to a painfully slow start, having missed the entire offseason rehabbing from wrist surgery, and then suffering a sprained knee early in camp. He returned to practice Thursday on a limited basis, but will likely not make his preseason debut until next week's game at San Diego, rendering his learning curve even steeper.
"He has stayed engaged, but he needs time on task,'' Garrett said earlier this week. "He needs to practice against NFL receivers, play against NFL receivers.''
Then there's the Mike Jenkins saga. The Cowboys intend to use Jenkins to cover in the slot, a role he has not played in the past and needs some time to master. But the veteran cornerback and former Pro Bowl selection underwent shoulder surgery this offseason and then stayed away from the team's facility unless it was a mandatory practice session. Jenkins grumbled about his demotion, asked for a new contract, and demanded to be traded.
He reported to training camp on time, but Jenkins is still a couple weeks away from being cleared to practice, and in all likelihood will miss the entire preseason. The gloomier scenario is that he's a potential candidate to start the season on the PUP, meaning he'd sit out the first six games of the season. Instead of having a strong cornerback depth chart that looked to go four deep with Carr, Claiborne, Jenkins and proven reserve Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys are making do at the moment with just Carr and Scandrick able to fully participate, and in the first-team slots.
That's not quite the position of strength Dallas thought it would be in at cornerback, especially with the much anticipated Sept. 5 season opener on the road against Eli Manning and those defending Super Bowl champion Giants looming less than four weeks away. Dallas officials say there's no reason to panic or start shopping for help at cornerback, but the only part of the Cowboys' pass coverage renovation project that looks like an upgrade is Carr's stellar early work.
"It's so nice to see that, because when you step out and bet on a guy like that, you think he's going to come through and you're hoping he does, but you don't know it,'' said Cowboys COO and director of player personnel Stephen Jones. "The thing I admire about Brandon is he's come out here and it's like you didn't even pay him. I've been shocked at how diligent he is and how hard he's worked. Some kids get paid and it's like, 'OK, I got my money. I'm going to coast now.' Having him and Mo [Claiborne], it'll make a huge difference with those fourth-quarter leads. And with [Jenkins] and Orlando being the third and fourth [corners], not many teams have got that luxury.''
Neither do the Cowboys at the moment, but it is hard to imagine Dallas repeating its shoddy cornerback performance of a year ago, when its pass coverage was burned for 24 touchdowns and an 88.4 passer rating, with just 15 interceptions. All those close games exacted a toll on the Cowboys' confidence on defense last season, when Dallas played in 11 games that were within eight points in the fourth quarter, losing six of them.
"We were left with a bitter taste in our mouths last year, because we had a lot of games that the defense could have won and we didn't do it,'' third-year inside linebacker Sean Lee said. "I really think it could be big, getting those guys who can cover and make plays back there. It's only going to make more time for guys like [outside linebackers] DeMarcus [Ware] and Spence [Anthony Spencer] to get to the quarterback.''
Like Lee, Garrett made a point of mentioning to me how much he believes better coverage will lead to higher sack totals. The Cowboys had 42 sacks last season, but almost half of those (19.5) were from one player, Ware. Spencer finished second on the team, with just six. Typically better pass rush improves your pass defense, giving quarterbacks shorter windows to deliver the ball and making defenders stay in coverage less time. But Dallas is viewing that cause-and-effect from the other vantage point, shoring up the last line of its defense and seeing it as a benefit to the pass rush.
"It all goes together, but we definitely feel like it will help our pass rush,'' Garrett said. "Just by definition, if the quarterback doesn't have a place to throw as quickly, it gives your rushers a better chance to get there. Then we also feel like it's going to help us at the end of games. Last year, we were ahead in games, but we didn't run the ball well enough in the fourth quarter and we didn't cover well enough at the end of games. Teams were throwing it down after down on us. So we tried to make proper personnel decisions to give us a better chance.''
Carr does that, even if he had been the Cowboys' only significant acquisition in the secondary. He never missed a start in his four seasons in Kansas City, and he has quickly become the standard by which Dallas receivers measure themselves by. If they can beat Carr on a pattern in practice, game day challenges don't look quite so difficult. There may not be a true shutdown corner in the NFL these days, but Carr is at least living up to the payday Dallas bestowed on him.
"I'm not going to even think about the money this season,'' Carr said, following an afternoon training camp practice this week. "That's done, and now it's time to go play and prove myself once again. I'm going to definitely put the work in to make the most of this opportunity. To those much has been given, much is required. That's my motto. They need me here to play my game, and continue what I've been doing, but then take my game to the next level.''
That is the need in Dallas this season, and Carr is the focal point of the Cowboys new strength at cornerback. Those fourth-quarter leads can't turn into demoralizing losses again this year. Dallas has to prove it can finish, before the winning can start.