The Cowboys have all the parts to make a Super Bowl run, but their formula comes with a lot of caveats

By Andy Benoit
September 03, 2015

All apologies to Rudyard Kipling, but if is the theme for the 2015 Dallas Cowboys.

As in if Greg Hardy retains his 2013 form and stays out of trouble; if second-round rookie Randy Gregory avoids trouble and lives up to expectations; if linebacker Rolando McClain, hit with a four-game suspension to start the season, stays out of trouble; if last year’s second-round defensive end, Demarcus Lawrence, builds on the promise he teased down the stretch; if Lawrence’s fellow sophomore, linebacker Anthony Hitchens, does the same; if middle linebacker Sean Lee rebounds from last year’s ACL injury; if first-round rookie corner Byron Jones can offer the steady, positive contributions that the club has yet to see from 2012 first-rounder Morris Claiborne; if enough of these ifs—and notice they’re all on the same side of the ball—can tilt in the right direction, then we’re looking at a team with a dynamic defense playing opposite a powerhouse running offense. That’s a Super Bowl formula.

Two of the biggest risks taken by the Cowboys—signing Hardy and drafting Gregory—pertain directly to improving a pass rush that generated just 28 sacks last season (the fifth fewest in the league). Executive VP Stephen Jones said at the beginning of August that the lack of a pass rush is “probably what cost us the chance to win a championship last year.” He’s right.

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The Cowboys’ no-name defense actually overachieved under coordinator Rod Marinelli, playing as hard as any unit in the league. While they generated more pressure on quarterbacks than their collective raw talent should have allowed, a paucity of edge-rushing firepower factored heavily in the club’s ranking 27th in net yards per pass attempt.

Marinelli is a maharishi of zone defense. Presumably that’s why he was promoted from D-line coach to coordinator after Monte Kiffin was removed from that post after a disastrous 2013 campaign. Marinelli arrived in Dallas two years ago with Kiffin, his longtime friend. Kiffin was tabbed to replace Rob Ryan and install a more traditional zone-based system. The thinking—presumably by head coach Jason Garrett, but probably also Jerry Jones—was that replacing Ryan’s multifarious man-based pressure scheme with a simple zone scheme would enable defenders to play faster and create more turnovers, because they can have their eyes on the ball rather than a man.

Opposing offenses will have to sacrifice eligible receivers in order to execute protection slides and various double-team concepts against the Cowboys.

That’s logical, but in order to profit from this approach, you must generate consistent pass-rush pressure with four linemen—thus the big risks taken this offseason. Hardy is the lynchpin. He’s far and away the most talented of Dallas’s front defenders. He’s also the most experienced starter and, critically, the most versatile. He can win with power and speed, and from outside or inside—both in terms of pre-snap alignment and post-snap movement. He’s a monster in schemed pass-rushing concepts, like twists and stunts, which Marinelli employed aptly last season.

Imagine a third-and-long situation with Hardy lined up in one three-technique position and rising fourth-year pro Tyrone Crawford in the other. Crawford is fast becoming one of the game’s better penetrators and shedders of interior blocks. Also imagine Demarcus Lawrence, who’s shown good initial quickness, at one defensive end spot and the speedy Randy Gregory at the other. With double three-techniques, both of the offense’s guards are occupied, meaning offensive tackles must combat Lawrence and Gregory one-on-one. Either that, or offenses will have to sacrifice eligible receivers in order to execute protection slides and various double-team concepts. (This may be likely given that blocking Hardy and Crawford one-on-one is perilous.)

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Better pass rushing matchups can help a secondary every bit as much as the arrival of a first-round corner like Byron Jones. He’s joining what’s actually not a bad group. While Marinelli is regarded as a Cover 2 acolyte, he deployed a wide variety of coverages last season, including a heavy dose of man-to-man in late December and January. His corners responded well, especially the much-maligned Brandon Carr, who won battles against Calvin Johnson and Jordy Nelson in back-to-back playoff weeks. Opposite Carr, slot corner Orlando Scandrick also confirmed suspicions that he can prosper playing outside on first and second downs, not just in man but also in zone, which the Cowboys usually employed with a single-high safety (the improved J.J. Wilcox). Scandrick’s season-ending knee injury is a big loss.

Did Marinelli change up his coverages last season because he wanted to give opponents more to digest? Or were the changeups simply a way of masking his high-effort-but-low-octane pass rush? A rule of thumb you’ve probably read here before: the more talent you have, the simpler your scheme can be. Prior to Scandrick’s injury, Marinelli had the talent to run whatever he wanted this season. Or he would have come October, anyway, once the new young players had a few games under their belts and Hardy and McClain returned from their suspensions.

Without Scandrick, there are questions about whether the Cowboys can still hold up in man coverage (particularly in the slot). If they can—another if—it would make sense for Marinelli to remain diverse, in part because he’s a good in-game play-caller. He does a lot with unique blitzes and zone pressure packages early in contests. Once he establishes the tone, he calls off those hounds and focuses on a variety of different coverage concepts. At least that’s what he did in 2014. Not only does Marinelli now have more talent to work with up front, but the incumbents of this defense are also more familiar with this approach.

And let’s not overlook how significant Lee’s return is to the middle of this defense. In 2013 he was an elite three-down linebacker who showed rare instincts and a firm arsenal of fundamentals. A player like that can help get McClain and the 23-year-old Hitchens get lined up, allowing for the “think less, play faster” mantra to hold true with those guys even when situations require them to think more.

This franchise has been in this position before. Remember all the off-field issues they faced—and ultimately thwarted or tamed—20 years ago, when 12-win seasons and Super Bowl contention was the norm? Big D has the chance to rise up again.

Cowboys Nickel Package

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo hands the ball off to Darren McFadden in a recent preseason tilt. (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

1. There was a lot of backlash to an early June article on this site regarding my support of running back Joseph Randle’s assertion that DeMarco Murray “left a lot of meat on the bone” last year. The backlash was not unexpected; criticism of an 1,800-plus-yard rushing season will always seem ridiculous on the surface. The visual examples used in that particular Murray piece were also from plays that rendered what most observers would consider a “positive” outcome – at least by “general NFL rushing play” standards. And so it was also not unexpected that some might ignore that piece’s screen shot graphics, put up a GIF of those particular runs and deprecate the analysis. Those who did so missed my broader point. And for the record: I stand 100 percent by my assessment of Murray. In fact, I’m even firmer in my belief that he had a very good season, but not a great one. Since that article came out, several coaches have privately told me that the Cowboys felt Murray left a lot of yards on the field. Some have even said there were 2,500 yards to be had behind that offensive line. All-time great running backs Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson have since intimated similar thoughts. Too many times last season, the Cowboys got 20 yards on runs when the blocking was good enough to gain 50. That’s why the team made very little effort to re-sign Murray, and it’s why this will remain one of the league’s best running games with Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden now carrying the ball.

2. The only concern with Dallas’s O-line is the departure of Bill Callahan, one of the best run-blocking instructors in the league. But new O-line coach Frank Pollack understands Callahan’s zone teachings, and with the signing of La’el Collins, there’s even more talent up front this season. Expect Collins to compete for Ronald Leary’s left guard position. That would put him between the game’s most athletic tackle, Tyron Smith, and the league’s best reach-and-seal-blocking center, Travis Frederick. It would also give the Cowboys more versatility in their short-area pull-blocking concepts; no longer would Zack Martin be the only physical stud at guard.

3. The surge of the running game comes at just the right time in Tony Romo’s career. At 35, his arm strength is starting to gradually decline. And his proclivity for sometimes playing fast and loose is naturally curtailed by all the first down run calls and increased vitality of the Cowboys’ play-action game.

4. Romo has two weapons who, if either were to be lost, would devastate Dallas’s passing attack. You can probably guess who they are. The most important, Dez Bryant, is valuable because of his playmaking prowess, which means he’s one of the NFL’s few receivers who almost always attracts double coverage when split wide (alone) on the weak side. That defines the coverage for Romo and creates one-on-one matchups for at least two receivers on the front side. And usually it’s one-on-one for all three receivers on the front side, because defenses still double Dallas’s other star, Jason Witten, who is one of the best ever at “uncovering” at the top of his routes. The more Romo uses Witten as a security blanket, the better this offense will be.

5. Witten also deserves plaudits for his contributions to the ground game. He’s become one of the best playside run-blockers in the NFL. The Cowboys rely heavily on tight ends blocking at the point of attack. Witten and James Hanna, who is transforming into a surprisingly effective blocking specialist, are very important here.

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