The presumption has been that, once their star quarterback returns, all will be well in Dallas. But, as Sunday night’s overtime loss proved, the defense and running game are not what they used to be in Big D
We want to believe that the Cowboys, losers of six straight since Tony Romo broke his clavicle, are still in it. Even if you’re part of the not-so-silent majority that despises America’s Team, you want to believe they’re in it because—let’s be honest—the NFL is more interesting when they are.
We’ve learned over the years that Cowboys are going to be televised in prime time or in the featured 4:25 Sunday window regardless of the team’s record… might as well have those games mean something. Besides, when the Cowboys are in the position they’re in now—fighting for their lives and not playing up to standards—that’s when we get the most shots of Jerry Jones in the club box during broadcasts. Flashes of the 73-year-old and his sons toggling between states of euphoria and agitation might be the best live entertainment on TV.
Unfortunately, since the NFL went to its current 12-team playoff format in 1990, no club has reached the postseason after starting 2-6. Of course, not many—if any—2-6 teams have been as talented as these Cowboys, and not many divisions have been as mediocre as this year’s NFC East. While it’s not necessarily the ’08 AFC West, the ’10 NFC West, the ’14 NFC South or the ’15 AFC South, the NFC East is average almost to the point of doleful, and it lacks a clear front-runner.
The 5-4 Giants don’t have the personnel to play stable defense. They’ll continue to be up-and-down. In Arlington Sunday night, the Eagles may have seen their new quarterback finally get comfortable in Chip Kelly’s system. But given that it’s nearly mid-November and we’re just now saying this, let’s not count on 4-4 Philly just yet. Ditto for Washington, a 3-5 team with its own quarterback mysteries each week.
If the Cowboys are to make history—and granted, that’s still a Texas-sized if—it will take a lot more than simply getting their star veteran QB back in the lineup. When Jerry and Stephen Jones, along with Jason Garrett, constructed this club’s foundation a few years ago, there were two clear areas of emphasis. One was the running game. Instead of looking for their own Adrian Peterson, they invested in chaperones, drafting offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin in the first rounds between 2011 and ’14. (This year they also signed undrafted free agent La’el Collins, who was projected to be a first-rounder before teams were scared off by a connection to a murder in Louisiana, an incident in which was cleared of any wrongdoing.)
The other area was defense. Specifically, Jones and Garrett wanted one that was fast and big-play-oriented. While the D had done some good things under coordinator Rob Ryan in 2011 and ’12, Jones and Garrett felt that the players had too much scheme shoveled on their plates. That can make guys play slower. And so the Cowboys replaced Ryan with Monte Kiffin, the father of the Tampa 2, a simplistic two-high-safety, zone-based system that emphasizes read-and-react swiftness and sound fundamentals. The hope was that this change would allow the defense to create more turnovers.
Kiffin himself was not a success—Dallas’s defense set a franchise record for futility under him in 2013—but his principles stuck. Assistant Rod Marinelli, Kiffin’s longtime friend, was promoted to replace the declining legend last season and has continued to oversee the group this year. Contrary to popular assumption, Kiffin never was a pure zone-based schemer in Dallas, and Marinelli hasn’t been either. The Cowboys play plenty of man coverage and Cover 3 (zone with one high safety instead of two, making for more matchup-based coverage principles outside). You also see the occasional double-A-gap blitzes from the Cowboys, a shrewd, aggressive tactic that has become standard in the NFL. Still, no matter what the defensive call, the defense will be familiar to players and simple enough for them to pin their ears back and haul tail.
Which brings us to the problem. Those turnovers that Jones and Garrett were hoping for haven’t happened. Midway through the season, the Cowboys are tied with Baltimore with a league-low four takeaways. And three of those came in Week 2 against the Eagles. Forcing turnovers starts with the pass rush. Dallas’s has underachieved, generating pressure that’s commensurate with its very modest sack total of 14. Greg Hardy has lived up to his reputation (on and, unfortunately, off the field). But second-year pro Demarcus Lawrence, at this point, is a much better run defender than edge rusher. Second-round rookie Randy Gregory’s development was stunted by a Week 1 ankle injury. Rising three-technique Tyrone Crawford has been much quieter since signing a five-year extension, with $25.7 million guaranteed, the day before the season started.
More disconcerting is that linebacker Sean Lee—whose playmaking prowess was in many ways the impetus behind the move from a complex scheme to a simpler, more turnover-driven one—suffered his second concussion in five games Sunday night. If Lee can’t stay on the field, the Cowboys’ linebacking corps shifts from a strength to possibly a weakness that will have to be hidden. (Replacement Anthony Hitchens is a swift athlete who played well in Lee’s absence last season, but Sunday night Hitchens sure looked like a weakness. He also hurt his ankle, opening the door for a possible Andrew Gachkar nod. Yikes.)
As suggested earlier, Marinelli has played more man coverage this season. The reason: He has corners who can handle it. Many thought Orlando Scandrick’s ACL injury would fell this defensive backfield. But that was before anyone could factor in the impact of Byron Jones. The first-round rookie has thrived at safety and slot corner, matching up man-to-man against opponents’ bigger receivers, be it a tight end like Rob Gronkowski or an inside wideout like Jordan Matthews. Yes, Jones gave up the game-winning 41-yard touchdown to Matthews in overtime, but in the bigger picture he’s had a sensational rookie campaign. His presence gives Dallas newfound flexibility in its nickel and dime sub-packages.
What’s been described here is a defense that has a most of, if not all, the right pieces, but also one that has yet to see all of those pieces function at a high level for the same prolonged stretch.
Offensively, the running game that the team invested so heavily in chaperoning has not produced—at least not as it did last season, anyway. Joseph Randle made more people than just himself and the Cowboys brass look bad with his disappointing performance in September and October. He’s currently out of the league. Replacement Darren McFadden has run with adequate speed and surprisingly decent power, but he’s not what DeMarco Murray was a year ago. And while some—including yours truly—believe Murray left some yards on the field despite leading the league with 1,845 yards rushing last year, well, at least there were yards to leave on the field. That hasn’t been the case this season, as Dallas’s front five has been only good, not great.
If the Cowboys can win at Tampa next week (their easiest opponent to date), they’ll be 3-6 when Romo returns with seven games remaining. From there it would take at least five, maybe six wins to claim the division and capture the NFC’s four seed. Regardless, if there’s overflowing optimism in this scenario (and there is), the only chance it has of coming to fruition is if Dallas’s defense and running game start playing up to expectations.