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2012 Record: 8-8 Key Pending Free Agents:Mike Jenkins, CB; Anthoy Spencer, DE/LB; Phil Costa, OL (RFA); Danny McCray, S (RFA) List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (18), 2 (47), 3 (80), 4 (111), 5 (144), 6 (175) Available Cap Space: -$20 million GM/Coaching Moves: Hired defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin; pulled playcalling responsibilities from head coach Jason Garrett
2012 Season Recap
"... It's going to be very uncomfortable for the next couple of weeks and months at Valley Ranch. ... Change is necessary at 8-8. A change will happen."
Those were Jerry Jones' words a couple of days after the Cowboys ended the 2012 season the same way they ended the 2011 season: with a disappointing loss to an NFC East rival with the division title on the line. In 2011, it was the Giants beating Dallas on national television on their way to the Super Bowl. But if Jones could possibly excuse that loss -- New York, after all, has a proven record of success and was in the middle of a world-beating six-game streak on the way to the Lombardi Trophy -- he was in no such mood for another offseason of status quo after watching the long-suffering, now-upstart Redskins leapfrog his team to relevancy in the snap of a finger.
Immediately after that season-ending loss to Washington, Jones admitted being impressed with the make-up of the Redskins, and you could sense a bit of longing, some jealousy that his own team wasn't nearly as impressive. While Robert Griffin III injected new life into a moribund franchise, Jones' Cowboys dealt with the same frustrating issues -- a lack of consistency on the field, a constant inability to play up to potential, a recurring problem with coming up small in big moments and befuddling and often backfiring sideline decisions from the coaching staff. It's been the same story in Dallas for years now.
The Cowboys were an average team in 2012, but not consistently average. They were spectacular at times, and spectacularly bad at others; one of the team's trademarks last season was a trend of falling into deep first-half deficits, only to mount furious second-half stands that occasionally resulted in comeback wins. So they were never boring, as the Cowboys rarely are. But they also weren't very successful, and it seems as if enough is finally enough with the man in charge.
Stat To Feel Good About
10. The number of touchdowns by Dez Bryant in a seven-game scoring streak that started in Week 10. Bryant entered the season facing numerous questions, as well as a reported set of rules laid down by the Cowboys to keep the super-talented but inconsistent receiver focused on football. After a slow start to the season (four 75-plus-yard games, two touchdowns in the first half), Bryant and Tony Romo finally found an unstoppable rapport. The franchise desperately needed the light to turn on and Bryant to emerge as the elite receiver he's always flashed the ability to be; it didn't happen immediately in 2012, but it did happen, and that's good news moving forward.
If It Ain't Broke ...
From a numbers standpoint, there's a lot to like about the Cowboys passing offense. And when Bryant and Miles Austin are both healthy, that rings especially true. But despite either not missing much time last season, both were plagued by nagging injuries that at times seemed to hamper their play, Austin especially in a late-season swoon that saw him catch just 25 balls over the last eight games. After losing ace No. 3 wideout Laurent Robinson in free agency prior to 2012, Romo and the Cowboys passing game could take another step forward with a reliable slot receiver to open space for Bryant to be even more effective in 2013.
1.5. Yards per snap allowed in coverage by Danny McCray, the most of all safeties on the field for 50 percent of their teams' snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
Must Fix It
If all goes according to plan, McCray won't be a starting concern in 2013. Barry Church should ideally return from the torn right Achilles that sidelined him after Week 3, and McCray will head back to the bench.
Still, it's no guarantee that Church -- a rising star the Cowboys felt really good about prior to his injury -- is back by Week 1; even if he's on the field, there's no telling what the team is going to get from him, at least early as he catches back up with game speed. And McCray, despite his flaws, is a restricted free agent. So though it's likely that Church plays and McCray returns, there's still some uncertainty at the position.
The team has little-to-no money to spend in free agency, and greater needs to address in the first round (more on that below). But a nice option to fortify the position is T.J. McDonald, who was coached at USC by Monte Kiffin, the team's new defensive coordinator. McDonald can be a standout at either safety position and should be available in the second or even third round.
More On The To-Do List
1. Overhaul the offensive line, except Tyron Smith. The Cowboys are set at LT, but nowhere else. Doug Free was the most penalized lineman in the league, with 15 flags, and the unit's 46 sacks allowed (16th) would be much higher if not for Romo's mobility. This is where the Cowboys should be looking in the first round.
2. Draft personnel to help the switch to the 4-3 defense. This holds especially true up front. With Spencer possibly moving on in free agency, the team has one true playmaker at end in DeMarcus Ware, and the situation is slightly worse at tackle. If OL isn't the target in the first, the DL will be, and the rising Shariff Floyd would be an excellent addition. Floyd excels at tackle, but can also play end.
3. Add talented depth at running back.DeMarco Murray hasn't proven he can stay healthy, and Felix Jones has likely played his last game in Dallas. Murray is a three-down back when healthy; the Cowboys need insurance for the times he's not.
What We'll Be Saying In July
Here's the good news: The Cowboys have plenty of options to get under the cap -- expect restructurings or extensions for Romo, Ware, Free, Jason Hatcher and Brandon Carr. Here's the bad: All of that maneuvering will just get Dallas to a tenable cap situation, not necessarily one where it'll be able to make a splash. Re-signing Spencer is still a possibility (although it wouldn't necessarily be a bad move for the team to let him walk; there's something fishy about a 29-year-old who finally finds production in a contract year, and some team is bound to offer Spencer a deal he won't live up to), but beyond that Cowboys fans should expect the team to sit out free agency's opening big-money frenzy, tweaking their roster through smart bargains and the draft.
We'll also have some clarity about how the team approaches big strategic uncertainties on each side of the ball -- the move to the 4-3 on defense and the decision to use a different offensive play-caller than Jason Garrett. Despite the cautionary words about the Cowboys keeping Spencer, it seems likely the two sides strike a deal. And on offense, even though Garrett has indicated that there may not necessarily be a change to who dictates the Dallas attack, expect offensive coordinator Bill Callahan to be the one relaying messages to Romo come September.
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