The NFL pre-season is an optical illusion. Teams that perform well during the pre-season may have a miserable regular season, e.g., the 2008 Detroit Lions were 4-0 in the pre-season only to finish the regular season with a disgraceful 0-16 regular season record. Despite the lack of tell-tale signs on a teams regular season record, individual performances can be graded and presumptions made based upon the same. The following will detail a few presumptions based upon the first three pre-season match-ups for the 2011 Dallas Cowboys.
1. Tyron Smith is a capable tackle. Smith was the first tackle drafted in the 2011 NFL Draft. Generally, the first tackle plays at left tackle and is often selected in the top 5. Smith was selected ninth overall. Smith’s performance hasn’t been appreciably better than Nate Solder who was drafted at 17; however, Smith has performed well during the pre-season showing good movement in his feet, good balance and strength. He has also reacted well to blitzes and movement by defensive players before and after the snap of the ball. With Doug Free performing admirably at left tackle, the Cowboys offensive line appears to be trending in the right direction… finally.
2. The Dallas Cowboys depth is not sufficient. At present, the Cowboys are 2-1 in the pre-season. The starters have played roughly 5.5 quarters of football with the remaining 6.5 quarters played by the backups. The Cowboys have been inaccurately referred to as one of the most talented teams in football the past few years. The Cowboys have big-time names who were unfortunately small-time performers. Many under-performing players have been shown the door. The Cowboys were quiet during free agency as they primarily focused on re-signing their own players rather than bringing in top tier free agents. Consequently, players who had a smaller role in previous years are now assuming a greater role on the team. As these players ascend, they leave a void in depth. While the younger players have done an admirable job against their 2nd and 3rd string peers, many will be found lacking if called upon to replace an injured starter. Certainly this can be said of every team in the league, but it should be noted that Green Bay won a championship last year despite having a multitude of injuries on both the offense and defense. The Cowboys simply do not have the talent to weather that type of storm.
Against the San Diego Chargers, the Cowboys 2nd and 3rd team players were outmatched. They were more evenly matched against the Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos, two teams that won a combined 10 games last year. Felix Jones has had his share of injuries. We are all aware that Tashard Choice can carry the load as he did during his rookie season; DeMarco Murray has only made one appearance during the pre-season. Murray was actually a pleasant surprise against the Vikings. He did not appear to be a special talent on that day, but he played the game with a lower pad level than expected considering he was billed as an upright runner. Murray also should be improving as he stated that his legs felt heavy because this was the first action he has had due to injury.
The greatest concern has to be at Cornerback. Players like Bryan McCann, Josh Thomas, and Mario Butler have played well (not great) against their talent level peers. It is very unlikely they will have success against the top wide receivers if called into duty. And we all suspect that Terence Newman playing 16 healthy games would be an absolute miracle.
3. Finally, the Cowboys begin the season playing the NY Jets, San Francisco 49ers, and Washington Redskins. None of the teams have an transcendent offense, and while they are all capable of putting up points, they all lack the explosiveness of the New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, and Green Bay Packers. If the Cowboys are to survive the first quarter of the season, Tony Romo and the Dallas offense MUST carry the team. Do not expect the Cowboys defense to fully know and understand Rob Ryan‘s scheme. Expect confusion and big plays to occur as a result of attempting to apply pressure on the quarterback. This is not a reaction to poor performances during the pre-season; the Cowboys have blitzed, they have utilized exotic coverages sending defensive lineman into zone coverage, and they have even successfully forced turnovers. The Cowboys defense also has given up touchdowns and have seemingly been less efficient as stopping the run. Despite allowing substantial gains through the air, the return of Newman and Mike Jenkins to the field should shore up man coverage plays.
The defense will improve as the season progresses, but expect the Cowboys offense having to score over 30 points per game in order to secure a win. Against the Jets that is unlikely, but against the ‘Skins and 49er’s it is a must. It can be asked, “Why are you so down on Rob Ryan’s scheme and the Dallas Defense?” My answer would be that this crop of Cowboys veterans have never taken well to absorbing complicated schemes. Bill Parcells ran a remedial version of his 3-4. Wade Phillips was never able to fully implement his defensive scheme but he did have success playing a base defense and relying on the talent on the defensive side of the ball. Now enter Ryan who has as much spit and vinegar as his more successful kin, but I don’t believe he has players with the intellect of those on the Eagles, Bears, Ravens, and Jets. Considering we are talking about defensive players where intellect isn’t a real priority, that is truly a critique of both the players and the general manager.
Three observations based on three inconsequential games. The final pre-season game will reveal little, but clairvoyance is not required to see the 2011 Dallas Cowboys will win more than six games. Unfortunately, there is still the question of exactly how many more.