In this first of three posts focused on the 2011 Dallas Cowboys top performers, I’ll take on the role of head coach and review the team’s performance and point out weak spots that need to be addressed this offseason. We’ll take a look at the offensive positions first and then defense and special teams will follow in coming weeks.
I know it wasn’t a season to remember but at the same time, there were bright spots on all three phases. And we should point those out and look forward to next season when we can get another chance to see these players in action. Also, by looking at who performed at a high level, we can get a better idea what we have and where we need to go in terms of free agent signings and draft day selections.
This, like a lot of these, was a no-brainer. No matter how much criticism Tony Romo gets he was by far the best performer out of the three quarterbacks on the roster. The other two, Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee, were both thrown into the fire this year and neither produced. When Washington came to town in Week Three, Romo rose above the pain of a punctured lung and broken rib to bring Dallas a victory on an ugly night. Snap after snap flew over his head and time after time he found a way to fight through the pain and make something out of nothing. Romo’s mobility and quick release are huge assets and shouldn’t be taken for granted. He is far from perfect, as we saw in the Jets and Lions games, but he is by far the best option on this roster. The only thing that needs to be addressed is the backup quarterback position. Is McGee ready to step in and be Romo’s primary backup or do we bring in a veteran to back him up? Or even a draft day upgrade?
None of the backs on the roster were able to stay healthy for the entire season so it’s hard to pick a clear-cut winner. When forced to do so however, DeMarco Murray came out on top. Murray got off to a slow start. He was hampered by a hamstring injury in the preseason. When he finally got in the lineup, and got his carries, he didn’t disappoint. Murray posted 897 yards and two touchdowns on the ground and 183 yards receiving. The dual-threat back produced all of this in 13 games, starting seven of them. Sadly his season was cut short week 14 when he sustained a broken ankle early in a loss to the New York Giants. If he can come back to top form, he will be a bright young player for some time to come. Keeping the backs we have healthy is the biggest area of need here. If Murray, Felix Jones and Phillip Tanner can stay on the field we’ll have one of the best running back corp in the league.
Tony Fiammetta was the Cowboys only fullback on the 2011 Cowboys that made a contribution. He paved the way for DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones and if we plan on having steady production out of these two, Fiammetta is crucial. When he was battling an illness during the season there was a noticeable difference in the ground game production. With Fiammetta out of the lineup last year the Cowboys only rushed for 83.8 yards a game, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. When he was in the game he brought back memories of “Moose” Johnston breaking holes open for Emmitt Smith and the Cowboys averaged 5.6 yards per carry and produced roughly 145 yards per game. Locking him up for the foreseeable future is in the best interest of the Cowboys and the running game.
With names like Dez Bryant and Miles Austin on the roster you would think one of these two would be an automatic lock for 2011 top performer. Bryant spent most of his time fending off double teams and press coverage on his way to a 63-catch, 928-yard, nine-touchdown stat line. Austin spent most of his time dealing with nagging hamstring injuries and only produced 43 catches for 579 yards and seven touchdowns. The true top performer at the wide receiver position was Laurent Robinson with 54 catches for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns. Sure his reception and yard numbers aren’t as high as Bryant’s, but he played fewer games than Dez and eventually established himself as Tony Romo’s go-to receiver in the red-zone. The biggest question with Robinson is are we going to be able to bring him back next year? He may have possibly played himself out of Dallas’ price range so we’ll just have to wait and see what Jerry does. As for offseason additions, the biggest need is quality depth. We need guys that can produce solid supporting numbers and when called up due to injury, because they always seem to happen, can fill a void and not make us one-dimensional.
Year after year the top performer at this position never changes. Jason “old reliable” Witten has been Tony Romo’s security blanket for quite some time now and his numbers this year were solid as always. Witten led the team with 79 receptions for 942 yards and five touchdowns. Had it not been for Jimmy Graham in New Orleans and Tony Gonzales in Atlanta having monster seasons, Witten would have punched his ticket to Hawaii. When it’s all said and done, he’ll be one of the top tight ends in the history of the NFL, but until that day he needs a quality supporting cast behind him in the depth chart. Martellus Bennett was suppose to be this ultra-athletic basketball playing tight end like Graham in the Big Easy. That has failed to come to fruition once again. Bennett put up a measly 17 catches for 144 yards this season. It may be time to move on from this experiment and give John Phillips a legitimate chance. And if there is a quality player in the Draft that would be a value pick, I say pull the trigger.
The tackle position was the only somewhat stable area on the offensive line last year. Doug Free seemed to struggle at times with speed-rushing ends and linebackers, but compared to the problems at guard and center, that was the least of our worries. Rookie Tyron Smith on the other hand was a beast. He got beat occasionally but we can chalk that up to youth and inexperience. If you watch him closely you would notice once he locked on to a guy it was over. Whether it ended in a pancake block or moving the guy clear out of the way it didn’t matter, once he got his hands on his guy he locked him down. Because of this, you would have to give him the nod as the top performer at the tackle spot.
Other than center, guard was the most difficult to select a top performer. There were so many different guard combinations that it was hard to keep track of. In the end Kyle Kosier gets the nod for his ability to help rookie Tyron Smith transition into the NFL and start week one. Moving Kosier from the left to right side made all the difference in the world for Smith because he had a veteran there to lean on when it came to line calls and protection schemes. Without Kosier there who knows how quickly Smith would have progressed. There is room for improvement here,to put it lightly. Everyone in the world has a different view of what Dallas should do to upgrade their interior line positions. We have young prospects in David Arkin and Bill Nagy that could be given a shot, we could use another high pick on a guard, or we could sign a pricy veteran. The thing to do here in my mind is to sign the proven commodity in New Orleans’ Carl Nicks. He’s the top lineman available in free agency, he’s a pro bowler and we may end up having the money to afford him. The only thing to keep in mind is he may not be available if New Orleans can find a way to keep him along with all of their other high-profile free agents.
Center is a definite weak spot on the Cowboys roster. Phil Costa took the majority of the snaps this year with mixed results. If I had to pick a top performer, and technically since this is a “top performers” post I guess I do, then I would have to reluctantly give Costa the nod. Not because he was stellar by any means, just because he was there and gave an effort. Now that I think about it let’s just label him a “performer.” Some may say, “give the kid a chance, it was only his first year.” Whenever I hear that I have walking nightmares of week three when Washington came to town and Costa found a way to rocket multiple snaps over Tony Romo’s head. Oh ya and Romo had to run after them with his broken rib and punctured lung. I think I’ll pass on Costa. My recommendation is to use a high draft pick on a center. The free agent crop is pretty slim with ultra-veterans like Matt Birk and Andre Gurode available, but I think with the mix of young guys and veterans projected to be on the roster we should go young and draft a center somewhere in the first three rounds. Guys like Peter Konz out of Wisconsin, who can play both guard and center, or even Philip Blake out of Baylor who blocked for Robert Griffin III. Any way you look at it I think it would be a mistake to stick with Costa.