What a great time of year. The hot summer is coming to an end, giving way to cool fall weekends and football, football, football. This is the time of year where football fans everywhere declare, “This is our year!” With so many predictions and prognostications as to how well the Dallas Cowboys will do this season, it’s easy to get caught up and carried away. As a Dallas Cowboy fan you are almost required to “drink the kool-aid” every season. Each year at this time you set your expectations high and jump in head first. This annual tradition is almost a requirement. While optimism is essential in virtually all obsessive fandom, a little reality it also an important fixture. Face it, this 2012 Dallas Cowboys team has a plethora of questions and concerns entering week 1 of the NFL season. It’s not only a wise thing, but it’s our duty to look at some of this and interject a little reality into our very high hopes.
The Cowboys play in arguably the most difficult division in the NFL. While they have clearly improved this off season so have the other 3 teams in the division. Improvement alone does not win this division, much more is needed for success here.
Front Office and Coaching
It’s important to start from the top down. It appears the talent was properly evaluated in the NFL draft. It was concerning when the team committed to follow the Right Kind of Guy model. This model scared many who feared the Cowboys are passing on too much talent in order to meet the character requirements Jason Garrett was insisting upon. It seems a balance has been found and this model may be a perfect road map for long-term success. In addition, Jerry Jones seems fully invested in Garrett as the head coach. Stability like this is paramount in building a team.
Rob Ryan seems to have successfully installed much of his defense. He is no doubt leaving a great deal out of our sight so he can surprise unsuspecting regular season opponents. Entering Week 1, confusion in the starting unit has been rare which is a substantial departure from last year when the defense gave up big plays on a weekly basis. In any complex defense assignments will be missed but at this point the defense is appearing to be a strength rather than a weakness.
As a whole, the groundwork is here but tangible results and continued success need to be seen to be thought of any higher than just a slightly above average front office and coaching staff.
Front Office and Coaching Grade: C+
The pass-rush has long been seen as one-dimensional with DeMarcus Ware providing almost 50% of the team’s sacks. In no way can we expect Ware to keep this pace going so it’s been refreshing to see potential from Victor Butler. Butler always had pass-rush skills but he now has learned to defend the run. His poor run defense made him a liability and was keeping him off the field. Now there is no excuse. He can provide rest for DeMarcus Ware and also replace Anthony Spenser on more than just select passing downs. He is no longer a risk on the edge and needs to prove he can replace Spenser full time next year.
OLB Grade: A-
Jay Ratliff has been on the decline the past couple years and needs Josh Brent to step up and provide a 50/50 rotation at the NT. Brent had a camp of mixed results but has the ability to be a starting NT in this league. It appears he will be given every opportunity and if the last preseason game said anything, he’s ready to accept the challenge. If Brent can keep Ratliff fresh we could see a resurgence in production. Hatcher appears ready to break out with a fairly good season. It’s strange to see a breakout season this far into a players career but it’s certainly possible. Sean Lissemore has a decent amount of potential and versatility. The question with him is with increased playing time will he fall victim to diminishing returns? Expect to see increased playing time for Sean but do not expect him to put up Pro Bowl numbers. A reasonably optimistic expectation is to see Ratliff, Hatcher, and Lissemore combine for roughly 14 sacks. Considering the same three combined for only 8.5 sacks last year, that would be a substantial improvement. With Ratliff’s decline, no Pro Bowlers will exist on the DL in 2012. Sean and Jason have potential to be good but more than that would be quite a stretch. Expect an improvement over last year’s performance across the line.
DL Grade: C+
Sean Lee is a playmaker at ILB – that much is sure – but he will need to stay healthy the entire year if he wants to reach his first Pro Bowl. Bruce Carter also has Pro Bowl potential but enough hasn’t been seen from him to definitively say what difference he will make this early in his career. As with most first time starters, except growing pains with Carter early in the season. Dan Connor provides stability. He’s a liability in the pass game but he provides valuable insurance throughout the season. Because of injuries and packages, expect Connor to have almost equal playing time to Bruce Carter.
ILB Grade: B
The secondary will no doubt have ups and downs. Brandon Carr is a physical press cover corner who should fit Rob Ryan’s schemes nicely. But with that style, come big plays both for and against you. Carr has given up his share of deep balls in the past. It is sure to happen again. The difference is he will make many more positive plays than negative plays in 2012. Consider his 2012 season a success. On the other side Morris Claiborne will have some tough times ahead. Rookie corners are rarely successful the first year and Mo will be no different. He will prove to be a playmaker almost immidiatly but
Ryan will need to work on him all year to limit his mistakes.
Mike Jenkins can go 1 of 2 ways. He can protect himself for his upcoming free agency and play cautiously or he can put together his best
season and show why he deserves the big money. If you know the answer to this you are a better man than I. It was no doubt a smart decision to keep Mike given the propensity cornerbacks have to injury but I don’t think we can afford to hinge our hope on his effort. Orlando Scandrick is someone we need to support. Scandrick must play better this season to justify his contract. Because of his contract structure, he can be cut next off season with a minimal penalty if he doesn’t improve. He knows this so expect him to step up a least a little. He’s been the secondary’s version of Anthony Spenser. He’s always close but never really makes the play. This needs to change.
Cornerback Grade: B
Barry Church looks the part doesn’t he? He provides big plays with big hits and solid pass defense. He doesn’t possess superior talent but he has an intangible knack for the ball dating back to college. He won’t be Ed Reed but he will finally offer some stability to our Safety spot. Brandon Carr will be the brains of the Secondary but Church will be the heart. Sensabaugh will continue to be an average safety providing a level of stability to a secondary undergoing major changes.
S Grade: C+