With only one game remaining before the first quarter of the 2012 NFL Season is closed out, let’s take a closer look at this year’s Cowboys. The upcoming Monday Night Football at home against the Chicago Bears will be a big game. It will be an opportunity for the winner to stay atop of their respective division. For the Cowboys, it will also represent an opportunity to regroup with a 75% winning percentage heading into their bye week. Starting in week six, the Cowboys will embark on their most difficult four game stretch of the season. In succession, they will face the following teams:
Week 6 @Baltimore
Week 7 @Carolina
Week 8 vs. New York Giants
Week 9 @Atlanta
With a tough stretch like this, the Cowboys will need to do what championship teams do: Win your home games. Now, I want to lay out some interesting facts three games into the 2012 campaign.
The defense has been the bright spot of this year’s team. While injuries have put starting safety Barry Church on the IR, and Jay Ratliff has yet to play, injuries are a part of the game. This year’s performance was what Cowboy fans had hoped to see in 2011, however, Rob Ryan just simply did not have the time to fully implement his defense due to the lockout. This year it has been a different story, with a full offseason to teach the players and get them to buy in to what he was teaching. Currently they lead the league in yards allowed per game at 250. They are also tied for seventh in points allowed at 54, which is an average of 18 a game. The opponents 3rd down conversion percentage is only 29%, which is 5th best in the league and shows that they are slowing down the opponents and giving the ball back to the offense. The performance of the offense, unfortunately, is another issue altogether.
The offense, in short, has been just offensive. The Cowboys rank last in the league in points scored with just 47 so far on the season. They also rank in the bottom half of the league in yards per game at only 342. At the same time, they have a total 31 offensive penalties, which is 2nd highest in the league.
With a top 10 quarterback (Romo), a top 15 running back (Murray), and a top 10 receiving corp (Bryant, Austin, Witten), this really is unacceptable. However, when taking a deeper look, the following must be considered:
1) Lack of continuity between the quarterback and receiving corp – Miles Austin missed the entire preseason with his hamstring issue. Jason Witten basically got one quarter of work in preseason game 1 at Oakland before he took the hit that ruptured his spleen. Bryant got to play in the first two preseason games, barely, but then was held out afterwards due to injury fears. These guys will get better, and play more up to their capabilities as the season progresses.
2) Lack of continuity on the offensive line – Tyron Smith and Doug Free switched spots this offseason with Smith now on the left side and Free on the right. The Cowboys signed two “ok” guards in the offseason in Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, and both missed a lot of time in camp and the preseason with injuries. The projected starting center, Phil Costa, has had back troubles, played in only the final preseason game against Miami, and only a few plays against the New York Giants in the season opener. The current starter at center, Ryan Cook, wasn’t even on the team until 6 days before the Giant’s game.
The offensive line’s first real game action together was Week 1 in New York. This line is flux, and must be given time to come together. Bill Callahan is well regarded around the NFL as an offensive line teacher. Hopefully he can help this unit become more cohesive before they get Tony Romo killed. His elusiveness is a great tool, but if your quarterback keeps taking the hits Romo has, he won’t be around for the entire season.
3) Stay with the running game – The Cowboys are near the near the bottom of the NFL with only 65 rushing attempts this season. Although I have long questioned Jason Garrett’s play calling ability, he must stick with the rushing attack and not be so quick to give it up. With a back like Murray, he needs his touches to get it going and wear the defense down. Staying with the rushing attack will also limit the exposure on the under-performing offensive line until they get their issues worked out. The defense must always get the running game under control first, and if the opposing defense had to focus on this, it would help protect Romo.
When Joe DeCamillis was brought to Dallas to take over the Special Teams Unit, he came highly regarded. Unfortunately, his unit has never quite played up to expectations. Coverage on kickoffs and punts has been good for the most part. However, the short comings are showing up when the team punts. Punt blocks are something we don’t see a whole lot of in the NFL. For the Cowboys, they have had two blocks returned for touchdowns in successive seasons (Week 1 in 2011 @ NYJ, Week 2 in 2012 @Sea) that altered the course of each game in which they ended up losing. With their inability to punt block this past Sunday, they got Chris Jones hurt, and the Cowboys had to go sign 36-year old Brian Moorman for insurance. These issues have got to be fixed.
The last time the Chicago Bears visited Dallas was September 19, 2010. I was at that game, and the Bears won 27-20. The Bears fans took over the stadium in the second half, and specifically the fourth quarter. It felt like Soldier Field, not Cowboys Stadium, and in all of my years attending Cowboys games, I only have left two early. This was one of them. I will be at the game on Monday, and am hoping the Cowboys give the Bears some payback for two years ago.
Follow Craig Cortemeglia on Twitter at @ccortemegliaTLH