Austin On Dallas: Positive Signs Highlight The Upcoming Second Season

Looking back over the first half of the season, a noticeable amount of bright spots were ominously darkened by an abundance of frustrations and letdowns.  For the most part it was an uneasy and uncomfortable experience watching these talented, yet floundering Dallas Cowboys.  

The Cowboys made three road trips to challenge teams that are currently the lead dog in their respective divisions.  To go into their house, defeat one soundly, and play the other two tooth and nail until the final minutes, makes it naive to claim these Cowboys aren’t worthy of the ‘talented’ label this year.

On the flip side embarrassing losses to Seattle and Chicago coupled with uninspired wins over Tampa Bay and Carolina, clearly exhibit the fact that this team is loaded with concerning issues.  The most costly culprit was Jason Garrett’s repeated, inexcusable lack of simple time management strategies.  That one alone likely resulted in 2 huge losses.

The often atrocious offensive line protection for Tony Romo forced him to constantly abandon down field vision to escape pressure, and then resume finding targets in a hurried, unreasonable time window.

Lackluster discipline from the inconsistent wide receivers sabotaged many crucial drives in big games.

The offense as a unit committed 61 penalties tying them for 4th worst in the NFL, and helped end many productive drives and/or erase solid field position.

Even constant serious injuries to key players ravaged the team all season.  Pick your deficiencies that caused those 5 losses as the list goes on and on, which meant at anytime one or a combination would strike and bury this squad.

A 3-5 record is no way to prepare for a legitimate run at a playoff berth.  The good news is those first 8 games are history.  There are 8 more games coming in the future, and this team has a real chance to reverse their lack of success.  Let’s take a look at several positive signs that will factor into the next 8 contests for the Dallas Cowboys.

 

1)  FIRST HALF SCHEDULE WAS UNFORGIVING

The current combined record of Dallas’ opponents in the first 8 games is an absurd 44-23.  5 of the 8 games were against teams leading their division and strongly poised to make the playoffs.  2 of the other 3 games involved teams legitimately in the wildcard race.  And finally, only 1 of the 8 games was played against a team currently with a losing record.

That’s an extremely brutal stretch for any NFL team to endure.  While 3-5 is an under-performing record by all means, one truly needs to put it into the context of what the Cowboys were facing.

 

2)  SECOND HALF SCHEDULE FAR LESS DAUNTING

Unlike the first 8 games, the combined record of the opponents in Dallas’ final 8 games is a docile 25-42. There is not one single division leading team in the group.  No NFC opponent has a better record than the Cowboys.  7 of the 8 games are very winnable, with the toughest of the 8 facing off against Pittsburgh on the Cowboys home field.

These 8 games are almost a 180 degrees turn in comparison to the first 8 games.  With this group no game is considered easy, at the very least victory is well within the Cowboys’grasp at the start of all of them.

 

3)  NFC EAST IS KEY PATH TO REDEMPTION

With 2 division games behind them, an honorable split with the division leading Giants, and the Giants already having two NFC east losses…the best record within the division is still on the line for Dallas.  The benefits received from going undefeated in the final 4 NFC East games cannot be overstated.  In doing so, it would give Dallas the best record in division play in case they catch the Giants.

It would almost certainly knock both Philadelphia and Washington out of the wildcard and division title chase in regards to a tiebreaker situation with the Cowboys.

If a race for the final wildcard slot does involve Dallas, just these four games would boost their NFC conference record and its tiebreaker potency by 4 games.

With 8 games left, Dallas would have only 4 remaining besides these NFC East games.  These games will be vs Cleveland, at Cincinnati, vs Pittsburgh, and vs New Orleans.  Splitting them 2-2 would give Dallas a respectable 9-7 record and decent chance at winning the final wildcard spot.

It would be hard to imagine a resurgent Dallas team losing more than 2 of those.  And also it would be quite possible to finish those off at 3-1 and claim a 10-6 record.  If Dallas were to somehow reach that mark, there is little doubt the playoffs would be the result.

So yes, all of the final games are crucial, yet winning out in the NFC East contests must take special importance as it is the strongest way to claim a wildcard spot or catch up to the Giants and win the division by tie breaker.  3 of these critical division games occur in the next 4 weeks.

If Dallas sweeps those and likely knocks off a punchless Browns team in two weeks, the Cowboys would be sitting poised and re-energized at 7-5 overall, 6-4 in the NFC, and 5-1 in the division.

 

3)  RETURN OF KEY PLAYERS FOR THE STRETCH RUN

Several of the first 8 games were played without the starter at tailback, center, safety, inside linebacker,  and nose tackle.  Along with those losses were injuries to other players that caused sporadic missed games or highly limited performance.  The vast number of injuries experienced by the Cowboys would create serious setbacks to the potency of any NFL team.

Case in point is the Baltimore Ravens.  After losing both their middle linebacker and best cornerback in the Dallas game, Baltimore was obliterated by 30 points the following week in Houston.  Their limping defense surrendered 420 total yards and 43 points.

DeMarco Murray

With Sean Lee and Barry Church out for the year, where is the good news you ask?  While those injuries won’t be recovered in the second half, others key players will in a short matter of time.  DeMarco Murray should rejoin the team in the next few weeks.

It’s no secret how much more effective the team is with Murray in the game.  Murray has 330 rushing yards on the season, while his next three replacements (Jones, Tanner, Dunbar) hold a combined total of 305 yards.  Murray even has 17 fewer carries than the total carries of those 3 backs.

Kevin Kowalski

Kevin Kowalski returns to practice this Wednesday after spending the entire season shelved on the PUP list.   With Dallas often struggling at center with Ryan Clark and/or Mackenzy Bernadeau at right guard, Kevin could make a huge impact by upgrading the interior offensive line.

Also of great benefit is the new flexibility created by Kowalski returning, as both he and Ryan Clark can play either center or guard. This would provide Bill Callahan the new luxury of replacing the center or guard with a capable substitute if the current starter was playing poorly.

It’s unknown how long it will take Kevin to join the gameday roster once he begins practicing, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Phil Costa

No one is really sure the extent of Phil Costa’s ankle injury in regards to how much time he will miss.  What is fairly certain is Costa will be re-joining the team at some point during the second half of the season. Combined with Kowalski’s return this could equate to a huge boost for the interior offensive line along with its depth.

 

4)  RECENT IMPROVEMENT OF KEY PLAYERS

Another encouraging sign entering the second half of the season is that many of the troublesome starters have begun to pick their game up substantially.

Offensive Line

Over the first 4 games both Doug Free and Mackenzie Bernadeau played like gigantic liabilities on the offensive line.  Neither player had one single game where he graded out above a negative rating.  This type of consistently poor play is unacceptable from any starting offensive lineman.

Over the last 4 games, both players made remarkable improvement.  Each graded positively in 3 of the 4 games, and the one game they both graded negative was by a very slight margin.

On the left side, Tyron Smith graded out negatively in 3 of the first 4 games, and just 1 of the next 4 games.

Nate Livings had a negative grade in only 1 of the first 4 games, and continued the trend with 1 negative grade in the second 4 games.

If these four starters can keep up their high level of recent improvements when Kowalski and Costa return, the offensive line could begin to be a real positive force instead of a liability.

Linebacker

When Sean Lee went down for the year a few weeks back, a collective sigh was heard exiting the lungs of Cowboys nation.  Sean Lee was no doubt producing a Pro Bowl worthy season.  It was quite obvious many Cowboys fans felt it was too large of a blow to overcome.

Bruce Carter eagerly slides over to Lee’s roll of defensive quarterback, and the second year player has done nothing but terrorize opposing offenses ever since.

Carter has been all over the field with amazing speed, quickness, and awareness that reminds me much of his fallen teammate.  It can’t be stressed enough how critical Bruce Carter’s high level of play has been for the Dallas defense in the wake of losing Sean Lee.

Also of note is the play of Ernie Sims who was recently out of football just a few weeks back, and now is starting for Dallas at the other inside linebacker.  While his play has not been without blemishes as should be expected, he has truly performed at a quality level that has softened the vicious blow of these crippling linebacker injuries.  Going forward Ernie Sims will certainly not be a weak link in the defense.

Jason Witten

It’s impossible to overlook the stellar play of future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten as of late.  Just in comparison, over the first 4 contests he caught 21 balls for 188 yards.  In the last 4 games Witten came on fire and easily trumped those totals with 37 catches for 350 yards, almost doubling his earlier production.

It is worth noting Jason was fighting off a tough, spleen injury that likely limited his production early on. However, looking at his recent totals, its obvious the injury is history and Witten is ready to help carry the Cowboys to the promised land.

 

5)  FRESH FACES BEGIN TO APPEAR

Dwayne Harris

The meltdown mistakes of Dez Bryant in the punt returner role finally became too absurd that the slow to act Cowboys realized they had to make a change.   The importance of a punt returner you can trust to make correct fielding decisions easily outweighs an explosive guy who consistently straps you with awful, possibly game changing mistakes.

Once Harris took over things began to look up.  He has 4 returns for 54 yards and 13.3 average yards per return.  In the 9 times he chose to field the punt, Dwayne has signaled fair-catch on 5…a sign of secure decision making.

In comparison, Dez Bryant has 12 returns (3 times as many), 66 yards, and a 5.3 yards average per return.

Harris has a full 8 yards per return over Bryant.  Not to mention of the 14 punts Dez chose to field, only 2 were fair caught…three less than Harris.  You can safely assume that means Dez was jeopardizing the outcome of the game in order to recklessly attempt a big run back.   Nice switch Dallas, just a tad late as usual.

Cole Beasley

Almost like clockwork, Kevin Ogletree has suffered a recent dive in production.  He’s resumed the lackluster attitude, weak effort, and poor concentration that kept him from being a valuable part of this team in the past. Ogletree had 17 catches for 221 yards over the first 4 games.

In the last 4 games he has flamed out with merely 7 catches for 123 yards.  Along with those 7 catches, he has 3 ridiculous drops in crucial points of close ballgames.  He did have a good game against Atlanta last week minus a big drop, yet the 4 weeks prior he’s been awful.

Last week Cole Beasley was said to be working into the receiver mix in practice.  As usual, we didn’t see much of Beasley in the game.  On the year, he has 19 total snaps under his belt with 3 receptions.  That’s an average of nearly a reception every 6 plays he’s been involved in.

If Jerry would somehow learn not to get beat over the head with subpar play before he makes a change, Beasely has the quickness, awareness, and solid hands to make a real big difference in the passing game going forward.

Lance Dunbar

This is a prime example of Jason Garrett failing to realize how inept the running game really is before he reluctantly added some new flare.  Lance Dunbar is a quick, scatback type who makes yards by dash cuts and quickly attacking the hole.  As small as the holes have been this year, he is exactly the type of guy you want to rotate into the mix with the bigger backs.

Going into last week versus Atlanta, Dunbar had 1 carry for 11 yards on the season.  Against the Falcons he added 8 carries for 26.  Which means on the year he has a 4.1 yards per carry average. This surpasses the ypc average of both Felix Jones and Phillip Tanner.

Yet even with DeMarco Murray down for a little while now, Dallas waited 8 games to utilize the unique skills of Dunbar.  Hopefully the Cowboys realize he has special skills that will even compliment Murray upon his return.

One more note on Dunbar, after Felix Jones averagely beat his head against the wall returning 11 kickoffs for 21.5 yards per, Lance was inserted in his role.  Since the switch Dunbar has return 9 kicks for 215 yards and a 23.9 average.  Almost a 2.5 yards increase in average, and also he has added an explosive element with posting a long of 44 yards, strongly outshining Felix’s long of 29 yards.

 

CONCLUSION 

While Dallas is currently eating dinner at the kid’s table with a unenviable 3-5 record, it’s easy to see there were some truly unforgiving circumstance they had to battle against.  In direct contrast, the next 8 weeks will provide many bright spots, legitimate reasons, and advantageous opportunities that will lend a supportive hand in their quest for a remarkable turn-around.

No game is a gimme with this team, and each win will take a strong team effort.  Yet looking at the remaining schedule and the many positive signs popping up,  I can easily envision the Cowboys closing out the season with 6 wins.

Such a vast turn-around would land them at 9-7 overall and in a probable dogfight for the final wildcard berth.

If by some force of nature they squeeze out 7 wins, the 10-6 final record should be enough to either win the division or guarantee a wildcard berth.

I concluded 3 weeks ago during the bye week that Dallas would be 3-5 at this point, and not quite out of the playoff hunt.  I’m also sticking with my belief that they snag 6 victories in the final 8 games, while securing a final record of 9-7.

Even with a solid 9-7  record, the team that will torch the Cowboys’ wildcard hopes and claim the final spot is Seattle (5-4). They hold the head-up win tiebreaker advantage, and also have an even easier remaining schedule including probable wins against N.Y Jets, Miami, Arizona, Buffalo, and St. Louis.

You never know in the NFL, teams suffer improbable losses on a weekly basis.  So while cheering the Cowboys on during the upcoming run of wins, don’t forget to put the voodoo curse of failure on the both the Giants and Seahawks each week as well.

COWBOYS 27 , EAGLES 23

 

 

 

 

 

Topics: Dallas Cowboys, Playoffs, Schedule

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