As training camp begins later this month for the Dallas Cowboys, the hype machine will soon be in full effect. From individual fan blogs all the way up to sites like ESPN-Dallas, we’ll once again begin to hear about how talented the Cowboys’ players are and about their chances for making it to the Super Bowl. But the fact is, this team is very similar to last year’s squad and in some ways worse. Don’t be surprised if Dallas is mediocre once again. They are basically the exact same squad with a new defensive playbook to learn. And that learning curve can be nasty.
The biggest non-change that has been the Cowboys’ biggest problem for the past few seasons is the offensive line. The only move to improve the line that’s been made so far was the addition of center Travis Frederick, Dallas’ number one draft pick this year. The line required a complete overhaul, and still does. Instead, the Cowboys re-signed troubled tackle Doug Free for half-price. And they seem satisfied to build from within, despite having enough cap room now to find additional help in free agency. If nothing changes, the Cowboys will be going into the 2013 season with the exact same offensive lineman as last year with the addition of an unproven rookie.
There are also major questions surrounding our defensive safety positions. During a recent poll, most Cowboys fans voted that they were not worried about this position. But I sure am. Four year starter Gerald Sensabaugh was released by the Cowboys in the off-season. After a quick look around in free agency, Sensabaugh decided to retire. Last year’s other starter, Barry Church returns from injury to reclaim his old job. Church, a three year veteran, was named the starter for the first time last year. And he then promptly suffered a season-ending injury in Week Three.
Outside of Church, the other starting safety position is a crap shoot, at best. Second year safety Matt Johnson is basically in his rookie year after suffering injuries last season that stopped him from even seeing the field. Free agent Will Allen was signed during the off-season, but he’s been mostly a career back-up in his previous nine seasons in the league. Danny McCray was re-signed to the team during the off-season as well, but that’s mainly due to his special teams play. And safety J.J. Wilcox was drafted in the third round of this year’s draft, but it’s a lot to expect a rookie to step up and fill that starters’ role.
Let’s face it, the Cowboys running game was terrible last season. (They ranked 31st in the NFL for Team Rushing Offense) And Dallas has done next to nothing to improve the situation. We already covered how the offensive line has had little to nothing done in the way of improvements. The same could be said for the offensive back-field. Starting running back DeMarco Murray is going into his third year without having played a full season yet due to injury. Both Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar are still very unproven and neither has shown any evidence that they might be future starter material. And veteran back Felix Jones was lost to free agency and replaced with fifth round pick Joseph Randle out of Oklahoma State. Despite there being some big name free agents available, Dallas seems satisfied sitting on their hands and working with the players they have. Unless you think the rookie Randle will be a big improvement over Felix Jones, then this group is either the same or even slightly worse then last year. I wouldn’t expect much more out of running game this season.
Finally, in one of the ways the team has actually gotten worse is by introducing a new defensive scheme. The Cowboys fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan this off-season, after only two seasons. They then hired defensive guru Monte Kiffin, who will now bring in his Tampa 2 base defense. The Cowboys will also transition from the 3-4 defense to the 4-3. The change could ultimately be great for the team, but as of now it’s simply a new defense to learn and new schemes to adjust too. Anytime you change player positions and their entire gameplan, there is always a transitional period. These players need time to acclimate to these new terms, positions and calls. After two years learning and adjusting to Rob Ryan’s defense, we now bring in an entirely different scheme to learn. We should expect to see some early mistakes and communication issues, like we did two seasons ago under Ryan. This learning curve could easily sink the Cowboys’ season.
The major change the Cowboys made in the off-season was to the coaching staff. But how much of a difference on the field will we see from those changes? No one knows. But don’t fall for all the hype you’ll hear in the next couple of months. In many ways, this is the exact same group of players from last year. The one main difference is now half of them have a new playbook to learn and, some of them, a new position to play. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence when that same group went 8-8 the last two seasons and failed to make the playoffs.