The 2013 season was the Cowboys third 8-8 season in a row. In today’s parity driven NFL an 8-8 record is not an indication of a bad team, just an average one. But who can accept their team just being average? Not me, not you and not anyone that is a true Cowboys fan. So what is this team to do to get out of this rut?
The Cowboys are an above average offensive team, but that is sometimes obscured by their tendency to self-destruct. One can certainly point to positive improvement by this team when it comes to penalties, which were way down in 2013. But that does not mean they don’t still make mistakes. Typical mistakes in 2013 were receivers not seeing the same thing as quarterback Tony Romo and being at a different spot than he expected. More interceptions occurred from this type of mistake than for any other reason. And then there is the occasional fumble when the ball carrier does not hang on to the ball well enough to prevent a fumble.
Most mistakes on offense though, I would blame on coaching. You know, things like forcing the pass about 50 times in a game where running back DeMarco Murray is running well and continuing to pass in games when they have a big lead and should run to eat up clock and shorten the game, keeping the other team from having time to mount a comeback. We received explanations for such behavior, such as wanting to remain aggressive. But if you are being aggressive and not scoring points, then you are much better off not being so aggressive and at least eating up the clock while you are not scoring points.
We also saw this last season that the Cowboys receivers struggle with press coverage. The solution is to move receivers around either putting them in motion, or in the slot. They were successful doing these types of things last season, but should have done more of it. The only reason I can see that they didn’t do more of this, as well as using the hurry-up offense to their advantage, is the rigidity of head coach Jason Garrett. He just doesn’t seem to be very innovative and exhibits unconditional love for his existing offensive scheme as it is, with no tweaks or new innovations. So, in conclusion, the players need to continue to try to play mistake free football and the coaches need to be more open minded.
If they are to get out of this rut though, the bigger challenge is on defense. Last season’s record setting defense was the worst the Cowboys have ever had, because the records set were for things like the most yardage and first downs allowed. Who knew that letting Rob Ryan go as defensive coordinator and replacing him with 73 year old Monte Kiffin would be such a monumental mistake? After all, the 3-4 defense under Rob Ryan was hardly taking the ball away from opponents and Kiffin’s Tampa-2 defense in years past had quite a reputation for takeaways. In retrospect, if they were going to fire Ryan anyway, perhaps he should have been replaced with another 3-4 coach.
Whoever made the decision though, whether it was owner and general manager Jerry Jones, or Garrett, it was not well thought out. Going from 3-4 to 4-3 was enough of a change to try to implement in and of itself, but do you really want to take good press cornerbacks and turn them into zone corners? If asked I would surely have said no, but I wasn’t asked. And the result was an unmitigated disaster with good press corners looking lost playing zone as opposing offenses rack up record yardage against them.
The success of this defensive scheme is predicated on a very good pass rush, so another mistake was made as Dallas decided to stand pat, instead of acquiring more defensive lineman in free agency or the draft. The change in scheme also affected the linebackers as they appeared lost all season when covering the pass. This team did improve greatly in takeaways, finishing somewhere around third in the NFL. And it was indeed takeaways that made the difference in most of the games won by the Cowboys. But when they weren’t getting takeaways, this defense looked as terrible as it was.
So, in conclusion, the defense was the reason for most of last season’s losses and must improve if they are to get out of this rut. What do they need to do? First fire or re-assign Kiffin and promote defensive line coach Rod Marrinelli to defensive coordinator. Then Marrinelli can run his modified version of the Tampa-2 that relies heavily on press coverage by the corners, much like what he ran in Chicago with great success. They must also use free agency and the draft to shore up a depleted defensive line.
On both sides of the ball, the Cowboys must rid themselves of expensive players that are not playing up to the level the team deserves for what they are paying them. Successful teams don’t reward players with big paychecks as their careers start declining, they cut them. If the Cowboys will make some hard choices in this area they will have a younger, more aggressive and less expensive team. Continuing to re-do contracts year after year to stay under the salary cap will cause the team to continue to struggle as it leaves them unable to fill needs in free agency.
In addition, these highly paid players with declining skills stand in the way of younger talented players getting on the field. Does anyone at this point think that the Cowboys are better with Miles Austin on the field at the receiver position than Terrance Williams? Austin needs to be cut, as well as DeMarcus Ware on defense, the difference is that Ware’s replacement isn’t on the roster yet.
The Cowboys can fix their problems and be a better team for it. What it will take is some creativity and the willingness to make some hard decisions.