The talented Dallas Cowboys limped to an 8-8 record last season after losing four out of it’s final five games thereby narrowly missing the playoffs. And to make things worse, they did so after an impressive four game winning streak that saw them top the struggling NFC East division. With a new season on the horizon, hope again springs anew with exciting new players and a slightly altered coaching staff. But has the Cowboys’ real problem from last season been addressed? And if so, how?
Dallas lost five games last season after leading those games in the fourth quarter. It was the difference between an playoff-less 8-8 season and a 13-3 season with a playoff run. The Dallas Cowboys biggest problem is keeping fourth quarter leads.
It started in Week One when Dallas lead the New York Jets 24-10 early in the fourth quarter. After two disastrous plays by quarterback Tony Romo, the Jets ended up scoring 17 points and winning the game on a last second Nick Folk field goal. This curse would follow the Cowboys around for the rest of the season like a fowl stench.
After two narrow wins against the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins, the curse once again reared up it’s ugly head against the Detroit Lions. After leading 27-3 early in the third quarter, the Lions took advantage of Dallas’ mistakes and came back to win 34-30.
After the bye week, Dallas had another fourth quarter meltdown. This time, it was more generally expected since they gave perpetual league MVP Tom Brady five whole minutes to walk down the field and score to win the game. Similar meltdowns occurred later that season against the lowly Arizona Cardinals and the future champions, the New York Giants.
Now that we know what the Cowboy’s biggest problem was from last year, the question becomes has the franchise attempted to solve it in the off-season?
Actually, the main solution was sitting on the sidelines during the start of the last season and during the final four games of the year due to injury: Running Back DeMarco Murray. His ability to run the ball effectively late in the fourth quarter not only sealed wins for the Cowboys, but was probably the main reason Romo had his best statistical season of his career. It certainly wasn’t because of the young offensive line! It’s no coincidence that Dallas lost it’s final four games after losing Murray for the year with an ankle injury.
Murray’s bouts with injury were the biggest concern for teams drafting him out of college, and proved it out to be the case last year. Questions about his future health should have prompted the Cowboys to find a back-up plan in free agency or the draft. Unfortunately, Dallas failed to address this concern in both. In free agency, there seemed to be a lack of mid-level talent for cheap that Dallas is so fond of. And as for the draft, it was most likely not addressed because of the trade up to get corner back Morris Claiborne simply diminished their options. It was rumored they had an interest in first round pick Doug Martin, who eventually ended up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taken 31st overall in this year’s NFL Draft.
In the last year of his contract, running back Felix Jones once again finds himself playing the back up role. Injuries have cost Jones some of his quickness, speed, and last year, his starting job. The Cowboys seem content to play out the former first round pick contract instead of trading him for less value. Also returning from injury is Phillip Tanner, who showed flashes of potential last season both with and without his helmet on.
If the Cowboys are able to run the ball efficiently in the second half of games, that could go a long way in solving Dallas’ late quarter meltdowns. But with a backfield full of players with a vast history of injury, it could be deja vu in Big “D”.
This off-season was spent mainly on the defensive side of the ball. It’s no wonder after the debacle that was Rob Ryan’s defense in the second half of last season. After starting the year as the main reason the Cowboys won games, the defense began to breakdown at the mid-year point. Multiple injuries and a basic lack of communication/understanding of the playbook was blamed. That tends to happen when you try to implement an new defensive scheme during a strike shortened off-season. Now armed with two spanking new high-priced cornerbacks and a beefed up and younger overall defense, defensive coordinator Ryan will have an entire off-season to “tune his new engine”. Hopefully, we’ll see more of the defense that was hinted at early last season.
Finally, the lack of good receiver play and the loss of Laurent Robinson should be Dallas’ other concern. I say this understanding that the offensive line is a work in progress. They were young last year and I don’t see the O-line possibly getting any worse. But the lack of good, consistent play from Miles Austin and Dez Bryant has to be a screaming concern. Robinson was Romo’s safety net last season within that receiver core. Austin injured both hamstrings last year and never looked 100%. And Bryant seemed tired and just disappeared into coverage after the first quarter.
With Robinson now in Jacksonville, the media has been hyping the search for his replacement. But the real story should be how the Cowboys can get proper production out of Austin and Bryant. If those two players had produced as they were expected too, Robinson would have been an after thought. For that matter, he’d also probably still be on the team.
Fans should be paying special attention to the off-season training of both starting wideouts. As hard as it may be to believe, it could be this receiving duo that determines the fate of the 2012-13 season for your beloved Dallas Cowboys.