Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Choke: Dallas Cowboys Season Preview **Updated**

2008 record: 9-7

In our preview last season, we said, "If this team starts struggling, the tempers may erupt and this team might go down in flames. They have a fairly easy schedule so this shouldn't be an issue. The only "difficult" portion of the schedule comes as the calendar turns to December with games against Seattle, Pittsburgh, and the Giants. However, only the Pittsburgh game is on the road, giving the Cowboys an advantage heading into 'choke in the playoffs again' season." Well, the Cowboys didn't even get to the "choke in the playoffs again" season last year. They traded for Roy Williams from Detroit, who was supposed to be the answer across from T.O. and turned into a complete flop. Felix Jones and Marion Barber both had injury problems last season, but Tashard Choice showed he was a capable reserve, though he won't likely see playing time this season unless Jones or Barber goes down again.

The Cowboys had an unreal 12 draft picks in this past draft, all of which came on day 2. Of these, they used 7 on defensive players, 4 of those on the secondary. It's no secret where the weakness in the Dallas defense is. Outside of two guys in Pittsburgh, DeMarcus Ware might be the best pass-rushing outside linebacker in the league. He racked up 20 sacks last year and anchored a very solid front 7 for Dallas. The Cowboys defense, as amazing as this is, ranked 8th in the league and was the lowest ranked defense from the NFC East. Mull that one over for a minute. All four NFC East teams had top 8 defenses last year. Dallas led the league with 59 sacks last season, but finished 30th in interceptions. If quarterbacks got passes off, chances are they were going to be complete. Dallas also picked up DE Igor Olshansky (formerly of San Diego) via Free Agency to replace former starter Chris Canty, who signed with the division-rival Giants.

But everyone knows that defense isn't where the Cowboys earn their stars. Jerry Jones loves his offense, and offense is what has defined the Cowboys. The cutting of T.O. was a step in the right direction for the team, but one has to wonder who is going to replace him. T.O. was responsible for 1/3 of the passing touchdowns Dallas scored last year, with 10. Behind him, the next closest receivers were Patrick Crayton, Jason Witten, and Marcellus Bennett with 4 each. In his 10 games with Dallas last year, Roy Williams had 19 catches and only 1 touchdown. Now, they expect him to elevate his game back to his not-tipping-the-delivery-man days. This is possible, but you have to wonder where the points are going to come from.

Last season, Dallas was 4th in the league in passing TD's with 29 and 23rd in the league in rushing TD's with only 12. The offense averaged 1.36 passes for every rush last season. With Tony Romo still at the helm, one has to think that they're going to try to keep winning through the air. And with the receiving corps that they're sporting (Williams, Crayton, Miles Austin, and Jason Witten), you have to wonder how successful they can be. Crayton and Austin have both proven to be capable #3 receivers, and we shall see if they can take the step up into the #2 role. Witten is one of the best tight ends in the game, but his stats fell off by about 1 reception per game and 12 yards per game. He also pulled in 3 fewer TD's last season than he did in 2007.

When healthy, Dallas' running game is wicked. Smasher Marion Barber, coupled with blazer Felix Jones, made a lethal combo early last season. However, when Jones went down with a toe injury, the team relied more heavily on Barber and, inevitably, found him on the bench with an injury as well. Dallas has a very good offensive line, and if the coaching staff is smart, they'll shift to a New York Giants/Tennessee Titans-style offense this year, where running the ball takes priority. With Barber, Jones, and Choice in the backfield, this team should be able to be dynamic enough in the run game to use the run to set up the pass, rather than vice-versa as they have in the past.

If the Cowboys start relying on Romo to win games for them, they might be in trouble. Their defense is good enough to keep them in games, but their 1-3 limp to the finish last year has to be troubling. Dallas QB's (Romo and Brad Johnson) out-passed their opponents in 12 of 16 games last season, but the Cowboys were only 6-6 in those games, including a 34-14 loss to the lowly Rams. Cowboys RB's (Barber, Jones, Choice) were the leading rushers in 11 games, and the Cowboys sported a 9-2 record in those contests. I think the solution is blatantly clear here. The Cowboys need to run to win, but they're too caught up in their passing game (though this may change now that "15 passes thrown my way in a game isn't enough" T.O. is gone).

Ian's Prediction: 6-10

Dallas gets the NFC South and AFC West on the schedule this year. Once again, the NFL schedule-makers didn't do the Cowboys any favors after Thanksgiving. The 'boys close with @NY Giants, San Diego, @New Orleans, @Washington, Philadelphia. Division games in December are always dangerous, no matter the quality of the opponent, particularly in the NFC East. Dallas could legitimately lose all 5 games after they shellac the Raiders on Thanksgiving. The beginning of the schedule is relatively easy with Tampa, the new stadium opener against the Giants, Carolina, Denver, and Kansas City. It's not unthinkable that the Cowboys could go into their Week 6 bye with only 1 or 2 losses. However, the schedule gets tougher from there, and they will be hard-pressed to win many more games the rest of the season. As I've said, they have the defense to keep them in games, but if they keep focusing on the passing game over the ground attack, they're going to be in trouble after Turkey Day and might be making a top-10 selection in next year's draft.

John's Prediction: 9-7

The Cowboys have a pro-bowl QB, one of the deepest running back corps in the league, a potential top-10 wide receiver, one of the best tight ends, and an extremely talented, albeit quickly declining, O-line. However, most people no longer feel the offense is up to the task of making a super bowl run. Arguments abound as to whether getting rid of T.O. was a good move. From a production standpoint, only time will tell, but there is no doubt chemistry will vastly improve, and Tony Romo can finally assume full leadership and command of the offense. As long as offensive coordinator Jason Garrett can find enough touches to properly utilize his three-headed running back monster, the offense should be more than potent enough. I'm not as high on the Dallas defense as most people. The loss of Chris Canty puts even more pressure on Ware to make big plays. Olshansky is a solid replacement, but is by no means a pass-rusher, while Marcus Spears is rapidly becoming a first-round bust. Fortunately, the Cowboys have great potential and production at linebacker with Ware, the ultra-consistent Bradie James, former Falcons' star Keith Brooking, and 2007 first-rounder Anthony Spencer. Bobby Carpenter, another apparent first-round bust, can still provide solid depth. Gone from the secondary is yet another top pick failure in Roy Williams (sensing a trend yet?). Injuries will be the key to this group. If Terence Newman and Ken Hamlin can stay healthy, the secondary should be able to put up a respectable performance. If not, the whole defense will suffer. Much like the Redskins, the Cowboys have the talent to win more games than they actually will. The brutal post-Thanksgiving schedule, along with some early hiccups, will result in another eight or nine win campaign.

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