The Best Laid Plans
Dallas Cowboys tackle training camp with prototypical optimism but will this year really be different?
The Dallas Cowboys begin training camp in Oxnard, California on July 21, and along with the usual questions a team carries into the preseason, the biggest one might be “does anyone other than Jerry Jones believe this is a Super Bowl-winning team?”
Of course, it begins with what the team did this offseason. Beside the whole Josh Brent saga (which ended July 18 with his retirement), Tony Romo landed a six-year contract for $108 million, and the team curiously traded down at the draft to take Wisconsin center Travis Fredrick.
Because that's not exactly a traditional three-step success plan, Jerry went into used car salesman mode to assure fans that the team was headed in the right direction.
As always, the Cowboys are at their most interesting when football isn’t even the issue.
As always, the Cowboys are at their most interesting when football isn’t even the issue. Which brings us to now. Who, exactly, are the Cowboys in 2013? There’s a new defensive coordinator in Monte Kiffin after Rob “Wolfman” Ryan was shown the door, and with that comes a switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 defense.
Who knows, maybe the switch will help a defense that ranked No. 19 in yards per game, No. 24 in points per game and No. 27 in turnover margin at -13 with only seven interceptions, tied for worst in the league.
Last season's failure can’t all be pinned on the defense though — the offense did them no favors.
Tony Romo threw for more than 4,700 yards and 29 touchdowns, but those gaudy numbers were offset by 19 interceptions, many of them crippling and a major contribution to the woeful turnover margin.
But as maddening as Romo is at times, it’s difficult to be great without protection, and man was the protection bad. Romo was sacked 36 times and that number would’ve been even bigger if Romo wasn’t a first-rate scrambler. Of course, Romo's desire to make a broken play work leads to risky throws and interceptions. Optimism isn't always a good thing.
Hope springs eternal at Valley Ranch, where every season the Cowboys vow that this season will be different.
If the Cowboys are to succeed this year, the best way to do that is to make Romo do less, and the best way to do that is to establish the run. The Cowboys were second to last in 2012 in rushing, averaging 79.1 yards per game, a number so pitiful it speaks for itself.
Starting back DeMarco Murray is the kind of running back that oozes potential, a dangerous combination of speed and power that can abuse a defense. Unfortunately, he only carried the ball more than 20 times in five games. In those games, the Cowboys were 5-0 and Romo threw 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions. The Cowboys went 2-5 when he was under 20 touches, and just 1-3 when he was out with injury.
It’s not an Earth-shaking revelation that running the ball sets up the pass and allows the defense to rest. You just have to be able to actually do it. But Murray is oft injured and the line has been atrocious.
Rookie Joseph Randle from Oklahoma State is expected to provide relief for Murray, but if Murray goes down for any amount of time, the Cowboys are likely to fall back on a pass-heavy offense that’s been mediocre, despite the exceptional talent of Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten.
There’s only so much that an offense can do when it ignores half the playbook, which falls on head coach Jason Garrett's increasingly burdened shoulders. But with the addition of Frederick — who does come from lineman factory Wisconsin and is by all accounts a solid player — the hopeful rise of second-year guard Ronald Leary, and young players like David Arkin and Kevin Kowalski, there is hope that the offensive line can improve.
But then, hope springs eternal at Valley Ranch, where every season the Cowboys vow that they’ve learned from their past mistakes and that this season will be different. Recently, different means 9-7 or 8-8 records.
The schedule is ripe for success. The offensive line needs to focus on protecting Romo, who needs to focus on establishing the run and choosing his passes carefully. On the other side of the ball, the defense needs to focus on forcing turnovers, and the coaching staff needs to focus on developing rookies to provide depth to an aging roster.
With all that in motion, the Cowboys might actually have a shot at the division title and a long playoff run. Easy, right?