Second verse same as the first for the 2013 Dallas Cowboys
By Matthew Postins
To prepare to write this year’s season-ending essay on the 2013 Dallas Cowboys, I went back and read last year’s season-ending essay. To quote the Australian songwriter Peter Allen, “everything old is new again.”
The parallels between 2012 and 2013 must be eerie, maddening and ultimately deflating to Cowboys fans.
Once again the Cowboys were inconsistent. Once again the Cowboys were pounded by injuries. Once again they had magnificent wins and maddening losses. Once again, the Cowboys had hope in Week 17, a chance to claim the NFC East and a playoff berth, and they lost. For the third straight year. For the fourth time in six years.
I’d say it’s a broken record, but you know they don’t really make records anymore. An iPod stuck on repeat, maybe? Perhaps that’s a better analogy for our time.
Let’s start with the beginning of this past offseason. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he would make things “uncomfortable” around Valley Ranch. For once, it looked as if Jones might be serious. He fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and remade the defense into a 4-3 unit, hiring legendary Monte Kiffin to install his Tampa 2 defense. Meanwhile, rumors persisted that head coach Jason Garrett would have to give up his play-calling duties and Jones allowed those rumors to twist in the wind for months. It should be noted that when we finally learned that Bill Callahan would call plays this year it was Jones who let the cat out of the bag during a mini-camp practice. He forgot to tell his head coach, apparently, leaving Garrett to take gut shots during an uncomfortable press conference.
If things were uncomfortable for the coaching staff, Jones went to great pains to keep the players relaxed, and no one benefited more than quarterback Tony Romo, who netted a contract extension worth more than $100 million, including $55 million in guaranteed money. A wise investment? More on that later.
Jones lured no serious free agents during the offseason because he had no money to spend. He pinned his hopes on the draft and, in typical Jerry style, he had to make it a show. Trading out of the Cowboys’ No. 18 overall pick and down to No. 31, Jones did so to draft center Travis Frederick. Jones was widely panned for the move, as many draft experts said Frederick could have been had in the second round. Of course, it turns out that Frederick slipped right into the starting lineup and contributed immediately.
After the draft Karma started chipping away. Romo missed most of the offseason program after back surgery for a cyst. Defensive tackle Jay Ratliff was trying to recover from a sports hernia. Both of last year’s starting guards, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, were seriously banged up as well.
Then came training camp and things got worse. Allowing Ratliff to take the conditioning test was a mistake. He suffered another setback and never took the field. Defensive end Tyrone Crawford, expected to be a serious contributor, tore his Achilles the first day of workouts and was lost for the season. That became compounded by the loss of end Anthony Spencer in September. He missed most of camp with knee surgery and then re-aggravated the injury against Kansas City, ending his season. By then Ratliff was on the physically unable to perform list and the Cowboys were down to DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and a bunch of guys.
Like the 2012 opener, the Cowboys started the 2013 season looking like a team that had finally figured it out. The defense forced a whopping six turnovers against the New York Giants. Romo looked composed and, more importantly, in tune with reducing mistakes in the 36-31 victory.
But, just like 2012, it was just a tease. Perhaps the margin of victory – five points – in a game the Cowboys clearly dominated should have been a warning.
The Cowboys went to Kansas City the following week and lost by a point. By the time Denver came to town in Week 5 the Cowboys were 2-2. That game seemed to change everything for the 2013 season.
The Broncos won, 51-48, but it was a wild afternoon at AT&T Stadium. Peyton Manning made Kiffin’s Cover 2 look less stable than a house made of Legos. But as good as Manning was, Romo was actually better. He matched the future Hall-of-Famer pass for pass and had the first 500-yard passing game of his career. But you probably don’t remember that. You remember the interception Romo threw late in the game that led to Denver’s game-winning field goal.
From that moment, things seemed to change, even though the Cowboys won five of their next seven games. Romo’s numbers declined. He was efficient and he played as mistake-free as ever had in his career. That’s what the Cowboys asked of him and that’s what he delivered, for the most part. But it seemed like after that Denver game Romo was almost exhausted. His completion percentage trended down. So did his quarterback efficiency rating.
But more damning was the defense, which after the win over Philadelphia seemed to crater to nothing. The following week the Cowboys went to Detroit. The defense forced four turnovers but allowed Calvin Johnson to have 327 receiving yards. Their inability to stop the pass was the Cowboys’ undoing that afternoon and they lost by a point for the second time, and choked up a double-digit lead while doing so.
The defense gave up yards in dizzying clips. They were the first unit in NFL history to give up at least 600 yards in a game twice in a season. They allowed 40 first downs to New Orleans in a Sunday night game. That was a NFL record. Kiffin’s scheme was betrayed by injuries, the inability of some of his personnel to grasp the system and, at times, his own inflexibility.
But the biggest miscalculation wasn’t Kiffin’s. It was Jones’. Jones did nothing to prop up his defensive line, aside from giving $10 million to Spencer, coming off a contract year. By Week 3 Spencer was done. Ratliff was released in October in a contentious battle with team ownership over the extent of his injury, Ratliff’s supposed desire to rehab on his own and his ability to pass a physical. Of course, Ratliff was a Chicago Bear a couple of weeks later. Meanwhile, Ware played below expectations and battled injuries throughout the season, leading to whispers that Ware might be done. By the end of the season the Cowboys had used a team-record 19 defensive linemen.
And yet they hung in there, winning three out of four games in November to regain the NFC East lead. Romo and the Cowboys are money in November. But, as usual, they were chump change in December.
Start with the loss to Chicago on Dec. 9 with 10 days off and a defense that was healthy as it had been since September. The Cowboys looked as if they were not ready to play. They made backup quarterback Josh McCown look like Aaron Rodgers. The Bears carved them up and sent them home.
But it was OK because Green Bay was coming to town without Rodgers the next week. Surely that would work in Dallas’ favor. For a half, it did. The Cowboys led 26-3 at halftime. Heck, the Cowboys led 29-10 late in the third quarter.
Then came the most epic collapse in Cowboys history, stunning in both its rapidity and its apparent incompetence. The Cowboys refused to milk the clock and hand the ball to a resurgent DeMarco Murray and instead threw the ball like they were the team 19 points behind. The strategy set the Cowboys up to fail and Romo obliged with two fourth-quarter interceptions.
Then came the great deconstruction of one play in recent Cowboys history. The first Romo interception, picked off by the Packers’ Sam Shields, led to Garrett, uncharacteristically, telling reporters that Romo checked out of the run play and into a pass play. Romo copped to it. Questions arose as to why the Cowboys were even giving Romo the option to throw in the first place. Callahan blew off reporters after the game and finally talked on Thursday. After 10 minutes of consistent questions about the play, play-calling, Romo and Garrett, Callahan looked at them all and said. “This is crazy.”
No, Bill, it’s just Dallas.
The Cowboys needed a win in Week 16 to stay alive and they delivered. Romo led a nine-point comeback in the fourth quarter. Never mind that it came against a team that had three wins this season. Romo did it, dag-nabbit, leading his third come-from-behind victory of the season. But it came at a price.
Romo’s elusiveness led to his undoing. Spinning out of a sack to buy time, Romo hurt his back. We now know that he needed surgery for what was likely a herniated disk. But the Cowboys masterfully obfuscated for five days, trying to keep the Eagles on their heels as they prepared for another winner-take-all matchup in Week 17. But we all knew it would be Kyle Orton starting against the Eagles.
For 58 minutes, Orton looked like a savior. He played one of the best games of his career. With two minutes left he had the chance to join the pantheon of great Cowboys backup quarterbacks, his head coach among them.
But then Orton threw the interception that ended the season. Like the player ahead of him on the depth chart, he made a killer mistake when it mattered most.
So here we are again – 8-8 and it feels so familiar.
Was their good this season? Sure. Dez Bryant built on a tremendous 2012 and had a Pro Bowl season in 2013. Sure, there was some “positive passion,” as Bryant likes to put it, but you have to take it right now. Left tackle Tyron Smith earned his first Pro Bowl berth and is growing into one of the top left tackles in the NFL. Murray had the Cowboys’ first 1,000-yard rushing season since 2006 and proved that, for the most part, he can handle the load. He rushed for 1,174 yards and caught 53 passes for 350 yards. He only missed two games with injuries. Maybe he’s more durable than we thought. Linebacker Sean Lee proved he’s worth the extension he signed, but the Cowboys have to keep him healthy. He’s too important to this defense. Orlando Scandrick was the team’s most consistent corner all season long. Dan Bailey proved, for the second straight year, that he’s worth a contract extension, too. Along with Frederick, third-round pick Terrance Williams proved to be a real find. Sixth-round pick DeVonte Holloman might be worth something too, if his 2-sack, 11 tackle performance against the Eagles is an indication.
But there are storm clouds, as always. Romo’s back surgery is concerning. There’s no way of knowing how his body will react to his second back surgery in eight months and the Cowboys are tethered to him, thanks to that huge contract. More concerning is that Jones doesn’t seem to be concerned about Romo’s back. Jason Hatcher, the team’s best defensive lineman this season, seems intent on testing free agency, saying “I really don’t care if I go or stay.” So perhaps it’s best to let him go. The Cowboys are $31 million over the salary cap and sport a roster with a core of talent that is no longer on the right side of Father Time. There will likely be staff changes again, changes that Garrett probably won’t get to make himself, of course.
Garrett enters the final year of his contract in 2014. It would be fair, for once, to give Garrett the reins and allow him to write his own ticket for 2015 and beyond. But I’ll be honest – I saw little this season that leads me to believe that Garrett has grown enough as a head coach to take advantage of what he has.
Of course, it would help if his team showed some growth too. Too many missed opportunities, too many lost leads, too many mistakes to count.
How uncomfortable will Jones make things in 2014? Actually, the better question is whether it really matters.