Five things the Dallas Cowboys had to address this offseason to become a playoff team re-visited
By Matthew Postins
Earlier this year, RattleandHumSports.com pointed out five things that had to change for the Dallas Cowboys to jump from average team to playoff team. As the Cowboys prepare for the regular season, we revisit those points to see if the Cowboys are poised for improvement or not.
Point 1: Run the football more often
Summary: The Cowboys passed the ball 64.9 percent of the time in 2012. Part of that was due to injuries at running back and on the offensive line. Some of that was dictated by the games themselves. The Cowboys were next to last in the NFL in rushing attempts, total yardage gained and yards per carry last season.
What the Cowboys have done since January? The Cowboys installed a new play-caller in offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, who has a track record for running the football more than Garrett. The Cowboys drafted a running back, Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle, in the fifth round. Randle is similar in build to the starter, DeMarco Murray, and the Cowboys hope he can take some of the heat off Murray in 2013. The Cowboys drafted a center, Travis Frederick, to help improve the interior blocking.
In preseason: Dallas was No. 6 in overall rushing yards in preseason with 438 total yards. But the Cowboys were just under the 4.0-yard per carry average threshold that is considered acceptable in the NFL. The Cowboys scored three times on the ground.
Have they done enough? That’s still unclear. Certainly the fact that the Cowboys were in the Top 10 in preseason yardage was encouraging, but the Cowboys did that with the second-most attempts in the league. To some degree they were trying to sort out how the offensive line would look, so they had to run quite a bit. But the Cowboys also had to sort out the rotation behind Murray. Lance Dunbar’s injury doesn’t help. Plus, the Cowboys have a young pair of run blockers in Frederick and guar Ron Leary, who will make their NFL regular-season debuts on Sunday. The Cowboys also signed Brian Waters on Tuesday, so it’s clear they feel they can still improve up front.
Point 2: Create more turnovers
Summary: The Dallas Cowboys defense didn’t produce enough game-changing plays in 2012. The Cowboys created just 16 takeaways in 2012, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL. Only Indianapolis (15), Kansas City (13) and Philadelphia (13) produced fewer turnovers.
What the Cowboys have done since January? The Cowboys’ biggest move of the offseason was a philosophy shift from the 3-4 to the 4-3. That meant firing Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator and hiring Monte Kiffin, the architect of the famed Tampa Bay defenses of a decade ago. Kiffin’s 4-3 is actually the Cover 2, and the way the Bucs played it they were one of the most feared defenses in the NFL and had a reputation for creating turnovers. As luck would have it, Kiffin was able to lure one of his top lieutenants from his Tampa days, Rod Marinelli, to coach the defensive line.
In preseason: Dallas forced 11 fumbles and recovered five in five preseason games. The Cowboys also picked off five passes. The Cowboys averaged two turnovers per game.
Have they done enough: The signs are certainly encouraging. The defense has taken to Kiffin’s scheme and embraced his desire to create more turnovers. It’s especially good to see how the Cowboys are attacking the football, standing up ball carriers and stripping the football. That’s something they didn’t do as well a year ago.
Point 3: Start games and the season better
Summary: Last season the Dallas Cowboys held the lead 23.4 percent of the time, which amounts to 224:56 of game clock. Last season the Cowboys started 3-5. Of the 12 teams that reached the playoffs last year nine had at least five wins at the season’s mid-point. Two, Cincinnati and Washington, were 3-5. To reach the playoffs Cincinnati and Washington each had to finish the season 7-1. Cincinnati and Washington were just the eighth and ninth teams since 1991 to reach the postseason after a 3-5 start, according to USA Today.
In preseason: The Cowboys ranked No. 18 in preseason with 78 points, averaging 15.5 points per game. That ranked No. 29 in preseason. The Cowboys led at halftime of three of their five preseason games, winning two out of three.
Have They Done Enough?: The lack of scoring is concerning. Sure, it’s preseason and the Cowboys used a lot of different players. Plus, there is evidence to suggest the first-team offense is in good form after scoring 14 points on a stingy Bengals defense in the first half of their Week 4 preseason game. Still, the Cowboys struggled to score points last year and there isn’t a lot of confidence entering this season that much has changed. The Cowboys have done a better job of taking leads at halftime, but some of that credit has to go to the defense, which has played consistently well through the preseason and only allowed 18.6 points per game.
Point 4: Reduce their mistakes, specifically on offense
Summary: The Cowboys were No. 25 in giveaways with 1.8 per game (29 turnovers overall). Eight of last year’s 12 playoff teams were in the Top 10 in fewest giveaways. All had fewer than 20. The Cowboys were the third most penalized team in the NFL with 7.4 penalties per game. The Cowboys committed 47 pre-snap penalties (28 false starts, 12 offside penalties and 7 delay of game penalties). The Cowboys were tied for the NFL lead in false starts and offside calls. The Cowboys had two of the most penalized players in the league, and both were on the offensive line – tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith. The Cowboys were No. 20 in red zone efficiency, and six of the Top 10 teams in red zone efficiency made the playoffs in 2012.
What the Cowboys have done since January? Put a greater emphasis on quarterback Tony Romo being involved in the game plan in the hopes that it reduces turnovers. The Cowboys also want to run the ball more as a way of protecting the football.
In preseason: The Cowboys were a plus-1 in turnover ratio, which isn’t bad until you consider that Dallas forced 10 turnovers. That means the Cowboys committed nine turnovers. Dallas was the fourth-most penalized team in the preseason with 34 penalties. We were unable to find red zone statistics for the preseason.
Was it enough? Well, frankly, not yet. The Cowboys are still struggling to score points overall. You can’t quibble with Romo, who went all of preseason without throwing an interception. Backup quarterbacks committed five of the Cowboys’ nine turnovers, all interceptions. Another was committed by backup running back Lance Dunbar. So the starters appear to be sharp going into the opener. But the tangible evidence is lacking that things have changed in this regard. The Cowboys committed nearly two turnovers a game. That’s not acceptable in the NFL.
Point 5: Get bigger contributions from five players
Summary: We highlighted five players the Cowboys needed more from in 2013. Here’s an update:
Linebacker Alex Albright. Injured and is out for the season.
Wide receiver Dwayne Harris. Remains the lead kickoff and punt returner and will be a factor at wide receiver, although it will be limited with the arrival of third-round pick Terrance Williams.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne. Had a great offseason until he suffered an injury during preseason. He is expected to play in the opener.
Right tackle Doug Free. Accepted the pay cut to remain with the Cowboys. Had a better-than-average training camp and will either start at tackle or guard Sunday night.
Defensive tackle Sean Lissemore. Traded to San Diego for a draft pick.
Was it enough? We’ll see. Two of the five players highlighted are gone for 2013. Of the five, Harris looks like he improved the most, but Free’s improvement will matter the most.