When discussing why he chose to sign with the Cowboys, defensive lineman Cedric Thornton said, “I think we have a chance to win a championship here. This isn’t a 4-12 team.”
One of the most famous of Bill Parcells’ many quotes is that, “You are what your record says you are.” So which is it? Just what are these Dallas Cowboys right now?
Two years ago Dallas was a 12-4 NFC East Champion who won a playoff game and might have gone further if not for “The Non-Catch.” Last year, injuries to that same receiver and quarterback Tony Romo were the catalysts for a plummet to the bottom of the NFL standings.
Given their conservative approach to the offseason, the Cowboys seem to agree with Thornton’s perspective. They are banking on a return to 2014’s success if everyone’s healthy. Should we share that opinion?
Roster Comparison: Offense
The biggest concern for Dallas is if Tony Romo can be the same player he was in 2014; missing only one game and leading the league in completion percentage and passer rating. This is a painful “wait and see” element to next season that there’s no way to evaluate now. Thankfully, all reports are that Romo is recovering well and should be ready to participate in training camp.
Can Darren McFadden and the newly-signed Alfred Morris be as dominant on the ground as DeMarco Murray was in 2014? The Murray-led rushing attack in 2014 totaled 2354 yards. Last year, despite the slow start from the failed Joseph Randle experiment, McFadden led the way for a total of 1890 yards. The difference comes out to about 30 yards per game.
While I don’t think McFadden or Morris can as individually impressive as Murray was in 2014, they don’t have to be. Romo’s return alone will open things up for more explosive running. Having more maturity among the interior line, particularly with La’el Collins entering his second year, will be a positive. Throw in whatever you might get from Lance Dunbar and it’s very reasonable to project the same level production as two years ago.
Bottom line; if this offense has everyone healthy then they can every bit as dominant as they were in 2014. The key will obviously be Romo returning to his old form but he will be helped by logical development and improvement in the offensive line. The likely competition between Terrance Williams and Brice Butler for a starting job should push that number-two receiver spot to a new height, also.
Roster Comparison: Defense
You have every reason to be worried about the lack of upgrades so far at defensive end. However, one sliver of optimism comes from looking back at the 2014 team.
Those Cowboys accomplished everything we’ve outlined despite ranking in the bottom-five of the NFL in sacks. Jeremy Mincey led the team with just six sacks, Henry Melton had five, and George Selvie and Tyrone Crawford each had three. Rookie DeMarcus Lawrence only played in seven regular season games and struggled once he was activated from injury, only just starting to make an impact in the playoffs.
On the heels of posting seven sacks in the final eight weeks of last year, Lawrence should be better in 2016 than any pass rusher we had two years ago. Crawford had five sacks last year playing with an injured shoulder all season. While we don’t know what Benson Mayowa can really do yet, Dallas is paying him nearly $3 million a year on the faith that he should at least be better than George Selvie was.
We haven’t even mentioned Randy Gregory yet. Anything you get from Gregory this year will be gravy, but the second-year player has the potential to explode once he comes back from suspension. Dallas will be able to work with him all offseason and preseason. If the player we saw in the 2015 preseason hits the field in Week 5 then he could be a more dangerous player than anyone we had two years ago.
At linebacker, Sean Lee didn’t play at all in 2014 and is a clear positive going forward. If Dallas can finally get Lee and McClain to stay on the field together then they will be better off than at any time in the last several seasons. They’re also bringing back the same crop of reserves and strongside options who should all be better with more experience.
The secondary has the potential to be even better than 2014, also. Orlando Scandrick is the big x-factor coming back from a major injury. If Brandon Carr is back then he should be about the same level of player as two years ago, whatever you think that’s worth. Morris Claiborne was much improved last season and will be playing to save his career on a one-year deal.
Byron Jones wasn’t here in 2014 and, now entering his second year, could be a major upgrade at either corner or safety. If he’s at safety, that could free up Barry Church to play closer to the line of scrimmage and be more aggressive.
Oh, and then there’s this business called “the draft.” Dallas could easily spend their first two picks on a pass rusher and a defensive back, adding even more talent. Even if guys like Gregory and Scandrick aren’t able to contribute the way we’d want them to, the 2016 defense still has potential to be more talented and effective than the “historically bad” group from 2014.
These Stats Don’t Lie
The road to 4-12 last year was paved with many close games. In all 12 of their losses Dallas was down by an average of 10 points. However, two blowouts in New England and Green Bay inflate that number. In the other ten games the margin drops to just over seven points; one touchdown.
I think we’d all agree that a healthy Romo and Dez are good for an extra touchdown each week. In 2014 Romo had 34 touchdowns in 15 games, which is over two per game. Last year the combination of Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore had just 11 touchdowns in 12 games.
Another glaring statistic is redzone efficiency. In 2014 the Cowboys were second in the NFL at scoring touchdowns when entering the redzone, doing it 65% of the time. Last year that number crashed down to 44%, dropping them to 30th in the league. Romo’s play-making ability and chemistry with guys like Dez, Witten, and Beasley goes a long way to fixing that.
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While Romo’s return is the obvious swing factor that makes next year’s team look more like the NFC East Champions of two years ago, we have seen here that there are many other reasons for optimism. Many young players who contributed in 2014 are still here and more experienced. Other positions have been upgraded from last year’s draft.
Like Thornton said, nothing about these Cowboys says “4-12” on paper.
Let’s just hope that paper isn’t so thin this year.