In this week’s addition of The Less Than Stellar Side of Sunday, I discredited to a degree the Cowboys wins so far this year. My prevailing point was based on the fact that the oppositions' collective win / loss ratio thus far amounts to 3 wins and 8 losses. Given the mediocre returns the Cowboys have had over the last 3 years, we should somewhat expect the Cowboys to beat teams with losing records.
Granted, many of the national and local media personalities have indicated their expectations were much worse, citing the Cowboys' lack of ability to address the defense with talent due to cap restraints and being beaten to the punch on draft day, the defensive coordinator switch, and the loss of Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware to free agency and Sean Lee to injury over the off-season.
Be that as it may, while the defense has not been dominant by any stretch of the imagination, they have been opportunistic with the way they are attacking the ball and they have managed to slow opposing offenses down when stops have been critical.
Transversely, the offense has dominated every aspect of the game, both in the trenches, on the ground and in the air, maintaining extended drives, which has allowed the defense to continuously play at their best even if their best is considered average. It hasn’t all been pretty; Romo did have a slow start that had me questioning whether or not Father Time had finally caught up to him.
All in all, though, the Cowboys faithful do have several reasons to be hopeful a fourth of the way into the season, even if I still contend we should do so cautiously.
Ground and Pound
Garrett and Linehan continuously preached it throughout this past off-season – they were going to be more balanced and so far they have delivered. The issue early on for many fans is this speech was nothing new. Garrett has said something similar every year and every year until this season that balance never seemed to materialize. Opposing defenses were able to dictate the offense by simply stacking the box, which forced Romo into his familiar refrain: “Kill, kill, kill,” only to see that same defense drop back in coverage.
This season, be it due to Garrett having more confidence in the offensive line or Scott Linehan’s magical touch calling plays, the 'Boys are force-feeding the run even when teams are stacking 9 in the box to stop it. As the season has progressed, we have seen Romo resist the temptation to attack defenses early, leaving the play action kill shots for critical moments, as opposed to becoming predictable with his sight adjustments pre-snap.
There are questions still floating around this team, for certain, but the offensive line is not one of them. Not only are they using their combination of physicality and athleticism to impose their wills on defenses, but they are doing so with excellent technique and timing on their pulls. Given the average age of 25 – offset quite a bit by Doug Free at 30 – the Cowboys are looking set up front for the next 5 years.
Finally, there is DeMarco Murray; presently leading the league in rushing yards with 534, a difference of 156 yards from the running back 2nd on the list. Say what you will about his durability, considering his injury history, there is no denying his ability. He is a violent runner, who also can be elusive when the situation demands – a very rare quality to have in a running back with his size and strength.
Against the Rams and Saints, there were only two plays that come to mind that reminded me of the Romo of old; in the two weeks prior against the Titans and 49ers it looked as though that act had made its final disappearance. Whether the decline in Romdini appearances is due to the lack of necessity given the offensive line or his lack of ability owing to his back issues, it is still nice to see every now and then.
But the true beauty and reason for hope for this season is the fact that Romo doesn’t necessarily have to be the same Romo for this team to have success; the onus is no longer on him to will this team to victory. In years previous, Romo dropped back with the understanding that he only had an average of 2 to 3 seconds to release the ball or create time with his signature spin move. Thus far, Romo has not needed to force the issue hoping his receivers can make the play; he has been granted the ability to sit back and pick his spots.
DeMarco Murray and the tight ends deserve praise, as well. The blitz pick up is clearly an underrated attribute to their game and they have done so with surprising effectiveness thus far this season. The most important undertaking for this team is keeping Romo healthy and yet, unfortunately, it is the most thankless of jobs in the NFL. But if Romo is still standing after week 17, playoffs or not, a big thank you from the Cowboys fandom needs to be expressed to the big uglies - running backs and tight ends - for their contribution to that objective.
The most celebrated of any football team are the skill players on the offensive side of the ball. Yet another unquestionable strength of this team is obviously the trio of Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and DeMarco Murray. For many defensive coordinators, that list of names alone would yield sleepless nights. Slowly and quietly, Terrance Williams is proving he is not a receiver that can be consistently covered by one man. He runs crisp routes and he catches the ball through adversity. He is not the fastest guy on the field and he is not a threat to score from anywhere he touches the ball, but he will go get that football, which is all Romo needs to make defenses pay for trying to shut down Dez/Witten/Murray.
Cole Beasley has not had as many touches as I would have guessed, but, nevertheless, his reputation precedes him. A receivers reputation is a significant attribute to how an offense installs their game plan. Because he excels with slants and out routes, Beasley is now serving as a clear-out tool to open up passing lanes. Because Beasley is a mismatch for linebackers you will often see a safety climb up into the flats or into the box to try to break on Beasley’s route. Doing so places the outside receivers in one-on-one coverage. Should Romo get his deep ball back, as the season progresses, this attribute alone could be a significant reason the Cowboys are able to put teams away in the later stages of games.
Strength in Numbers
The Cowboys defensive line is devoid of household names. Not one player in particular has stood out through four games, and yet the results have been undeniable. This defense is doing just enough in every category a defense is measured by to ensure success. The key for Marinelli has been to ensure the defensive line stays fresh and strong throughout the game and has done so by continuously rotating players in and out of the lineup. The advantage in having no-names and simply a group of players that are willing to go to work every down is that opposing offensive coordinators cannot key on any one player to focus on as they did with the likes of DeMarcus Ware throughout his career and Jason Hatcher to a limited extent in 2013.
If you were to ask Marinelli one improvement he would like to see in the stat sheet going forward, it would be an increase of sacks. In this regard, the Cowboys have struggled ranking 23rd in the league with 5 on the year as a team. They are not exactly stingy with yards allowed either ranking 25th with an average of 379.8 yards per game. Truth be told, of all stats that can be misleading, sacks and yards allowed top the list.
The two stats that are critical to a defense are turnovers (ranked 16th in turnover differential) and points allowed (10th allowing an average of 21.5 per game). With the offense presently ranked 4th in the league in average points per game (28.8), the two aforementioned stats have been the key to the Cowboys defensive success. If they can continue to be at least average in points allowed and remain positive in turnover differential and the offense continues their current trend, these Cowboys will be in the playoffs, regardless of their ability to get to the QB and offensive yards surrendered.
Where fandom can derive some hope for the remainder of the season is the fact that help is on the way. Anthony Spencer returned to the field this past Sunday in limited fashion and his impact should gradually increase as he gets his football legs back. DeMarcus Lawrence – the Cowboys highly regarded 2nd round pick this year – will be returning in the 2nd half of the season, though given his time away from practice and the missed training camp, we can expect some growing pains. Amobi Okoye and Josh Brent are also potential mid-season additions and could add valuable time to the defensive line rotation.
The Great Wall
The single most contributing factor to all of the above is the offensive line; every aspect of the Cowboys play that has been improved starts up front with the big uglies playing strong and smart on a consistent basis. Why has the run game been so ridiculously successful? It starts up front. Why has the pass steadily improved over four games? It starts up front. Why has the defense been able to play with intensity for four quarters? It starts up front. And that is why the Cowboys started four years ago focusing on fixing the offensive line. With the addition of Zach Martin, the Cowboys are finally seeing that commitment yield spectacular results and also why the Cowboys fandom can have hope not just for this season but for many seasons to come.
Should Cowboys Reunite Shea McClellin With Rod Marinelli?
Since becoming the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, Rod Marinelli hasn't had too many of his former players follow him to Dallas. In fact, I can only think of one… Henry Melton, and we all know how that turned out.
I don't know about you, but I found that a little strange. It's pretty common for coaches to try to bring some of their players with them when they accept a new job. Familiarity goes a long way in the NFL and former players can also help make the transition easier for everyone.
Strangely enough, Rod Marinelli hasn't really been afforded that luxury, whether it was his doing or not. But, there is a free agent who played under Marinelli's tutelage in Chicago who might make sense for the Dallas Cowboys, linebacker Shea McClellin.
Rod Marinelli was the defensive coordinator in Chicago when the Bears decided to draft Shea McClellin 19th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. Marinelli likely had a big say in that decision, and if he still feels the same, a reunion could be in order.
Shea McClellin started his career in the NFL as a 4-3 left side defensive end playing opposite Julius Peppers, but was also viewed as a potential Brian Urlacher replacement. He showed flashes of becoming a solid defensive end his first few years in the league, but was eventually moved to linebacker, where he seemed to find a home for himself.
After his contract expired with the Bears, the New England Patriots decided to bring him aboard to help with their linebacker depth. He only ended up starting four games for them in 2016, but made some memorable plays to help the Patriots become the Super Bowl champions.
Unfortunately, the 2017 season wasn't very kind to him. His entire year was wiped out due to a concussion, which probably had a lot to do with why they recently released him.
This of course could be good news for the Dallas Cowboys. They currently need some depth at the linebacker position and Shea McClellin could provide that, if he's healthy. The healthy bit here is key, because he has had problems with concussions in the past.
If McClellin is indeed healthy, he could bring a versatile skill set to the Cowboys defense. His best spot is probably at strong side LB (SAM), but I think he could play middle linebacker (MIKE) as well. He also could provide depth at defensive end, the position he played to start his NFL career.
With the LB depth a concern, Shea McClellin makes quite a bit of sense for the Dallas Cowboys. Of course, his past history with concussions is a red flag, but it also drives down his asking price. I think he would definitely fall into that "bargain shopping" mentality the Cowboys have been using these last few offseasons.
He probably wouldn't be viewed as a very important signing, but you still need these types of players on your team in order to succeed in the NFL. Let's see if the Dallas Cowboys agree.
Do you think a Rod Marinelli and Shea McClellin reunion is in order?
Redskins Have Not Had Success With Former Cowboys
Now that he's signed with the Washington Redskins, cornerback Orlando Scandrick joins a lackluster list of former Cowboys players and coaches who have gone from Dallas to its historic rival. The history of these moves is ugly for Washington, going back over 40 years, and can't have their fans too excited anytime they sign an ex-Cowboy.
The most recent example was just last year with defensive tackle Terrell McClain. After a strong season as a 15-game starter in Dallas, McClain got a four-year, $21 million deal to join the Redskins. He missed four games with injuries and was only credited with two starts; hardly what the team wanted given the money they paid.
Before him it was Jason Hatcher, whose 11-sack season for the Cowboys in 2013 got him a four-year, $27.5 million deal from Washington. Hatcher would battle knee injuries for two season, getting only 7.5 sacks from 2014-2015. His early retirement in 2016 brought an abrupt end to a disappointing tenure.
Continuing the legacy of defensive linemen was Stephen Bowen, who Washington paid a shocking amount of money ($27.5 million over five years) to in 2011 to pick up in free agency. Bowen had a great first year for the Redskins with six sacks and 16 starts, but injuries would soon cost him 14 games from 2013-2014. He was eventually released after only one standout season in four with the team.
Going back even further, DT Brandon Noble joined Washington in 2003 after being a full-time starter for Dallas for over two seasons. He would miss all of 2003 with a knee injury, have an unimpressive year in 2004, and then missed all of 2005 with more health issues. He retired after being released by the Redskins in 2006.
Orlando Scandrick won't be the first cornerback to go from Dallas to Washington, or the best. At age 32, Deion Sanders was released in 2000 by the Cowboys and then got a huge seven-year, $56 million deal from the Redskins. This came less than a year after Daniel Snyder bought the franchise and was desperate to get them relevant again.
The Sanders move backfired horribly. Even after a solid season by his lofty standards, Primetime was disgruntled with both the coaching staff and his increasing struggles as an aging player. He suddenly retired after just one season of the seven-year contract.
Washington also tried to tap into the Cowboys' glory days when they signed receiver Alvin Harper in 1997. Harper had left Dallas in 1995 and spent two years with Tampa Bay, but had not carried over the same success he enjoyed playing in the Dallas offense.
The Redskins hoped that reuniting him with Norv Turner, who had been Harper's offensive coordinator and was now their head coach, would help Alvin get back to form. But between ongoing injuries and the absence of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Emmitt Smith as teammates, Alvin Harper was never the same guy as when he won two Super Bowls in Dallas.
The failed poaching attempts go back many more decades, another one being running back Calvin Hill. The fourth-leading rusher in Cowboys history and a four-time Pro Bowler while in Dallas, Hill joined Washington in 1976. He served as a backup only, averaging only 3.8 yards-per-carry as he played behind the likes of Mike Thomas and John Riggins.
The bad history doesn't stop with players. The aforementioned Norv Turner, who was one of the hottest assistant coaches in history after the Cowboys first two Super Bowl wins in the 90s, was hired as the Redskins' head coach in 1994.
Turner's run started with a whimper, drafting quarterback Heath Shuler third overall in that first year. Shuler would go down as one of the biggest QB busts in NFL history
Norv's Redskins never seemed to recover from that blunder. He only had two winning seasons and one playoff appearance from 1994-1999, and was fired midway through the 2000 season.
Far more recently, Cowboys offensive line coach Bill Callahan left the team in 2015 and took the same job in Washington. He didn't get to bring the offensive line or DeMarco Murray with him, though. As such, the Redskins have remained one of the league's worst rushing teams for the last three seasons. They fell to a new low of 28th in the NFL in 2017.
~ ~ ~
Of course, none of this means that Orlando Scandrick won't have success in Washington. But with the Redskins generally the most mismanaged team in the NFC East, all of the Dallas players and coaches who've gone there have not walked into good situations. For all that Cowboys fans love to complain about Jerry Jones, he handles the owner and GM roles better than any pair Washington's had in almost 30 years.
Given the nature of the rivalries, we naturally can't wish success for Scandrick or anyone else who leaves Dallas for a division opponent. With the track record we just discussed for Washington, it's not something I'll be losing any sleep over.
Xavier Woods, the Real Reason Cowboys Didn’t Pursue Tyrann Mathieu?
It's not uncommon for Dallas Cowboys fans to zero in on certain free agents in hopes that they will bring their talents to America's Team. In fact, just about any "big name" player to hit the open market is often linked to the Cowboys in some way or another. That was the case when the Arizona Cardinals decided to move on from Tyrann Mathieu.
Once Tyrann Mathieu became available, Cowboys fans immediately wanted to see him with a star on his helmet. But, despite the fans petitioning, the Cowboys brass seemed to show almost zero interest in the former Cardinal.
The decision to not pursue Tyrann Mathieu certainly didn't sit well with a lot of Cowboys Nation, but I think it was the right decision.
Despite Mathieu's perceived talents and youth (he's just 25), the Cowboys weren't interested in paying the price to bring him to Dallas, especially since they already have a similar player on their roster.
It may sound crazy, but I think the real reason the Dallas Cowboys didn't show much interest in Tyrann Mathieu is because of Xavier Woods.
I honestly believe Xavier Woods and Tyrann Mathieu have a similar skill set. Both players are little undersized to be a full-time safety in the NFL, but each of them have the versatility to play several different roles in the secondary.
Mathieu may have been listed as a safety on the Arizona Cardinals roster, and now the Houston Texans, but the truth is he played mostly out of the nickel/slot in his professional and collegiate career. That is where he is at his best, and the same can be said about Xavier Woods.
As a rookie, Xavier Woods showed his versatility with the Dallas Cowboys by playing a variety of different roles in the secondary. His versatility was one of the reasons the Cowboys decided to trade up in last year's draft to acquire his services.
His name might not carry the same kind of weight as Tyrann Mathieu right now around the league or amongst NFL fans, but I don't think Xavier Woods is that much of a drop off talent wise.
Personally, I believe Mathieu is starting to decline a little as a player. I think injuries are starting to take a toll on his play, although it may be minimal. I actually prefer Xavier Woods' upside, especially when you take into account the difference in salaries between the two.
Surprisingly enough, Xavier Woods might just have been more productive in 2017 then Mathieu. Woods started just four games and finished the season with 42 tackles, three passes defensed, and one interception. Mathieu on the other hand started all 16 games and accumulated 78 tackles, one quarterback sack, one forced fumble, and two interceptions.
As you can see, Xavier Woods was almost just as productive as Mathieu in nearly a third of the playing time. What's even more impressive about this is that Woods accomplish this as a rookie.
Of course, all of this is speculation, but I for one am not all that upset the Dallas Cowboys missed out on Tyrann Mathieu. I'm willing to bet on Xavier Woods being able to do everything Mathieu can and at a fraction of the cost.
Were the Cowboys right not to pursue Tyrann Mathieu?
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