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.
Did a Year Away Help Rejuvenate TE Jason Witten’s Game?
Jason Witten is 37 years old, retired from the NFL after the completion of 2017 season to try his luck as an announcer in the booth, but has now decided to come out of retirement to rejoin the Dallas Cowboys? It seems a little unrealistic to think he can come back after a year away from the game and pick up where he left off, but it sounds as if he's like a Phoenix rising from the ashes.
Jason Witten has been the talk of Dallas Cowboys OTA practices so far. These practices are unpadded and basically just an opportunity to do install some of the offensive and defensive plays, but that doesn't make them any less important. One of the things that has been somewhat surprising though is how talked up the future Hall of Famer has become.
Here is what Head Coach Jason Garrett had to say recently about Jason Witten's return:
“Yeah, absolutely. He’s been excited about every part of it ever since I met him and that hasn’t changed,” coach Jason Garrett said. “The work that he’s done in the weight room in the off-season program has been outstanding. His testing numbers and all of that are what they’ve been or even better. And he just has an unbelievable way about him. Tremendous passion for the game. And he demonstrates that every day. Witt looks good. He’s excited to be back and we’re certainly fortunate to have him back.”
The main thing that stands out from Garrett's quote to me is how Jason Witten looks just as good, if not better after not playing at all in 2018. To think that his testing numbers are possibly even better is unfathomable. We typically don't see NFL players in their mid-30s retire from the game and then return just as good, or maybe even better than they were before.
Maybe that's just what Jason Witten is, a little inhuman. Maybe he's found the secret to turning the clock back just a little bit. Or, maybe he found the fountain the youth and didn't tell anybody. Regardless, there's no doubt Witten will be a welcomed addition to the Cowboys offense, especially if he's gained a step.
I don't know about all of you, but I'm hoping the year away from the game did him some good. I honestly thought he made the right decision to retire prior to the 2018 season. It just looked like father time was catching up to him in 2017. But, hopefully all he needed was a little time away from the grind he's been putting his body through for over a decade.
Whatever he's done hasn't gone unnoticed though. Even Quarterback Dak Prescott has noticed and said he's on to Witten's scheme.
“I guess the trick is to take a year off because he’s definitely gotten better, stronger and faster,” Prescott said. “He hasn’t lost a step.”
I'm not afraid to admit I wasn't too excited to see Witten come out of retirement and rejoin the Cowboys at first. I was skeptical he could be the player he once was after a year away from the game. But, all of this talk about him looking as good as he once was, perhaps better, has me really looking forward to seeing him on the field once again.
Do you think a year away has rejuvenated Jason Witten's game?
Cowboys en Español: El Verdadero Cambio en La Ofensiva
Los Dallas Cowboys tuvieron un interesante 2018. La ofensiva dejo mucho que desear toda la primera mitad de la temporada cuando carecían de un receptor número uno. No fue hasta media temporada cuando consiguieron a Amari Cooper de los Oakland Raiders, que la ofensiva comenzó a verse realmente amenazante. Siendo sinceros, el cuerpo de receptores de los Cowboys lucía muy débil al inicio y Michael Gallup aún no conseguía mucho tiempo de juego en el emparrillado. Incluso una vez en el equipo, a pesar de las grandes hazañas de Cooper en Dallas, la ofensiva no terminó de dar el siguiente paso.
Sí, con Amari en el equipo vimos un equipo de Cowboys que movía constantemente las cadenas e incluso se convirtió en una de las mejores unidades en tercera oportunidad en la liga, pero no fue suficiente. Los problemas en zona roja persistieron y continuamos viendo una selección de jugadas muy cuestionable semana tras semana.
Es por eso que al finalizar la temporada, la administración de los Cowboys finalmente tomó una decisión muy anticipada. El entonces coordinador ofensivo, Scott Linehan, fue despedido.
En cuanto a talento, los Dallas Cowboys no verán un cambio mayor en su ofensiva. Cole Beasley, uno de los mejores WR slot en la NFL, firmó con los Buffalo Bills durante la agencia libre. A pesar de la llegada de Randall Cobb, la ofensiva probablemente extrañará bastante a Beasley. Además está el regreso de Jason Witten al campo, quien se repartirá el balón mucho con los jóvenes del equipo, principalmente con Blake Jarwin. Por último, Travis Frederick podría estar de regreso como el centro titular. Fuera de eso, no se anticipan cambios de jugadores en la ofensiva.
Y a pesar de esto, la afición de los Cowboys espera ver un cambio grande entre la ofensiva del 2018 y la de 2019. Si las cosas salen bien, así será. Pero más que por el talento del equipo, que ya está ahí y es un muy buen talento, deberá ser por el hombre al mando.
Kellen Moore ha tomado las riendas como el nuevo coordinador ofensivo y finalmente podremos ver su potencial. Muchos han criticado a Moore, en gran parte por nunca haber sido un quarterback exitoso en la NFL. Sin embargo, hay muchas razones por las cuales deberíamos estar emocionados.
Desde que Moore salió de la universidad de Boise State, se le veía como un prospecto muy inteligente. Incluso analistas como Jon Gruden (en ese entonces conductor del programa de ESPN Gruden's QB Camp) mencionaban que Moore probablemente no sería un gran mariscal, pero que tenía la mente de un coach.
En Boise, Moore trabajaba con la ofensiva del actual coach de los Washington Huskies, Chris Petersen. Esta ofensiva es una muy complicada que le exige al mariscal saber casi tanto como un jugador profesional. Muchos han descrito a Moore como un genio ofensivo que será un gran coach en el futuro.
Para los Cowboys, Kellen Moore será una pieza clave en 2019. Si vemos una ofensiva realmente diferente, será gracias a su creatividad y filosofía que implementa a un grupo bastante talentoso en Dallas. Los jugadores están ahí, ¿sabrá el coordinador ofensivo de 30 años aprovecharlos?
NFL to Study Marijuana Use, Will It Impact Randy Gregory’s Status?
The NFLPA and the NFL have reached an agreement to research alternative pain-management tools for the players. They'll form joint medical committees to study different strategies, among which will be the use of marijuana. It's important to make it clear that said committees will not be exclusively about marijuana, but a lot of different issues related to pain-management in the league. However, it'll likely be one of the most important aspects of their work.
Marijuana continues to be a highly debated topic and it's no different when discussing the NFL. Dallas Cowboys fans should be very familiar with the situation. Earlier this year, David Irving "quit" on football during an Instagram live stream while smoking weed. In the video, Irving talks about how he thinks it's better to be addicted to marijuana rather than certain medications used by NFL teams to treat their players.
Although David Irving is not an authority on substances, that is where all of this debate centers around. Throughout the league, players are given strong medication to deal with injuries and the physical pain of playing pro football. I'm not an expert either, but it's more than fair to say there's a strong argument here. Specially in a country where marijuana has already been legalized in 10 states and the trend points toward legalization continuing.
The current CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) between the NFL and NFLPA will expire after the 2020 season and how the league's drug policy looks like in the new agreement will be a huge factor for reaching a satisfactory CBA for both sides.
Of course, the fact that the NFLPA and the league are working together on such an important task doesn't mean we will see any immediate changes or that the NFL's ban on marijuana will be lifted anytime soon. Many big question marks will have to be answered before we hear about teams implementing this substance as a pain management tool.
For the Dallas Cowboys, this will be a relevant narrative down the line. Pass rusher Randy Gregory was reinstated after serving an indefinite suspension due to substance abuse prior to the 2018 season. After a dominant year, Gregory was suspended again by the NFL and it all points toward him sitting out this upcoming season and perhaps even more.
Even still, the Cowboys are still standing behind their 2015 second round pick. If the league ends up lifting its ban on marijuana, they'll have to decide what they will do with players already serving a suspension for this reason. Guys like Randy Gregory, for instance. If it's decided they'll be reinstated to the NFL, the Cowboys will sure be glad to have supported Gregory all throughout the process.
Last year, the pass rusher proved how effective he could be even with a short period of time training. Hopefully, the Cowboys are able to get him back on the field eventually, where's been consistently dominant. In the meantime, we'll see how recently acquired Robert Quinn does in Dallas.
The NFL won't be lifting its ban anytime soon, but it's good to know they're at least open minded to changing the league's policy and consider alternatives that could benefit the players' health. We'll see how these new medical committees work and keep you updated here at Inside The Star.
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