Published August 17, 2012
| Sports Network
In a similar scenario to the movie "Groundhog Day," the Dallas Cowboys enter another season with high expectations after a down year.
An 11-5 finish in 2009 catapulted the Cowboys to their first playoff win in 13 years and set expectations ablaze for the future. But those hopes were quickly extinguished with a 6-10 record in 2010 followed by an 8-8 mark last season.
The face of the organization, quarterback Tony Romo, always seems to be at the epicenter of what's wrong with the Cowboys. He's routinely been criticized for being devoid of a successful track record in big games, and it comes as a surprise to some that heavily-immersed owner Jerry Jones hasn't pulled the plug on his offensive leader. Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett knows that this is Jones' team and that all moves go through him.
"Jerry Jones owns this football team and he has owned it for 23 years, so he can do anything he wants," Garrett said. "We don't make any guarantees around here. We're going to work hard to put a great football team together. We're in the process of doing that."
Jones said in late July that he feels a "sense of urgency" for a team that almost made the playoffs a year ago, but fell just short after losing to the New York Giants in the regular-season finale. The Giants used that victory as a springboard to their fourth-ever Super Bowl title, and Jones added fuel to the NFC East rivalry by telling fans during training camp to come to Cowboys Stadium for the Sept. 5 season opener and "watch us beat the Giants' [behinds]."
Giants defensive end Justin Tuck replied, "Talk is cheap, play the game."
The Cowboys started 7-4 a year ago before losing four of their last five games, so it's no wonder Jones tried to add a spark for the upcoming 2012 season. Whether the players respond remains to be seen.
Not only does Dallas play in a competitive NFC East, but the entire conference is loaded with talented teams. That could make it tough for the Cowboys to end their two-year playoff drought.
On the bright side, Romo is back under center and surrounded by young talent, which could lead to nine-plus wins. Remember, the Giants won Super Bowl XLVI with a 9-7 record in the regular season before rolling through the playoffs.
Dallas would enjoy to do just that and hand bragging rights back to its brash owner. Jones' sense of urgency can be abolished in only one fashion, and that's by winning both early and often.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Cowboys, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 8-8 (tied 2nd, NFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009, lost to Minnesota in NFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Jason Garrett (13-11 in two seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Garrett
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rob Ryan (second season with Cowboys)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Tony Romo, QB (4184 passing yards, 31 TD, 10 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DeMarcus Ware, OLB (58 tackles, 19.5 sacks)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 11th overall (18th rushing, 7th passing), 15th scoring (23.1 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 14th overall (7th rushing, 23rd passing), 16th scoring (21.7 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: LG Nate Livings (from Bengals), RG Mackenzy Bernadeau (from Panthers), ILB Dan Connor (from Panthers), CB Brandon Carr (from Chiefs), CB Morris Claiborne (1st Round, LSU), QB Kyle Orton (from Chiefs), FB Lawrence Vickers (from Texans), WR Cole Beasley (free agent, SMU), OT Pat McQuistan (from Saints), CB Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (from Jaguars)
KEY DEPARTURES: TE Martellus Bennett (to Giants), LG Montrae Holland (free agent), RG Kyle Kosier (released), ILB Bradie James (to Texans), CB Terence Newman (to Bengals), SS Abram Elam (to Chiefs), P Mat McBriar (to Eagles), QB Jon Kitna (retired), RB Sammy Morris (free agent), FB Tony Fiammetta (to Patriots), WR Laurent Robinson (to Jaguars), WR Jesse Holley (to Patriots), OG Bill Nagy (to Lions), ILB Keith Brooking (to Broncos), CB Alan Ball (to Texans), CB Frank Walker (free agent)
QB: Romo (4184 passing yards, 31 TD, 10 INT) took a lot of blame for late turnovers that contributed to Dallas blowing a few games last season. But then again, he is a big reason why the Cowboys won eight games. Romo doesn't play defense, and probably couldn't anyway, and had a solid campaign after throwing for more than 30 touchdown passes for just the second time in his career. Always an accurate passer, Romo has a quick release and eclipsed the 4,000- yard passing mark for a third time in 2011. He was third in the NFL in completion percentage (66.3), fourth in passer rating (102.5), fifth in touchdown passes and seventh in passing yards. A top-10 quarterback in the NFL, Romo has often been a human pin-cushion and has to stay healthy to keep the Cowboys competitive. He was sacked a career-high 36 times in 2011, and that can't happen this season. If Romo happens to go down, the Cowboys do have Kyle Orton (1758 passing yards, 9 TD, 9 INT) as a backup after signing the veteran in the offseason. Orton split time with Denver and Kansas City last season and owns 69 career starts. Stephen McGee (182 passing yards, 1 TD) appeared in one game last season and is trying to stick as the No. 3.
RB: The Cowboys shuffled through some running backs last season because of injuries, one of which opened the door for DeMarco Murray (897 rushing yards, 2 TD). The second-year pro burst onto the scene with 253 yards and a touchdown in a Week 7 win over St. Louis and enters the 2012 season as the starter. Murray said he doesn't take anything for granted, however, and is grateful for the opportunity. He needs to have a solid season after Dallas finished 18th in rushing (112.9 ypg) in 2011, and did not play in three games because of an ankle injury. Felix Jones (575 rushing yards, 1 TD) was the lead back until injuries derailed those chances. He played in 12 games and will serve as a change-of-pace back who can also catch passes out of the backfield. Phillip Tanner (76 rushing yards, 1 TD) is Dallas' third option. Fullback Lawrence Vickers, a member of the Houston Texans last season, has been used primarily as a blocker in his brief career and will get a fresh start with the Cowboys.
WR: The Cowboys have talented receivers around Romo, but one of them made some news off the field this summer. Dez Bryant (63 receptions, 9 TD) finished second on the team in receptions and admitted to playing with an injured quadriceps during the season. He still appeared in 15 games, but was arrested in late July on a Class-A family violence charge after allegedly assaulting his mother during an argument at her home. Angela Bryant said she would not press charges against her son, though he possibly could still be subject to league discipline. One way Bryant can straighten his problems out is by producing on the field and saving his anger for opponents. Dallas was seventh in passing offense a year ago, averaging 262.6 yards per game, and it could have been more had Miles Austin (43 receptions, 7 TD) stayed healthy. He appeared in just 10 games last year and was coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns. Dallas will miss No. 3 receiver Laurent Robinson, who departed for Jacksonville after posting 858 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011. Danny Coale was drafted out of Virginia Tech in the fifth round in April and will battle Kevin Ogletree (15 receptions) and Dwayne Harris for Robinson's old position.
TE: Jason Witten (79 receptions, 5 TD) is arguably the best tight end in the game and a good friend of Romo, as well as his favorite target. Romo enjoys throwing passes to Witten, who again led the Cowboys in receptions a year ago after consecutive 94-catch campaigns. He's also been a model of durability, playing in all 16 games for eight straight years while missing just one in his career, but may be sidelined for the beginning of the regular season after lacerating his spleen in the preseason opener. Witten was aiming for his third straight 1,000-yard campaign in 2011, but came up a little short with 942 receiving yards. He averages more than 10 yards a catch and can also block. John Phillips (15 receptions, TD) will serve as Witten's backup and in two tight end sets, while James Hanna was drafted in the sixth round out of Oklahoma to add depth after Martellus Bennett departed the Lone Star State for the Giants in the offseason.
OL: The offensive line endured some hard times a season ago, as evidenced by the 36 sacks given up when Romo was under center. The line surrendered a total of 39 sacks on the year and suffered a scare in the preseason when center Phil Costa sustained a back injury. Costa is not expected to miss significant time, and guards David Arkin and Harland Gunn and tackle Pat McQuistan have worked as fill-ins at the position during camp. Kevin Kowalski is the favorite to be the backup center, but is recovering from injuries. Tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith serve as durable bookends, with Smith switching to the left side this year after manning the right as a rookie. Nate Livings (from Bengals) and Mackenzy Bernadeau (from Panthers) are expected to start at left and right guard, respectively, after being signed in the offseason. Kyle Kosier and Montrae Holland started at guard a year ago, but were not brought back. Arkin, rookie guard Ronald Leary and tackle Jermey Parnell will battle for time as reserves.
DL: Dallas' 3-4 defense under Rob Ryan finished seventh against the run last season, holding opposing ground attacks to 99.1 yards per game. Even with having to face formidable NFC East rushers such as Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw and LeSean McCoy, the Cowboys had no trouble forcing teams to throw. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff (38 tackles, 2 sacks) is a force to be reckoned with up front and has plenty of athleticism to draw double teams. The Cowboys rotated a lot at defensive end, but Kenyon Coleman (36 tackles, 1 sack) and Jason Hatcher (28 tackles, 4.5 sacks) entered camp as the favorites to start. Marcus Spears (16 tackles, 1 sack), rookie Tyrone Crawford (3rd Round, Boise State) and Sean Lissemore (28 tackles, 2 sacks) can also fill in at both end spots.
LB: There are not many defenders who strike fear into opponents like Cowboys All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware. A constant producer on the field, Ware (58 tackles, 19.5 sacks) fell one-half sack short of matching his career high in that category last season and has double-digit sack totals for six consecutive seasons. Opposing teams must be aware of his presence at all times, as Ware leads the NFL with 99 1/2 sacks over the last seven years and is well on his way to the Hall of Fame even if he fails to win a championship. Ware is also an adequate run defender who isn't great in coverage, but isn't asked to drop back much in his main role as a pass rusher. Anthony Spencer (66 tackles, 6 sacks) plays on the opposite end of Ware and has had an average career, though he's strong against the run and showed flashes of being productive rushing the passer. The Cowboys did retain him with the franchise tag in the offseason, so the team must value him in some way. The middle of the linebacker corps will represented by former college teammates in Sean Lee (104 tackles, 4 INT) and Dan Connor (75 tackles), a free-agent signing from Carolina. Both Penn State products have shown the knack for making tackles and defending well against the pass, with Lee finishing tied with since-departed cornerback Terrence Newman for the club lead in interceptions. Connor faces a challenge for the starting job by Bruce Carter, a talented second-round pick in 2011 who missed part of his rookie year with a knee injury. Rookies Kyle Wilber (4th Round, Wake Forest) and Caleb McSurdy (7th Round, Montana) were drafted for depth, as veterans Bradie James and Keith Brooking were both let go.
DB: The Cowboys were 14th in total yards allowed (343.2 ypg) and 16th in points surrendered (21.7 ppg), but were horrible in pass defense, finishing 23rd in the league (244.1 ypg). Dallas hopes the addition of free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr (45 tackles, 4 INT with Kansas City) will help with Newman being let go due to a lack of production. The team also moved up in the draft to select talented LSU defensive back Morris Claiborne, who is expected to start right away, with the sixth overall pick. Orlando Scandrick (49 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) returns as the primary nickel back, with former first-round pick Mike Jenkins (24 tackles, INT) relegated to sub-package duties after losing his job to Claiborne. Free safety Gerald Sensabaugh (75 tackles, 2 INT) and strong safety Barry Church (28 tackles) have earned starting roles on the back end. Dallas' defensive backfield has it tough playing in the NFC, especially the East with DeSean Jackson, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Santana Moss and Pierre Garcon all in the division. Safety Matt Johnson (Eastern Washington) was taken in the fourth round of April's draft and will earn his keep on special teams for now.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Mat McBriar is gone and the job is now in the hands of Chris Jones, who had 10 punts in 2011 and averaged 42.6 yards. McBriar, who was hampered by a foot problem last year, averaged 43.8 yards on 58 attempts and is now in Philadelphia, while placekicker Dan Bailey filled in at times, and posted an average of 39.5 yards. Bailey made 32 of his 37 field goal attempts (83.5 pct) and nailed 11-for-11 from 30-to-39 yards out in a strong first season. Felix Jones is expected to return kickoffs again and shared time with Harris and Ogletree in that role last season because of his injuries. He has explosive speed and quickness when at 100 percent, however. Bryant is Dallas' best punt returner, but could be used sparingly there since he has such a prominent role in the receiving game. Harris can fill in as a punt returner as well.
PROGNOSIS: There's no reason why the Cowboys can't be a Super Bowl contender if they put it all together this season. Romo, of course, will have the most pressure since he's the quarterback of an offense that should have no trouble moving the ball on the ground or through the air. The offensive line, though, has to stay healthy and work together in order to accomplish that feat. The defense has to show improvement against the pass as well, with the secondary the weakest link of all three areas, but the moves in free agency and the draft should tighten that up. Playing in a stacked division and against other NFC teams that may have a better chance to grab a Wild Card will still make it difficult for Dallas not to miss the playoffs for a third straight year, even with the possibility of winning 10 games.