Dallas Cowboys at-the-bye Report Card

Tony Romo runs the offense to his own beat. Photo Courtesy: Michael Kolch
Tony Romo runs the offense to his own beat. Photo Courtesy: Michael Kolch

By Zach Walker

The Dallas Cowboys record 7-3

Wins: Tennessee (1-0 at game, 2-7 overall); St. Louis (1-1 at game, 3-6 overall); New Orleans (1-2 at game, 4-5 overall); Houston (3-1 at game, 4-5 overall); Seattle (3-1 at game, 6-3 overall); New York (3-3 at game, 3-6 overall); Jacksonville (1-8 at game, 1-9 overall)

Losses to: San Francisco (0-0 at game, 5-4 overall); Washington (1-5 at game, 3-6 overall); Arizona (6-1 at game, 7-1 overall)

Coaching: B-
Jason Garrett has preached about process for his entire tenure as the Cowboys head coach, and it seems like that process is actually starting show on the field. His message to his players at training camp in Oxnard, was “Fight,” and the players always seem to reiterate Garrett’s message in postgame interviews. Garrett had gone 8-8 for three straight seasons, and even though it looks very foolish, and short-sided to state that Jason Garrett has never had a losing season, meanwhile he has been filling the Cowboys’ roster with leader-quality intangibles that aren’t even on-field metrics. Garrett looks like he’s the head chef, and his cooks are carrying out the recipe to create a got-to-have product.

Rod Marinelli is doing his usual, make something special with basic ingredients. Marinelli was on staff last season, as the defensive line coach, during the worst defensive season in Cowboys’ history. The Cowboys lost Jason Hatcher, the most productive player along the defensive line to Washington in free agency; they let go of the Cowboys’ all-time sacks leader DeMarcus Ware; and was deducted Sean Lee to a season long injury. For the best of them, and by “them” I mean defensive coaches, that’s a bum deal. What he was given in return, was a former player of his that he coached to pro-bowl results, an under-achieving linebacker with a bottomless bag of potential, and a formerly retired 25 year old linebacker, who had been thought to have given up on football. Match those with a pair of rookies, appeared to have been over-drafted and what gets produced it a functioning group of like-minded players, or team for short. The yards are eerily similar to the defense from a year ago, but the defense is coming up with the stops that they weren’t a season ago.

Scott Linehan was thought to bring more throws to the offense than were already present, and after the first half against the 49ers, where the offense was just giving the ball away like the 49ers’ were trick or treating, the Cowboys looked like a machine. Running the ball with results, a play-action passing game that can trap defenders in time, and enough weapons to keep any defense honest. But this is where the coaching staff takes the turn for the negative. I’ll put it on the two offensive guys, and it’s basically because of the Washington game. The failure to make the adjustments during the game and at half time to adjust to the blitzes by Jim Haslett, and those same blitzes almost completely de-railed the entire Dallas Cowboys season.

Rich Bisaccia has Dan Bailey, so the field goals are completely squared away. However, the past two games have featured a holding penalty in the endzone in punt formation for a safety, a partially tipped field goal that missed, and a field goal blocked that could have been scored if not for a hustling all-pro veteran tight end. I won’t put the Seattle punt block on him or formation, which was just darn good scheming by another special teams coordinator. Shoring up these, potentially, game breaking plays is going to be a major undertaking for the team going forward into the final six games and beyond.

Offense: A
The Dallas offense is epic, and it’s really hard to argue. The wall of beef and brawn at the heart of the offense is one of the most, if not the most, complete unit in the NFL. What they do on the field is a sight to watch, it’s almost worth the time to re-watch the games to watch them do their thing out there. It’s funny how things work out. Two seasons ago, Doug Free was the most underwhelming Dallas Cowboy, now, the offense really keeps the quarterback off of the ground when Doug Free is in the lineup. Ron Leary has been everything that the Cowboys thought he could be when they gave him draft pick money after he went undrafted a year ago. In the run game, Leary is a bear and once he gets his paws on a player, he’s going backward. His best game was when he handled JJ Watt, when Watt was being talked about as the league MVP. Travis Frederick has been a rock, and outside of the one miss snap in Seattle, I personally can’t think of a bad snap from Frederick, and he gets on the block and stays on the block, but maybe a little too long a time, with a team high four holding penalties. The Cowboys have struck gold, again, with Zack Martin, the right guard. He’s a monster, a man-amal, and a symbol. The drafting of Martin was a show of commitment to the running game and protection of Tony Romo, and it has paid serious on the field dividends. In the open field, I’d argue that there isn’t a better guard in the league. Then there’s the original, the foundation of what this team will be built around for the next ten seasons, Tyron Smith. Smith has been beyond solid, but has collected a team high seven penalties. Tyron is tyrant in space, when lead blocking to the left, he’s as quick as a tight end with the power of a lineman.

The receivers have really only been three consistent options: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and Jason Witten. Terrance Williams started off hot, with five touchdowns through the first five games, and when the calendar turned to October, Williams was good for a clutch catch per game and had the eye of Tony Romo in adverse situations. Jason Witten is just what he always has been, a rock. The man to kick start the offense if it starts out a little flat, and apparently the only player that Brandon Weeden can complete a pass to. Then there’s Dez Bryant. The most dynamic player that the Cowboys have, that with the catch of single pass, can take on the entire opposing defense and score a touchdown. Or he can get personal and tear up the corner that he’s matched up on, one-on-one. It’s really a shame that Dez didn’t have Romo for the Cardinals’ game, because Dez versus Patrick Peterson with the real deal spinning the ball, that could have been a great battle, other than a 55 minute long floundering. Dez’s impending free agency scares a ton of people, and I genuinely can’t blame anyone, the man is beast and the heartbeat of the Dallas Cowboys. His highlight reel alone will energize every fan-base around the league and be a major topic of interest if the Cowboys dare him to test the open waters of free agency. The role playing receivers have played well when called upon. Cole Beasley is almost a guaranteed to pick up a first down with every reception. I’d like to see more utilization of the hard running that Dwayne Harris displays, every time he touches the ball, more screen passes perhaps. Gavin Escobar has three touchdowns on the season, same as Jason Witten, but just hasn’t gotten the targets, and I’m not just saying that because my father, my brother, and I were on television when he was drafted. Fifth round rookie Devin Street just hasn’t been on the field a whole lot, and just needs to continue to work his way into the game. James Hanna hasn’t been called upon but only two times, making one catch.

The backs are where it’s at for the offense this season. Mainly, DeMarco Murray. He’s a serious league MVP candidate, and he’s really put together a special season, thus far. Take a look at the stats, he 411 yards ahead of the next running back, Arian Foster. That’s three really excellent games worth of yards. Murray has demonstrated the qualities needed to be every down back that all teams are looking for, and these haven’t just sprung out of nowhere, they’ve always been in Murray’s game, they have just laid dormant on the trainer’s table. Vision, to see the lanes before the play even develops. Patience, to wait for the doors to get opened by his monsters in front. Determination, to extend plays and squeeze the final drops of a waning play. He also has the reliable hands in the passing game. Murray has the third most receptions on the team, and in total has 1,514 yards. Murray has only one flaw this season, and it’s fumbling the ball. Murray has five fumbles on the season, three off of running plays, and two after catches, but the difference matters about as much as stubbing my toe on the door jam or the coffee table, doesn’t matter, I’m still going to be mad and my foot is still going to hurt. If Murray has put these fumbles behind him, the Cowboys can just continue to feature Murray. Joseph Randle isn’t on the field as much as people would probably like, given DeMarco Murray’s injury history. When Randle does get into the game, the running game doesn’t exactly miss a beat, in fact, Randle’s averaging nearly seven yards a carry. Lance Dunbar isn’t much of the between the tackles runner, he has only 19 carries, but where his gold is made is in the receiving game. Dunbar has 14 catches and is good for close to 13 yards per catch. The fullback, Tyler Clutts isn’t a stats guy, but is a part of the Cowboys jumbo, short yardage formation, which is now a point of pride for the Cowboys.

The quarterback. Tony Romo, has proved that the offense just isn’t the same without him. By missing the game against Arizona, the entire offense was both rocky and flat, which is a feat. Romo started the season with questions about his back, and those concerns were immediately thrown out against the 49ers in the season opener, because his decision making took center stage as the Cowboys dropped the game for a panic mode start to the season. Since the 49ers game, where Romo posted a 60.8 quarterback rating for throwing three picks and only one touchdown, Romo has only thrown three interceptions to 17 touchdowns, and has only four games under 110.2 rating, and three of those are games where he finished with 93.5 (TEN), 98.0 (HOU), and 95.7 (WAS). When I saw Romo laying on the turf, taste was removed from my face, doubt kicked down the hope levies in my mind, and I swear, I clinched my hands so tight, even my nervously chewed-down fingernails dug into my palms. No one out in Cowboys Nation can say that they didn’t have a moment where the remaining schedule whizzed around their head and saw all of the effort that the Cowboys had built to that point, completely fizzle away. But that Tony Romo would do what that Tony Romo does, and get back into the game. The Cowboys lost the Washington game and Romo would sit out against the defensively strong Arizona Cardinals, and Brandon Weeden would get a chance to showcase his ability. He didn’t. Brandon Weeden showed that he and the receivers weren’t on the same page, in fact, it looked like they had been reading completely different books. Weeden was completely unable to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. And that difference between Tony Romo and Brandon Weeden is why I put the A or the incomplete, because the Cowboys looked like a bunch of pieces running around when Weeden was the starter, and a well-oiled, properly tuned muscle car when Tony Romo is in the driver’s seat. Like a Chevette versus a Chevelle.

Defense: C+
I’ll start with the base level. As separate pieces, I doubt anyone would think twice about them coming into this season. George Selvie is a guy that showed up last season, played with a chip on his shoulder, and really played some good football. Anthony Spencer was trying to get back to full health and back to form. The exact same could be said about Henry Melton. Jeremy Mincey has been cast aside from the AFC champs Denver Broncos. Tyrone Crawford returning from a serious lower body injury. Nick Hayden was one of those pleasant surprises that coach Marinelli really has confidence in from the previous season. Terrell McClain moved up I-45 to put his forgettable time in Houston behind him. And finally, the young draft pick that the Cowboys traded with Washington to move up to get, DeMarcus Lawrence, entered the season on the designated to return list, so had nothing but time in the weight room to tack on mass. But these players, both getting healthy and hungry, and working as a motivated unit of “Rushmen” have turned up the heat on quarterbacks. Their signature game was the performance they laid on the Seattle Seahawks. The word that comes to mind when reminiscing about the defensive line play, is constant. They hounded Russell Wilson, a week after he showed just how dangerous he can be when he moves where he wants to, racking up 122 yards against Washington. That’s just it though, the “Rushmen” did not allow Wilson to move where he wanted to go, they controlled him with big waves of pressure, matched with a motivated man getting by his blocker forcing a quick throw, on what seemed like every other throw. It looked like a return to form for Spencer, and what started to get Henry Melton back into his pro bowl, almost uncontainable form. Not a ton of sacks, but constant pressure, seems like a sustainable plan going forward. With Lawrence feeling his way into more plays and situations and getting production from Jack Crawford and Kyle Wilber, and adding Josh Brent and Tyrone Crawford to the rotation after the bye week, the trend is up.

The linebackers took a hammer blow in OTA’s, losing Sean Lee for the entire season, and trying to work some confidence back into Bruce Carter’s game, the outlook was bleak. To add to the rotation, the Cowboys tossed a draft pick go Baltimore’s way for a player who had retired twice in Rolando McClain. I’ll be completely honest, I had zero faith in McClain being anything for the Cowboys. He appears to be completely energized, and motivated in this locker room, in which on defense, had little outside expectations, only to be an actually worse unit than was last season’s franchise low point. McClain has emerged as the 8th overall pick type of player that the Raiders were hoping they were getting, and then again when the Ravens had aspirations of a possible long term linebacker with top-10 upside before his retirement. McClain has as many forced fumbles in the first ten games with Dallas as he did in three seasons with Oakland, and two interceptions in the same period and only had one in those same three seasons. Justin Durant looked to be a very good complimentary outside linebacker to McClain and was having a monster season, but unfortunately tore his bicep muscle in his arm against Washington, and that ended his season. Bruce Carter is working towards putting last season behind him, and just isn’t making those same mistakes that made him a liability last season, and even has two game clinching interceptions, one taking for the pick six. Carter just needs to stay on the field, and keep putting solid performances together. Then, there’s the kid, Anthony Hitchens. A major run stuffer, and a seriously buildable asset for the defense. Many thought that Hitchens was an over-draft, and a one-way, run support linebacker. That’s not a problem, if he can actually stuff the run. Twice this season, a team tried to run up the gut on a fourth and short, and twice Hitchens has made the stop and the defense gives the ball back to the offense. Kyle Wilber has played in multiple roles this season, in relief of various players, and hasn’t played terribly, but his best position is along the defensive line, rushing the passer.

Now on to the backend, the defensive backs. The depleted, and even before the boo-boos, the weak link of the defense. Orlando Scandrick is so much better than any of the other corners, it’s ridiculous. Scandrick seems to play with serious passion, as seen against the Cardinals, when he was shown on the side line, blowing up, and then got back in the game and forced a fumble and batted a pass straight into the air, which likely should have gotten intercepted. Scandrick has been the best cornerback on the Cowboys, realistically, since he was drafted. As good as Scandrick has been, the inverse in underachieving has been Brandon Carr. I really don’t even know in respect to Carr. He came into Dallas with such expectation, and has just flat-out underachieved. Soaking up the disappointment is Morris Claiborne, who was placed on injured reserve after he was demoted for sub-par play prior to the New Orleans game in which he blew out his knee. I’m not joking or being mean but the defense might have actually improved with the removal of Claiborne. And that’s such a letdown, but a letdown like an elevator with the cables cut, for such a disappointment for the former number six overall pick, who was the unanimous best corner in the draft. Sterling Moore has been the “next man up” pretty much his entire career, and with injuries, has been thrust into the starting lineup. Teams have no reason not to throw the ball Moore’s way, unless they dead set on spreading the ball around after they’ve already burned Carr. Tyler Patmon is very interesting. He has got apparent ball skills, having housed two interceptions, one in the regular season, after sharking a ball out of the air and returning it 58 yards for the touchdown, and the other was in preseason, and is mentioned because he read the play like he had wrote it, and took it to the house from about 8 yards out. Unfortunately, Patmon has an MCL sprain and is going to miss a chunk of games on the back end of the schedule, but could be a real wild card when he does find his way back into the lineup. The safeties have been solid, I’d say. Barry Church has had highs and lows this season, but he does lead the Cowboys in tackles, but his performance against Washington was self-proclaimed his worst of his career. JJ Wilcox is still learning his position and during his process, has developed into a punisher. He’s working into being a good cover man, but if the ball is in front of him, he’s on it. I’m a believer in the development of Wilcox alongside Barry Church. The defensive backs bring the grade down, but have four division games left and that’s familiar foes where they know more of what could happen and can get better, especially after the bye week rest.

Special Teams: B+
Chris Jones has the 11th best punting average, but that’s a 46.3 yards per punt average, but is tried for 26th with punts downed inside the twenty yard line with only 11. Jones is incredibly solid, and isn’t a liability in anyway, but the special teams coverage could be better. Dan Bailey is bullet-proof, and I think every Cowboys fan will join me in saying that there isn’t a single kicker that we would rather have than Dan Bailey. The guy is cold money. If you’re watching the game at home, when Dan Bailey lines up for a field goal, it’s clearance to go to the bathroom, or get a fourth beer, and when you return in front of the television, the Cowboys are three points richer. The Cowboys coverage group/blocking team brings the special teams grade down with the sub-par blocking on Dan Bailey field goal attempts two games in a row, leading to one attempt being blocked, and another being partially tipped to redirect the kick for missed points. Dwayne Harris’ fumble against the Seahawks was a serious kick in the guts, but has been setting up solid drive positions, especially against the Cardinals, where Harris had two good returns, with one getting into Cardinals’ territory. Kyle Wilber’s hold in the endzone that resulted in a safety, that subsequently resulted in one of the best Jason Garrett faces in recent memories, but that really needs to be tied up going forward.

Management: B
During DeMarco Murray’s and Dez Bryant’s contract season, to have both the mainstays of the Cowboys’ offense in contract seasons, not getting a deal done is pretty solid leverage. For DeMarco Murray, the knowledge of the under-drafting of running backs in the draft and the apparent effectiveness of the offensive line makes Murray a possible pass-over in the contracts after the season is over. For Rolando McClain, to keep the straight face and not admit that McClain is the durable, hard-nosed middle linebacker leader that the defense needs to thrive off of, and would allow Sean Lee to be a play making outside linebacker that could cover the tight end and not worry about being the end-all linebacker of the 4-3 defense. But for Dez Bryant, all the bluffs in the game can work during the season, but if Dez tests the open waters, the Cowboys won’t like the results, because a salary cap-abled team in need of a play maker will swoop in and take Dez away from the Cowboys. Dez Bryant is the focal point of the Cowboys’ offense, once the ball is in his hands, it’s a possible touchdown.

The Cowboys as an entire team is a solid B and that doesn’t hurt. The defense will benefit from the bye week the most, giving Carter, McClain, Crawford, and Lawrence another week of rest and recuperation to be completely ready for the Giants game on Sunday night.