By Jay Betsill
Through the midway point of the 2012 season, the Dallas Cowboys have been consistently inconsistent.
They are 3-5 at the halfway point and are in the midst of a two-game losing streak. They have played well at times, such as in their win over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants on the NFL’s opening night. They have also been dominated in embarrassing losses to the Chicago Bears (34-18 defeat on Monday Night Football that included five Tony Romo interceptions) and the Seattle Seahawks (27-7 beating that featured Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate decleating Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee).
The Cowboys look like a team that has the talent and the ability to compete in the NFL on a week-to-week basis, only to fall prey to countless errors including turnovers, penalties and some very questionable clock management coaching decisions. The Cowboys are -11 in the turnover ratio. The only team in the NFL that is worse in that vital category is the Kansas City Chiefs (1-7).
In other words, the Cowboys are where they usually are at this point in the season since their victory in Super Bowl XXX.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones believes they are a better team than what they’ve shown thus far. They’ll certainly get a chance to prove just how good they can be with games remaining against the Philadelphia Eagles (twice), Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins (twice), Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints. Of their remaining games, only the Steelers (Cowboys Stadium, Dec 16) have a winning record.
In spite of games that included five interceptions (Chicago, October 1) and four interceptions (New York Giants, October 28), I am grading Romo himself on a curve as several of his pics have been due to receiver error (Dez Bryant running the wrong route or Kevin Ogletree letting the ball slip through his fingers). While Romo is certainly not having his best season as the signal caller for America’s Team, he often finds himself running for his life behind the offensive line that includes the league’s two most penalized offensive linemen (tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith) and two free agent acquisitions (guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau) that have failed to give much if any help on pass protection and even less on run blocking.
Romo’s greatest strength is perhaps his ability to adapt and make moving parts work when plays break down and this season he has had plenty of opportunities to try and adjust on the fly as the pocket collapses seemingly the instant he gets the ball. He has also had to deal with injuries to the center position as starter Phil Costa and backup Ryan Cook have both battled injuries.
Running back DeMarco Murray has only played in five games and still leads the team with 330 yards on 75 carries. Felix Jones has had the opportunity to step up with Murray out due to injury and has managed only 168 yards on 49 carries.
Tight end Jason Witten lacerated his spleen in the preseason and still managed to play on opening night against the Giants. He went through a couple of weeks where he faced constant criticism for some key drops, but has 51 catches for 487 yards at the midway point with a good chance for another 1,000 yard season. In the Week 8 loss to New York at Cowboys Stadium, Witten had 18 catches for 167 yards to set the franchise record for receptions in a game. Last week, he passed Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin for the most catches in the team’s illustrious history.
The top priority in the Cowboys’ offseason was to address its woeful secondary and they did so by signing free agent cornerback Brandon Carr to a $50 million contract and trading up in the draft to select LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. They also bid farewell to longtime Cowboys corner Terence Newman and replaced safety Abram Elam with Barry Church. In spite of his rumored wishes to be dealt, cornerback Mike Jenkins is still in the fold as the team’s third corner and has added depth to what was previously the team’s weakness.
Injuries have plagued the defense as linebacker Sean Lee was ruled out for the season after a toe injury in the October 21 game against the Carolina Panthers. Lee’s backup Dan Connor was also hurt, forcing Dallas to sign veteran Ernie Sims. Safety Barry Church was having a solid year prior to being placed on injured reserve with a torn Achilles. Pro Bowl tackle Jay Ratliff has also been fighting injuries as he has been hounded by ankle problems since training camp.
DeMarcus Ware is now in his eighth season and has 7.5 sacks to go along with 33 tackles at the halfway mark. With Lee out and Ratliff banged up, he will have to be a big force in the second half if Dallas is able to take advantage of its soft schedule and have any hope of sniffing the postseason.
Kicker Dan Bailey has been solid all season in spite of his head coach’s ineptitude at how to manage the clock at the end of games and setting him up in situations that could easily be avoided. Pro Bowl punter Brian Moorman was signed after the Buffalo Bills released him. He stepped in for the injured Chris Jones and has done an outstanding job with directional kicking and pinning the opposing team inside the 20.
The return game has been a different story as Dez Bryant fared so poorly on punt returns that he was replaced by Dwayne Harris. Meanwhile, Felix Jones’ kickoff returns were possibly worse as he continually brought the ball out from deep in the end zone and failed to reach the 20 and found himself replaced by rookie free agent Lance Dunbar.
The only thing that keeps this from being an F is defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s effort with his unit as they battle injuries and being put in bad situations set up by the offenses’ turnovers. Dallas’ head coach Jason Garret has left a lot to be desired in both his play calling and game management. The 31-29 loss on the road at Baltimore was a testament to the Cowboys entire season, highlighted by the final two minutes that saw the offense not hustling back to the line and Garrett opting to let time run off the clock rather than run another play and get Bailey a few yards closer for a potential game-winning field goal.