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Today: The Dallas Cowboys
Last Year: 8-8 (2nd place in NFC East)
Another season, another 8-8 finish. Seriously, it’s starting to get a little repetitive, Jerry. 2013 marked the third consecutive 8-8 finish for “America’s Team.” They’ve now failed to make the playoffs for four straight seasons. But hey, at they got a pretty kick-ass TV inside their stadium, right?
Okay, back to football, the Cowboys headed into their bye week with a 5-5 record. But of those five losses, one was a three-point loss to the high-flying Broncos, another was a one-point loss to the 11-5 Chiefs, and a third was a one-point loss to the Lions. After the bye week, they also lost a one-point heartbreaker to the Packers — a game that saw them get outscored 34-10 in the second-half — and they fell by two points to the Eagles. My point? The Cowboys lost a lot of close games to some decent teams.
Tony Romo, despite taking shit from pretty much everyone except Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones, had yet another productive season — his 31 touchdowns ranked fifth in the league. The problem for the Cowboys was on defense. At the end of the season, the team ranked 30th against the pass and 27th against the run. Furthermore, the Cowboys gave up an average of 27 points per game. Ouch.
No game better demonstrates the Cowboys’ difficulties on the defensive side of the ball then their 45-28 loss to Chicago in week 14. Despite the fact that the Bears were playing without Jay Cutler, they were able to light up the Cowboys on their first eight possessions. Yup, the Cowboys failed to get a stop on eight consecutive possessions. Nothing sums up the game quite like this GIF:
In total, the Cowboys’ defense was the worst in the league by far — surrendering about 18 more yards on a game-by-game basis than the 31st ranked team. Because of this, the Cowboys were forced to sit on the sidelines during the playoffs yet again.
Last Year’s Stud: Dez Bryant
There might not be a more entertaining player than Dez Bryant, who went for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns on 93 total catches.
Entertaining on the sidelines?
Runner-up: DeMarco Murray
Last Year’s Surprise: Jason Hatcher
Before last season — in Jason Hatcher’s seven seasons with the Cowboys — he had never topped more than 4.5 sacks. But, in 2013, Hatcher exploded for 11 quarterback takedowns. Pro Football Focus rated Hatcher as the Cowboys’ top defender, racking up a 27.3 overall score. The next closest defender was DeMarcus Ware who scored a 12.6.
Runner-up: George Selvie
Last Year’s Disappointment: Defense
You know it’s bad when Peyton Manning runs for a touchdown against you.
Runner-up: Miles Austin
The defense needs fixing, so the Cowboys spent two of their first three picks at the linebacker position. The first of those two picks, second-round selection DeMarcus Lawrence, is a linebacker out of Boise State. His true calling though is rushing the passer. With DeMarcus Ware now a Bronco, the Cowboys needed some like Lawrence. Though Lawrence had some issues at Boise State — he was suspended three times in college — there’s no denying his talent.
With their third-round pick, the Cowboys drafted Anthony Hitchens from Iowa. Hitchens is also a linebacker and was Iowa’s leading tackler last year.
Other notable pick: Ben Gardner
This Year’s Stud: Tony Romo
He takes way too much shit for a quarterback that is better than the majority of his counterparts. In the last three seasons, Romo’s average completion percentage is 65.6 percent and he is averaging 7.48 yards per attempt. It helps to have some guy named Dez Bryant catching your passes, but still, Romo continues to prove that he’s a top quarterback.
Runner-up: Dez Bryant
This Year’s Surprise: Ben Gardner
Despite a successful college career at Stanford, Gardner, according to many analysts, doesn’t project well as an NFL player. Under the “Weaknesses” section of his profile on NFL.com it says this:
Has very short arms and gets turned and rooted out of the hole by double teams. Inconsistent pad level. Limited hand use — struggles to disengage from blockers. Limited take-off speed and closing burst. Marginal quickness and body control.
Then, he’s projected as a “round 7-priority free agent.” The profile ends with NFL.com calling him a “try-hard, overachieving, base end with desirable toughness, work habits and effort to earn a backup job.”
I think Gardner can be more than that though. He’s versatile, can line up at multiple spots, and was an integral part of Stanford’s defensive success the past three seasons. If he can learn how to use his hands more effectively to shed blockers, he has the potential to be an important contributor.
Runner-up: Morris Claiborne
This Year’s Disappointment: Jason Hatcher
Hatcher will be 32 by the start of the season. It took him eight seasons to finally record double-digit sacks. He’s about to miss 6-8 weeks due to a knee issue. He’s a likely candidate to regress in 2014.
Runner-up: DeMarco Murray
Draft early: Dez Bryant
Good value in the middle rounds: Jason Witten, Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray
Don’t Draft: Defense
What Vegas is saying (LVH sports book): 8 wins
What We’re Saying: 8-8 (2nd place in NFC East)
I’m among the one-percent that actually thinks Romo is a good quarterback, I’m a huge fan of Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray — when he’s healthy — but I don’t think the defense will improve enough for the Cowboys to overtake the Eagles in the East. No matter the editions on defense, losing Ware hurts the team. The Cowboys have to face the Niners, travel to Seattle, and their defense has to face the Eagles’ offense twice in one year. The best I can see Dallas finishing is 10-6, but I don’t think that’s the most likely of scenarios. Instead, the Cowboys seemed primed for another mediocre season without a playoff berth.
[genericon icon=twitter] Follow Sean Wagner-McGough on Twitter @seanjwagner