Dallas Cowboys Season Preview

This time last year, Hard Knocks was showing the Cowboys off to the world, complete with the attitude and thought that the Cowboys had a one-way ticket to the Super Bowl, and Valley Ranch was making arrangements for the shipment of their 6th Lombardy Trophy. Then just a couple months later, Pacman got into a fight, T.O. was yelling at everyone on and off the field, Romo broke his pinkie, and the Cowboys started their downfall that would leave them out of the playoff picture.

Funny how humbling a NFL season can make you.

Now on the heels of a draft that was called “dead” by Todd Archer today on the Ticket’s “Ranch Report” (and for good reason, the biggest impact will be a kicker…ouch), the Cowboys go into this season trying to pick up the pieces of 2008. There are no Super Bowl projections at the Ranch this time around; in fact, things have been rather quiet all around…well save for the $1.2 billion dollar stadium that is now the Cowboys home…

So what will this season have in store for the ‘Boys this time around? Will they, like Notre Dame last season, break their postseason winless streak? Or will we have yet another season of failed execution, excuses, and yet another miserable December swoon? I’ll attempt to hit some of the keys for the Cowboys season as well as try to make a season prediction. And then, come January, I can link this post in another entry we can all laugh as I am dead wrong on everything.

The Circus Has Left Town

The biggest change this season has been the attitude of the team, and no, I don’t mean Wade going up to the podium like an idiot, trying to be a hard-ass and saying “It’s time for football!”

No, this time around Jerry has decided to remove any player that either was, or had the potential to be, a major problem and distraction for the team. Gone now are T.O. Owens, Adam “Pacman” Jones, Tank Johnson, Roy Williams (the safety), and Greg Ellis. The first three are rather obvious for either dividing the locker room (T.O.) or off the field issues (Pacman and Tank). With Williams and Ellis though, the issue was slightly different. In Williams case, not only were the Cowboys tired of seeing him about 10 yards behind a receiver, but also his blasting the media for pointing it out. Ellis has been a contract negotiating nightmare recently as he couldn’t quite handle having a diminishing role with the Cowboys and made it known quite often (enjoy the Raiders buddy, also, try to avoid being pancake blocked by a QB in the future).

The message delivered this offseason has been rather simple: if you have any potential of being a headache, be one for another NFL team (or in Pacman’s case CFL, or well, any league/team crazy enough to take that mess on).

While this has done wonders for training camp and the preseason not being filled with tons of ridiculous stories or questions about T.O.’s bike riding habits, the removal of potential distractions will not equal an automatic cure for the team. Mike Rhyner of the Ticket’s Hardline has it right. Getting rid of distractions such as T.O. is only about 50% of what’s wrong with this thing. There is something to be said for Romo being able to have an easier time commanding the huddle without the shadow of T.O. looming, as well as not needing to worry week to week whether or not Pacman will make it rain at a local strip club.

The chemistry of the team will definitely have a marked improvement; however, there are a couple of other more important keys to this season’s success.

For the Love of God, BLOCK SOMEBODY

Someone needs to explain how we have a single Pro Bowl player on this line. I went into looking into some of the reasons for the infamous “December Swoon” of recent years. Romo tends to take much of the blame for this, but let’s take a look at the sack numbers (with Romo in as QB) month by month:

Month 2006 2007 2008
September DNP 6 3
October 4 5 4
November 4 5 1
December 13 8 12

Those ever so slight increases in sacks in December may just be a little bit of the problem. While 2007 wasn’t as bad, you may also remember that year the ‘Boys didn’t do so bad themselves going 2-2. As I said before, I think I’m noticing a pattern here. It is hard to win games when your best player is on his back half the game. Keep in mind these are only the numbers of how often Romo was sacked and not how often he was hit as well.

If the Cowboys are to improve in 2009, it all starts up front. Romo has been getting sacked far too often and our running game hasn’t been exactly what I’d call stellar recently either. If the line continues to be Swiss cheese, expect yet another December Swoon.

The Romo Friendly Offense

A lot has been made about there being a Romo friendly offense this time around. What does that mean exactly? Balance. Again let’s use the past three years (the start of the current Phillips/Garrett era) and check out the spread of play calling in comparison to the rest of the NFL:

Year Rushing Attempts (NFL Rank) Passing Attempts (NFL Rank) Percent Pass Plays Run
2006 472 (12) 506 (20) 51.7%
2007 419 (21) 531 (18) 55.9%
2008 401 (25) 547 (8) 57.7%

Saying that this team has been relying on the pass increasingly year after year is an understatement. The offense has been leaning on Romo to score points. The running game must not only improve this season, but become a more prominent part of the offense.

The term “Romo Friendly” to me is two fold. First, the offense is not dependent on Romo to try to create/force pass plays and have more balance. Second, Romo isn’t forced to try to feed T.O. the ball in attempts to shut him up week after week. Like I said before, T.O. is 50% of the issue. With a more balanced offense, Romo should have a much better season as balance will keep a constant pass rush off of him and discourage teams from sitting on pass all game long.

A balanced offense is even more crucial this season now with the departure of T.O. As much as I love to bash him, he was a TD machine and major deep threat, and now he is gone. Of course Roy Williams is supposed to fill in, but he has yet to show he can be the kind of threat that T.O. was. Plus, if Williams is doubled this season, what happens to the passing offense then? It will be just like when T.O. failed to escape the double coverage himself, leaving Witten as Romo’s main option. While Witten is a great option to have, as great as he is, he won’t exactly be burning the defense on a deep route very often.

The rushing attack must step up and Marion Barber and Felix Jones must have big seasons for the Cowboys to have any shot at the playoffs.

The Predictions

So with all that being said, what do I see as the end result of this season? In looking at the schedule I can see either a 9-7 or 10-6 season. At best, the Cowboys will be looking to fight for a wild card spot once again this season as I simply can’t see them topping the Giants (even if they did lose Plaxico Burress) in the East with that record.

If they do make the playoffs though, I do believe this will be the year the playoff winless streak does end; however, that is all that will happen. This team is only good enough this season to take a first round victory. Beyond that, there are just simply too many teams in the NFC that will be able to beat them. Ending the streak will be enough to drive the one needed win, but after that, reality will quickly set in.

As far as this week’s game against Tampa Bay goes, I am looking for the Cowboys to win. The Bucs are simply in shambles right now. When you fire your offensive coordinator before week 1, you have issues. The Cowboys are already the better team on paper — there is literally no excuse to lose in week one.