5 Burning Questions Facing the Dallas Cowboys in the 2012 NFL Season
The Dallas Cowboys have been loaded with potential for far too long now. A star-studded roster constructed during the Bill Parcells era has routinely failed to make the grade come crunch time of the regular season.
This is a decisive campaign for the Cowboys and second-year head coach Jason Garrett. The investment made in the defense during both free agency and the draft means that the DeMarcus Ware-led unit is out of excuses not to be a top 10 group.
On offense, the Cowboys should be prolific, especially inside the 20, but the play-calling has been poor since the days Garrett was the offensive coordinator. Of course, no matter what the pass-run balance is this season, all eyes will remain firmly fixed on quarterback Tony Romo.
Here are the five biggest questions facing the five-time Super Bowl champions once the regular season begins.
Will Rob Ryan's Scheming Finally Produce a Defensive Rank to Match the Talent?
Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE
Brash defensive coordinator Rob Ryan arrived in Dallas with plenty of bravado. However, his first Cowboys defense failed to meet expectations in 2011, ranking 14th overall.
The big question facing Ryan this season is can his myriad of complex schemes match the talent level and produce a dominant defense in Dallas? One of the central issues with Ryan's multiple-blitz system is the tremendous pressure it puts on the secondary.
Well, the Cowboys have certainly done what they can to address that problem during the offseason. Snaring Brandon Carr in free agency and trading for Morris Claiborne in the draft gives Ryan a duo of ball hawks to make his risky blitz packages a success.
New arrivals aside, fully grasping the multiple concepts and fronts in the Ryan playbook will be the key for the Cowboys' defense this season. One year removed from the lockout, a full offseason could prove invaluable.
Once the real action begins, we'll find out if the talent of the Dallas defensive pool is overrated, or—as this author suspects—if Ryan's play-calling is too scheme-heavy to produce the right results.
Can Jason Garrett Finally Get the Run-Pass Balance Right?
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Like the team itself, the Cowboys offense should be far better than it actually is. One of the chief problems is questionable play-calling from Jason Garrett.
Specifically, the run-pass balance never seems to be right. The Cowboys have the unfortunate tendency to lean too heavily on one side of their game and often the run is utilized too sparingly.
The Cowboys were 24th in total rush attempts and rush attempts per game in 2011. That's too low for a team boasting Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray.
The problem is most acute in the red zone. There seems to be an anxiety in Garrett's play-calling (especially inside the 20), and that tension often wrecks promising drives.
Too many times, the Cowboys seamlessly move the ball between the 20's, only to abandon what works once they arrive at the red zone.
Suddenly, a double-reverse will appear or a wide receiver screen. Similar to their situation on defense, the Cowboys have enough talent at the skill positions to not have to rely on any tricks.
With physical wide receivers, a clutch tight end, two productive runners and an athletic quarterback, the Cowboys should be unstoppable in the red zone. Achieving more symmetry between the run and pass is the simplest way to solve the problem.
Will Jay Ratliff Regain His Best Form?
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
For reasons beyond understanding, there have been dissenting voices regarding Jay Ratliff's contributions in recent seasons, as well as calls to move arguably the NFL's best nose tackle out of the middle.
That would be a major a mistake, as despite a drop in numbers, Ratliff remains vital to the success of the Dallas defensive front. The problem is realizing how the scheme has changed since Ratliff's best days of 2008 and 2009.
Back then, Ratliff was the fulcrum of a one-gap line in then head coach Wade Phillips' defensive scheme. This allowed Ratliff more freedom to attack the center-guard gap rather than have him two-gapping on a regular basis.
The tactic took advantage of Ratliff's quickness, and Phillips designed the front to compensate for his lack of prototype nose tackle size by bookending Ratliff with big five-technique ends. For all of Ryan's scheming, his 3-4 look is more of a traditional, 2-gap front.
In this system, it's perfectly natural for Ratliff's numbers to suffer; in fact, it's expected. However, Ryan's 46 and amoeba packages can still bring out the best in Ratliff.
His quickness, agility and pass-rush prowess make him the ideal choice to act as the sole lineman in amoeba-style fronts. Whenever the Cowboys switch to the 46, Ratliff can provide the interior pressure that helped make him a star thanks to the front's T-N-T alignment.
More than any other player, another year learning Ryan's schemes, could benefit Ratliff the most. The Cowboys need him back at an elite level this season.
Is Dez Bryant Destined to Be a Bust?
Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE
What the future holds for the talented but troubled young wideout, Dez Bryant, is probably foremost in the minds of Cowboys coaches and fans.
The 2010 first-round pick already had more than one run-in with the law during his short pro career. The Cowboys have to hope he won't prove to be more trouble than he's worth.
The early signs are not good, as NFL.com reported yesterday that Bryant is sidelined with patella tendinitis. That removes a significant part of the Dallas' passing game on the eve of the new season.
Bryant has the size, hands and speed to be a prolific weapon, but despite posting 928 receiving yards and scoring nine touchdowns last season, he needs more consistency. That means solving those temperament and durability issues.
Can Tony Romo Silence the Critics and Win When It Matters Most?
Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE
After yet another December collapse, the annual question remains, can Tony Romo ever produce in crunch time? Three playoff appearances and a 1-4 postseason record is not good enough for a quarterback of Romo's caliber.
Romo threw 31 touchdowns in 2011, but not for the first time, his statistical achievements were overshadowed by poor performances when it mattered most. The Cowboys won only one of five games during the final month of last season and three of their losses came against NFC East rivals, killing their playoff hopes.
It is the nature of the NFL to focus most of the blame for failing to deliver on the quarterback. While this is not always completely fair, it's also difficult to escape the feeling that Romo lacks the same level of drive of Tom Brady or Drew Brees.
Fair, or not, Romo's career will be judged on what he does when it counts. When a player possessing his athletic gifts fails to win big, his temperament is naturally going to be questioned.
If Romo wilts yet again in December, the Cowboys may have to finally accept that he's never going to lead them back to the Super Bowl.