If you were to deconstruct a championship team to its most basic elements, you would find three fundamentals common of just about every Super Bowl winner in the last 10 years: a handful of playmakers, a good defense and a depth chart full of productive role players.
There’s no question the Cowboys have plenty of star power and a defense that has turned the corner. Those two elements are good enough for eight or nine wins, but the crucial missing ingredient is what has been holding this team back from any real success.
Here are a few guys that probably won’t be on any fantasy teams, but will have a noticeable impact on the bottom line.
With Jason Witten’s status uncertain for Week 1, John Phillips will see an expanded role to begin the season. Those are some tough shoes to fill. It would be one thing if Phillips was simply getting his shot at becoming a starting tight end, it’s another thing to fill in for one of the best in the history of the NFL (Witten is third in receptions by a tight end).
The Cowboys are hoping to have Tony Romo’s favorite target healthy sooner rather than later. What’s important to note is how often Jason Garrett relies on 12-personnel—one running back and two tight ends.
Garrett loves operating out of two- and three- tight end sets. According to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys used more than one tight end on 53 percent of their offensive snaps last season, the third-highest rate in the NFL.
Some of that has to do with injuries to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. But there’s no denying the versatility that having two great run-blocking and pass-catching tight ends brings to an offense, especially if they’re on the field together.
Being second on the depth chart in any part of the Cowboys’ offense is no exclusion from preseason hype. Phillips has played well in Witten’s absence. He needs to play even better when Witten returns.
It’s going to be exciting to watch Rob Ryan’s defense take shape in its second year. We’ve used the lockout of 2011 as a sacrificial lamb for bad defenses enough. There will be no excuses this year, just extremely high expectations.
Victor Butler will be sharing those expectations as he enters his fourth season in the NFL. As the heir apparent to Anthony Spencer, Butler looks to see a lot of playing time. In fact, there are some that believe he should replace Spencer before season’s end, arguing that Spencer will most likely not be on the team in 2013.
That puts a lot of pressure on Butler and the Cowboys front office. He will be a free agent next year and needs to prove that he can take over as a run-stopper, pass-rusher and coverage guy.
He definitely has the speed as an edge rusher, logging three sacks on 233 snaps in 2011 (compared to six sacks on 939 snaps for Spencer). But can he cover tight ends consistently? Can he play the run?
It’ll be a tough situation for the Cowboys to deal with in 2013. If Butler plays extremely well, he will demand a bigger contract. If he doesn’t, they will have to re-sign Spencer, realizing that a franchise tag will cost them more than $10 million, or hope to find someone in the draft.
But that’s 2013. We’re in win-now mode. Butler will have to be productive if this defense is going to play to its full potential. And regardless of who starts, he and Spencer will have to combine for more than nine sacks if the Cowboys hope to reclaim the NFC East crown.
Different season, same question: who will be the third wide receiver?
Here’s a better question: how much does it matter?
Romo has proven that regardless of who his wide receivers are, he’s good enough to make any of them seem worthy of a starting spot.
Which doesn’t make Garrett’s job any easier when releasing depth charts (or players for that matter). Kevin Ogletree was the offseason favorite to eventually claim the starting job. Cole Beasley is drawing comparisons to Wes Welker. And Dwayne Harris had a spectacular game against the St. Louis Rams, snagging three catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
Are the Cowboys stumbling down the path of wide receiver by committee? Perhaps all of these guys could serve a different role, but the same purpose depending on what the defense is showing.
Having reliable receivers really opens up the playbook. Beasley is an excellent slot option to counter fast defenses. Harris has the strength to get off of jams and the hands to be a trustworthy target in the red zone. Ogletree has the speed to stretch nickel zones when the offense gets backed up.
Does there need to be dedicated No. 3?
As mentioned earlier, Garrett prefers two tight ends to four or five receivers. It’s hard to blame him. Tight ends are proving to be some of the most important players up and down the field.
It’s also hard to ignore the fact that Miles Austin and Dez Bryant can’t seem to stay on the field for an entire season. That makes their replacements very valuable. Production has to come from that spot, regardless of the name on the jersey.
Thankfully, that word “regardless”, is one of Romo’s strengths.
It may seem strange to suggest that a special teams player is going to have an impact on the Cowboys’ playoff push. But with the NFC East shaping up to be one of the toughest divisions in football, field position matters.
McCray had 18 tackles and a forced fumble in 14 games last year. He is their best special teams player. He’s a great tackler. He doesn’t make a lot mistakes. He’s fast. If he were to be sidelined for any reason in 2012, you would notice a difference (unless, of course, the offense scores on every possession).
If you don’t think special teams is a big deal, just ask any San Diego Chargers fan. Their special teams unit has been a dreadful mess and has cost them the playoffs more than once, despite having a great offense and a good defense.
Go watch last season’s NFC Championship game. Two special teams blunders kept the 49ers out of the Super Bowl. Granted, that was an offensive mistake, not a forced mistake, and weather certainly didn’t help, but it all adds up.
One special teams player won’t make or break a season. But when push comes to shove, McCray is a difference maker.
Just by listing Jones as a role player, we edge closer and closer to labeling him as a first-round bust. Maybe he’s already there. I don’t want to put too much stock into a player’s selection-to-production ratio. I don’t write payroll checks.
Instead, I try to keep an unbiased perspective and make clear-headed observations about what is best for a winning season.
It’s easy to forget that just a year ago, Jones was the highly anticipated starter for a very good Cowboys offense. Then, in a 20-16 Week 6 loss to the New England Patriots, Jones suffered a high-ankle sprain.
Enter the next man up.
Some defeats matter more than others. And while it wasn’t surprising that the Cowboys lost to the Patriots, it was surprising that they found the next Emmitt Smith in the process.
We’re not sure. It’s pretty hard to predict the future of a player that has started only seven games. But just the fact that we’re attempting to says a lot about how well DeMarco Murray played in Jones’ absence and how good he has looked in the preseason so far.
What we can predict is that Murray will be the starter. And of all the players on offense not named Romo, he may affect the win/loss ratio the most.
We can also predict that Jones will play a big role offensively. I would be very disappointed if Garrett doesn’t have several plays designed that feature both backs on the field at the same time.
And obviously, Murray can’t play every snap. Jones’ role as a change of pace back shouldn’t be underestimated. He has speed, good hands and he can block. His production while Murray rests is imperative to the Cowboys’ success.
There’s also some skepticism about Murray staying healthy for 16 games. It’s not unthinkable to say that Jones ends up as the starter during some point of the season. It would behoove him to make the most out of those opportunities, considering he could be out of a job in 2013.