5 Lessons the Dallas Cowboys Have Learned in 2012
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It’s hard for me to refer to the following intangibles as lessons. After all, a lesson, at least to me, is something you go through that teaches either a moral message or consequence the first time you experience it.
Beyond the first incident, lesson may not be the best term but for simplicity's sake, I’ll go with that.
Head coach Jason Garrett, in his third season calling the shots in “Big D,” has been challenged in years passed by much of what has plagued this franchise for a number of years. But through all of the documented discussion about the offensive line, the pass rush and all other things Cowboys, a few positives have begun to emerge over the second half of the season.
Lessons learned this season include things like inspiration following tragedy and even winning football games despite numerous injuries. But these things don’t make the list because they’re much more mental than physical and I’m only focusing on actual game results.
Every season brings new faces and new challenges to every team in the NFL, but here are the top five lessons the Cowboys have learned or re-learned in 2012.
5. Size Matters
Nose guard Josh Brent
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Since converting to the 3-4 defensive scheme in 2005, Dallas has never really had an ideal nose guard plugging the “A” gap. What started off with an aging Jason Ferguson under former head coach Bill Parcells ended up with Jay Ratliff as early as 2007.
While both Ferguson and Ratliff bring some good qualities to the position, they unfortunately bring far more weaknesses.
Ferguson was an aging veteran by the time he reached the Cowboys and he only weighed in at about 305 pounds.
Ratliff was a plug-in following a Ferguson injury that landed him on IR following the first game of 2007. Ratliff weighs about the same as Ferguson did but is a much better pass-rusher.
Going all the way back to training camp this year, Ratliff has failed to land much playing time during the regular season due to repeated nagging injuries.
Without getting into the tragedy concerning defensive tackle Josh Brent and teammate Jerry Brown earlier this month, I’ll simply say this about Brent: Size matters.
Brent, despite his pending legal troubles, was easily the biggest nose guard Dallas has employed. At over 320 pounds, Brent helped the Cowboys play the run better than they have in years past. It makes you wonder how things might have turned out had Ratliff been healthy and already moved to defensive end while Brent plugged the middle.
Obviously the Cowboys can’t count on Brent for the future and this puts the franchise right back at square one at the nose.
You can get bigger and better than Brent in the NFL draft just about every year. Having seen how more size and strength in the middle of the defensive line has helped Dallas stay in games even despite a lot of issues on offense, the position needs to be addressed—again.
4. Forcing Turnovers Wins Games
Cornerback Brandon Carr.
Prior to a Week 10 matchup with the Eagles in Philadelphia, there was just about no sign of turnovers forced by the Dallas defense.
New cornerbacks Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne were not playing poorly but the big plays just weren’t there.
Against the Eagles things began to change, though.
Carr picked off his first pass as a Cowboy and scored what amounted to the game-clinching touchdown off rookie quarterback Nick Foles.
Heading into Week 16, Carr has three interceptions which include another game-winner last Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime.
Claiborne, the sixth player chosen in the NFL draft last April, also has his first interception as his learning curve seems to be fading.
There has been a number of near interceptions by numerous Dallas defenders as of late and this is a good sign.
Turnovers win games.
The Cowboys have six of seven games and during that stretch they only lost the turnover battle once—and to guess whom?
Washington. The Cowboys turned the ball over three times to the Redskins' one and they fell short by seven in almost completing an amazing comeback victory at home.
In the other five games played since November 11, 2012, Dallas is undefeated with a turnover margin of plus-four in games against the Steelers, Cleveland and Cincinnati and two meetings with the Eagles.
Yip, turnovers matter as well.
3. Running the Football Also Wins Games
Running back DeMarco Murray.
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Starting running back DeMarco Murray has demonstrated that when healthy, he can carry the load in the Dallas backfield.
Again I stress, when he can stay healthy.
In his first two seasons out of the University of Oklahoma, Murray has managed to set the franchise record for rushing yards in a single game and also live up to all other expectations in his limited role in Garrett’s offense.
Since returning from an injury suffered against Baltimore back in October, Dallas is undefeated and in position to win the NFC East if it can win out.
With two games remaining during the regular season, Murray needs to be ridden like a cheap mule. His explosiveness out of the backfield is something backup Felix Jones just doesn’t have and Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner are essentially just special teams pieces.
Murray can really do it all and in games in which he rushes for a touchdown, the Cowboys are also undefeated in 2012.
Football is about running, not passing. Throwing the ball is simply a measure to keep defenses from simply stacking the box to where no offense would ever gain 10 yards in three downs. Football would be just as ridiculous as the type of trench warfare fought in WWI.
Running is the safest and most efficient way to travel in football—and Dallas was just horrible without Murray in the lineup for six games, a stretch in which the Cowboys went three and three.
Even though Murray isn’t rushing for the kind of yardage that fellow Sooner Adrian Peterson often does, Murray is capable of that kind of output.
Dallas needs to give Murray every opportunity to get it.
2. Special Teams Can Help Win Games Too
Kicker Dan Bailey.
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For years prior to the arrival of second-year kicker Dan Bailey, the position of placekicker was manned by rookies, rejects and experiments for most of the last decade. The ability to trust a kicker is something that so many fans and analysts of the NFL just take for granted.
Bailey has followed last season’s stellar rookie campaign that saw him become only the third rookie in league history to hit six field goals in a single game with even more clutch performances.
During Dallas’ stretch of five wins over its last six games, Bailey has twice kicked winning field goals in overtime and also kicked another game-winner as the clock expired in regulation. You might recall Bailey’s heroics last year in San Francisco, another game-winning kick coming in overtime against the 49ers.
Finally, Bailey’s leg seems stronger this year than last. Replacing the cannon leg of kickoff specialist David Buehler in 2011, Bailey would need some time to show anything close to the kickoff ability that Buehler sometimes offered during his brief career with the Cowboys.
But Bailey brings accuracy and points, something the Cowboys had struggled with relying on for far too long.
Another game-changer on special teams is punt returner Dwayne Harris, a second-year wide receiver out of East Carolina.
It was Harris’ punt return for a touchdown against the Eagles back in the first matchup between these two teams that broke the game open for the Cowboys and might have actually saved their season. Harris will likely make a big play for the third wide receiver position in 2013.
The 1990s Dallas Cowboys had versatile and talented special teams and the big plays back then changed the torch of power in the NFC East.
This unit needs to keep making plays—and that also includes the forced fumble by linebacker Victor Butler against the Steelers last Sunday. Tight end John Phillips’ recovery definitely saved the game for the Cowboys as that return was likely going to result in points.
1. Pass Protection
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Quarterback Tony Romo is among the top quarterbacks in the NFL, as his personal list of achievements continues to grow. At times it is hard to remember that Romo was an undrafted free agent out of college that didn’t play in the pros as a starter until his fourth season.
All good things come to those who wait—unless Jason Pierre-Paul is in the area, in which case it’s best to go wait on something else probably.
Perhaps the biggest improvement from the Cowboys over the last six games has come from the offensive line.
Romo’s blockers have been highly inconsistent in 2012 and there are numerous reasons for this. But over the past few weeks, the pass protection has been a little better and much of this includes the return of Murray to the backfield.
It’s no coincidence that receiver Dez Bryant is emerging so quickly as a big-time playmaker in the NFL. Bryant is playing, by far, the best football of his career and has scored a touchdown in six consecutive games!
Talk about the right time to get hot—but I refer not to Romo or Bryant.
I’m talking about an offensive line that has been banged up, inconsistent and largely ineffective in a number of games this season. Add in Murray’s absence along with six missing starters from the defense and it’s a real testament to the ability, character and heart of Romo.
If Dallas can keep Romo upright and healthy, there’s really no limit as to how far the Cowboys could go in the postseason. But everything depends on this offensive line giving Romo and his weapons the chance to succeed and make plays.
This is happening more and more and Bryant and tight end Jason Witten continue to flourish week after week.