I cover the Dallas Cowboys full time, and even I don’t have a firm grasp on how they’re going to finish the 2013 season. The Cowboys have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, but for whatever reason, they just haven’t been able to translate that into wins. The range of potential outcomes for Dallas this season could be as wide as four wins or 12.
One of the keys for Dallas will be getting “unexpected” contributions from mid-level players. The ‘Boys have gone as far as players like DeMarcus Ware and Jason Witten have taken them, failing because of a few major weaknesses at other spots. They have the star power to win the NFC East, but do they have the depth?
There’s no player on the Cowboys, perhaps no player in the NFL, whose game is as misunderstood as Tony Romo’s. Labeled as a “choke artist,” Scott Kacsmar points out that Romo actually has the highest fourth quarter passer rating of any quarterback in the league since 2000. He has also totaled a higher career passer rating during December and January than the first three months of the season.
Romo has been haunted by a few key miscues, but those shouldn’t have too much impact if we’re trying to project his future play. What’s more likely: that the quarterback who has the best fourth quarter passer rating in the NFL and who plays at his best late in the season is somehow still a choke artist, or our perception of Romo is just flawed because of a few highly covered plays that immediately come to memory? I’ll take the latter.
Heading into 2013, Romo is coming off of his worst season in terms of touchdown percentage, interceptions, and adjusted yards per attempt. That might sound like a negative, but I’ve found that quarterbacks historically have maintained a high level of play until around age 37, on average. That means Romo is far more likely to bounce back in 2013 than to continue his temporary downward trend.
WINNER: Tony Romo
There really aren’t too many options for “Rookie of the Year” in Dallas simply because the first-year class probably won’t get all that much playing time. Second-round tight end Gavin Escobar is having trouble in the running game, third rounder Terrance Williams will play only on three-receiver sets, and fifth-round running back Joseph Randle won’t beat out Lance Dunbar for No. 2 duties.
Linebacker DeVonte Holloman has been outstanding in coverage during the preseason, already picking off two passes. According to profootballfocus.com, he’s missed two of the 10 tackles he’s attempted, however, and he’s actually being outplayed in the running game by undrafted free agent Brandon Magee. Believe it or not, Magee actually leads all NFL players in tackles this preseason, and he hasn’t missed any of the 20 he’s attempted.
That leaves center Travis Frederick, whose early play has been superior to what anyone could have expected. Frederick is excelling as a run blocker and has given up just one hurry and no sacks (subscription required) in 70 pass protection snaps.
WINNER: Travis Frederick
There are a lot of candidates for “Most Improved Player” just because the Cowboys had so many underachievers and injured players in 2012: Doug Free, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Jay Ratliff, and the list goes on.
I’m going with second-year man Morris Claiborne. The cornerback’s rookie season was plagued by a few poor performances, most notably the Eagles game in which he committed five penalties. The truth is that Claiborne was actually pretty good last year, but his traditional stats don’t show it. Claiborne allowed 48 catches for 571 yards on 69 attempts (subscription required), or 8.28 YPA, and generated just one interception.
However, Claiborne’s numbers were down because quarterbacks didn’t target him all that much. Claiborne’s 69 targets represent just over four per game. In comparison, veteran Brandon Carr was targeted 87 times on the year.
If we look at yards per route—the number of yards Claiborne allowed for every snap he was in coverage—his total of 1.14 ranks him as a low-end No. 1 cornerback. That advanced stat suggests that Claiborne was already better as a rookie than most think. With more targets and a switch to Monte Kiffin’s cornerback-friendly defense, Claiborne’s interception total will soar in 2013.
WINNER: Morris Claiborne
I had a difficult time trying to determine the Cowboys’ biggest surprise in 2013 because they have a lot of talented players who won’t necessarily see much playing time. Some of my options included James Hanna, Ronald Leary, Lance Dunbar and Matt Johnson. I settled on defensive end George Selvie.
Earlier this preseason, I wrote an article explaining why I think Selvie will be special. Here’s a peek at that:
Prior to the 2013 NFL Draft, I published an article suggesting that height is strongly correlated with NFL success for pass-rushers. But that doesn’t mean that being tall is the cause for success. Instead, I think height is correlated with something that’s really, really important for pass-rushers: arm length. Defensive ends need to be able to get off the blocks of offensive tackles, and that’s really challenging if their arms aren’t long enough to maintain separation. Once an offensive tackle gets his hands into the chest of a pass-rusher, the battle is pretty much over.
Selvie isn’t tall for a pass-rusher, but his arms are massive at 34.5 inches. Selvie—a Freshman All-American in 2006 and the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2007—has used that trait to acquire three sacks already this preseason.
Having said that, there’s a good chance that Selvie won’t produce big numbers in 2013 simply because he won’t see enough snaps. In trying to project a true surprise, however, I’m looking for a potentially elite player who could really break out if there’s an injury ahead of him. Selvie fits the bill.
WINNER: George Selvie
Witten is coming off of a season with a record-breaking 110 receptions, so we’d naturally expect some sort of regression. However, I’ve maintained for a while that Witten’s decline has already started. Despite his impressive bulk stats in 2012, Witten’s yards per route decreased for the fifth straight season. He also recorded the lowest yards per target and yards per reception of his career.
As Witten’s workload decreases, his lack of efficiency will show. Think about this: of Witten’s 110 receptions last year, only six came when the Cowboys had a lead!
WINNER: Jason Witten
If Romo wins the team’s MVP award he’ll also be the “Offensive Player of the Year,” so we’ll go a different direction with this one. The most obvious choice is of course Dez Bryant, but everyone is expecting him to excel, especially opposing defensive coordinators. Not many eyes are on DeMarco Murray, however, yet he’s set to explode in 2013.
Murray is labeled as an “injury prone” running back, but we simply don’t know if that’s the case. Murray might be more prone to injuries than the average player, but with only two years in the league, there’s just as good of a chance that he’s just been unlucky. I’d side with the latter notion, meaning Murray has a good chance to compete in every game this year.
With improved health, Murray will be a top-10 back. All of the signs for a breakout are there: youth, size, straight-line speed and a heavy workload. Yeah, I’ll side with the 220-pound back with 4.41 speed who has averaged 4.8 YPC during his career and was on pace to catch 67 passes last season.
WINNER: DeMarco Murray
DeMarcus Ware is still the Cowboys’ best defensive player, but at age 31, he’s unlikely to return to his 20-sack form. If Anthony Spencer can’t get healthy, defenses are really going to double Ware even more than normal, too.
Meanwhile, Carter should excel in Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme. He’s going to be free to chase down ball-carriers and run down the seam to make plays in coverage. More athletic than Sean Lee, Carter should be able to improve on his 11.2 percent tackle rate from 2012.
WINNER: Bruce Carter