Heading into the 2013 season, there are a number of pressing questions surrounding the Dallas Cowboys.
There’s been a lot of change in Big D over the past 12 months, but hopes are as high as ever in Dallas. With an undeniably talented roster, it will be interesting to see if the Cowboys can finally cash in their ticket for a playoff run.
To do that, they need contributions from key pieces of the puzzle: the Will Allen, Travis Frederick and Doug Free-esque players whom many aren’t counting on for significant help.
Let’s take a look at 10 burning questions facing the Cowboys in 2013...
The Cowboys’ offense is built around the pass, but there’s been a lot of pressure on Jason Garrett to run the ball more. With Bill Callahan now calling the plays in Dallas, it might actually happen. That’s not to say it should, though; since 2009, the Cowboys have won nearly twice as often when they pass the ball more (on more than 57 percent of snaps) through three quarters as opposed to when they pass less frequently.
The reason that Cowboys’ wins (and victories for all NFL teams) are correlated with a lot of rushing attempts is that teams already winning run the ball late in games. If we analyze stats through just the first three quarters, we see that the best passing teams really win games. It can change the way we view football.
In 2013, we should want to see more runs from the Cowboys—not because they’re a cause of winning, but rather a result of it.
Dez Bryant is an absolute monster, and outside of, perhaps, Calvin Johnson, there’s a really good argument that he’s the top receiver in the NFL. Bryant is particularly dynamite in the red zone, utilizing his size and freakish ball skills to get into the end zone.
With a career touchdown rate of 13.5 percent, Bryant might be the favorite to lead the league in touchdowns. I projected 14 touchdowns for him. Amazingly, Bryant has taken 37.1 percent of his career red-zone targets for a score.
There are some major concerns that DeMarco Murray is injury-prone and simply incapable of finishing an entire 16-game season.
I’m pretty much agnostic on the topic of injuries in most situations; some players are probably more injury-prone than others, but that doesn’t mean we can make accurate predictions regarding injuries. They’re such random, low-frequency events that it’s just really difficult to determine if a player is injury-prone or just unlucky.
Murray has missed nine of 32 possible games in his two-year career, but there’s a solid chance that he’s been the recipient of bad luck. And even if he is more injury-prone than the average player, he’s still probably a coin flip, at least, to finish all 16 games.
After a “down” season in which he registered 11.5 sacks, Ware is primed for a bounce-back year. But I’m not sure we’re going to see any more 20-sack seasons from the defensive end. While it’s true that he played much of last season injured, that’s what happens to aging players.
We can’t necessarily use age to predict injuries on an individual basis, but we know that older players are more susceptible to injuries and take longer to heal when they do get hurt. That’s not to say that Ware is likely to get injured, but just that we can’t brush aside his 2012 performance as an outlier.
And if we look at Ware’s career curve, it resembles that of the typical defensive end. Ware’s play has been out of this world, but in terms of production in relation to his previous career peak, Ware is right in line with other players at his position. He might still have an MVP-caliber season left him, but the numbers suggest it isn’t likely.
Sean Lee has been outstanding for the Cowboys, but like Murray, he hasn’t been able to stay on the field. That should change in 2013, meaning Lee has an outstanding chance to lead the NFL in tackles.
He made a tackle on 17.5 percent of his snaps in 2012—an All-Pro-caliber rate—and he fits better in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 defense than he did in the 3-4 scheme. Now playing as the sole middle linebacker, Lee is almost a lock for the Pro Bowl if he can remain healthy.
Last year, Tony Romo managed a 66.2 percent completion rate, 8.6 YPA and a 109.1 passer rating on play-action looks. Despite that, he attempted a play-action pass on just 10.0 percent of his dropbacks—the lowest rate in the NFL, by far, according to Pro Football Focus.
Actually, the difference between Romo and the next-lowest quarterback—Eli Manning—was larger than the gap between Manning and the next 11 quarterbacks.
The Cowboys likely limited their play-action looks because they couldn’t effectively run the ball, but there’s actually no correlation between rushing success and play-action efficiency. Five of the top 10 play-action passers in 2012 played on teams that ranked in the bottom 10 in the NFL in yards per carry.
Defenses tend to play situations, not pass-rushing efficiency, so the Cowboys should increase their play-action usage regardless of their running game.
I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen that Witten wasn’t nearly as efficient in 2012 as his bulk stats show. The tight end set the record for single-season catches by a tight end with 110, but that’s primarily because the ‘Boys were losing so often, thus forced to throw. In reality, Witten had only six catches (yes, six!) when Dallas had the lead.
On top of that, Witten’s yards per route—the number of receiving yards he compiled per route that he ran—declined for the fifth straight season. He’s an aging player who has reached the period of his career when other tight ends have typically broken down. Witten is obviously still an effective player, but with fewer targets—he set a career high with 150 in 2012—Witten’s bulk stats will plummet in 2013.
Dallas just placed defensive tackle Jay Ratliff on PUP, so he’ll be out for the majority of the first half of the season, at least. Ratliff probably wasn’t going to be as effective as people were hoping anyway, but now, the Cowboys will be forced to start Nick Hayden inside. Hayden has 53 tackles and two sacks during his four-year career. If Kiffin’s defense continually loses its battles up the middle, it could be a long year.
Jason Garrett called all of 24 screen passes in 2012—15 to wide receivers, eight to running backs and one to a tight end. Yes, the Cowboys ran one running-back screen every two games last year. We’ve already seen the offense approach that number during the preseason with Bill Callahan calling the plays.
If the ‘Boys can’t run the ball, throwing screens can be an effective weapon, acting as an “extended handoff” to hold back pass-rushers. With a stable of pass-catching backs, there’s a good chance we’ll see the Cowboys’ screen rate triple or quadruple in 2013.
This is really the most important question of them all. The ‘Boys are in arguably the most competitive division in football, with all four teams possessing nearly equal shots of winning the NFC East. I’ve projected the Cowboys at 10-6, which might very well be good enough to take it home.
Either way, there’s a really good chance the Cowboys’ Week 17 matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles will be a very interesting game with major postseason implications. Will Tony Romo and the ‘Boys again fold late in the season as they did in 2012, or will they come out victorious on their way to a postseason run?
It’s great to have football back!