Although the Cowboys didn’t make many moves in the personnel department this offseason, this squad still has a sense of freshness surrounding them. That’s probably due to the revamped coaching staff, headlined by a new defensive coordinator and offensive play-caller. Add in some impact rookies and potential improved health, and you have the makings of a rejuvenated Dallas Cowboys team in 2013.
The Cowboys’ biggest addition of the offseason was probably defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Renowned for his “Tampa 2” defense, Kiffin has already altered the way the ‘Boys attack the football. We’ve seen that during the preseason with 10 takeaways in their five games—only six fewer than they had all of last season.
One of the most obvious changes has been the switch to lighter personnel. The Cowboys’ projected starting defense will weigh 80 pounds less than last year’s opening-day starters. In a league in which the best defenses must combat the pass, that’s a big positive.
Along with Kiffin’s scheme comes the arrival of a four-man defensive front. The Cowboys’ 4-3 scheme will change the way the defense approaches the game. Most notably, defensive end Anthony Spencer will rush the passer on nearly every snap. In comparison, he rushed on just 64.9 percent (subscription required) of the Cowboys’ 2012 pass defense snaps.
Although Kiffin is famous for playing Cover 2, we might not see as much of it from Dallas as you’d think. Kiffin has already said he wants to imitate Seattle’s 2012 defense—one that used Kam Chancellor as an “in the box” safety and played a whole lot of Cover 3. That would be good news for Barry Church, but regardless, the Cowboys must fly to the football and generate more takeaways with their four-man front.
On the other side of the ball, head coach Jason Garrett will hand over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Bill Callahan. Callahan will likely try to run a more balanced offense in order to take pressure off of Tony Romo. The theory might not pan out. Prior to the 2012 season, I wrote this:
Running the ball is strongly correlated with winning, so teams obviously need a powerful rushing attack to win games, right? Not really. Teams that are already winning rush the football to close out games, creating the illusion that running often is the impetus for team success. In reality, teams generally acquire the lead by throwing the football with great efficiency.
The Cowboys are no exception to the rule. Since 2008, they’ve won just 27.6 percent of their games when they pass on greater than 57 percent of their offensive plays. Wow, better keep it on the ground, right?
Before jumping to conclusions, soak this one in: That win rate miraculously jumps to 63.6 percent when the ’Boys pass on at least 57 percent of plays through the first three quarters, compared to only 41.9 percent when they pass on fewer than 57 percent of plays. The Cowboys are a passing team, built to win on the back of Romo and his arsenal of pass-catching weapons.
In general, the ‘Boys should be attacking defenses through the air early in games. The rushing game is important in short-yardage situations and late in contests, but early rushing success isn’t going to propel the team to victory too often.
Having said that, there’s pretty good evidence that the running game will look a whole lot different under Callahan. Specifically, the ‘Boys seem to be running way more often to the perimeter, which is a welcome sight. I track every Cowboys play each year, and take a look at their breakdown of 2012 runs:
- Bootleg: 0.5 percent
- Counter: 2.5 percent
- Dive: 57.2 percent (3.27 YPC)
- Draw: 14.8 percent (4.36 YPC)
- End-Around: 1.5 percent
- Power: 18.2 percent (2.95 YPC)
- Sneak: 0.5 percent
- Toss: 4.3 percent
- Trap: 0.5 percent
The Cowboys gained more than 7.0 YPC on counters from 2009 to 2011 yet ran just six of them in all of 2012. Meanwhile, more than half of their runs were dives right up the middle on which they totaled 3.27 YPC. Something isn’t right there. Under Callahan, it looks like Dallas will get the ball to the edge with speedsters DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar on counters, tosses and stretches.
The Cowboys shocked many by selecting Wisconsin center Travis Frederick in the back of the first round, and a lot of people have been making straight-up comparisons between Frederick and a player the Cowboys bypassed to draft him—defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd.
The truth is that since the ‘Boys moved down in the first round and picked up an extra third-round pick, we should be comparing Floyd to both Frederick and the player the Cowboys selected with that pick—wide receiver Terrance Williams. Together, Frederick, who will likely start at center for Dallas, and Williams will probably be the most productive pair of offensive rookies for the Cowboys.
Dallas also spent a second-round pick on tight end Gavin Escobar and a fifth-rounder on running back Joseph Randle. Neither player has impressed in the preseason, and they’ll both need to climb the depth chart in order to make a significant impact in 2013.
The Cowboys didn’t select a defensive player in the 2013 NFL draft until the back of the third round with Georgia Southern safety J.J. Wilcox. Although Wilcox has shown flashes in the preseason, he has just one year of experience at safety. That means he’s unlikely to contribute much outside of special teams, barring injury.
The ‘Boys’ top draft pick might be linebacker DeVonte Holloman. Widely considered one of the premier coverage linebackers in the draft, Holloman has two interceptions and an 11.3 tackle rate in the preseason. Right now, the sixth-rounder looks like the steal of the Cowboys’ draft.
Due to cap restrictions, the Cowboys really couldn’t sign any impact players in free agency. Given the talent they have on the roster and the fact that top-dollar free agents are naturally coming off of outlying seasons (and thus usually grossly overvalued), it’s probably for the best.
The team did bring in two veterans in linebacker Justin Durant and safety Will Allen, however. Durant is still competing for a starting job, battling Holloman and Ernie Sims to play next to Sean Lee. Meanwhile, Allen appears to have one of the Cowboys’ safety jobs locked up. He played only 432 snaps last year, allowing just a 57.9 passer rating in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
While the Cowboys didn’t bring in any big-time free agents, they didn’t lose any impact players, either. The list of departures includes wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, safety Gerald Sensabaugh, linebacker Dan Connor, tight end John Phillips, running back Felix Jones and cornerback Mike Jenkins. Only Sensabaugh was a starter, but he allowed a 69.6 percent completion rate and 9.74 YPA in coverage (subscription required).
We can’t know for sure, but it’s extremely likely that one of the most beneficial changes for the Cowboys in 2013 will be improved health. The ‘Boys had 38 individual games missed by defensive players who began the season as starters, including 13 games from Barry Church, 15 combined from Sean Lee and Bruce Carter and three from Orlando Scandrick.
After all was said and done, the typical week in Dallas saw an average of 11.2 individual games missed. The team lost an incredible 91 total games from players on IR. In comparison, Dallas never had more than 47 games missed by players on IR since 2009.
Improved health—a near certainty—is probably the most valuable change for which the Cowboys could hope.
We’ll see most of the same faces on the field in Big D this season, but that doesn’t mean the team has been stagnant. They revamped their coaching staff, switching from a 3-4 to Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme and promoting Bill Callahan to play-caller. The latter’s biggest contributions could come in the running game.
But if the Cowboys are going to improve in 2013, it will likely be for two reasons: takeaways and reduced injuries. Kiffin’s defense is designed to force turnovers, and it succeeded in the preseason. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are highly unlikely to experience as many injuries as they did last year. If the team plays as well as they did in 2012 but gets a little luckier in regards to takeaways and injuries, they have the look of a 10-6 squad.