Grading Dallas Cowboys' Positional Units at the 1st-Quarter Mark
Through the first quarter of the 2013 season, the Dallas Cowboys have been an average team in just about every sense of the word. They have a 2-2 record, of course, ranking ninth in points and 11th in points allowed. They’ve witnessed just about every type of game thus far: a win they shouldn’t have won (Giants), a close defeat (Chiefs), a blowout victory (Rams) and a two-score loss (Chargers).
Through all of that, the Cowboys have gotten a lot of help around the division. They’re the only division leader with a 2-2 record, and they actually don’t even have to share that title with anyone else; the Cowboys are a game up on the Eagles and Redskins and two games up on the Giants.
Having said that, the Cowboys have a lot of players who will need to perform better moving forward if they want to maintain their lead. Let’s take a look at the Cowboys’ positional grades through Week 4.
The methodology used to obtain each grade is primarily a stat comparison between each position with others around the NFL at that position. There’s always some subjectivity too, but sticking to the numbers allows for a more objective assessment.
Quarterback Tony Romo is the team’s most controversial player, particularly this season. Most would likely give him a good grade because he’s ranked fourth in the NFL in passer rating, but that metric artificially inflates completion percentage. Romo has been a checkdown machine this year, taking fewer chances than ever before.
The conservative play has hurt Romo’s efficiency; he currently ranks 20th in the NFL in yards per attempt. Historically, Romo’s YPA has been strongly tied to his interception rate; the more aggressive Romo has played, the more efficient he’s been but the more picks he’s thrown. This year, he’s reeled it in so much to the point that both his interceptions and efficiency are way down.
Romo needs to strike a balance, as he did in 2009 and 2011, through which he minimizes turnovers without playing so conservatively that he jeopardizes the effectiveness of the offense.
This has been a strange season for the Cowboys’ running game because, on paper, it looks good. The Cowboys are actually ranked eighth in yards per carry, and DeMarco Murray has led the pack with 4.9 YPC—eighth among all backs.
However, something just doesn’t seem right with the running game. Murray is leaving yards on the field, and the team really had great rushing success in just one game (against the Rams). Actually, of the Cowboys’ 409 rushing yards in 2013, nearly half—193—came against St. Louis alone. The ‘Boys have obviously upgraded their rushing attack from 2012, but they need to see more consistent play out of Murray and Co.
It’s difficult to grade the Cowboys’ wide receivers because, since Romo hasn’t taken as many chances, their numbers have suffered due to something outside of their control. The top dog, Dez Bryant, currently ranks 17th in catches and 26th in yards. Despite that, only four players have more receiving touchdowns.
Wide receiver Miles Austin has once again caught the injury bug, lending credence to the idea that he’s truly injury prone. Rookie Terrance Williams stepped in with seven catches last week, but he wasn’t efficient in doing it. At 24 years old, Williams shouldn’t be playing like your typical rookie.
Heading into the 2013 season, the Cowboys were supposed to heavily emphasize the tight end position. Due to some game situations and a lack of development from second-round pick Gavin Escobar, they haven’t; Escobar and tight end James Hanna have combined to play only 144 snaps.
And to top it off, Jason Witten has been horrible with efficiently. He’s really regressed as a blocker and currently ranks 22nd in the NFL with 1.37 yards per route that he’s run, according to Pro-Football Reference. Those who were observant should have seen this coming.
As a whole, the offensive line has certainly improved from 2013. Rookie Travis Frederick has been an upgrade in the middle, and guards Ronald Leary and Brian Waters have looked better than the Nate Livings-Mackenzy Bernadeau combo. Plus, left tackle Tyron Smith is developing nicely, and right tackle Doug Free has surprised a lot of people.
Their improvements in the rushing game are obvious, but the Cowboys’ pass protection is a tricky situation because Romo is getting rid of the ball so quickly that he’s really helping the line. Although we’ve also seen better pass protection, the primary reason for the lowered number of sacks and pressures is Romo’s decision-making. He's taken only 2.51 seconds to throw, on average, which is the eight-fastest mark in the NFL.
The Cowboys’ interior defensive line was an area of concern heading into the 2013 season, but veterans Jason Hatcher and Nick Hayden haven’t been major problems. Hatcher in particular has been effective with three sacks and 11 pressures.
Hayden has played the run well, but he hasn’t shown much of a pass rush. This position might be the Cowboys’ top offseason need with veteran Jay Ratliff unlikely to still be on the team.
One could make the argument that journeyman defensive end George Selvie has outplayed DeMarcus Ware in 2013. Selvie has one more tackle, one less sack and a comparable pressure rate. At the very least, Selvie has appeared to provide his contributions at a more consistent rate.
And Selvie appears to be the real deal too. He’s a strong defensive end with massive 34.5-inch arms and a track record of success at the collegiate level. The Cowboys need to seriously consider giving him a long-term deal.
The 2013 season has been up and down for the Cowboys’ linebackers, as evidenced by the fact that Bruce Carter might be getting benched. Carter is coming off a horrific game in coverage, but it seems early to pull a potential star.
The Cowboys have depth at the linebacker position, though, with rookie DeVonte Holloman complemented by veterans Ernie Sims and Justin Durant. Sims will take over for Carter in the immediate future.
In the middle, Sean Lee quietly got off to a pretty poor start to the season. He had only 16 tackles in the first three games before erupting for 18 tackles against the Chargers alone.
The Cowboys have really seen two extremes out of their cornerbacks this year. On one end, you have Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr both playing excellent football. According to PFF (subscription required), the duo has allowed only 0.46 and 0.98 yards per route it's been in coverage, respectively. Scandrick’s mark ranks second in the entire league.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Morris Claiborne. He’s really struggled, allowing 1.81 yards per route—a bottom-10 number. The Cowboys need Claiborne to step up as soon as this week with the Broncos coming to town.
I thought safety Barry Church was set for a big season, but he’s exceeded my expectations. With 27 tackles, Church has recorded a tackle on 10.8 percent of his snaps and is on pace for over 100. He’s also allowed only 50 yards receiving all season.
Opposite Church, the new starter is J.J. Wilcox. The rookie has looked much better than veteran Will Allen, allowing just 5.4 YPA and no touchdowns in coverage (compared to 18.1 YPA and two touchdowns for Allen).
Kicker Dan Bailey has uncharacteristically missed two field goals this year, including one from short-range. His 77.8 percent field-goal rate is a career low.
Punter Chris Jones is doing well with a 45.9 average. He has five punts inside the 20.