Ranking Dallas Cowboys' 10 Biggest Developments in Season's 1st Half
Here are the Cowboys' 10 biggest developments so far this season. I've selected and ranked them according to their importance to the team now and going forward.
10. Dan Bailey
I have Dan Bailey last on this list for a reason. Although you could make a strong case for him as the Cowboys' most consistent player, he's been performing at a high level since 2011.
According to ESPN.com, he's only missed nine field goals in his career. And he's never missed an extra point. When Dallas has to settle for three, Bailey almost always provides it.
9. The Backup Running Backs
Depth at running back is a major concern for the Cowboys right now.
Backups Joseph Randle, Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar have produced only 58 yards on 23 carries. Those numbers suggest that this team will be offensively challenged if starter DeMarco Murray is out for an extended period.
Given all of that, running back depth may seem a little low on the list. But the Cowboys should be able to overcome this, at least in the short term. Murray is expected to miss Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Philadelphia but could return next week against the Detroit Lions.
If Dallas can survive Philly Sunday and get Murray back on time, this shouldn't be too much of a problem going forward.
8. The Defensive Line
Defensive end Anthony Spencer is likely out for the year with knee problems, and perennial Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Ware could be out for another couple of weeks. This defensive line is in shambles...on paper.
Uh oh, right?
"On paper" is the key phrase there. And that's why I have this unit down this far. It still has the veteran presence of Jason Hatcher to stabilize it. Call me an extreme optimist, but I believe that the likes of Nick Hayden, Caesar Rayford and Drake Nevis will have something to prove in the coming weeks.
The defensive line certainly did its job against RG3 and the Washington Redskins last Sunday. But it's important to remember that Ware will return at some point. This unit just needs to hang on until that happens. Also keep in mind the current state of this division. The Cowboys can afford a couple of losses.
If they get burned in a couple of upcoming games, it isn't the end of the world.
7. Brian Waters
Brian Walters has absolutely been a revelation for the Cowboys' offensive line so far.
According to Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com, Waters has really impressed head coach Jason Garrett:
At every turn, he's proven to us that he's ready to play. He plays with the right kind of demeanor. He has a little bit of nastiness to him which we all like and we feel like is contagious. He just knows how to do it. He's done it a lot.
Waters' play has definitely factored into Tony Romo's solid start this season. The veteran quarterback has had more protection more consistently, and that's allowing him to make better throws from the pocket. The results of that improvement are trickling down through the entire offense.
After all, if Waters didn't have any trouble blocking for Tom Brady in 2011, he shouldn't be having any trouble blocking for Romo.
6. Quick Offensive Starts
The Cowboys have done a great job putting up points on their game-opening drives and opening drives of the second half. This is helping them to minimize their time playing catchup.
Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com reports that Dallas has scored on its opening drive in five of its six games. In their last two games against the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins, the Cowboys opened the scoring with touchdown drives of 11 plays for 79 yards and 10 plays for 80 yards, respectively.
Dallas has also scored on three of its six drives to begin the second half this season. This trend will need to continue, as the Cowboys will face several elite offenses in the coming weeks in the Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers.
5. Jay Ratliff Gone
Dallas finally made the right call with Jay Ratliff in releasing him. It gambled once and paid dearly for it.
In 2011, the team re-signed Ratliff to a five-year, $40 million dollar extension. However, he didn't even come close to living up to it. But it's not because he's not talented, it's because he hasn't been healthy. He played only six games between 2012 and 2013.
Regardless, Ratliff's talent and ability to penetrate opponents' backfields will be missed. According to ESPNDallas.com' Calvin Watkins, his abrupt end with the team has had an effect in the locker room, even on offensive players, such as tight end Jason Witten:
It seems like it's been a tough road. Jay's been out this whole season. I have a lot of respect for him. I was here when he came in as a late draft pick and he worked for everything he ever got. He worked himself into a really good football player. I hope he gets healthy and I know he's got some football left in him to play at a high level. I have a lot of respect for him he was a good player for a long time in a Cowboys uniform.
Ratliff's permanent absence is just one more problem for the defensive line. Still, the Cowboys have to move on and keep looking forward.
4. Tony Romo's Nice, Clean Start
This one could be a spot or two higher, given Tony Romo's obvious importance to the team.
Romo is playing really well in all facets. He's limiting turnovers and is consistently making key throws.
Before we get into some of his numbers, let's be sure to go back and give Brian Waters and the offensive line another round of applause. They are giving Romo more time in the pocket so far, and it's paying dividends.
According to ESPN.com, Romo currently ranks third in the NFL in both completion percentage at 70.2 percent and in passer rating at 108.6. He trails the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers by just a tenth of a point in the latter category. And his current yards-per-game average is right in line with his career averages.
Romo is also doing a great job of spreading the ball around. Four different receivers have at least 18 receptions on the year. And three of those four—Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Terrance Williams—have more than 300 yards receiving.
Dallas' offense is always at its best when Romo distributes the ball around.
3. Sean Lee
Sean Lee, like DeMarco Murray, is another classic example of drafting smart. The former Penn State Nittany Lion really blossomed in 2011. That season, he posted 105 combined tackles, four interceptions and seven passes defensed in 15 games.
Lee played in only six games in 2012, though, and his playmaking ability, discipline and hustle were greatly missed up the middle.
He's off to another superb start this year. He may not overload the stat sheet every week, but I believe he is second only to DeMarcus Ware as Dallas' best defensive player. Lee signed a six-year extension worth up to $51 million in August, and he's well worth that price. He is one of the game's premier young linebackers.
With Lee locked up, the Cowboys will have something great for a long, long time.
2. Dwayne Harris
Dwayne Harris hasn't had much in the way of receiving yards so far. The former East Carolina Pirate only has six receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown, and he's had some issues with dropped passes.
Still, though, he's providing tremendous value on special teams. I can't emphasize the word "tremendous" nearly enough. Harris has 501 yards on 17 returns, one for a touchdown.
Most importantly, he is consistently giving the Cowboys offense short fields to work with. When Romo and this offense have to go only 60 yards to score rather than 80, more points are a given.
The importance of special teams in this game is often underrated. Make sure you don't underrate Harris. He's special.
1. Terrance Williams
And we've arrived.
The single biggest development for the Cowboys so far this season: Terrance Williams.
The former Baylor Bear is picking up right where he left off in his senior year in Art Briles' potent spread system. It took a couple of games for him to get going, but boy has he got it going now!
Eighteen catches for 309 yards and two touchdowns sounds pretty darn good for a rookie, doesn't it? That's an average of 17.2 yards per catch. He's been targeted 21 times, so he's making the most of his opportunities.
It's still early in Williams' career, but he's slowly becoming a reliable and explosive target for Romo.
He's definitely benefiting from defenses having to also deal with two guys named Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. But let's give him the credit he rightly deserves.
He and Harris will be two of the Cowboys' most exciting players to watch for quite a while.