Dallas Cowboys' Biggest Mistakes of the 2013 Season
Hopefully by now, everyone has at least had a little time to digest the latest annual Dallas Cowboys season-ending horror movie. Yes, the movie that ends with an average football team achieving yet more average results. And, oh yes, the star of that movie is none other than Jerry Jones.
So, while the players clean out their lockers, say all the right things and think about vacation plans, the fans are once again resigned to watch the playoffs without the Cowboys in them.
There will be some degree of change between the roster, which is once again limited by the salary cap and members of the coaching staff, but Jones has already ruled out Jason Garrett as one of those changes. To put it mildly, this Cowboys franchise has plenty of work to do this offseason.
But what were the biggest issues that hampered this team in 2013? It's difficult to reflect right now based on how the season ended or to live in a world of hypotheticals, but what is it that prevents this team from taking a progressive step forward?
Is it schematic? Personnel? Coaching? Management? The correct answer is all of the above with an asterisk. And that asterisk is none other than Jones' structure, involvement and Matt Millen-esque way of managing the football operations of this franchise.
Arguing that point is virtually a pointless exercise, so let's just get to the missteps and mistakes this team made during the 2013 season that led to their 8-8 season. Admission is free to this movie, so let's get started.
Switch to 4-3 Defense
Many believe the mistake was in firing Rob Ryan, and rightfully so, but regardless of that fact, this team did not, and does not, have the right personnel for the 4-3 defense. Depth, inability to sign free agents and the reliance on fringe players simply was not the right elixir to install the 4-3 scheme.
This team, at one point, had what appeared to be a strong defensive line with Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher, but it never materialized. There was a shroud of mystery surrounding Ratliff, which resulted in his departure, and Spencer played in one game and was lost to microfracture surgery.
Couple that with nagging injuries to both Ware and Hatcher, and you no longer have the type of defensive line that could attack the gaps in Monte Kiffin's scheme. Sean Lee is a general on the field when he's healthy, but injuries reared their ugly head, and Bruce Carter had a disappointing season.
We can go on and on about the injuries that provided limited opportunities for Kiffin to be successful. We can also go on about the underachievements of young players like Carter and Morris Claiborne, but the Cowboys never had the personnel to match this scheme.
You can talk takeaways all you want, but tell me where there was a key takeaway or defensive stop against Denver, Detroit or Green Bay when this team needed it most. A win in any one of those games, and this franchise is preparing to play this weekend.
Neglecting the Defensive Line
The Cowboys could have fielded a very prominent defensive line if everything materialized correctly, but circumstances and injury dictated otherwise. Jerry Jones referred to it as a position of strength, but tell me that after the revolving door of 19 defensive linemen coming and going in and out of Valley Ranch.
Credit Rod Marinelli for basically working a miracle with this group, but the Cowboys needed to take a page out of Seattle's book. In the offseason, the Seahawk's, already with a loaded defensive line, added free agents Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to their stable in making their defense even better.
What makes those moves even more interesting is that Seattle didn't break the bank with either signing. But it was the mentality that you can never have enough that, right now, separates these two teams. The Cowboys were banking heavily on Ratliff's ability to flourish in this scheme, and it backfired greatly.
Players like Nick Hayden, George Selvie, Everette Brown and Jarius Wynn fought hard and played hard, but it was never going to be enough when you saw a defense get worse as the season progressed. Neglecting the defensive line was an epic fail on the part of management, and it showed.
If Sharrif Floyd was not an answer during the first round of the draft, you mean to tell me that there wasn't another prospect worthy of being drafted by this franchise? Or exploring the possibility of signing Avril to a one-year contract?
This was probably the biggest mistake of 2013. It's that simple.
Balance and Game Management
DeMarco Murray enjoyed a fantastic season in Dallas despite missing two games with a sprained knee. He went on to produce 1,124 yards, nine touchdowns and five yards per carry in finishing 10th overall in the NFL. Questions of his durability may have subsided, but this team has a major weapon at running back.
But the interesting statistic here is that the Cowboys only attempted 336 rushing plays versus their opponents' 437 and attempted 586 passes. In my estimation, some of the imbalance from prior years has been corrected, but the game against Green Bay and Philadelphia for that matter are reminders that this problem still needs some work.
That's not just because the Cowboys improved on their 31st ranking in rushing from last year. The offensive line is vastly improved and so has Murray's game. And the Cowboys must capitalize on this opportunity to manage, control and close out games.
Kyle Orton, in the season finale, attempted 46 passes after not starting a game in virtually two years, while Murray had 17 rushing attempts. Departure from the running game is what ultimately led to the crushing defeat against the Packers.
The Cowboys generally do not win when Murray has a light load, and in fact, they've lost every game in which he had less than 20 carries. There were blowout losses to New Orleans and Chicago, but Murray was a bright spot in both.
Jason Garrett has been under constant criticism for years about his game management, and it's warranted. But the time has come for him to realize that the answer to some of his problems are staring him in the face.
The Cowboys need to run the ball; they need more balance, and Murray can deliver.
Failure to Develop Weapons
The Cowboys offense, although still explosive and effective, has that same old feeling. And that usually consists of Tony Romo eluding pressure, improvising and hitting his usual targets. But while this team was able to put the skills of Cole Beasley on display, they missed on many others.
Not implementing and using more of players like Lance Dunbar, James Hanna, Gavin Escobar and Dwayne Harris shows a lack of creativity, and this is Garrett's responsibility. This was supposed to be the third round of trying to implement another tight end, and it's the third straight fail.
But let's go case by case for a second, starting with Dunbar. What you saw on Thanksgiving was nowhere to be found at any point of the season. He received some opportunities against New York on the road, but those elements of explosiveness, burst and acceleration were not integral parts of this offense.
He did have injury issues, but what about when he was active and healthy? We caught a glimpse of his talent against Oakland, and then his injury shut him down. His final stats were 30 carries for 150 yards, and barring any setbacks, the time for him to be a weapon has to happen in 2014.
Escobar and Hanna combined for 21 catches, 207 yards and two touchdowns. So much for implementing another tight end in this offense. There are only so many balls to go around in any offense, but looking at Escobar's draft status only brings up the why and how he was selected in the first place.
Can some of this be attributed to what defenses were taking away? Is it a lack of developing the player? Or is Garrett just not being innovative enough along with Bill Callahan?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what the problem was, but something has to change. For Harris, it was a little disappointing to see him take a step back in this offense after some nice games in 2012. He was totally relegated to kick return duties, and while he is a feared weapon in that regard, he did not factor in this offense.
Some of that was the development of Beasley and Terrance Williams, but the Cowboys could eventually lose him to another team if they don't figure out his role. The Cowboys offense is explosive and full of weapons, but they should be even better.
Especially when the defense was that bad.
Lack of Urgency in the Offseason
The Dallas Cowboys' 2013 season can be summed up with the words disappointing and frustrating. But for this franchise, this seems to be a recurring theme and the status quo. Either way, those are not good proper representations if you want to be a great team.
So you can go to coaching, performance, mistakes and miscues as prime targets for the answers to this season, but the facts are, most of the answers stem from last offseason. And that, unfortunately, falls on one man, the creator and master of all things Cowboys.
The salary cap issue was one thing, but the lack of urgency in making financial decisions regarding the contracts of Spencer, Romo, Doug Free and all the restructuring created too much of a delay to accomplish anything. There was not enough financial flexibility created at the right time.
This wasn't going to be another offseason highlighted by a Brandon Carr signing, but this team relied on players like Ernie Sims, Jeff Heath, Corvey Irvin, Cameron Lawrence, Jakar Hamilton, Orie Lemon, Frank Kearse, Jarius Wynn and Martez Wilson to step up in huge spots.
Once again, the pro personnel department had to work too hard when it was too late, and while you might find a Sterling Moore available, good players are usually employed and not sitting in front of a plasma TV. The concern here is not if Dallas can sign a bounty of free agents every year, but rather what is going on financially.
For someone as wildly successful as Jones, there just appears to be some questionable cap management that is preventing this team from acquiring enough depth. There is plenty of star quality on this team, but when you strip that away, it becomes painfully obvious that there just isn't enough.
More urgency could have created more personnel opportunities for this team. And that was a huge mistake.