10 Biggest Issues Facing Dallas Cowboys This Offseason
Coming off a third straight disappointing 8-8 season, a talented Dallas Cowboys team looks to turn things around and make a serious playoff run for the 2014 season.
Owner Jerry Jones has certainly been busy so far, as the Cowboys have gained and lost a number of key players. Jones’ next order of business is to add talented youth through this year’s deep NFL draft class.
The Cowboys are arguably better off than a majority of NFL teams right now, but here are the 10 biggest issues they face this offseason:
10. Can Dan Bailey Live Up to His New Contract?
In his three-year career, Dan Bailey has been nothing short of brilliant for the Cowboys.
He is a perfect 123-of-123 in extra point attempts, as well as an incredible 89-of-98 on field goal attempts. Bailey is also 11-of-16 in his career in field-goal attempts of 50 or more yards, and an impressive 6-of-7 in the stat in 2013.
Since 2011, Bailey’s first season, Josh Scobee is the only kicker with a better field-goal percentage than Bailey. The 26-year-old already has the franchise record for game-winning field goals with eight.
Thus, Bailey was handed a seven-year, $22.5 million extension this offseason, which included a $4 million signing bonus and $7.5 million guaranteed.
Make no mistake: This extension is well-deserved.
The Cowboys have willingly changed kickers year-to-year, as personal success for kickers does appear to be a year-by-year thing. But the Cowboys saw how well Bailey has played for them the past three seasons, signing him through the rest of the decade.
But signing anyone to a seven-year extension is a huge risk, especially in a sport as violent and injury-riddled as the NFL.
Bailey has given the Cowboys every reason to believe he will continue this place kicking success. Nonetheless, the concern now is maintaining Bailey’s health and production over the course of his contract.
As far as the team’s issues go, though, this is a fairly good problem to have.
9. Replacing Miles Austin
The 30-year-old Miles Austin, whose release will free up $5.5 million in cap space after June 1, was a staple in the Cowboy offense for the last half-decade.
In 2009, Austin broke out for 81 catches, 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was later given a six-year, $54 million extension.
However, injuries have slowly taken their toll on Austin. He played just 11 games last year, starting only eight of them. Even worse, Austin had the worst season of his career, finishing with just 24 catches for 244 yards and no touchdowns.
The good news is the Cowboys do not have to look far for a likely successor.
Terrance Williams had an impressive rookie season in 2013 and should be a solid No. 2 receiver for the coming years.
The emergence of Williams, in light of Austin’s extremely disappointing season, means this issue does not go higher than No. 9. Austin was a shadow of the threat he used to be, as his longest catch last season went for just 20 yards.
But Austin was a popular figure and a very well-respected player. Poor production aside, his presence will surely be missed.
8. The NFC East Is Much Stronger
This one could be much higher on the list if the Cowboys did not already have a number of big issues to address about their own team.
Nonetheless, one could easily argue all three NFC East rivals have improved plenty this offseason.
The division champion Philadelphia Eagles lost star receiver DeSean Jackson to the rival Washington Redskins but re-signed key players, including safety Nate Allen, receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, center Jason Kelce, tackle Jason Peters and quarterback Mark Sanchez as a fairly capable backup.
They also handed talented, versatile safety Malcolm Jenkins and punter Donnie Jones three-year deals each and should compete for the top of the division yet again.
As for the 3-13 Redskins, they have been quite busy themselves.
Aside from Jackson, the Redskins added star safety Ryan Clark, linebackers Akeem Jordan and Adam Hayward (a special teams standout), cornerback Tracy Porter, backup quarterback Colt McCoy and a number of new coaches on offense and defense.
And they signed away Jason Hatcher from the Cowboys, too.
Star quarterback Robert Griffin III struggled in his first year back from ACL surgery. But Griffin also struggled to regain form at Baylor in his first year back from ACL surgery, then he won the Heisman Trophy the following season. He is a prime candidate to bounce back in 2014.
Yet, the biggest surprise of the division belongs to the New York Giants.
The Giants are normally quiet and tentative in free agency, yet this offseason, they have already added 15 free agents after an ugly 7-9 season.
Addressing their needs head-on, the Giants spent efficiently on quality players like running back Rashad Jennings, guard Geoff Schwartz, safety/returner Quintin Demps, tight end Kellen Davis, defensive end Robert Ayers, receiver/return specialist Trindon Holliday, receiver Mario Manningham and linebacker Jameel McClain.
Desperately needing defensive back help, they also added shutdown cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, nickel corner specialist Walter Thurmond, as well as a solid and cheap depth cornerback in Zackary Bowman.
The Giants also re-signed a number of key players who should make a big contribution in 2014, such as kicker Josh Brown and ballhawking safety Stevie Brown.
Their biggest transaction, though, is arguably re-signing Jon Beason.
After trading for Jon Beason midseason, his leadership and talent catapulted the Giants defense from a laughingstock into a top-10 defense in the league.
All three division rivals are now deep, talented and hungry. The Cowboys have serious playoff aspirations for this coming season, but the division is simply too close for comfort.
7. The ‘Hit or Miss’ Draft Classes
For the past four offseasons, the Cowboys have had an eerily impressive ability to produce boom or bust draft classes.
Here are the year-to-year results:
2009: The Cowboys have an impressive 12 total picks. While they did not have a first-round selection, expectations were through the roof going into that year’s draft.
How did they pan out?
Six of the 12 picks never even made the roster, and none of them became a starter. They traded their second-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for their third- and fourth-round picks. Those two picks produced nothing, while the Bills drafted a staple in their offensive line in Andy Levitre.
After Victor Butler left before last season, no one in the 2009 draft class remains on the current Cowboys roster.
On the bright side, at least fifth-round kicker David Buehler hilariously beat cornerback (and fellow fifth-rounder) DeAngelo Smith in a 40-yard dash in training camp that year.
2010: The Cowboys have just six picks, but receive a massive payoff.
More impressively, Bryant may not have been the best pick of that draft.
The Cowboys’ second-rounder that year was an injury-prone Penn State linebacker named Sean Lee, who is now the leader of the defense and proud owner of a $42 million contract extension.
Promising seventh-round defensive tackle Sean Lissemore was unfortunately traded, as the Cowboys felt he was only a good fit for a 3-4 defense.
2011: For the first time in Jerry Jones’ tenure as owner, the Cowboys drafted an offensive lineman in the first round.
That offensive lineman just happens to be Tyron Smith, who thanks to incredible work ethic, has become one of the best tackles in football. And he is just 23 years old.
Sixth-rounder Dwayne Harris also provides depth at wide receiver, special teams ability and an above-average punt return game.
The Cowboys also took a chance on another injury-prone linebacker in the second round, Bruce Carter. Carter has struggled with injuries but showed in 2012 what he is capable of with his athleticism, and he will look to bounce back for 2014.
Overall, a good draft class with plenty of potential.
2012: The Cowboys are still waiting for their picks to pan out.
The highlight is the Cowboys trading up to pick No. 6 to draft cornerback Morris Claiborne, who was their highest-rated defensive back since Deion Sanders.
Claiborne has not become the playmaker the Cowboys hoped for, while the rest of the class either did not produce or have been decimated by injuries. After decent drafts in back-to-back years, the 2012 draft class has so far been one of the worst in a long time.
2013: Although they just finished their rookie seasons, this draft class already looks like a fairly subpar.
The Cowboys inexplicably kicked off the draft by choosing a center in the first round, Travis Frederick. To Frederick’s credit, he made the All-Rookie team and had a quality season, especially with Brian Waters on the line next to him. But it is mighty tough to justify picking a center in the first round.
Next pick, pass-catching tight end Gavin Escobar has clear talent but looked utterly lost at times last year.
The brightest spot of this draft is third-rounder and hometown kid, the aforementioned wide receiver Williams.
Williams was very productive in the wake of Austin’s nagging injuries, and with Austin gone, he will likely see a drastic increase in playing time. Williams could perhaps improve on his rookie stats of 44 catches, 736 yards and five touchdowns.
As the slide shows, the Cowboys have had their share of poor picks and superb picks. The draft is crucial for a franchise to be successful, as evidenced by the key players the Cowboys have drafted recently.
Patience is running thin in Dallas, and this is arguably a make-or-break year for many of the players. No one can predict who the Cowboys will draft this year, but if they plan to compete, they must inject talent into the club.
6. Can the Defense Stop Anyone?
In short: Not really. But they may turn things around.
One year after they shockingly replaced defensive coordinator Rob Ryan with Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys are now demoting Kiffin in favor of one of Kiffin’s disciples, Rod Marinelli.
Kiffin’s original hire meant the Cowboys were switching from Ryan’s aggressive 3-4 defense to Kiffin’s infamous Tampa 2.
However, the move imploded.
The Cowboys gave up the third-most yards in NFL history last year at 6,645 yards. They had the seventh-worst scoring defense and accrued 112 defensive penalties, which was tied for second-most in the NFL. In fact, the once-fearsome pass rush was just 3.0 sacks away from ranking dead last in the statistic last year.
Kiffin’s once-heralded defensive strategies now seem outdated and teams took advantage.
But if anyone can turn things around, it could very well be the 65-year-old defensive line-specialist Marinelli.
By far, the best piece of the Cowboys defense last year was its defensive line (despite the low sack total). Marinelli, then the defensive line coach, was forced to shuffle through a staggering 20 different linemen over last season.
By comparison, no team used more than 32 players on their entire defense last year.
At times, though, many of the nobodies the Cowboys shuffled through looked like quality football players.
Furthermore, Marinelli was outstanding in his lone stint as defensive coordinator. From 2010-2012, his Chicago Bears defenses were some of the best in the league, and ranked in the top five each season in takeaways.
There’s plenty of potential on this defense, but Marinelli must try to make it all click before the results can come.
5. Someone Must Step Up with the Losses of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher
Speaking of the defense, the Cowboys also must replace DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, two of the best defenders on the team for years.
Ware, the franchise’s all-time sack leader, was released after he reportedly refused a hefty pay cut. He later signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Denver Broncos. The Cowboys also lost Hatcher, who broke out for 11.0 sacks last season, to the Redskins.
As if that wasn't bad enough, as mentioned earlier, the Cowboys are coming off a season in which they allowed the third-most yards in NFL history.
Therefore, the Cowboys need a number of players to step up big time if their defense is to improve.
The team added a number of linemen through free agency, but the best of the bunch is perhaps Henry Melton, who is just average. Melton only played three games last season, but in 2011 and 2012 had a combined 13.0 sacks for the Chicago Bears.
Don’t be surprised to see the Cowboys draft at least one defensive lineman. Already, a large majority of their college visits have been focused on defensive linemen.
The losses of Ware and Hatcher have cleared up plenty of much-needed cap space for the Cowboys, but at the same time, it leaves a gaping hole at a position that is already reeling.
4. Tony Romo’s Two Back Surgeries
In December, Tony Romo underwent his second back surgery in nine months before the team lost a win-and-in season finale against the Eagles.
On paper, Romo seems to be doing fine. He spoke last month for the first time since his surgery and appears to be motivated and ready to return:
It's going good. We're getting close now to [returning]. Usually takes three months, it's just normal kinda roundabout date that they give ya and we're right on schedule. Really ahead in a lot of ways. Just going to be ready to go here in about a month and rehab is going good, no setbacks of any kind. Mine [surgery] was just a normal small version of it, so I should be good to go here shortly.
Romo may miss some offseason activities, but he is on track to make the regular season.
Regardless, a 33-year-old (34 on April 21) coming off of two back surgeries in nine months is a cause for concern. In fact, fellow Cowboy great Troy Aikman was forced to retire due to lingering back problems throughout his career.
Aikman’s age upon retirement? 34.
Unlike Aikman, though, Romo has plenty of time to recover fully before the regular season. He has been durable and consistent throughout his career, and a full recovery is certainly realistic.
The Cowboys have also been searching for depth at the offensive line, through both free agency and the draft, in an attempt to protect their franchise quarterback.
If Romo is unable to go, the team has newly signed Brandon Weeden or Kyle Orton to play in Romo’s place.
Cowboys fans will surely hold their breath when Romo takes his first hit of the year. All season long, Romo must prove to everyone he is healthy and back to his peak form.
3. Will Scott Linehan Get the Job Done?
For the third time in as many years, the Cowboys will have a new play-caller on offense in Scott Linehan.
As previously mentioned, the Cowboys ranked fifth in the NFL in scoring offense in 2013. While impressive, the team also had just 5,461 yards of total offense last year, its worst output since 2005. For perspective, Peyton Manning alone had 5,477 passing yards last year.
On paper, the addition of Linehan could be phenomenal.
From 2009-2013, Linehan was the offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions. He led one of the most robust and dangerous offenses in the league, led by Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. With the addition of Reggie Bush, the offense became even more dynamic.
Moreover, the Cowboys got a taste of what Linehan can do last season.
The Lions lit up the Cowboys defense in a 31-30 last-second victory. Stafford threw for 488 yards and got the game-winning touchdown plunge, and Johnson put up a whopping 14 catches for 329 yards. Bush quietly ran for 92 yards and a touchdown while contributing eight catches, too.
The Cowboys are hoping Linehan’s success with the Stafford-Bush-Johnson combination can translate to success with their Romo-DeMarco Murray-Bryant combination.
Bryant is already one of the better playmakers in the league, and Murray was the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Cowboys since 2006.
However, the game is not played on paper.
Linehan must develop a strong relationship with Romo, who became more involved in game planning last season.
Through the help of Linehan, the Cowboys are hoping to strike gold and become one of the most feared and consistent offenses in the league.
2. The Tony Romo Conundrum (Tonundrum?)
No quarterback in the NFL right now has been more polarizing and hotly-debated than Romo.
The ultimate discussion topic: Is Romo clutch?
One extreme faction somewhat justifiably believes Romo flops in crunch time. Another extreme faction believes Romo is great in the clutch but has had highly publicized blow-ups in a couple big games.
The truth is somewhere in the middle.
Romo is a great quarterback who puts up downright gaudy stats in the fourth quarter. For example, here are Romo’s 2013 stats in the fourth quarter: 94-of-135 passing (69.6%), 1,074 yards, 10 touchdowns and just four interceptions. His QB rating? 105.6.
With this in mind, this next statistic from Jeremy Mills of ESPN Stats & Info seems improbable:
Since 2010, Romo's Total QBR in the first 12 minutes of the fourth quarter/OT is 80. That's second-best in the NFL behind Peyton Manning. However, his QBR drops to a below-average 44 in the game's final three minutes.
Since 2006, Romo’s first year as a starter, his fourth quarter QBR of 68.7 ranks third in the league, behind Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
The truth is with the game on the line, Romo is perhaps one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Romo’s 21 fourth-quarter comebacks put him close to the top of the list. Aikman took four extra years to amass his career total of 21 fourth-quarter comebacks.
At the same time, with the Cowboys tied or ahead, Romo is perhaps one of the worst. Since 2006, Romo has more interceptions than any other quarterback in the fourth quarter when the Cowboys are tied or ahead by seven or less.
In fairness to Romo, the Cowboys often have a poor defense that cannot maintain leads and are just as much at fault as Romo. But the quarterback will always grab the headlines.
Whatever your opinion of Romo is, he is clearly a great quarterback fully capable of dominating football games and promptly letting the other team right back into it.
Not surprisingly, Romo’s fourth quarter results will be a huge theme all season long.
1. Playoffs or Bust
This one isn’t even close.
None of the previous nine issues matter as long as the Cowboys earn a spot in the playoffs. And as the rival Giants proved, anything is possible once you make the playoffs.
Romo could almost blow every single game this year, yet none of it will matter if the team earns a playoff spot.
The Cowboys last made the playoffs in 2009. Romo’s last playoff game included just 198 passing yards, zero touchdowns, one interception and three fumbles en route to a 34-3 drubbing from Brett Favre’s Minnesota Vikings.
Considering the ugly way the Cowboys last exited the playoffs, the franchise and its fans have been itching to make it again for years.
In the end, the playoffs are the lone goal on everyone’s mind this season.