No team has ever gone 8-8 four years in a row, so the odds don't favor that happening to the Dallas Cowboys in 2014. In fact, there's a chance the Cowboys, who have merely been surviving for the last few years it seems, will be tested with somewhat of a sink-or-swim season.
The only other two teams in NFL history to go 8-8 three straight seasons both experienced dramatic changes in the standings in year four, with the 1986 Green Bay Packers dropping off to 4-12 and the 1999 Tennessee Titans posting a 13-3 record.
|Three straight 8-8 seasons: Something has to give?|
|Green Bay Packers||1983-1985||4-12|
|Pro Football Reference|
Of course, it's possible the Cowboys could set a new precedent in terms of regularity by putting together yet another garden-variety 8-8 season, but if they're indeed going to either take off or crash this year, the odds appear to favor the latter.
Don't get me wrong: This isn't a bad football team. And when you have one of the game's best offensive lines paving the way for stars such as Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray and Jason Witten, you have the ability to win a lot of games. But the Sistine Chapel-like gap between this team's floor and its ceiling is undeniable.
Last year, Dallas had the fifth-highest-scoring offense in the NFL. And by the same measure, it was the fifth-best offensive season in the history of a franchise that has names such as Smith, Aikman, Irvin, Staubach, Dorsett, Pearson and Hayes in its Ring of Honor. But the fact of the matter is it'll be harder for this offense to go from great to unstoppable than it will for this defense to go from bad to terrible.
This is an age of offense. You can win despite your defense. Just ask the 2011 Green Bay Packers, the 2011 New Orleans Saints, the 2009 Saints, the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles, the 2012 Washington Redskins or any recent edition of the New England Patriots.
|Good team, bad defense|
|2009||New Orleans Saints||25th||13-3|
|2010||New England Patriots||25th||14-2|
|2011||Green Bay Packers||32nd||15-1|
|2011||New Orleans Saints||24th||13-3|
|2011||New England Patriots||31st||13-3|
|2012||New England Patriots||25th||12-4|
|2013||New England Patriots||26th||12-4|
|Pro Football Reference|
But can Romo and Co. possibly cover for the D in 2014? They were barely able to do that last year despite averaging 27 points per game. Now, we're talking about a 34-year-old quarterback coming off his second back procedure in less than a year, an injury-prone running back and a receiving corps that lacks depth. It also might be safe to wonder whether a 32-year-old Jason Witten's best days are behind him or not.
So this offense could be very good, but it could also blow up if two or three things don't go its way. And considering the D has lost arguably its top three players one year after allowing the third-highest yardage total in NFL history, that's scary.
|Dallas Cowboys: Top defensive grades, 2013|
|1. Jason Hatcher||DT||27.3||Gone|
|2. DeMarcus Ware||DE||12.6||Gone|
|3. Sean Lee||MLB||8.7||Out for season|
|Pro Football Focus|
That cliche about expecting the unexpected is also an NFL reality, though, and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has been known to work magic. DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee were hurt for large chunks of the 2013 campaign, they've added Pro Bowl-caliber defensive lineman Henry Melton to the fray, and the law of averages indicates they'll have better luck in the injury department. In 2013, Football Outsiders concluded that only three defensive units were hit harder by injuries than Dallas'.
And while you'd have to believe that, logically, it would be easier for this defense to get worse than it would for this offense to get better, a recent study from Blogging the Boys revealed that 18 of the last 19 teams that have ranked dead last defensively actually improved statistically the following season. (Although it is a bit ominous that the only 32nd-ranked D in that study that gave up more yards the following season was the Marinelli-coached 2008 Lions defense.)
Sixteen of those 19 had more wins the following season, which bodes well for the Cowboys. I think the defense will be better in 2014 because it can't be worse. Well, I know it can be worse, but I think Marinelli will make a positive impact. I think you will see the Cowboys go from No. 32 in yards to the Nos. 20-25 range. Call me crazy.
If that happens, the Cowboys might indeed be looking another .500 campaign in the eye. Or maybe they'll blow us all away and finally break that four-year playoff drought. This team is the wild card of the 2014 deck.
But a collapse can't come as a surprise. Not considering the fact that they've been handcuffed in free agency for three straight years, with their only major signing from that period—Brandon Carr in 2012—becoming a bust, and their highest draft pick from that period—Morris Claiborne the same year—also failing to live up to expectations.
A collapse can't be ruled out. On paper, they've gotten substantially worse defensively, and they continue to add cooks to a crowded kitchen when it comes to the coaching staff.
Meddling owner Jerry Jones has inexplicably bestowed the football version of diplomatic immunity on do-no-wrong head coach Jason Garrett, while Bill Callahan and Monte Kiffin go to work despite virtually being demoted below Scott Linehan and Marinelli, respectively, within the organizational hierarchy.
None of it feels healthy, which is why it's fair to wonder if the Cowboys are merely in the eye of a storm that is about to tear the franchise apart.
But if that's the case, maybe it wouldn't be an apocalyptic development for this organization. In fact, maybe a disastrous season is exactly the slap in the face Jones and Co. need to stop believing that this rendition of the Cowboys has a chance to pull a Super Bowl run out of its hat. It very likely doesn't, and it might be best to go back to the drawing board with only that young offensive core in place.
If one year of extreme pain is all it takes for the Cowboys to come to the realization that they aren't on the verge of being a contender, and if that difficult season also fetches them a sweet draft pick in the spring, rock bottom might actually pay off in the long run.