NFL Predictions 2011: 5 Reasons Dallas Cowboys Will Make the Playoffs
This may surprise a lot of people. After all, the Dallas Cowboys went 6-10 last year, finishing tied for last in the division. At 6-10, they had a better record than only the Panthers and the Cardinals out of the NFC.
Within their own division, the Eagles made a significant splash in the offseason, coming out in the last second to steal Cowboys-bound top free agent Nnamdi Asomugha. The Cowboys said goodbye to Marion Barber, Roy Williams, Andre Gurode, Igor Olshansky and others, without welcoming in any marque free agents.
Okay, so maybe the Dallas Cowboys shouldn’t be the favorites to win their division. But that doesn’t stop me from objectively choosing the Cowboys as a playoffs team out of the NFC. They might not be favorites, but with their conservative and cost-effective moves in the offseason, the Cowboys have put themselves in the right position to sweep in and take a playoffs spot.
For the first time in years, the Cowboys look to have created the right blend of players. Following years of salaries far too high than what were merited, they did not overspend. Their personnel is in place to make this season run smoothly, they’re not overly deep or cautiously shallow at any particular position, and if the blocks fall in the places that they seem like they could, the Cowboys are in store for a successful 2011 campaign.
New Defensive Identity
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If you take a look at the Cowboys team stats from last season, there are a few obvious points of information.
The first is that they had surprisingly good team numbers, indicating that they caught a few bad breaks here and there during the season. This, of course, is absolutely true. Tony Romo was forced to miss much of the season with a broken collarbone, and virtually nothing seemed to go right for this team.
Yet somehow, they still managed to perform. Their offensive numbers were stellar, as they passed for 252.6 YPG (sixth overall) and rushed for 111.6 YPG (16th overall). Under Jason Garret’s leadership, the offense continued to produce.
On defense, the team wasn’t entirely atrocious. The opposing rush gained only 108.4 YPG (12th overall), which is respectable in terms of shutting down the running game.
The passing defense, however, was not. The 243.4 YPG allowed was the seventh highest in the league, which helped give up 27.3 PPG, the second highest overall in the league.
When your team is giving up the second most points per game, you’re simply not going to make the playoffs.
That’s why much of this offseason was devoted to revamping the entire defensive scheme of the organization. The franchise parted ways with Wade Phillips, former defensive mastermind and head coach of the Cowboys, and his entire defensive plan.
They have shifted gears and changed their mindset entirely.
For their new defensive coordinator, they’ve brought in defensive guru Rob Ryan. Ryan is the brother of Rex Ryan, who has implemented a successful defensive team in the New York Jets and has made it to the AFC Conference Championship both years that he has been in charge in New York.
Last season, under Rob Ryan’s leadership in Cleveland, the Browns only allowed 20.7 PPG, a significant upgrade over the Cowboys 27.3. In the air, they gave up 220.7 YPG, another big improvement.
Under Ryan, expect DeMarcus Ware to be utilized even more. Ware, who has led the league in sacks twice in the past few seasons, will see better play from the likes of linebacker Bradie James and defensive back and former first-round pick Mike Jenkins this season.
In Dallas, Ryan will have the ability to work with top of the line players that he never had the opportunity to see in Cleveland. With him, he has brought veteran Kenyon Coleman from the Browns.
Ryan is known to inspire veteran players, maximize the potential of younger players, and create inventive and clever ways to utilize his defense.
This is something that the Cowboys have lacked for years and should be a wonderful turn around that can help a team that lacked a solid defensive identity come into their own in a playoff run this season.
Potential Felix Jones Breakout Season
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If you’re not a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, here’s the scoop on Felix Jones.
He’s actually really good.
Last season, in his eight games under Wade Phillips, he averaged 37.8 yards per game on 9.1 attempts. When Jason Garret took over, he entrusted Jones with 14.0 attempts a game, thus letting his yards per game spike up to 62.3 YPG.
Under Garrett, Jones was also utilized in the receiving game more, as his total reception yards per game went from 19.6 yards per game to 36.6 yards per game.
Basic addition tells us that his production of total yards went from around 60 YPG to around 100 YPG with the new head coach. Doesn’t that sound like a better season?
According to Gregg Found, whenever Jones has 17 carries in a game, he averages 103 YPG and has never dipped below 83 total yards. With Marion Barber out of the picture, Jones becomes the lead back in Dallas and should see an improvement to around 17 touches a game over the 14 he saw with Garrett as last season Garrett rushed 32.4 times a game (over the 21.1 of Wade Phillips).
This helped the team improve from 75.6 rushing yards per game (two total touchdowns) to 147.6 yards per game (eight total touchdowns). So remember, it’s Jason Garrett that is the head coach this year.
Tashard Choice has proven himself a reliable runner in the razorback formation and provides Jones with needed rest and backup.
Jones does not have to be the keystone of this offense; he plays for a team in which they have a budding quarterback and three candidates for elite targets in Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.
Instead, the Cowboys can utilize Felix Jones as a legitimate threat on the ground. If they can finally establish a legitimate running game, they could be in store for big things this season.
Strength of Schedule
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I’m a fan of what the Dallas Cowboys can do with their schedule this year. It’s not a walk in the park by any means, but I think it’s more beneficial to the team than last year’s daggers were.
According to this chart, the Cowboys had the third hardest schedule last season. Their opponents went for 139-117 (only game back of the hardest schedule) and had a .543 winning percentage on the season.
In 2011, they seem to have it a little bit easier. Based on 2010 wins, the Cowboys face the 15th hardest schedule at 129-127, a .504 winning percentage.
After going 6-10 against one of the hardest schedules in the league, an injured starting QB and a poor coach (Wade Phillips Head Coach, Paul Pasqualoni Defensive Coach), they bring in two significantly better coaches (Jason Garrett, Rob Ryan), a legitimate starting QB in a healthy Tony Romo and a much easier schedule.
Last season, a team with seven wins made the playoffs. For the Cowboys, to improve their wins total to two or three more would give them a legitimate chance of making the playoffs, plus it’s a reasonable assertion.
Then they have their bye week. From then until week thirteen, they have two real matchups against Philadelphia and New England. The rest are relatively easy games between the likes of St. Louis (7-9), Seattle (7-9), Buffalo (4-12), Washington (6-10), Miami (7-9) and Arizona. (5-11). Not one of those teams finished above .500 last season.
While I’m by no means promising a victory in any one of those games, those are significantly easier matchups than what they had to face last year.
In Weeks 14 and 16, two crucial games that determine playoff seeding and berths, they get to face division rivals New York and Philadelphia (both at home), where they will hope to make their own destiny.
It’s difficult to predict games so far in advanced, but it’s easier to tell that the Cowboys do have a scheduling advantage this season.
Fresh Coaching Presence
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I’ve made this clear about a thousand times in this article already, but I was ridiculously impressed with what I saw from Princeton graduate and new Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett.
I don’t know what it is about the Ivy League graduate, but Garrett looked so much more suited for the head coaching position in Dallas than former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips did.
Garrett was poised, smart, and rarely made the same blunders that good ol’ Wade did.
Even with Jon Kitna as his QB, Garrett went on to win the first two games of his head-coaching career last year and ended up with an impressive 5-3 record. Compare that to Wade Phillips, who took that team to 1-7 before getting fired, and Garrett looks like a saint.
Garrett is only the eighth head coach in Cowboys history, but looks to take his team to a Super Bowl before his tenure is ultimately over. Garrett is someone that I trust and someone that the players respect. As a fan, this is a much better situation to root for than what we had going for us last season.
Jerry Jones has brought in Rob Ryan, as I’ve already mentioned, to help out defensively and could bring in an extra facet to the game.
Garrett is calm, he’s a fresh face for a team looking to rebuild, and is already familiar for the returning Cowboys veterans.
His first goal: cut turnovers, penalties and other dumb blunders that typically have hurt Cowboys from success in the past.
Elite Passing Game
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This should be considered the No. 1 reason why the Dallas Cowboys should be considered a playoffs team this year: once Jason Garrett took over as the head coach of the Cowboys last season, only New England scored more touchdowns.
Please remember that this was with an atrocious offensive line (we improved that greatly this offseason, highlighted by drafting Troy Smith with our first round pick), an injured Dez Bryant running up the field and Jon Kitna at QB.
Last season, the Cowboys threw the ball 576 times, and Tony Romo (before his injury) completed 64 percent of his passes. Borrowing from Matthew Berry here, but Romo was averaging 18 fantasy points a game compared to Aaron Rodgers, who ended up averaging 19.5.
To continue to bring up Matthew Berry stats, Miles Austin and Tony Romo have played in seventeen games together total from 2009 to 2010. He’s averaged 101.5 yards per game and 12 total touchdowns.
Romo has looked just as good with Austin as a target, as he has brought in 276.9 yards per game, 30 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions in those 17 games.
They’ve both been injured, but they’re far from injury prone.
Last season, the Cowboys also brought in another elite option with rookie Dez Bryant. In his first season, he scored seven touchdowns in ten games. Having a double threat as awesome as Bryant and Austin sort of makes me want to streak the field.
Yet, it’s not done there. The Cowboys also bring in the most prestigious tight end in the game with Jason Witten, an ever-reliable red-zone target who rarely drops a pass.
Witten was the No. 1 overall fantasy tight end last season and actually has to be in the game plan for any opposing team as he is a legitimate weapon to win a football game.
Tony Romo has a lot to prove this season, but it is in my most genuine belief that this is his season to shine. People aren’t predicting big things for this team, and the hype can die down a little bit before people begin to talk about America’s Team once again.
Listen to these numbers for Romo once more before you discount my playoffs prediction. He has already been among the top three in passing yards twice, he is the current leader in yards per attempt with eight and his 95.5 QB rating is the third highest among active passers.
He’s had some tough breaks in the past, but under his leadership, I’m expecting huge things this season, as even he has been quoted as saying that he’s in the “second-hase of his career.”