Where Can the Dallas Cowboys Improve Most in 2013?

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IJuly 17, 2013

LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 30:  Head coach Jason Garrett talks to Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys after they failed to convert on a third down against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on December 30, 2012 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

After setting a NFL record with at least one playoff win in six consecutive seasons (1991-96), the Dallas Cowboys have won exactly one playoff game in the last 16 seasons.

The last two campaigns have been a case of déjà vu. After an 8-6 start filled with many close games, the playoff scenarios made the Week 16 game irrelevant to the season.

The NFC East title would only be decided in the season finale, making it a de facto “win or go home” Week 17 playoff game. Both times the Cowboys had to go on the road, first facing the 2011 Giants and last year facing the 2012 Redskins.

They already lost the first matchup to both teams. They, of course, lost the second as well, both times in front of a national, prime-time audience as the final game of the regular season on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

Like that, the Cowboys finished 8-8 in consecutive years, missing out on the playoffs. Similarly in 2008, the Cowboys started 9-5 before losing the season’s final two games, including a Wild Card-deciding game in Week 17 on the road in Philadelphia. That one was a 44-6 bloodbath.

If there’s a silver lining, the Cowboys won the NFC East in this scenario in 2009 when they hosted Philadelphia in Week 17. They also beat the Eagles in the NFC Wild Card the following week for that one playoff win in 16 years.

The schedule-makers have Dallas hosting the Eagles in Week 17 this season. Maybe some good déjà vu for a change?

For a team with three star players (Tony Romo, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware) over the age of 30 and a head coach (Jason Garrett) potentially on the hot seat, this becomes another big year in Dallas.

If owner Jerry Jones is looking for a return to glory, the Cowboys have no time to waste.

Offense: Tony Romo Remains the Least of Dallas’ Problems

What more can I say about Tony Romo? Every time I write about him, Cowboys fans appreciate the work, but nothing ever truly changes with his perception as a choker.

Facts be damned, Romo is the league’s highest-rated passer (100.7 passer rating) in the fourth quarter and overtime in the 21st century. Given the history of passing stats, that might be the best rating in NFL history. That includes the playoffs as well.

Yet, the backbreaking interception thrown in the fourth quarter in Week 17 is just the type of ammo the detractors need to keep putting down one of the league’s top-10 quarterbacks.

That was the 10th time in his career Romo turned the ball over in a clutch situation like that (down 0-8 points in the fourth quarter or overtime and lost the game). Drew Brees has done that 20 times in his career. Philip Rivers has done it 22 times, including 13 times in his last 27 games.

Most won’t acknowledge that the only reason that game was in prime time with any relevance was the great second half of the season Romo had, leading Dallas to five tough wins in a six-game span after a 3-5 start.

There’s no more polarizing figure in the NFL than Romo. Sure, Tim Tebow might have been leaning that direction, but unless he’s the next great tight end in New England, his NFL career is irrelevant.

Romo, on the other hand, is basking in the glow of a new extension for six years worth $108 million. It’s a big deal, but quarterbacks cost more than ever these days. It’s not like Dallas can improve at this position with any ease.

Romo’s had a passer rating of at least 90.0 in seven consecutive seasons. Only Steve Young (1991-98) and Peyton Manning (2003-10) have ever done that (minimum 200 attempts).

While everyone talks about him in the clutch, it’s funny how Romo went 15-23 in his first 38 fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. That’s the exact record Roger “Captain Comeback” Staubach retired with. However, Staubach led his wins on bigger stages and against better teams.

Romo’s problem remains that he has his worst moments on those big stages. Even if it’s about a handful of moments, that’s all people need in the absence of a Super Bowl ring.

Never mind the fact that since 2011, Romo is a very respectable 9-10 at game-winning drive opportunities. Aaron Rodgers is 9-24 (.273) in his career.

Cam Newton, a No. 1 overall pick, is a pathetic 2-15. Philip Rivers is 2-19 in his last 21 opportunities, which have all come since his last playoff start in the 2009 season.

The clutch histories of other players are never kept in perspective with Romo’s because not as many people saw those mistakes.

So what can Romo do better?

Handling the blitz obviously wasn’t a strong part of his game in 2012. He threw seven touchdowns and eight interceptions for a 78.4 passer rating, which is not impressive alongside quarterbacks not named Matthew Stafford.

He could stand to throw fewer interceptions period. He tied for the league lead with 19, though due to throwing 648 passes, the percentage (2.93) was actually the third best of his career.

The cut down on turnovers already started in the second half of last season. Through seven games, Romo had 13 interceptions, yet nine came in two games against the Bears and Giants.

In the final nine games of the season, he threw just six interceptions, though five were in the season sweep by Washington—including three in that big Week 17 game. Two were a direct result of that big blitz right up the middle.

The interception Romo threw with 3:06 to play will be his defining moment of the 2012 season. NBC’s Cris Collinsworth audibly laughed at the play.

For as bad as that play was, Dallas had a chance to stop the Redskins and force a field-goal attempt. At worst, the Cowboys would trail 24-18 with 2:30 left to drive the field for a game-winning touchdown. Down by three, we often see teams let up and settle for the field goal. So down by six, you get to be as aggressive as possible.

So Romo had a good shot at redemption, yet on 3rd-and-7, the defense committed a huge error when Jason Hatcher was penalized for roughing the passer (Robert Griffin III). That’s an automatic first down, and the Redskins finished the Cowboys season with a touchdown to make it 28-18—no second shot for Romo.

That’s just the story of the Cowboys. Their undrafted quarterback has been their best asset, yet they have not built the type of team around him for huge success.

Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach had as much help as anyone. Romo’s expected to win as big with so little help in comparison.

What Dallas can do for Romo is maximize the team around him, which of course is difficult when the veteran quarterback makes so much money.

If this was a better team, then maybe we can stop watching games where he runs for his life and makes a great play or a bad decision. We can stop seeing snaps fly over his head, less pointing to the receivers in how to run their routes and routes that are actually ran properly.

In the first half of last season, it felt like Dez Bryant’s ratio of good plays to dumb plays was about one to one.

A great example came in Baltimore when Bryant caught a huge touchdown with 0:32 left. Down 31-29, the Cowboys went for two to tie the game. Bryant dropped the pass after catching 13 of 15 targets in the game. Dallas then lost after Dan Bailey missed a 51-yard field goal with two seconds left.

A bit more of a running game could also help decrease the pressure. The 2012 Cowboys threw on 66.16 percent of their plays. That’s the 11th-highest pass ratio in NFL history.

The running game produced a measly 325 carries for 1,216 yards (3.74 yards per carry). Even Dan Marino in his 17-year career always had more yards from his rushing game than that. His lowest total was 1,222 yards in 1988. He threw 23 interceptions and went 6-10.

Not even Marino could do it alone.

The lack of running attempts in Dallas meant the team rarely used the play-action pass despite Romo’s success with it. According to Pro Football Focus, Romo had a 109.1 passer rating on play-action passes. That was the seventh best in the league. Yet he only used it 10 percent of the time, which was the lowest of all quarterbacks.

You do not need to run the ball well to use play-action passing effectively, but it does help to run the ball a certain number of times. So much of this offense is predictable, with Romo in the shotgun and lone setback most of the time.

Romo’s 648 pass attempts were the 10th most in a season in NFL history. In that top 10, only two quarterbacks (1991 Warren Moon and 2011 Drew Brees) won a playoff game that season. Someone had to win the 2011 Lions/Saints playoff game, as Matthew Stafford is also in the top 10. Stafford became the first 700-attempt quarterback last year. Detroit finished 4-12.

Romo has been the main reason this team remains competitive, but at age 33, you have to start thinking about adding more around the quarterback before you have wasted his prime with such flawed rosters.

There’s a decent shot Romo lives up to most of his new contract in Dallas, but for most to fully buy into him, it’s going to have to include a Super Bowl win.

But why should Romo or even someone like Matt Ryan have to win a Super Bowl to suddenly validate that they were a good player all along? It’s obvious from watching them play.

However, Jason Garrett could use some big wins and a playoff appearance to validate he is a legit NFL coach and not just the offensive coordinator who picked up the ball when Wade Phillips lost his job.

His grasp of full-team responsibilities has been questionable to say the least.

Defense: Takeaways and Stops

Too often the Cowboys are playing it close under Garrett.

In his 40 games, a whopping 28 of them (70 percent) have featured the Cowboys and/or their opponent having possession of the ball in the fourth quarter with a one-score deficit.

The NFL average in that time is about 57 percent.

In these situations, either the offense or defense could easily lose the game for the team depending on the context. Often they must work together to close the deal, whether that’s with the offense running out the clock or the defense getting that final stop.

Helping out Garrett now are coordinators Bill Callahan (offense) and Monte Kiffin (defense). It just so happens Jon Gruden worked with both in his NFL coaching career when it was at its peak of success (2000-02).

Kiffin has as much experience with the Tampa-2 defense as anyone. It’s also a better fit for what defensive line coach Rod Marinelli has done in his career. This is a solid coaching staff.

A scheme change in switching to the 4-3 may be just what Dallas needed after two years of struggling with Rob Ryan’s 3-4 system.

Ryan has produced poor results in his nine years as a defensive coordinator in the NFL. One of the worst came last season when the Cowboys intercepted just seven passes and had 16 takeaways total.

That 1.37 interception percentage was the seventh-lowest rate in NFL history by a defense in a non-strike season. Here’s a look at how those defenses did the following year:

Of course, every team intercepted a higher rate of passes. These were the 10 worst defenses ever at getting interceptions. These teams went from getting an interception on 1.24 percent of passes in the first year up to 2.66 percent the following year. The average gain was 7.3 more interceptions.

If the defense gave the offense seven more possessions, that’s a good chunk of one game’s worth of drives—not to mention the advantages in field position that often come with takeaways.

For a Dallas team that keeps missing the playoffs by one game, that boost could be the difference.

Beyond interceptions, it would also help if the defense stopped teams late in the game by any means necessary. In Garrett’s 40 games, the Cowboys have allowed a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime in 11 of them.

That puts this era in a poor light compared to some of the other coaches in their current tenure (playoffs included):

This chart is showing that in 27.5 percent of Garrett’s games as a head coach, the Cowboys have lost after allowing a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime. That’s easily the worst on the list, though we should not ignore the under-reported failures the Steelers and Packers have had in these moments.

Only Mike Tomlin has a higher percentage of losses in his career resulting from a game-winning drive than Garrett.

The numbers would be even worse in Dallas without Romo’s efforts the last two years to lead the offense back on top. In 2011 games against Washington and Miami and 2012 games against Carolina, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the defense allowed a game-tying or go-ahead drive, only for the offense to ultimately score the game’s winning points.

Dallas had to win six of its eight games last season by scoring the winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime. Of the last 40 teams to win so many close games, only eight improved their overall record the next season.

The only playoff win in the Romo era came in 2009. That’s the only time the Cowboys had a top 10 defense in terms of points allowed. It may not turn around that quickly this year, but this should be a better defense under Kiffin.

DeMarcus Ware could be a real terror as a 4-3 defensive end, while linebacker Bruce Carter is expected to make big strides in his third season. Carter may not be the next Derrick Brooks, but he’s a good fit here. Sean Lee has been another cornerstone linebacker, but he missed 10 games last season. He’s hoping to have his first healthy season in his career entering his fourth year.

Some will say health killed the defense last year, so an expected improvement in health in 2013 could go a long way in turning this defense around. The team seems confident in safety Barry Church despite his inexperience. He also was hurt in 2012, missing 13 games.

If you play more efficient offense and tighter defense early in games, then you get to play with more leads, rush the quarterback, cause havoc and turnovers, build up the lead, run the clock and win games more comfortably.

The Cowboys could use a few more breathers after 2.5 seasons of fighting tooth and nail for 60 minutes nearly every week.

Departures and Arrivals: The 2013 Starters

Credit to Ourlads for this chart of potential starters in 2013.

Offensively, things are fairly consistent from last year. Running back Felix Jones is gone, which means DeMarco Murray better do a better job of staying healthy. The team did draft Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle for insurance.

The top three receivers remain intact with Dez Bryant poised for another monster season. Miles Austin can still contribute a lot, and Jason Witten just had a career-high 110 receptions.

It does make you wonder why Dallas drafted tight end Gavin Escobar with the 47th pick, but we have seen a shift towards having two good tight ends capable of catching passes. Romo has always loved the underneath routes to those guys.

Kevin Ogletree, who finished fourth on the team with 436 receiving yards, is gone, but how many people were aware of him a year ago? Romo has made it work in the past with guys like Sam Hurd coming out of nowhere as a secondary receiver. Dwayne Harris is still in Dallas, and he can contribute something in the passing game in addition to special teams.

The Cowboys drafted Baylor wide receiver Terrance Williams in the third round, so you may see him step up as that No. 3 wide receiver this year.

The much-criticized offensive line returns four of the five starters from last year, but this time, Tyron Smith and Doug “This Pressure on the Quarterback Is” Free will be playing the same position for the second year in a row after switching sides last year.

Bill Callahan is also in his second season coaching the offense, so that relationship should improve through experience.

The only change was the surprise pick of center Travis Frederick in the first round. Not only is it a surprise to see a center taken in the first round, but Frederick was hardly given a first-round grade.

Still, if he plays well and eliminates some of those pathetic snaps that fly over Romo’s head (how does this keep happening in Dallas?) then the outcry over the pick will quickly be forgotten.

We already went through most of the new 4-3 defense under Kiffin. Justin Durant comes over from Detroit. He has 67 career starts.

Cornerback Morris Claiborne will be looking for a big second-year leap after last season’s so-so debut. He was the highest-drafted cornerback at No. 6 but hardly the best rookie given what Casey Hayward, a late second-round pick, did in Green Bay. Hayward had six interceptions. Dallas had seven as a team.

Brandon Carr proved to be the team’s best cornerback, but he was a veteran, so we’ll just wait and see with Claiborne. Mike Jenkins, the team’s first-round pick in 2008, has left to Oakland. Dallas did draft B.W. Webb in the fourth round, so that could be a factor in the depth this year at cornerback.

Gerald Sensabaugh started 15 games at free safety last year and is gone now. Danny McCray started 10 games and may not be in the mix as a starter this season.

The safety position is the big question mark here. Dallas brought in veteran Will Allen from Pittsburgh and drafted J.J. Wilcox in the third round. Barry Church only has four career starts in three years.

The secondary in general is the suspect part of this defense, but we know with Kiffin and the Tampa-2, that schematically it can cover up a lot of deficiencies and bring out the best in lesser players.

It’s all going to be about that pass rush, and if the talent-loaded front seven is doing its job, then that just makes things easier on the secondary.

Conclusion: NFC East Up for Grabs Again

In five of the last seven seasons, Dallas has either outright won or had a Week 17-clinching scenario for the NFC East. One other time (2008) it was a wild-card scenario. The only time the Cowboys were irrelevant in Week 17 was 2010 when Romo was lost for the year after six games.

Why should we expect anything different in 2013?

Dallas has as good of a chance as any of the other three teams. Philadelphia is a mystery with Chip Kelly and the starting quarterback, the Giants often slump in the second half, and Washington will try to recapture its late-year push.

The NFC East is the most hyped division, but it’s hardly the best. There is no standout team. It likely will be won by a team with a 9-7 or 10-6 record again. On paper, the only teams on the schedule that may be significantly better than Dallas are Denver and Green Bay. Both games are at home at least.

A good start will be crucial, as Dallas has home games against NFC competition in Week 1 (Giants) and Week 3 (Rams). Washington comes in Week 6. The bye (Week 11) comes at a good time, as the Cowboys will have an extra week to prepare for the road game against the Giants. Oakland offers another favorable Thanksgiving opponent.

In past years, the schedule has been downright brutal in December, which may be the case again this year with games at Chicago, versus Green Bay and at Washington. The last one could have major significance for the division. Then it’s a home game against the Eagles to close out the season.

This is a team with enough talent to do great things, but is it a team capable of working together to accomplish those goals? We have seen too many efforts from one side of the ball wasted by a poor performance from the other side.

If the Cowboys can stop being such a danger to themselves at times on the field, then the team could be a real contender in 2013.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.