Reviewing our five things about the Dallas Cowboys that needed to change for the team to improve
By Matthew Postins
Last January, RattleandHumSports.com pointed out five things that had to change for the Dallas Cowboys to jump from average team to playoff team. Well, the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs for a third consecutive year and finished 8-8. Now it’s time to revisit those points and see where the Cowboys improved and where the Cowboys failed.
Point 1: Run the football more often
In 2012: The Cowboys passed the ball 64.9 percent of the time in 2012. The Cowboys were next to last in the NFL in rushing attempts, total yardage gained and yards per carry last season.
What did the Cowboys do to fix this in 2013? The Cowboys installed a new play-caller in offensive coordinator Bill Callahan. The Cowboys drafted a running back, Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle, in the fifth round. The Cowboys drafted a center, Travis Frederick, to help improve the interior blocking, made second-year undrafted free agent Ron Leary a starter and signed veteran Brian Waters just before the season began, and who missed the second half of the season with a triceps injury.
In 2013: Dallas finished the season ranked No. 15 in rushing, averaging 94 yards per game. The Cowboys were tied for eighth in yards per carry with 4.5 ypc. Starting running back DeMarco Murray missed only two games and gained 1,121 yards, his first 1,000-yard season. He was one of three backs in the Top 20 in the NFL who averaged at least 5 yards per carry.
Pass or Fail? Pass, but with a couple of qualifiers. First, Callahan and Garrett could have run the football more often in 2013 and failed in the area of situational running on several occasions. Second, the Cowboys envisioned more of a rotation in the backfield, but aside from the two games Murray missed, it was basically his show. But if he plays in 2014 like he did in 2013, then no one will care. The offensive line improved, and that greatly assisted Murray and the run game. Overall, 2013 was a performance to build on for 2014.
Point 2: Create more turnovers
In 2012: The Cowboys created just 16 takeaways in 2012, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL.
What the Cowboys did to fix this? The Cowboys jettisoned the 3-4 and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan for the 4-3 and former Tampa Bay coordinator Monte Kiffin. The Cowboys also lured one of Kiffin’s top lieutenants from his Tampa days, Rod Marinelli, to coach the defensive line.
In 2013: Dallas created 28 turnovers for the season, 12 more than in 2013 and finished the season with a plus-8 turnover ratio.
Pass or Fail: Pass. Those 28 turnovers ranked the Cowboys in the top half of the NFL after spending 2012 in the bottom half of those rankings. It’s the one part of Kiffin’s scheme the Cowboys defense took to from the start. One caveat here is that the Cowboys forced six turnovers against the New York Giants and four more against the Detroit Lions (in a loss, no less). But 2013 represented a step forward in this department.
Point 3: Start games and the season better
In 2012: In 2012 the Dallas Cowboys held the lead 23.4 percent of the time and started 3-5. Of the 12 teams that reached the playoffs last year nine had at least five wins at the season’s mid-point.
What the Cowboys did to fix this: The Cowboys’ hope was that upgrades to the offensive line and defensive line, along with a more involved Tony Romo in offensive decisions, would lead to better starts. Callahan’s role as play-caller also plays a role.
In 2013: At the midpoint of the season the Cowboys had led 60.9 percent of the time. That number probably dipped, but it definitely improved. The Cowboys outscored their opponents by seven, 439-432. The Cowboys finished the final eight games the same way they started the first eight games, with a 4-4 record.
Pass or Fail?: Fail. This Cowboys team may have played from ahead more often in 2013, but their final plus-7 point differential and their matching 4-4 records in the first and second half of the season shows they didn’t make enough progress.
Point 4: Reduce their mistakes, specifically on offense
In 2012: The Cowboys were No. 25 in giveaways with 1.8 per game (29 turnovers overall). The Cowboys were the third most penalized team in the NFL with 7.4 penalties per game. The Cowboys committed 47 pre-snap penalties. The Cowboys had two of the most penalized players in the league, and both were on the offensive line – tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith. The Cowboys were No. 20 in red zone efficiency.
What the Cowboys did to fix this? Put a greater emphasis on quarterback Tony Romo being involved in the game plan in the hopes that it reduces turnovers. The Cowboys also want to run the ball more as a way of protecting the football. The Cowboys also turned over the entire interior of their offensive line and re-installed Doug Free as the full-time right tackle after he shared time late last year with Jermey Parnell.
In 2013: The Cowboys dropped their giveaways to 20 for the season, a difference of nine from 2012. Romo was responsible for just 11 of them (10 interceptions, 1 fumble). The Cowboys committed 102 penalties, an average of one penalty fewer than they committed in 2012. None of the Cowboys’ offensive linemen were among the Top 50 players in terms of individual penalties in 2013. The Cowboys’ offense committed just 21 pre-snap penalties in 2013. The Cowboys scored a touchdown in the red zone nearly 70 percent of the time in 2013.
Pass or Fail? Pass. Why all of that didn’t translate into a NFC East title is a bit mystifying.
Point 5: Get bigger contributions from five players
Summary: We highlighted five players the Cowboys needed more from in 2013. Here’s the final update:
Linebacker Alex Albright. Injured and is no longer on the Cowboys’ roster.
Wide receiver Dwayne Harris. Harris emerged as one of the top kickoff and punt returners in the NFL in 2013. He certainly came through in that department.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne. It became a lost season for Claiborne, who was never truly healthy and did not contribute in the way the Cowboys were expecting, especially give his first-round pedigree.
Right tackle Doug Free. Free took a pay cut to stay in Dallas, fended off a brief challenge from Jermey Parnell, had his best season in three years. He cut down on the penalties, improved in pass protection and now looks more like the player the Cowboys committed a long-term deal to after his first NFL contract expired.
Defensive tackle Sean Lissemore. Traded to San Diego for a draft pick.
Pass or Fail? Fail, but only barely. Claiborne’s less-than-stellar season kept this point from passing.