The true agony of being a perpetual 8-8 team is never being sure if you're good or bad. Which means you're never sure if you're excited or miserable. Which in turn pretty must mean you're always miserable. If a team wins 11 games, they're great. They should bask in the success and try to keep it going. If a team wins 3 games, they're a disgrace. They should fire everyone and try to fleece Buffalo or Washington in a draft day trade. But 8-8 is the great conundrum. Should I believe Jerry Jones when he tells me the Cowboys are only a few plays away from greatness? Or should I go with my gut and hope Tony Romo doesn't return from the back surgery in time for the season, forcing Mr. Jones to blow up the team.
This year, I've decided to let unguarded optimism rule the day and I've applied the principle to the recent draft. I've learned a few things that should fill every Cowboys fan with a warm feeling of excitement and wonder for the upcoming season. But, before I go any further, a few words are needed on the nature of unguarded optimism. First of all, unguarded optimism nearly always blows up in the face of the user and should be approached with great caution. Furthermore... unguarded optimism is a real-life version of the shell game. In this case, certain things must be ignored in order for the magic to take effect. Specifically, let's all agree to ignore the following: Sean Lee's health, Bruce Carter's health, Tony Romo's back, the safety depth chart, Chip Kelly's offense, RGIII's recovered health, angry Eli Manning, Tom Coughlin coaching for his job, the Niners, the Seahawks. Actually, the whole NFC West. And don't forget the Saints, Jason Garrett's “Coaching Style”, and finally, Jerry's... Jerryness,
With the ground rules set, here is why the Cowboys will have a dramatic upswing and make a strong playoff run. Spoiler alert: It all comes down to 5 plays a game.
The chain reaction affect of drafting Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence cannot be overstated. The Cowboys were a glass cannon last season. Fantastic on offense, but absolutely worthless on defense. Drafting Martin completes the rebuild of the offense line and gives the Cowboys four “plus” offensive lineman. Assuming Doug Free can continue his strong play on the right, Martin shores up the guard position with Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick as standouts at LT and C. This powerful of a line not only will keep Tony Romo alive longer on drop backs, but will force defenses to blitz more often, respect the play fake and also play closer to the line in general. In the end, I believe this will lead to a few less three and outs and an extra first down here and there. All told, I think it's reasonable to expect five more plays on offense per game this season. Which doesn't sound like much, but is potentially game changing.
Last season the Cowboys finished 4th in the league in points scored and 7th in yards per play. But they were dead last in total plays. This is a remarkable statistic. If you take last year's team and give them 5 more plays per game and don't alter the ratio of “points scored per play ran,” the Cowboys would have scored 35 more points and averaged 2.18 more per game. I realize that this is a heavily flawed statistical analysis, but I'm using it to illustrate the potential relevance of adding just 5 plays a game to the offense. Moreover, if the offense is using five more plays per game, then the defense is likely affected as well.
Looking at the defense for this year I think we can agree that Lawrence is a debatable upgrade from DeMarcus Ware. The debate being fueled largely by A.) How much you believe Ware still has in the tank and B.) How bad was the rest of the D-line last year. Personally, I believe Ware's real problem was the dumpster fire of a defense line that he had supporting him. Also, the change of position and scheme probably didn't help either. Oh, and the injury. He wasn't remotely healthy and tried fighting off double or triple teams (since opposing offensive lines didn't have much else to do). Regardless, Ware isn't here and Lawrence is wearing the star.
Fortunately, Lawrence shouldn't have to deal with any of those concerns this season. At the time of this writing, the Cowboys have 18 Defense lineman on the payroll. This includes the strong FA signing of Henry Melton from Chicago, the talented but injured Anthony Spencer and former Houston 1st round pick Amobi Okoye. Assuming any of the other 14... hang on, let me rephrase that...any of the other FOURTEEN!!! DL hit or develop, the line should be dramatically better than last year. Better line play will trickle down to the other giant area of concern: the secondary.
Facing zero pass rush, opposing teams could wait until coverage broke down and simply pick the team to death. Which didn't take long as the Cowboys were in a new system and were seemingly unable to make adjustments. This year all three of those problems will be better. The defense will feature a much improved line, It's the second year in the system and there was a coaching shift to aid with gameday management and play calling. NFL games aren't getting longer. So with the offense staying on for 5 extra plays a game, and the defensive improvements, we can assume the defense will be on the field for 5 less plays a game.
Last season, the Cowboys defense ranked 26th in points allowed and 27th in plays against. Factoring in the 5 reduced plays, the ranking change to 23rd and 9th respectively. NINTH! An 18 spot change in the rankings simply from getting the defense off the field for 5 more plays a game. Adjusting the scoring based on last season's point per play ratio, the Cowboys would have given up 31 less points which amounts to nearly 2 points per game.
Now this all paints an interesting picture, but this is an article about Unguarded Optimism for NEXT season. The offense looks to be roughly comparable to last season's effort. The nearly invisible Miles Austin was replaced by a 3rd round receiver, otherwise the receiving core is the same. The line is better. The RB situation is also comparable, with Ryan Williams being added for depth.
Defensively, however, the team should be much better. Last season the Cowboys conceded a comical 6.1 yards per play. The league average was 5.4. The trifecta of better DL personnel, second year in the system and the coaching changes should alter that number. Perhaps not all the way down to average, but at least (I would think) to 5.75 or thereabouts. Looking at the statistics from last season, teams who gave up between 5.4 and 5.75 yards per play also gave up an average of approximately 24 points per game. If the Cowboys were to perform similarly, that would be an improvement from this season's average of 27. Adding that to the decrease in plays and the slight increase in scoring on offense and it would be a swing of just over +5 points differential per game.
Last season the Cowboys lost six games by 5 points or less. Another game was decided by 9. The team finished 8-8. The addition of Martin and Lawrence (and the host of changes on defense) will make up that 5 point gap. In a league full of parity where games are frequently decided by one or two plays, the Cowboys just had an off season that could easily elevate the team to 10 wins. It's certainly not an absurd notion. And with just a pinch of unguarded optimism, it quickly becomes a reasonable expectation. Being a fan of the Cowboys has lately been a study in pain, misery and regret. But this next season could be one for the ages. 10 wins seems reasonable, but 12 doesn't seem absurd. Things seldom seem to work out the way that they should, but Cowboy fans should still be excited for 2014. Just remember to breathe deep, focus on “what could be”, and don't.... under any circumstances... look at Romo's cap hit for the next few years.