Turmoil is again in the air with the Dallas Cowboys, as they sit at 3-5 with their playoff hopes already on life support at the halfway point of the regular season. Whether Jerry Jones the owner should fire Jerry Jones the GM is a topic on sports talk shows, not just in Big D, but nationwide. The ‘Boys have a game with equally turmoil-ridden Philadelphia coming up Sunday. With the Cowboys-Eagles game in the prime Fox time slot at 4:25 PM EST, the discussion of where to go from here will get even more attention.
As for what Dallas should do in the future, we’ll leave that for another time. For now, TheSportsNotebook is interested in this question—what’s been the problem with the 2012 Cowboys and is there still time to fix it and make the playoffs?
If you review the Cowboys’ core statistical production, the problems jump out loud and clear. The first, and most transparent is the interceptions. Tony Romo’s offense has thrown 13 picks, and only the hapless Kansas City quarterbacks have thrown more.
Then let’s move to the pass coverage. The Dallas secondary is terrible at ballhawking, the worst in the NFC for interceptions of their own. This is made worse by the fact they rank 23rd in yards-per-pass allowed. The pass defense isn’t without its strengths—they do an excellent job minimizing completion percentage, but their negative numbers tell us that opposing quarterbacks can throw the down the field with a high degree of success and a low degree of fear. In today’s NFL that’s a recipe for disaster.
What about the pass rush? Surely, a 3-4 scheme with Demarcus Ware at outside linebacker can collapse pockets and make some big plays of their own, right? You’d think so, but it hasn’t worked out that way. In spite of a good year from Ware, who has nine sacks, the Cowboys as a whole are 20th when it comes to knocking down opposing quarterbacks.
If you’ve got any notions of Dallas using their running game to keep opposing QBs off the field and reduce their own interceptions, think again. The Cowboys don’t run the ball very often, and are terrible when they try, ranking near the bottom of the NFL in yards-per-attempt and total carries. The foot injury to Demarco Murray hasn’t helped, although even he’s healthy, head coach Jason Garrett still likes to get pass-happy.
As we piece this data together into a portrait of the team, it looks pretty ugly. We have a team that doesn’t rush the passer, whose secondary gets beat down the field and can’t make an interception, combined with an interception-prone quarterback of their own and a running game that can’t take the heat off. Oh, and the punt return coverage is the worst in the NFL, with other facets of special teams being mediocre to poor. Sorry I didn’t mention that.
Maybe the relevant question is how in the hell did this team win three games already? The fact Dallas has been competitive in losses to Atlanta, the New York Giants and Baltimore obscure the reality that a lot of teams in the NFL can play close games on a week-to-week basis. Dallas’ complete body of work tells us they have done nothing that suggests that can start turning these games into wins.
The hope Dallas fans have is that Romo can start playing better football, the pass rush can improve and a secondary that’s still young, with rookie corner Morris Claiborne will get better in the second half. Those are very reasonable things to hope for, even if they do have to be tempered by the injury problems at inside linebacker, where Dan Connor is banged up and Sean Lee lost for the year. So let’s move to the next question, which is whether there’s still time to make a run.
For the sake of this discussion let’s lock up five NFC playoff berths—New York, Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco and give one wild-card spot to Green Bay. The Packers have injury problems and tough road games coming on the far side of their bye week on Sunday, so that might not be a guarantee. But with Green Bay at 6-3, I don’t think a Dallas fan wants to invest too much hope at this time of chasing them down. So we’ll assume that the final wild-card spot is all that’s left.
The main competitors for that spot would be Seattle (5-4), Minnesota (5-4), Tampa Bay (4-4) and Detroit (4-4). From a tiebreaker standpoint, Dallas has lost to Seattle and beaten Tampa Bay. The Seahawks look like a pretty good bet to get to 9-7, so the Cowboys probably need to be thinking in terms of winning 10 games—which means winning seven of the last eight.
If we presume the team makes the reasonable improvements noted just above, that’s actually not as far-fetched as it might seem. Dallas’ schedule is very friendly in the second half. In the coming five weeks, they play Philadelphia twice, Washington, Cleveland and go on the road to Cincinnati. The next time Dallas plays a genuinely tough opponent will be December 16 against Pittsburgh, and that’s at home. Then the Cowboys close with New Orleans and a road trip to Washington. We see at least one team, and usually more, get hot in the second half every year. If Dallas is that team, reeling off seven wins against this slate is doable and pending what happens with the tiebreaker situation it might only take six.
We can conclude that while Dallas’ playoff hopes are in critical condition, and they’ve probably played even worse than their record to date, there’s still a narrow window by which they can get better and take advantage of a soft schedule down the stretch. The biggest test case will come Sunday in Philadelphia.