Monday, January 02, 2012

The Morning After: Giants 31, Cowboys 14 (8-8)

Anytime there is a full and complete collapse - such as going 1-4 to finish the season - it would be much too simplistic to single one portion of an organization for ridicule and public identification.

Rather, for the 2011 Dallas Cowboys, we must look in all sorts of directions. And we must wonder, after a very disappointing 8-8 campaign, how long things will continue in this general direction before the Cowboys can break out of this franchise-worst drought of playoff futility and return to its formerly usual spot with the heavyweights of the NFL.

Once upon a time, the Cowboys organization set the pace for excellence in the league. Playoff regulars and a team that amassed division titles, playoff wins, and Super Bowls for much of the first 35 years of its existence has now hit such a drastic wall that nearly every fan of the team can recite the horrible facts:

In 15 years, the Cowboys have 1 wildcard playoff victory. One. That's one more than the Muncie Flyers and the Canton Bulldogs, but given that those teams folded shortly after World War 1, that would clearly not be a very large consolation.

The Cowboys have hit the wall of resistance nearly every season at a similar time. Usually right around the holidays is where the Cowboys take a promising start and wither under the bright lights of the holiday season, as it did in 2011. Dallas was 7-4 after Thanksgiving and looking ahead at a December that included 2 games against very poor teams (Arizona and Tampa Bay) and 3 divisional wars, with 2 of those games on their home field in Arlington.

And yet, a 1-4 finish has the fan base as frustrated as ever that once again their team cannot put together results at the time of year where teams either load up for a title run or go home with tears streaming down their face. This Cowboys team is going to need a lot of tissue.

So, where does one properly place the blame? One could easily suggest the better question is where does one NOT place the blame?

The Dallas Cowboys organization has not passed the test yet again for a myriad of reasons. And, with all due respect to Emmitt Smith, mental toughness is well down the line. Emmitt might think that mental toughness is the sole explanation for a team not rising to the occasion in a place like New York like he did in 1993, but, Emmitt played on a team that had many Hall of Fame caliber players and depth that amazed any observer. Mental toughness is a great tie-breaker when talent is equal, but in this space, the premise is that the Cowboys have some very impressive top end talent, but not nearly enough strength on their roster to win a game like the contest that was asked of them on Sunday Night in New York.

There is a theory around these parts that Tony Romo has a bad December record. This would make sense if he was playing tennis or golf, but in football it doesn't compute. Yet, he will deal with the blame again. The reason for this is that it is an easy narrative that allows people (even national "experts") to simplify an extremely complex conversation down to one talking point that can be easily shared at a water cooler with coworkers. In football, that usually means that one either blames the coach, the quarterback, or both. And while they should certainly share the blame for another failure, there is no way that they should bear full responsibility for yet another Cowboys mess. Not even close.

This team fails in December for one primary and simple reason: The roster doesn't contain the quality personnel that is required to sustain the assaults of a 16-game campaign in the NFL.

Think about it: When does the team fail? December. In a 4-month season, which month would best reveal your depth and quality down the roster that can compensate for fatigue and injuries? December. The truth is that the Cowboys have enough talent on the top of their roster to compete with some of the best teams in the league. Romo, Ware, Witten, Austin, Ratliff are a very solid "Top 5". Bryant, Lee, Murray, Smith, and Jenkins are a reasonable 6-10 on a roster. But, then the drop-off begins on the roster. And if the season was just 8-10 games long, they would likely be able to hang in there. Any Cowboys historian will confirm that the team certainly gets to Thanksgiving in great shape nearly every season. So, what changes? Is it really that turning the calendar to the month of December is what makes a magical spell fall over Romo and the team where they can no longer compete?

Good teams in the NFL have quality from 1-10, but also from 11-53, too. When fatigue strikes Jay Ratliff, they have a player behind him who can bridge the gap. If Ware is being double-teamed, someone else can rise up. When the line is under siege, a solid veteran can do a reasonable job and protect his QB. The good teams have enough quality on their roster that they can construct a solid team effort for the regular season. Sure, they count on their stars to perform, but beyond that, there are starters and reserves that never find a magazine cover that do their job admirably.

December is when we find an offensive line that cannot allow Romo time to throw. Last night, the Giants drove the Cowboys OL back into their QB again and again. And why would this surprise anyone? The Eagles did, too. So did the Cardinals. And the Giants 3 weeks ago. As a unit, the Cowboys OL failed again. And to show you their contributions as attrition took its toll, the Cowboys allowed 6 sacks in September, 9 in October, 5 in November, and 19 in December.

6 sacks last night in the biggest game of the season matches all of the sacks allowed in 2 other months of the season. Simple explanations will smirk at another Romo failure, but anyone who follows the NFL knows that teams don't win if they get sacked 6 times. The league is 8-49 in the last 3 seasons when a QB is sacked that often. 14% win percentage says all you need to know.

It would sure be great to blame injuries for the OL breaking down, but that would be difficult to do. The team had perfect health at tackle this season, and the interior of the line was ignored by the GM all season. Most NFL observers would suggest that the Cowboys OL was exactly what they thought it would be. Poor. It offered the team an inconsistent running game and horrendous pass protection as the season built to its climax.

And, then there is the defense. A change of coordinators and schemes disguised the truth for a period of time. But in the end, we see the truth again: The personnel on the defense has some top-side talent (Ware, Ratliff, and Lee) but not enough to compensate for a unit that has weaknesses in many other spots. Putting tape on a shot-gun wound will cause many to blame Rob Ryan, but I would love to see what coordinator could make sense of what he was given. No offseason. No upgrades. No help from the draft. No expenditures. Just take the worst defense in franchise history and fix it with your magical formula. Good luck, Rob.

The truth appears to be this: The Cowboys have relied on those trusted top end players for years and have seen the same results - good seasons, but generally no years that have been good enough. The premise that Romo, Ware, Ratliff, and Witten can drag this team up and down the field with so many passengers is just nonsense. The title contenders in this league are not 5-strong. They are 53-strong.

Look at this history of Cowboys draft picks sometime. You will see the horrible truth that Bill Parcells and his crew put the top of this roster in place. And the rest of the roster is a product of his last draft (his worst) and every draft since. The sum total of the 2006-2011 drafts right now on this roster is minimal. The should be the spine of the roster. Instead, here is what the last 6 drafts have yielded that were present and accounted for last night in New York:

2006: Jason Hatcher (edit 1/3)
2007: Anthony Spencer, Doug Free, Alan Ball
2008: Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Martellus Bennett, Orlando Scandrick
2009: Stephen McGee, Victor Butler, John Phillips
2010: Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, Sean Lissemore
2011: Tyron Smith

48 picks. And I just put a list together of 7 starters and 7 reserves. Many are disappointments and have never come close to reaching their potential. But, when you have 53 players on your roster and 22 "starters" you simply must do better than this. None of these 48 picks have threatened to knock Ratliff, Ware, Romo, Witten, or Austin out of their perches at the top of the roster yet. Lee, Smith, and Bryant may soon. DeMarco Murray shouldn't be forgotten. But, Spencer, Jones, Jenkins, and Bennett are all disappointments from where they were taken in the draft.

This is not a Tony Romo, Jason Garrett, or Rob Ryan issue. They should share in the blame, but this largely remains a Jerry Jones issue. He has built a stadium that can host a Super Bowl. But he sure hasn't built a roster that can play in one.

Players play. Coaches coach. And the General Manager is fully responsible to make sure his team is 53-strong. Playing a Giants team in a winner-take-all scenario on Sunday Night revealed a similar result that a showdown with the Eagles in 2008 and the Vikings in 2009 demonstrated: This organization is a long way from being where their fans are used to being back in the glory days.

The GM thought that Phil Costa and Derrick Dockery could hold off the Giants front after believing that Bill Nagy and Montrae Holland were the answers. The GM thought that Keith Brooking and Bradie James could patrol the middle of the field and that Anthony Spencer could get to the QB in a game that mattered. The GM thought Terence Newman still had it and that no real personnel upgrades were required on that defense in the offseason.

And he was wrong again.

Are you tired of hearing that Jerry the owner should fire Jerry the GM and overhaul how this team selects its players? You should be. Despite a few respites when Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells selected players (neither of which were perfect, but check their batting averages), Jerry and his crew have failed to assemble anything more than a team that rides its few star players right into the ground as they try to navigate around the replacement-level players that Jerry has assembled at every other spot on the roster.

He is banking on you blaming Ryan, Romo, and Garrett again. And he is banking on you buying $340 tickets again next season.

It will be interesting to see if or when the public will have had enough of his fantasy camp routine. Yes, it is his toy. But, much like a restaurant owner that wants to be chef, he will still need people to eat his meals.

This franchise is broken and it is not getting better. Another showdown against a beatable division rival showed you all you should need to see. Assuming the last 15 years didn't already provide enough evidence.


Justine said...

Hey Bob, I agree with your analysis.. Its funny how we football observers convince ourselves that its strictly a game of individuals dominating. Saints, Packers, and Patriots have two things in common, good offensive lines and great qb's. Does Matt Flynn throw 6 td's for the Rams yesterday? Packers are a great team, from the offensive system to the players playing it. Final note, would be interesting to see a comparison of Cowboys drafts and FA pickups since 2006 among their peers. I can't seem to find anyone doing draft grading outside of the ridiculous morning after.

NYG Fan in Keller said...

Bob - how much longer are you going to stick with "Romo is better than Eli?" What else does Eli need to do? If these two guys had identical credentials, but Eli played for the Cowboys, I can't even begin to imagine how you would shred anyone who would suggest Romo is superior. Come on Bob, you're better than this.

The Pants Down Explainer said...

That's a (mostly) great take.

Narrowing the universe a bit: the team needs 40% turnover in its starters: S, CB, ILB, OLB, DT, LG, C, RG.

Let's suppose that 4 of these spots are taken by internal candidates: Church, Carter, Butler, and Lissemore.

Let's suppose they draft one starter (likely a G or DT).

This means the GM must land at least 3 impact/starter free agents. Do you trust he can? Do you trust he has the cash to do so?

The obvious answer is NO.

Sturminator said...

@NYG Fan - I believe I have credited Eli pretty heavily after the 2007 Playoffs. Since then, he has been good - not great. Like Romo, he relies on quality around him. I highly doubt that the Giants win games like this without better lines. Switch QBs and the Giants still win.

Koji said...

Hi Bob, I'm a Cowboys fan from Brazil, and just read your perfect analysis of the franchise's situation. Just perfect.
In your opinion, should I watch only soccer and come back when Jerry is gone? It looks to me that as long as he stays as GM, we're going to have a similar season in 2012 and beyond...

Roger Light, Artist said...

Eli is a good quarterback, but he has been blessed with great receivers who go up an fight for the ball when he launches it off his back foot. Cruz and Nicks are truly great. Dallas fans want to think Romo has great receivers but he really doesn't. Dez is a huge question mark on every play--will he run the right route or not?Miles is very good at times but not available enough, Robinson just got here and may actually be the best--that should tell you about the actual talent on this team--Robinson was a cast off from the Chargers and he rose to the top of the depth chart in a few games. Romo makes his receivers look great, with little help from his offensive line. Imagine what he could do with time for 7 step drops and receivers like Cruz and Nicks!

Roger Light, Artist said...

I disagree with those he think the roster is weak in so many places. The secondary is an obvious mess. You get some players with speed and aggressiveness, who can actually cover and suddenly the pass rush looks better. You add a solid pass rushing linemen to complement Ware and suddenly you have a top five pass defense. Easier said than done, but those players were out there for the team to go get in the off season. I AM NOT TALKING MARQUEE, BIG MONEY GUYS--I am saying solid contributors. The greatest sin this organization commits is that is fails to find the solid contributors. They went all or none on the secondary. "oh, we didn't get Assomwhatever? Fine, forget it, we like the guys we have then!" What!!! Are you kidding me? What the hell kind of a response is that? How could they not see that they were God-Awful at cornerback and damn near anyone would be an upgrade? Boggles the mind--Rob Ryan needs to take some of this blame as well. Talent evaluation is a huge part of his job and his arrogance fails him every time. You can't make your players great by proclaiming them great.

PipeAlign said...

Ratlif really hasn't been an elite player for a couple of years. Otherwise, your points are right on.

There are several problems with the draft. First, Jerry Jones seems to reach for the moon far too often, being seduced by measurables rather than play on the field. Second, he too often ignores the unglamorous line. And he trades away and trades down higher round picks, which would be fine if he had a track record of spotting talent late in the draft. The big problem is that the Cowboys simply have not identified the best player on the board very often.

Murray, though, looks like an elite player. Bruce Carter's season was incomplete. And guys like Arkin and Nagy and even Harris have chances to improve. So maybe the Cowboys turned a corner, thanks perhaps to Jason Garrett and his desire to find guys who bring a certain commitment to the game of football.

The only other saving grace is that the Cowboys have found a lot of good players as undrafted free agents or cast offs. Robinson and Fiametta appear to be two such this year.

But all together, this team needs a talent infusion. We need someone on the line who can get a sack without a blitz, besides Demarcus Ware. We need Bruce Carter to become this year's Bruce Lee. We need to let Spencer go to find someone who is actually dynamic in getting to the quarterback. Elam is a bench player, not a starter. Newman is simply done. Alan Ball shouldn't be in the NFL.

What makes all this worse is that Romo turns 32 next year. Ware and Witten turn 30. None of them have long, most likely, before they too break down.

So the Cowboys need to realize they are not a player or two away.

If they were wise, they would trade Romo, Witten, and Ware for quality draft picks and see if they can trade up for Griffin, or really tank it for a couple of years while building the foundation before landing an elite quarterback again.

Xanthippas said...

Good stuff as always Bob. Thanks for taking the time to dig into this stuff for us "casual" fans. Unfortunately the lack of a deep roster is the problem, and that's the result of how the GM builds this team, then it looks like we are in for many, many more years of disappointment.

beWARE said...

good article but I don't buy into the Bill Parcells built the top thing.

I think in general Jerry gets the credit for the bad picks/signings and Bill Parcells gets the credit for the good ones. It can't work both ways...if Jerry is the GM then he makes the final decision and should get credit for both the good and bad.
Isn't the story that BP didn't even want Ware? He wanted Spears and Merriman.
If you are going to give BP the credit for the drafts he was a part of, then don't forget 2004 which in my opinion is worse than his last draft of 06. I still cringe when I see Steven Jackson run.

I still think your overall point is true and valid...that even though Jerry hit on some core guys like Romo, Ware etc he's missed far more and we are seeing the results.