Thursday, September 10, 2015

The 2015 Cowboys Season Prediction Entry

http://www.dallasnews.com/sports/dallas-cowboys/20150910-sturm-my-official-cowboys-prediction.ece

Humbling.  
That is what reading your preseason prediction column one year later can be.  Roughly 365 days ago, I wrote my best prediction about the 2014 Dallas Cowboys season.  In it, you can find the following:
My major issues with the Cowboys are QB health, troubling depth, defense, defense, and more defense. They just don't seem to have the quality that they had even last year as far as top players on the defense you can point to. Instead, we are hoping that Melton, Bruce Carter, and Mo Claiborne can all bounce up at the same time. That is a lot of hope. And hope is a very poor strategy. 
I think if everything goes right and Romo plays in 16 games, they can out perform my projections and win 8 or maybe even 9. But, if Romo plays in just 10 games, they could easily drop down to 5-11 or even 4-12. 
I expect that 2014 will finally be the end of Jason Garrett, but I don't say that with much confidence, nor do I think it will change much unless Jerry is ready to hire another Parcells-like overlord. And from the sounds of his many interviews, it doesn't seem like he is the least bit interested in that. However, I do confidently say that another off-season of poor decision making and cap management in spring 2014 from the Cowboys has me no longer buying what they are selling. 
I am fresh out of optimism for this current cast of characters. Too many holes, too many questions. And certainly not enough answers for me to paint a rosy picture to those who want to know how I see this season going. 
I have them safely out of the playoffs and easily in the Top 5-10 in the draft next spring. I think 6-10 is about right and I will happily accept the ridicule if I am off the target. But, for that to happen, they will have to do something they haven't done in years - out-perform their predictions. 
In other words, prove me wrong, Dallas.
And they did.  They really, really proved me wrong in 2014.  This surely has more to do with the idea that media guys (like me) think we have football figured out, even if one of the things we love about football is that nobody ever figures it out.  (I can't think of a better, more genuine way to lead into a prediction column than by telling everyone you aren't very good with predictions. I am sure the editors love this idea.)
Ok, so let's do this.  In answer to the question, Bob, how do you think the Cowboys are going to do this year?
I think this is a very good football team.  I think they will return to the NFC Playoffs.  I expect they will win the NFC East.  Once they get back to the playoffs with their division crown, they will be one of a small handful of teams that are capable of stringing a few wins together and possibly find their way to Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara.  I have the Cowboys as one of the 10 best teams in football which means that they are officially in the mix of teams that have a chance.  And, honestly, that is all you hope for in early September.  Have a chance to do special things.  They need a lot of things to go right, but, do I think their ceiling could include them playing in the final game of the NFL season?  Yes, I do.

On the other hand, there is plenty that does trouble the sports mind.   This is a long marathon, so to act like any of us know what is around the next turn is silly, but as we sit here on the morning of September 10th, here are a few:
  1. There is always that looming feeling that Tony Romo's health is going to factor in a significant way.  I know, I know.  I say this every year.  But, when you have a QB who was born in 1980 (2 months after the miracle on ice) and has had a history of back problems, it is likely a really silly idea to act like it isn't on your radar.  He is a special QB in a league that requires special QBs.  So, if anything were to happen to him, I have to believe that the whole thing crumbles to the ground.  And let's be honest - there is nothing behind him at the QB position that approaches anything above mediocre QB play.  You pay him handsomely because he provides you a ticket to the dance.  But, if he takes a hit and misses a month, the Cowboys join the bottom half of the league.
  2. I don't love the schedule.  Maybe it is just life in the NFL, but to me, the Cowboys schedule looks like a handful.  Giants and Eagles to open the season, At New Orleans, At Miami, At Green Bay, and At Buffalo can all be very difficult.  Home to the two teams from the Super Bowl last February when the Patriots and Seahawks come calling?  There will be no sneak attacks in 2015, as the Cowboys have nice bullseye on their chest.
  3. The Cowboys have a nice bullseye on their chest.  You can act like this is a not an issue, but life for the league heavyweights is not always an easy task.  You better be able to weather storms, keep your composure in difficult situations, adjust on the fly, and just have the steely resolve that they exhibited in December of 2014.   Easy to say that won't be an issue, but until they demonstrate they relish the idea of being the bully, we should not assume they can win a game where an opponent plays them as if they have nothing to lose.
  4. 2014's mauling offense is not guaranteed to return.  How often to we see the league make adjustments to a team's strengths?  We don't know what the league's think-tank has decided to do about the Cowboys maulers, but we can assume that they spent a great amount of their offseason - especially the NFC East foes - trying to figure out a way to slow the machine down quite a bit.  Don't think for a moment that this didn't cross the Eagles mind as they were spending a bit too much on DeMarco Murray.  Will he flourish in Philadelphia?  Maybe not, but he sure as heck won't flourish in Dallas if they sign him away.  So, now what?  Are we going to buy into the idea that Joseph Randle - a man who has done almost nothing on or off the field to demonstrate he is a man worthy of your blind faith - will just step in and fill the void?  Seems like a dubious plan.  How about Darren McFadden, a man who had 4 of the worst 50 seasons in the last decade by an NFL Running back (nobody else had more than 2).  Yikes.  The point is, it is reasonable to assume this team goes back to a 55/45 pass/run split.  And that brings us back to the original point and the next one.
  5. This offensive line is great at run blocking, just good at pass protection.  Now, that is a debatable point, but I spent much of June dissecting each of the sacks that the Cowboys conceded in 2014 - including a shocking 10 in 2 playoff games.  The truth is that the Cowboys were not horrible at pass protecting (league average), but they were blitzed more than any team in the league when it came to DB blitzes and Big blitzes (6 or more rushers) - thanks to Football Outsiders for those numbers. Why?  Because they worked quite a bit.  It seems if there is an issue, it is figuring out who to pick up rather than how to block guys 1-on-1.  This, of course, is disconcerting, because theoretically, if you have an elite QB, you should not be blitzed much because he burns you (hot stove theory).  So why did the blitz happen so much?  Because if you gave Tony Romo time, he killed you.  It was your only chance.  Now, you might be saying - Bob, it didn't work.  The Cowboys won 13 games!  - But, that is the thing about blitzing.  It only has to work once to end your season (see reason #1).
  6. The catastrophic injury that we don't anticipate could present itself.  I won't spend much time on this because every team in the league is subject to this, but here are the three names that you can't lose for 6 weeks or more, besides Romo:  Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, Brandon Carr.  Orlando Scandrick hurts a lot, but if they keep those 3 healthy, they should be deep enough at most other spots. 
Now, I also would like to prove that I am not some negative Nancy here and detail a few things that I think play well into the Cowboys' hands.  Here are reasons to be fired up for the year ahead and if the Cowboys season is huge, these are likely reasons as to why:
  1. The Cowboys had a draft in 2015 that I think we will talk about for years.  I can't decide which is more impressive:  A) that the Cowboys figured out how to get 3 players off their board's top 27 players with only 1 pick in Round 1 or that B) they could get 3 players off their top 27 and not need to start any of them in Week 1.  It is really remarkable that they grabbed Byron Jones, Randy Gregory, and La'el Collins in the 2015 draft (essentially) and I think all 3 will play a massive part moving forward, but the fact that each is not required to start is a real testament to the roster-building job of this management team.  I think they can all be brought along at a slow speed and not be thrown into the fire right away.  That said, I think it is crazy not to find a way to use them - especially Gregory - right away.  They have added serious blue-chip prospects while coming off a magnificent season.  That is tough to do, but what the good teams figure out.   
  2. The pass rush is here with a real vengeance.  I think this is the best and most compelling reason to be bullish on the Cowboys prospects this season.  They appear to have a fantastic group of pass rushers and even though I have said it plenty, allow me to say it again: The idea of having Randy Gregory-Tyrone Crawford-Greg Hardy-DeMarcus Lawrence all rushing in the same 3rd and long scenarios should terrify the league.  And that group doesn't even mention Jeremy Mincey who proved to be a very nice rusher last season.  Let's put it this way, if your leading sacker from 2014 doesn't even seem a lock to be on the field in pass rushing situations (once Hardy arrives), that means you have made some fantastic upgrades to your personnel.  I think it will guarantee that the days of rushing 4 but not getting any significant pressure are almost gone.  And of course, if I am right, the pass coverages will all look better because of that.
  3. The NFC East is not very good.  I am not here to tell you that the Eagles will be pretty good (that would require a lot of blind faith in the health of Sam Bradford), and I am not here to tell you that the New York Giants can handle the loss of their best pass rusher and their left tackle.  I don't have to tell you the Redskins will be awful, as you already know.  The point is, I figure the Cowboys should be able to go 5-1 in the division and I don't see any of those 3 teams getting to 10 wins.  That means the Cowboys may play in the easiest division in the NFC and while there are no sure things in this football world, they are the NFC team that I think is most likely to win its division.  
  4. Dez Bryant.  
  5. Jason Garrett might have really turned the corner as a forward-thinking, confident, self-assured leader of the franchise (on game day).  This is a bold claim that I might regret, but I hope that the Jason Garrett we saw in 2014 who was often ruthless and merciless becomes more so in 2015 now that he has a full mandate and contract extension that should only solidify his position.  He went for it on 4th and 6 against Detroit and was rewarded for being the best coach on the field against Jim Caldwell (who turned down a 4th and 1) 2 minutes earlier.  He seems to know when to attack and when to be conservative, but he no longer seems like the most "risk averse" coach in the land.  It looks like he realizes he has a roster to believe in and has changed his disposition accordingly.  He was a poor game-day coach earlier in his career, but now seems like a coach that knows that you are sometimes rewarded for pushing your chips into the middle of the table.  
  6. The trenches often determine the winner and the Cowboys are strong in the trenches.  Somehow, the Cowboys went from having some of the weakest OL/DL play in 2012 and 2013 to making both a strength by 2015.  It might take a bit to see it on defense on a regular basis - Greg Hardy's presence should be a huge gust of wind, but I can see a scenario where they can compliment their skill position players with the idea of winning in the trenches in both directions.  That is exciting and often improves the chances at massive success.
OK.  So there you have it.  The reasons I like this team and the reasons I am cautious.  
With that in mind, I am rolling this year with 11-5 as the record, the division title, and perhaps a real chance at a bye week in the playoffs.  I like this team, this coach, and the way this front office has put together a roster that even seems to have some injury insurance at a lot of spots.
The NFC has some other very strong teams, but I don't see why the Cowboys should feel inferior to any of them.  They have a real chance.  They have already demonstrated they can play with Seattle and Green Bay, and then they went and added a bunch of talent to try to push past them.  Nobody (especially me) has any idea if they can, but they certainly have a number of compelling reasons to keep us locked in.
And now, we grab our seats for the season to begin.  We have no idea what 2015 has around the next corner, but it says here the floor is high and the ceiling can be very high.


Now, will this column be as comically amusing in 365 days as the 2014 version?  

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