We need the following things to happen in 2012 if we want to see the Dallas Cowboys finally achieve something we can all be proud of. These 5 areas are not meant to be seen as my opinion this is all that is wrong. These are merely the 5 things I see as critical to success in 2012.
Much has been made of Garrett leading the search for his right kinds of guys. We've heard all about windows and whether they are closing or not. Leadership is still being beaten into the ground as a topic. Nothing wrong with these things, but they do not focus on what needs to change the most. I believe these are the 5 critical areas of change and a discussion of each. They are not in any particular order.
The Running Game
We saw it last year with our own eyes. When we had a running game, wins piled up. When it was suspect, losses piled up. Folks, we have to effectively run the football to achieve our ultimate success. Now, before anyone thinks I am saying we cannot be a passing team, that is not it at all. Note, I said effectively run the football. Key word is effectively.
This lack of execution was so evident in our rushing TDs production. 5 of them on the entire 2011 season. Abysmal.
Food for thought. 1960 (6), 1961 (6), 1962 (16), 1963 (18), 1964 (15), 1965 (8), 1986 (21), 1987 (17), 1988 (10), 1989 (7), 1990 (13), 1997 (6), 2000 (15), 2001 (8), 2002 (7), 2004 (14), and 2010 (10).
The information above is every season in our History where this team was .500 or lower. Not even in 1960, when we were a horrible expansion team and only played 12 games have we ever had just 5 rushing TDs. I repeat, abysmal.
How do we fix this? Well, immediately we are going to have to hope Vickers and Murray are healthy. Vickers did miss 2 games last year to injury, but on the positive side he has only missed 6 games so far in his NFL career. The other 4 happened in 2008, meaning he has had 4 seasons where he never missed any games.
Murray is a crucial piece of our success puzzle in 2012. He only scored 2 TDs in his magnificent performance of 2011 before he went down. Just 2. One of them was a 91 yard scamper. Meaning, in the red zone when we need the hard yard he is going to have to elevate his game. If we become a threat in the running attack, and I don't mean just a home run threat, but the hard yards, the yards gained when the Defense stacks 8 or 9 men in the box, we will take a step forward.
We better hope the staff is right about the changes on the OL. I remain skeptical. I have seen the Pro Football Focus stuff on our OL and I read Mickey Spagnola's article about how effectively we did run the ball. here is the trump card of this...5 rushing TDs. Not good enough. Not near good enough.
Has to improve. This is critical.
This one should be obvious to all of us. Did anyone else read that stat about us giving up the most 20+ yard pass plays in the NFL since 2008? If I remember right it said there were 62 of them. That isn't shocking, it's galling. Want to know what is worse? That isn't even taking into account the pass interference penalties deep.
Here's the true worst part about that bit of information. Our starting CBs for the last 4 years were both 1st round picks. In other words, there really was no excuse for the poor play. Game after game after game when the other team needed to pass the ball late to win, they did it. I yelled at Rob Ryan to stop blitzing. I yelled at our players to man up. Oh you better know I yelled at Dave Campo.
That last comment right there is where I have the most hope for improvement in this area. Campo is gone. No one is a bigger fan of Jerome Henderson right now than I am. Many of you may be as big of fans, but I refuse to believe anyone is a bigger fan of his. Let me make this clear in a joking manner okay? I love him. Serious man crush. In my not so humble opinion he is the off season acquisition that will mean the most to this team. If Rob Ryan gets the Head Coaching gig so many seem to want him to get I am telling you right now Hendo is who I want as our DC.
Revolting image of 2011 for me was Terence Newman as a human hurdle. I was told by a respected member of the Cowboys community that I defended Terence Newman like I was his pimp in the 2011 pre-season. I have asked for proof of this and have yet to see it. I don't remember ever being a Newman defender or detractor either one. I knew last year was his last given his salary. He tells me this defense is why he is angry at me. That I have not publicly thrown myself on the sword of truth for not seeing the point he was trying to hammer home to me about Newman.
Okay, I guess. I have now impaled myself on the sword of truth. Newman sucked in 2011. I don't feel he gave us his all and I applaud Darren Woodson for calling him out publicly the way he did and saying he would have decked him.
For a quick look at our 2011 misfires, look no further than our late game defensive collapses and you will notice that the CBs got beaten like eggs, drums, and battered wives.
Rob Ryan told the brass he needed better players. The brass got us better players. They have to prove it though. On paper this looks like a marked improvement. The game isn't played on paper. It is played on the green stuff with the white lines.
If we want to make a stride forward in 2012, we have to have better play from the secondary. It is not even a question.
Starting WR Health
For all the doom and gloom talk of how badly we are going to miss Laurent Robinson and who is our #3 WR let me ask a quick question. Without looking it up, who was our #3 WR in 1992, 1993, and 1995? Throw in 1991, 1994, and 1996 if you wish since these 6 years represent the bulk of our glory years that was our ultimate success. Tell me how that #3 WR was a crucial element of our ultimate success.
No, the truth of the matter is, if we get 16 games from Miles and Dez, and some reasonably steady contributions from any other WR we should be just fine. Don't look now folks, but our starting duo at WR are in the top 5 duos in the NFL. I don't even care who wins the battle for #3. Just give me those 2 guys are full speed for the entire year and I will take my chances.
Breakout year for Dez? We can't answer that as we sit right here at this time. It certainly could be. That means one thing above all else for him. Learn the playbook and the rest of the routes. If he does this, and I have reason to believe it is being pushed, the sky is the limit for this kid. He is so supremely talented that if he was a fully rounded weapon no team could afford not to double team him.
Bounce back year for Miles. Again, we can't answer that as we sit here right now. It had better be. As much as we all were grateful for the success of Laurent Robinson, in truth he was our #2 WR more than he was our #3 because Miles and Dez simply did not have many games as the no doubt about it one-two punch in our deep passing attack.
Spin it any way you want it, losing Laurent Robinson is not as critical as these 2 guys being healthy is.
Now, we have heard from Miles himself that Mike Woicik has him fine tuned as never before. In fact we're hearing that from a lot of players. Not really surprising. That is Woicik's calling card. It is why I am so excited to have him back. That all goes out the window if we suffer a freak injury to either Miles or Dez.
That is the only time, just like last year, that who our #3 WR is could really matter. Laurent was a blessing in 2011. I do not deny this. But if Miles had not tweaked his hammy we may have never known what we had in him anyway. He stepped up when the window of opportunity opened, but it opened when a key guy went down.
If they do not go down, we go up. Their health is vital to our success.
Inside LB Depth and Coverage
I want to get this out of the way right now. I will miss Bradie James and Keith Brooking. Not for their level of play in 2010 and 2011, but for the positives that they did bring here. I do not look only at the bad. It is impossible for me to not recognize that they were leaders.
Unfortunately what they did not provide was adequate coverage, tackling, and execution in 2011. Sean Lee was out there alone at ILB far too often. in a 3-4 scheme, that is not good.
That is why it is so gratifying to read all the commentary regarding the emergence of Bruce Carter. Yeah, I realize it is getting to be a redundant discussion point. Everyone seems to be talking about it. I submit unto you that this is a good thing for our chances in 2012.
If he is as good as advertised, look out. If he isn't, thank goodness we have added some youth, speed, and depth for this year.
I believe Sean Lee is one of the most critical pieces of this team, and in fact I would say he rivals Ware in importance to the Defense. I say this because he is the signal caller out there. He is the rallying point. The fulcrum. The axis upon which we turn.
Okay, I'll say it, he is the most promising ILB in the NFL not named Patrick Willis. He is not in Willis category as an explosive, jaw dropping ILB. He may not be in Ray Lewis category as a rally the troops leader. What he is though is one of the most instinctive players in the NFL. He is a difference maker. Not just with his own level of play, but with the pieces around him.
Thankfully this year he will not have to be the entire middle of the field. As much as I liked Bradie and Keith, they left Sean Lee in the lurch too often. Enter Dan Connor and Caleb McSurdy for depth and welcome the arrival of Bruce Carter.
It is possible that we are going to have the best ILB duo in the NFL. At the very least they will rival Willis and Bowman. I believe this is paramount in 2012.
The Return Games
I debated between this topic and pass rush. Ultimately I chose this one because at pass rush we are not as often lacking thanks to Ware, the best pass rusher in the NFL.
In my not so humble opinion our return games suck. Now, I openly admit when Dez is back there for a punt return I perk up a bit and my dread level rises as well. He is electric. I can't deny that.
But I still wish we had a dedicated return man for both jobs like Devin Hester or Josh Cribbs. I especially do not like how our kickoff returns seem to be focused on the strategy of jogging to the 20 yard line and seeing if a hole opens. Too often this means we start at the 25. I would rather start at the 20 with our guy being stopped at full speed than stopped at the 25 with our guy going 70% of top speed.
Call it a perception thing, but to me effort is contagious and it takes no effort to jog in the NFL. I think if we have a return man who is looking for yards and giving our Offense field position we will be a team that cannot be denied.
Folks, field position is the entire point of football. Push them back against their goal. Have a shorter distance to ours. To this end I throw in a brief comment about hoping Mat McBriar comes back healthy.
Field position advantages give you a greater chance to win. I submit that it is one of the key factors of any game along with winning the turnover margin, time of possession, and limiting penalties.
We are reading that Claiborne and Dez might split for Punt Return duties. I am okay with this. I do believe we need them to step up. I keep hoping that Felix will get it as the Kickoff man. As much as I want to see Felix catching the ball on 3rd downs like Preston Pearson used to, I would rather see him emerge as a real kickoff threat. If not him, who?
Bring Miles back to the job? Give it to AOA? Let Andre Holmes have a shot at it? It doesn't matter who it is. What does matter is they need to actually do the job well. I don't care what the stats say as far as where we ranked in the NFL for this crucial category, it wasn't good enough. I don't want to measure against the average. I want to measure with the best.
Give me improvement in these five areas, and I don't mean just cursory improvement either. I am talking about noticeable, marked improvement. The kind that we look at and say, "hey that is so much better than last year." Give me that in 2012 in these five areas, and I will show you the true return of America's Team to the spotlight we crave, the national, post season stage where we are a real threat to take home something we all covet. I am not saying if we don't improve in each of these five areas that we have no chance. I am saying if we do improve our chances rise astronomically.