It’s rare that the difference between winning the division and missing the playoffs comes down to inches, but that might have been the case for the Cowboys in 2011.
On third-and-five with just over two minutes to play and the Cowboys clinging to a 34-30 lead over the Giants in Week 14, Tony Romo missed Miles Austin by the slimmest of margins on a go route that looked like it would have gone for a touchdown. The Giants scored a touchdown, Dan Bailey’s game-tying field goal attempt got blocked and the Cowboys would be eliminated with another loss to the Giants in Week 17.
Things aren’t that simple, though. The Cowboys lost games by blowing leads late, making brutal mental errors, playing down to lesser competition and getting blown out long before Romo’s pass eluded Austin. They were left to think about what could have been and spent their offseason trying to shore up the roster so that it won’t happen again.
If Tony Romo can’t lead the Cowboys back to the playoffs, he won’t be able to blame a lack of talented options to catch his passes. Austin, Dez Bryant (assuming he isn’t removed from the equation for any period of time because of this week’s arrest) and Jason Witten give Romo three strong targets on every play and it won’t be easy for defenses to shut them all down regularly enough to keep the Cowboys off the board.
Continuing on the topic of offensive weapons, the Cowboys are hoping for a full year of DeMarco Murray at running back. Injuries slowed him early and took him out of the lineup entirely late, but in between he showed the kind of explosiveness that the Cowboys never got from Felix Jones. Murray says he’s healthy and that should mean the Dallas offense is healthy as well.
DeMarcus Ware has never had a particularly strong pass rusher drawing attention away from him on the other side of the defense, but that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the most prolific sackers in the NFL. With better cornerback play, Ware could find his way to at least 19.5 sacks again this season.
Last year was not the first time that the Cowboys could look back at a handful of plays and wonder how their season would be different if they never happened. Talent has rarely been a problem in Dallas, but living up to it has been and, more often than not, that gets placed on Romo’s shoulders. It’s never been all Romo’s fault, these are systemic issues that go from ownership through the coaching staff all the way down to the bottom of the roster, but that will be hollow comfort if the whole thing blows up again.
The Cowboys made moves to address the poor interior offensive line play last season, but Mackenzy Bernadeau hasn’t practiced because of a hip injury and they didn’t acquire a clear upgrade for Phil Costa at center. Costa was overmatched last season and the Cowboys can’t thrive without a more secure core in the middle of the line. Nate Livings should be an improvement at one guard, but the other two spots are big question marks.
Abram Elam was jettisoned at safety in favor of another former Rob Ryan charge in Brodney Pool, but the position remains a trouble spot. Gerald Sensabaugh wasn’t very good last season and now he’s dealing with a knee scope on the way to training camp. Barry Church and rookie Matt Johnson are the other options at a spot that needs to be more productive this season.
The Cowboys needed help at cornerback and they went out and got it. Twice. Brandon Carr signed as a free agent and they traded up to grab Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick, securing a new starting tandem that looks much better than last year’s Terence Newman/Mike Jenkins duo. Newman is gone and Jenkins wants to be, although keeping him, as it appears Dallas will, would help the Cowboys match up with the big passing teams on their schedule.
Bill Callahan jumped from the Jets to head up the offensive line and give Jason Garrett a hand with the run game. Callahan’s units have generally been strong and his presence could add a little grit to an offense that was lacking it last season.
The Cowboys made no effort to re-sign inside linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking. They’ll be replaced by free agent signing Dan Connor and second-year man Bruce Carter, both of whom should see time next to Sean Lee in the middle of the defense. Hopes are high for Carter, but he needs to prove himself after an injury-shortened rookie year.
Kyle Orton was signed to a nice-sized contract to back up Romo, which is an upgrade over Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee. It’s an upgrade they don’t hope to use, but it’s always better to be prepared for a rainy day.
The third receiver job is up for grabs in a battle between Dewayne Harris, Andre Holmes, Kevin Ogletree and fifth-round pick Danny Coale, who looks like a good fit for the slot position. If one or more of them can step up into productive offensive roles, the Cowboys offense is going to be very tough to stop.
Tyron Smith spent his impressive rookie year at right tackle, but will swap sides with Doug Free for his second year. Free struggled last season, so it’s hoped that moving back to the right side will help him get back to being the player who got a contract extension before last season.
Kenyon Coleman and Jason Hatcher have the starting defensive end spots at the moment, but rookie Tyrone Crawford could force his way into the picture with a strong camp. Coleman, who gives the team very little against the pass, seems more vulnerable.
This is a big year for the Cowboys because it is hard to see them sticking with the current setup if it falls short of the playoffs again. Garrett and Romo have been together since 2007 and the pressure is on to get something to show for the commitment to each of them.
The schedule won’t make it easy. They are on the road at the Giants, Seahawks, Ravens and Panthers in the first six games with a visit from the Giants looming as the seventh contest. Five of the final seven are at home so the Cowboys need to set themselves up for a big finish by treading water, at the very least, in the early weeks.
Ultimately, though, it is hard to see this season much differently than most of the recent ones. The Cowboys have the talent to make a fair amount of noise, but they are going to need to prove they can avoid the implosions and mistakes that have ruined them in the past.