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PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 14: Dallas Cowboys

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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.

Strengths.

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.

Weaknesses.

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.

Changes.

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.

Camp Battles.

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.

Prospects.

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.

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34 Responses to “PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 14: Dallas Cowboys”
  1. kingbeason52 says: Jul 18, 2012 8:51 AM

    Never seen a team with so much consistent talent not be able to win

  2. dirtmcgirt24 says: Jul 18, 2012 8:57 AM

    Ahh, there’s that word “talent” again used in reference to the Cowboys.

    Talented teams win more than 1 playoff game in about 15 years.

  3. calmdownsir says: Jul 18, 2012 8:59 AM

    America’s (most hated) Team

  4. bigbluenationdb says: Jul 18, 2012 9:02 AM

    9-7 at best. They did up grade the secondary with Carr and Claiborne but they have two the worse safeties in football and the middle of the field will be exploited by good offenses.

    Outside of Ware they have no one in the front seven that is a concern. The kid Sean Lee is solid but he is no game changer at MLB.

    Murray or Jones could never stay on the field in college so why would people think they can do it for 16 games in the NFL.

    Austin is solid when healthy. Who knows about Bryant and if he will even play every game. Witten is a beast but he isn’t getting any younger.

    If this team wasn’t named Dallas they probably would be ranked even lower.

  5. FinFan68 says: Jul 18, 2012 9:07 AM

    kingbeason52 says:
    Jul 18, 2012 8:51 AM
    Never seen a team with so much consistent talent not be able to win
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Raiders fans have. Their team was loaded with 1st round draft picks during the 90s and never really put it together.

  6. marionbarber24isgod says: Jul 18, 2012 9:16 AM

    Gerald Sensabuagh played very well last year, that’s what landed him a 5 year contract midseason. It was always Newman getting burnt over top with Abe Elam at SS, rarely Jenkins on the opposite side with Sensabaugh at FS.

  7. Great Caesar's Ghost says: Jul 18, 2012 9:23 AM

    The Dallas Cowboys have not played in a Super Bowl in 17 seasons. Some teams that have: Cardinals, Bucs, Seahawks, Saints, Rams.

  8. jimi48270 says: Jul 18, 2012 9:25 AM

    Here we go again…happens every year…Cowgirls will be Superbowl favorites by the end of the preseason, then reality will take over and they will again be the most hyped 9-7/8-8 team.

  9. fatcamper says: Jul 18, 2012 9:36 AM

    This rating seems about right.

    Offense has weapons, but the line is questionable outside of Smith.

    Defense can’t generate a consistent pass rush outside of Ware, who is the best in the league, and is undersized against inside running. Lee and Carter could upgrade this, but not moving Ratliff to DE and getting a true NT was a mistake. Revamped CBs should play better, but that is only because they were terrible last year.

  10. northernwisc says: Jul 18, 2012 9:44 AM

    Nice article that really puts things into perspective for the team. I think there are a couple of concerns still for this team – mostly offensive line.

    I think the one big thing missed in this article for “Changes” is in the strength and conditioning coach change. I know it may seem a small matter but Mike Woicik has been with a lot of winning teams over the years. Hopefully coming back to Dallas will help as well.

  11. ragingmouse says: Jul 18, 2012 9:49 AM

    My two cents:

    Offense: will be very good ( top five ) Murray will have a break-out year.

    Defense: will be good and will improve towards the end of the season. ( top ten )

    Cowboys will win their division…

  12. trefkennedy says: Jul 18, 2012 9:53 AM

    Against all odds, team cowboys, we gonna shock the world

  13. paulsmith107 says: Jul 18, 2012 10:05 AM

    As far as lee not being a game changer lol big blue idiot check the tape son 4 picks led the team in tackles he was huge and a game changer. While we are talking about a giant fan here wasn’t your team the only one in the east who didnt have to learn a new system on either side of the ball basically had no major changes personel wise in a season with no trainning camp and still squeezed into the playoffs. You clowns leaned on a career year by Eli who won’t duplicate that which is why its called a career year so while every team in the east has gotten better you have gotten worse

  14. flapjackdaddy says: Jul 18, 2012 10:11 AM

    Romo is going to continue to get pressured and make mistakes in crucial moments until they find a way to improve that offensive line.

  15. pixelito says: Jul 18, 2012 10:29 AM

    As long as Romo has to face Eli, we know how that one ends every time.

  16. omegalh says: Jul 18, 2012 10:40 AM

    Why does everyone say the Cowboys are talented but can’t ever put it together? Sounds to me like an untalented team.

  17. austinoxford says: Jul 18, 2012 10:46 AM

    “Sean Lee is solid but not a game changer”? He had 105 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries and 4 interceptions. By comparison, arguably the best inside backer in the league, Patrick Willis, had 97 tackles 4 forced fumbles and 1 interception. And remember, Lee missed a game and played a large portion of the season with a broken hand (a large q-tip for a hand) that prohibited him properly wrapping-up and/or stripping the ball. When you are in the same conversation with Patrick Willis, you are better than just “solid” and 6 turnovers for an inside backer is, by most accounts, a game changer.

  18. blu4l1fe says: Jul 18, 2012 11:35 AM

    I think it’s a fair assessment of the team that, again, underperformed last year. But more importantly, I think the issue here is consistent play with the core team players, i.e, player that are with the team and/or have been with the team for years. They, to put it midly, just can’t seem to turn the corner. If a team gets consistent play from the WR position but doesn’t get it from the QB, then success will be limited. The same can be said vise versa.

    Overall, I think this team in particular has the most difficult time achieving this on a regular basis, therefore, the mental mistakes and miscues, the non-playoff appearance, and the “almost, coulda, woulda, shoulda” scenarios. I mean, the issue is not specific to just the Cowboys, by no means, but when you look at a SB winner, and the journey that the team takes from winning games in the regular season, to winning playoff games and then the SB, you see how the team comes together, from the QB to the Kicker. The Cowboys just can’t seem to get that.

  19. ike301 says: Jul 18, 2012 11:50 AM

    paulsmith107 says:
    Jul 18, 2012 10:05 AM
    As far as lee not being a game changer lol big blue idiot check the tape son 4 picks led the team in tackles he was huge and a game changer. While we are talking about a giant fan here wasn’t your team the only one in the east who didnt have to learn a new system on either side of the ball basically had no major changes personel wise in a season with no trainning camp and still squeezed into the playoffs. You clowns leaned on a career year by Eli who won’t duplicate that which is why its called a career year so while every team in the east has gotten better you have gotten worse

    I hate when someone makes a dumb comment without knowing what they are talking about. They had to lean on Eli due to the plethora of players they lost before the season started. When the D-Line was as healthy as it was going to be, they took off. We are getting those injured players back, along with drafting some solid young prospects. Please stop making stuff up. Thanks.

  20. thebigcaptain2011 says: Jul 18, 2012 12:00 PM

    ” You clowns leaned on a career year by Eli who won’t duplicate that which is why its called a career year so while every team in the east has gotten better you have gotten worse”

    In theory, sure the Giants have gotten worse, but I could argue that.
    Is Randle than much less talented than Manningham? Is Jacobs that big of a loss? Aaron Ross?
    I wouldn’t call that a “career year” considering no one is 100% sure what Eli’s ceiling is. I think that what we saw last year will be what Eli is going forward.
    If I was a Dallas fan I would be more concerned about Dez. I would actually hope he would be sat down for a few games to start the season to make him step back and think about what’s important to him….but Jerry won’t be doing that.

  21. justwannawinna says: Jul 18, 2012 12:15 PM

    Hate to admit it but the kid lee from penn state is a damn good mlb along with an unproven bruce carter or the other Penn State lb connor next to him that lb core aint scaring no one. As for the secondary we’ll see if rob is anything the d coordinator rex is and knows how to use caliborne but since Romos at QB late game wins wont come… heck id start orton over him. And though he’s as talented as the they come Dez is head case that needs to get his priorities straight.
    This coming from an eagles fan

  22. bigpantherfan says: Jul 18, 2012 1:14 PM

    The cowgirls are not better then the panthers this year and you will see that on Sun, 10/21 at 1:00 PM EDT when the girls get their butt whooped
    Take that to the bank

  23. bigbluenationdb says: Jul 18, 2012 1:46 PM

    who is the idoit that is comparing Lee to Patrick Willis. That is why you don’t ever look at stats when judging a football player. Lees stats were better then Willis last year but would you really even consider Lee in the same class. Hell NO.

  24. nflhof says: Jul 18, 2012 2:18 PM

    Jerra needs to step back and let football people run this team. He can crunch all the numbers he wants to but he must stop making football decisions right now.

  25. n0hopeleft says: Jul 18, 2012 2:44 PM

    As far as lee not being a game changer lol big blue idiot check the tape son 4 picks led the team in tackles he was huge and a game changer. While we are talking about a giant fan here wasn’t your team the only one in the east who didnt have to learn a new system on either side of the ball basically had no major changes personel wise in a season with no trainning camp and still squeezed into the playoffs. You clowns leaned on a career year by Eli who won’t duplicate that which is why its called a career year so while every team in the east has gotten better you have gotten worse.
    _______________________________________________________________

    So Victor Cruz and Jake Ballard werent new personnel? Terrell Thomas, our best DB, being out before the season started wasnt adversity for the Giants? We were the most injured team in the league. We are clowns? Your entire front office and coaching staff are clowns you fool – FOR EXAMPLE, calling out Megatron.. What happened there?!

    Do you watch football?

  26. n0hopeleft says: Jul 18, 2012 2:49 PM

    Tony Romo is single handedly responsible for ending 2 of the Cowboys best chances at winning a title in their post-season runs.

    Game winning FG and you drop the hold against the Seahawks. SERIOUSLY BUTTERFINGERS?!

    Game against the Giants, you were 1st seed, in your own house… Threw a pick to end the game, TERRIBLE.

    Eli wins in the 4th qtr, Tony craps his diaper.

    Cowboys arent even in the conversation with the Giants and Eagles.

  27. gearz49 says: Jul 18, 2012 3:44 PM

    As long as Romo is behind the wheel…the cowgirls will just be going arround in circles….”hey Mr. Jones why dont you step up and get a new Qb already”!.

  28. wludford says: Jul 18, 2012 3:52 PM

    The off-season upgrade of the defensive secondary will help the Cowboys, which was perhaps their biggest weakness.

    But the problem for the Cowboys is not their weaknesses, its that they don’t really have any big strengths. Sure, Romo wasn’t their main problem last year, but he didn’t really come through in the clutch, either. You could say that about most of their players on both sides of the ball.

    The only big stars (except DeMarcus Ware) for the Cowboys are on their helmets.

  29. chazzmon says: Jul 18, 2012 4:30 PM

    If there was ever a team that needs to put up or shutup it’s Dallas. Since Jimmy Johnson was fired and his guys kept it together to win one with Switzer they haven’t done much. Jerry’s puppets didn’t work and even Parcells couldn’t get them over the hump.

  30. warrenpeacephotography says: Jul 18, 2012 4:42 PM

    Even as a Redskins fan, I think that Sean Lee is definitely in the same league as Patrick Willis. the Cowboys look tough to pass on with their new CBs. I always thought Terrance Newman was one of the worst starting corners in the league (at least he was against the Redskins) so I’m sad to see him go.

    Cowboys are ranked a little too high; Redskins are ranked WAY too low!

  31. nashwaakkidd says: Jul 18, 2012 4:53 PM

    tony the turnover always coughs it up at the worst possible time . they need to get an actual gm, new hc and d co-ordinator.comedy of errors makes the sum much less than the parts. 7-9 and watchin post season from the couch…..again

  32. bringbacktheflex says: Jul 18, 2012 5:04 PM

    pixelito says: “As long as Romo has to face Eli, we know how that one ends every time.”

    Someone needs to take a football 101 class. Romo and Manning NEVER face each other in a game. Romo plays against the most aggressive front four in football. Manning plays against what was one of the worst secondaries in football.

    Sheesh! Get a clue.

  33. electionconfidential says: Jul 18, 2012 6:23 PM

    Unfortunately you can’t waive the owner. Jones doesn’t want to be an owner. He wants to own AND control. It’s hard to imagine Rooney or Mara sitting around the table making granular decisions, but Jones does it routinely. He doesn’t even bother to hire a GM and uses his son as President of Football Operations.

    Meanwhile, other owners go out and hired seasoned football professionals to do what they do best. The last really good decision Jerry Jones made was hiring Jimmy Johnson.

  34. therealjr says: Jul 19, 2012 10:55 AM

    Although I respect Eli, I find the logic humorous that this team can’t beat the Giants because the Giants have Eli. Well great. Last I checked, the team with the best QB (GB) didn’t win. Nor did the team with the 2nd best QB (NO). Come to think of it, Brady didn’t win either.

    Since the Giants beat two of those teams on their way to winning, you’d think their fans would realize that it’s not all on Eli, or they wouldn’t be wearing rings.

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