Since Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys in 1989, the franchise has never gone more than three consecutive seasons without making the playoffs.
The Cowboys have endured two such streaks in Jones’ ownership. The first was in 2000 through 2002, when Dallas slumped to 5-11 marks in three straight seasons under coach Dave Campo.
The second such streak is now.
The Cowboys haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, when they became the last team to ever lose to Brett Favre in the postseason. Since then, the Cowboys have been undone by one slow start (2010) and two poor finishes (2011, 2012).
The 2013 campaign could set up as an up-or-out season for head coach Jason Garrett, who has two years left on his contract. If the Cowboys turn it around, he could earn the opportunity to lead Tony Romo and Co. for a few more seasons. But if Dallas again falls short of the playoffs, it could be an interesting offseason considering the Cowboys’ famously engaged and demanding owner – and an NFL job climate where sideline bosses get less and less time to prove their worth.
Here’s our assessment of the Cowboys entering 2013:
The Cowboys’ passing game is a major asset. Wide receiver Dez Bryant was brilliant in the second half of 2012, catching 50 passes for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns. Tight end Jason Witten is an exceptionally dependable short- and intermediate-area target for quarterback Tony Romo, who looks for him when the Cowboys need to move the chains. Miles Austin isn’t the big-play threat he was earlier in his career, but he’s a fine third option. The presence of Bryant, Witten and Austin will only help whoever emerges as the fourth target in the offense. Dallas has gotten some good mileage out of complementary receivers the last two seasons, with Laurent Robinson and Kevin Ogletree each doing their share in some big spots.
We would be remiss not to mention Romo’s play as one of the Cowboys’ strengths, too. He was asked to do more than ever in 2012, and he fared well, completing 425-of-648 passes for 4,903 yards – all career-highs. His career-high 22 turnovers should be viewed in context; mistakes are mistakes, and there’s no doubting he’s made some big ones in key spots over the years, but Dallas is better with him than without him. If you are buying into Dallas in 2013, he has to be one of the reasons.
Another reason to like the Cowboys: they have some real top-end defensive talent. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware is a perennial Pro Bowler, and middle linebacker Sean Lee has that sort of ability, too. Defensive end Anthony Spencer, outside linebacker Bruce Carter and cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are other skilled performers.
The Cowboys have the front-line players necessary to be contenders, but Dallas’ overall depth is not a strength. Wide receiver, offensive tackle, running back, defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback and safety are all positions where Dallas is little thinner than preferred.
Of all of their depth issues, the Cowboys’ defensive line bears closest watch. Ware and defensive tackles Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher will all be 31 or older when the season begins. In a curious move, the Cowboys did not draft a single defensive lineman. They desperately need their four starters upfront to stay healthy.
The Cowboys also need more out of their rushing attack, which was 31st in yards gained per game and 30th in yards per carry. Skilled tailback DeMarco Murray has missed time with injuries in each of his first two NFL campaigns, and the reserves behind him are unproven.
The Cowboys have switched defensive coordinators and defensive schemes. Gone are Rob Ryan and the 3-4, replaced by Monte Kiffin and a 4-3 base front. Another key staff addition is defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who spent the last three seasons as Chicago’s defensive coordinator.
Kiffin’s defense works best when a team can rush just four and devote the other seven players to other duties. With Ware and Spencer crashing the edges and Ratliff and Hatcher capable of creating pressure up the middle, the Cowboys would seem to have the personnel to make this switch work.
The big change on offense comes in the play-calling department. Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, not Garrett, will have those duties. In theory, this should free up Garrett to focus on the big-picture and game-management aspects of his job. If the offense performs well, Jones will be lauded for the move. If the offense sputters, this will be a storyline that will be continually discussed, considering Garrett’s offensive background.
With little salary-cap room, the Cowboys were quiet in free agency, though they did add two potential starters in outside linebacker Justin Durant (ex-Detroit) and Will Allen (ex-Pittsburgh).
The Cowboys enter training camp unsettled at safety and along the offensive line.
At safety, fourth-year pro Barry Church figures to hold down one starting spot, but there’s uncertainty thereafter, with Allen, rookie J.J. Wilcox, second-year pro Matt Johnson and fourth-year pro Danny McCray among the Cowboys’ options.
The Cowboys’ interior line situation should be monitored, too. The Cowboys didn’t draft Travis Frederick in Round One to sit, and he seems likely to be the starting center. However, the club’s website suggests that Frederick could potentially be an option at guard. The Cowboys’ starting center from a season ago, Phil Costa, remains on the roster.
There are a few things that stand out about the Cowboys’ schedule. First, four of their first six games are at home, but there isn’t an opponent who could be considered a pushover in the bunch. In those first six games, the Cowboys host the Giants (Week One), the Rams (Week Three), the Broncos (Week Five) and the Redskins (Week Six).
This is a key stretch for the Cowboys, who then play three of their next four on the road, with trips to Philadelphia, Detroit and New Orleans leading into the Week 11 bye. That’s another schedule wrinkle that jumps off the page: that’s a late bye for a club without a lot of depth, and that’s a lot of traveling to do before that bye.
After the week of rest comes a very interesting three-game sequence. The Cowboys travel to the Giants on Nov. 24 in a potentially key division game. Then, four days later, they play the Raiders at home on Thanksgiving — a game Dallas should win. After a 10-day break, the Cowboys visit Chicago on Dec. 9, a meeting that could be very important if both clubs are competing for wild-card spots.
The Cowboys close the slate with games vs. Green Bay (Week 15), at Washington (Week 16) and vs. Philadelphia (Week 17).
There have been easier schedules, but the Cowboys have enough talent to handle it. Yes, we have pegged them third in the division in our power rankings, but who would be surprised if this was the Cowboys’ year to recapture the East?
Then again, with Dallas, the surprises have too often been of the unpleasant variety in recent seasons –and at the most inopportune times, it seems.