clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

NFC East 2015 preview: Can Cowboys repeat as division champs?

New, comments

After an offseason filled with risks, do the Dallas Cowboys have enough to keep winning in 2015?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys endured three straight years of mediocrity under head coach Jason Garrett before last year's 12-4 finish atop the NFC East. With a dominant running game powered by DeMarco Murray and a surprisingly great defense, Tony Romo was allowed the opportunity to play without constant pressure from both the other team and the clock. Gone were the time-sensitive turnovers and the boneheaded throws. Romo, and this team as a whole, were all about poise.

So, after a successful 2014 campaign, they're on track to repeat as division champs? Not quite. This off-season was filled with risky acquisitions and even riskier departures. The rushing champion is gone. The defense has some problems. Will this team fall back into old habits of relying on Romo?

We conclude our three-part series of NFC East previews today by checking the pulse of America's Team. Have they done enough to stay on top or have they been banished to the division basement? Chris Pflum is your guide for an offense that lost it's primary weapon and Alex Sinclair examines a promising defense in disarray.

Offense

(By Chris Pflum)

The Dallas Cowboys transformed their offense last year with one simple act; they handed the ball off ot DeMarco Murray. In rediscovering their running game, Dallas broke a string of .500 seasons and made their way back to the playoffs for the first time in five years. But 2015 is a new year. Have the Cowboys used this offseason to rest upon their offensive laurels or have they continued to improve?

Following the 2014 season Dallas had a pair of big contract decisions to make: star receiver Dez Bryant, and DeMarco Murray, who was their offense's engine. The Cowboys elected to place the franchise tag on Bryant, and allowed Murray to test the free agent market. Ultimately, Bryant and Dallas ended a contentious negotiation with a massive long-term contract as the deadline approached, making him a Cowboy for the foreseeable future. Murray, however, landed with the Philadelphia Eagles as part of Chip Kelly's high-risk remodel.

With the return of Bryant, the Dallas passing attack remained intact, however can their offense stay as efficient and effective as it was after letting the NFL's leading rusher walk out of the building?

One of the most common arguments made to minimize the impact of the loss of Murray is that with one of the, if not the, best offensive lines in football, any running back can produce. And there is certainly some validity to that. Murray led the league with 847 yards before contact. That offensive line could certainly open up a hole.

However, Murray got 998 of his 1,845 yards on his own, after contact. Murray also forced 55 missed tackles, roughly three per game, second in the league in that regard. Simply put, if any running back could do what Murray did in 2014, what he did after contact wouldn't be special.

But it was, and it also had a very positive effect on the rest of the offense. From a strategy standpoint, Dallas' commitment to the run, and Murray's effectiveness in particular, forced defenses into base, or even heavy, packages. That meant that larger, slower players were on the field -- bigger defensive tackles, more linebackers, fewer pass rushers and defensive backs. They were also forced to play more players in "The Box" to try to slow down the rushing attack. All of that combined to open up the passing attack for Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and an aging Jason Witten. The run set up the pass in classic fashion, and it made their play-action passes deadly.

From a more abstract perspective, Murray's ability to keep the chains moving and pick up tough yards took pressure off Tony Romo's shoulders. Romo has been dealing with a back injury, and every snap that he handed the ball to Murray was a snap that he wasn't going to get hit. And despite only throwing one more pass per game than Russell Wilson, and 144 fewer pass attempts than Eli Manning, Romo was still sacked more than the Giants' quarterback. In fact, Romo was the 12th most often sacked quarterback in the league in 2014.

So can the Cowboys maintain their efficiency running the ball without Murray picking up yards after contact and forcing missed tackles while relying on their 2014 backups and Darren McFadden? If their running game does take a step backward, can the QB handle the increased pressure and more importantly, stay healthy?

The thought here and now is that the Dallas offense will take a modest step backwards without a healthy star running back. That could turn into a significant step backwards if Romo can't stay healthy or their offense becomes truly one-dimensional.

Defense

(By Alex Sinclair)

This time last year, the Cowboys' defense was a huge story. How would it hold up? Would it be as historically bad as many predicted? Naturally, no it wasn't and the unruly beast that is the NFL once again made mince-meat out of analyst predictions. The Cowboys' defense was not only on the right side of average, it was damn near excellent.

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was streets ahead of his predecessor, Monte Kiffin. It wasn't even close. He took a defense on the verge of some seriously embarrassing NFL records and turned it into a contender. So presumably, this offseason was a quiet one with just a few minor defensive tweaks? Not exactly.

Hot on the heels of a bust-saving season, middle-linebacker Rolando McClain got himself suspended. He's going to be missing for the first four games of 2015, including the season-opener against the Giants. Tough break. He'll have company on the couch for those Sundays, though, as big-name free-agent signing Greg Hardy was also punished. After spending all of last season fighting legal battles for domestic assault charges, he returned to a gift-wrapped four-game penalty. That's a pair of tough blows to a defense that couldn't afford them.

The best they can hope is that none of their other risks fall through. They took a pair of problematic picks to open the draft, selecting Byron Jones and Randy Gregory in the first and second rounds. Jones has a lot of upside with serious athletic abilities, but he's as unpolished as a mossy tree. Gregory has had trouble passing drug tests and failed one as recently as the combine. They're boom or bust picks for a team that mainly just needed some reliable depth.

Let's not forget that this offseason marks the annual tradition of searching for the rarest of sights; a fully healthy Sean Lee. Should their glass-like linebacker make it to opening day without an injury, 643 days will have passed since he last appeared in a game. If Lee misses any time at all, this defense is going to look extremely thin.

And there's the crux of the Dallas problem. What we see predominantly from the NFL is that personnel risks produce more failures than successes, and that most teams learn quickly that they should be used sparingly to reduce the possibility of a complete meltdown. Certain hyper-successful teams like the New England Patriots can go to the well a little more often than others, but only because ownership knows that the team can produce good results with lesser talent thanks to a Hall of Fame head coach and a superstar quarterback. You think Jason Garrett gets out of 2015 alive if the Cowboys finish below 8-8?

The Dallas Cowboys are not the New England Patriots. Last year's success stemmed much more from minimizing risk than exploiting it, yet here they are a year later with an attitude that seems to imply they've got this thing figured out. This team didn't need to adopt a risk-reward strategy with players like Jones, Gregory and Hardy. They needed reliable, if unspectacular, starters who could excel under a superb coaching and scheme. Instead of putting money in the bank, the Cowboys went out and bought a whole bunch of lottery tickets. Total hubris.