|Dallas needs a third receiver to go with playmakers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. (US Presswire)|
Don't tell me the Dallas Cowboys don't have the players to win the NFC East. They do. In fact, they were in perfect position a year ago to claim the division for the second time in three years.
But they didn't, and they didn't because they couldn't win their season finale vs. the New York Giants and because they lost four of their last five starts. Basically, the Cowboys blew it, with missed field goals, blown leads and poor play punctuating a descent that had them finish 8-8, with an 0-4 record against the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles.
Afterward, owner Jerry Jones pledged support for embattled coach Jason Garrett, and that's good. The guy needed someone to stand behind him. Now he needs a defense to rely on, and last year's unit didn't qualify. It ranked 23rd vs. the pass and 16th in points allowed. Worse, it blew five fourth-quarter leads.
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The Cowboys haven't had a winning season in two years, losing 19 of their last 33 starts, and that must change. Garrett knows it. He was hired to put this team back on its feet, and this is his chance.
QB: After awhile, the criticism of Tony Romo gets old. The guy played through a broken rib, punctured lung and bruised throwing hand and still managed one of the best seasons of his career, with 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, one fumble and a career-best 102.5 pass rating. The problem, of course, is that he must prove he can lead this team to the playoffs, then win at the next level. He has been to the playoffs, but he has won only once there. That's the hurdle Romo must clear, and he might've made it last season if the Cowboys hadn't become so one-dimensional after the loss of running back DeMarco Murray. If the heat is on Romo, it's only to prove that he can take Dallas deep into the playoffs. Signing Kyle Orton as a backup was smart. The guy is a perfect safety net in case Romo suffers another injury, and he can and will win if called on. That's not a knock on Romo's predecessor, Jon Kitna. But getting Orton is an upgrade at a key position.
RB:Had you polled people close to the team at midseason they would've told you that DeMarco Murray was the Cowboys' MVP. The reason: He resurrected the club's rushing game and became the Cowboys' first legitimate feature back since Emmitt Smith. Murray averaged 5.5 yards per carry and produced a 253-yard game == that is, before he bowed out with a fractured ankle. Felix Jones was supposed to have a big season but demonstrated he can't play extended periods of time without getting hurt and is probably best suited as a backup. Jones enters the last year of his contract and, barring a breakout year, there's no reason to believe he has a future here. Phillip Tanner is the next option, a strong special-teams player who plays hard. Murray has a future, but the Cowboys must keep him healthy. Remember, this is a club that last year had only five rushing touchdowns, the second-lowest total in the league.
WR: In Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, the Cowboys have two legitimate playmakers. Yeah, I know, Bryant still must run more precise routes, but he caught nine touchdown passes, while Austin was handicapped by injuries that sidelined him six games. Still, he managed to score seven times. The real question here has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with the No. 3 receiver ... because there isn't one. Not now there isn't. A year ago, that man was Laurent Robinson, but he left for Jacksonville and took 11 touchdowns with him. Robinson was the red-zone threat Dallas had been missing, and there's a hole there -- with nobody on the scene today to take his place. Kevin Ogletree was re-signed, but he's not the answer. Neither, I suspect, is Andre Holmes or Raymond Radway. Look for the Cowboys to spend at least one draft pick on this position.
TE: Jason Witten remains one of Romo's favorite targets, coming off his eighth straight season with 60 or more catches. But he didn't have a spectacular season, with his string of consecutive Pro Bowl appearances ending at seven. Nevertheless, he's one of the most reliable pass-catching tight ends and will be among its leading receivers. John Phillips is the backup, taking the place of Martellus Bennett, who left for the New York Giants. Bennett never became the threat the Cowboys envisioned, and they grew tired of waiting on him. This is another spot where a draft pick or free agent could land.
OL: Tyron Smith shifts from right to left tackle to protect Romo's back, and the move makes sense. First of all, Smith was the team's best offensive lineman last season. Second, Doug Free, who played the position, was not. In fact, he struggled so much the Cowboys moved him back to the right side where he originally played, hoping the switch makes a difference in a game that was nothing more than mediocre last season. The acquisitions of guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau should make the Cowboys better inside, and maybe they help a running game that had trouble finding the end zone. The real question here has to do with center Phil Costa, another lineman who struggled in 2011. His play must improve. Otherwise, there's an opening for Bill Nagy of Kevin Kowalski. Trust me, center could be a focus of concern as the season unfolds.
DL: Jay Ratliff continues to be a top defensive tackle, but his play and numbers declined last season. Still, he made the Pro Bowl for the fourth straight season, and there's a chance he could be moved to defensive end where the Cowboys are desperate for playmakers. Kenyon Coleman, Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher are decent vs. the run, but all had trouble pressuring the quarterback. Coleman was OK the first half of the season but wore down, while Hatcher -- who had a career-high 4.5 sacks -- was moved inside in nickel packages. Josh Brent is a promising backup at nose tackle, but look for the Cowboys to exercise a draft choice, and maybe a high draft choice, on this position.
LB: With DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer on the outside, the Cowboys seem to be set. Ware had 19.5 sacks, second best in the NFL and the second most in his career, while Spencer held up well against the run. In fact, Spencer was so solid the Cowboys made him their franchise player. But Dallas drafted him as a pass rusher, not a run stopper, and he had a disappointing season in that department, producing six sacks. That must improve ... or the Cowboys must find someone better to pair with Ware. Inside linebacker Sean Lee is the second best player on defense, leading the team in tackles, tackles for losses and interceptions, while newcomer Dan Connor should compete with Bruce Carter at the other spot. Carter, a second-round draft pick, missed the first six games last season with an injury and struggled to make an impact.
DB: Brandon Carr moves into the left cornerback position after playing the right side in Kansas City, but the Cowboys are covered on the right with Mike Jenkins, who played OK despite a series of injuries. Carr was expensive, but a move was necessary. Dallas last year surrendered 3,906 passing yards, the second most in franchise history, and the Cowboys had to upgrade the position. So they got rid of Terence Newman and signed Carr. Gerald Sensabaugh returns to strong safety, but a true free safety is needed. For the moment, Brodney Pool is penciled in as a starter, but that could change. Orlando Scandrick returns as the nickel back but must improve on inconsistent play from 2011. Make this another area where a draft pick or veteran free agent could land.