2012 NFL Season Preview

CBSSports.com Staff
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By Mike Freeman | National NFL Insider

Offense

I asked former Dallas defensive back Alan Ball, now in Houston, why the Cowboys hadn't made the playoffs more and, when they did, why didn't the team do better? He told me: "I could say a lot or I could say little. I chose to say a little."

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Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Many will put the blame for Dallas' playoff impotence on quarterback Tony Romo. Not certain if this is what Ball was talking about but I'm going to guess that was at least part of what he meant. The heavy criticism of Romo is both fair and unfair; over the top and not enough. All is true. There is enough talent around Romo that he should have won more. But, at times, it's also accurate because the media and others over-evaluated some of that supporting talent.

The offense will have its usual cast of characters: tight end Jason Witten, wide receiver Miles Austin, solid backs, solid line, lots of scoring potential but the question with this offense is, and will be for the near future: does it have heart?

Defense

The Cowboys have one bad ass on this unit in Demarcus Ware, who has an intergalactic 66.5 sacks over the past four seasons. That's Reggie White bad assness. The problem is much of the rest of Dallas' defensive group is the opposite of bad ass. It's just ... OK. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh -- just fine. Sean Lee, Jason Hatcher and others are good. But then look at, say, the Giants' defense and you see why Dallas lacks overall consistent firepower.

Key Changes

Roster Additions: CB Brandon Carr, QB Kyle Orton, OL Mackenzy Bernadeau, CB Morris Claiborne.

Roster Departures: K David Buehler and CB Terence Newman.

Staff: Bill Callahan named offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Jerome Henderson named secondary coach.

Many resources on this team are concentrated on the offense and the fortune of the team relies on this and series of "ifs." If Austin can stay healthy he could dominate the sport. If Dez Bryant can stay disciplined on and off the field, he could wreck any secondary. If that untested backfield can be good, it would take pressure off Romo. If the tight end position continues to produce magnificently, it will take pressure off the entire offense, particularly Romo.

The most interesting part of the Cowboys is this. All of this chemistry works. In Weeks 1 through, say, Week 11. Then, late in the year, it all slowly falls apart. That chemistry that led them to chase offensive records is gone and panic takes hold.

The key to this team is figuring out why no one -- from Hall of Famers like Bill Parcells to some coaching simpletons to the GM/owner himself -- have been able to decipher this mystery. Part of the problem is Dallas has faced a perfect storm of issues -- the biggest being the draft. Look around the division and the conference. The Giants won Super Bowls -- mostly -- on the legs of drafted talent. The Packers did (mostly). The Saints did (pretty much). The Cowboys' drafts and free agent picks have been, well, interesting, and by interesting I mean not excellent.

This will have to be the year it all comes together for Dallas. If not, Jerry Jones may rip the whole damn thing apart and start anew.

X-factor: Dez Bryant

When Bryant is on, and not weighed down by jewelry he may have possibly allegedly forgotten to pay for, he's a beast. I mean he's unstoppable. One scout told me that Bryant could be the best wide receiver in the NFL. Period. Done ... should he put everything mentally into his preparation and game day effort. Now, that sounds a tad hyperbolic to me (better than Calvin Johnson?) but the point is a fair one. Bryant has the potential to dramatically change the fortunes of the franchise.

Owning up to mediocrity

You can sense Jerry Jones' impatience. "Well, my window is getting shorter. Time goes by," Jones told the NFL Network. "I do feel real pressure because we do have players not only in Romo but Witten and [Ware] to leave out several that are [also] in the prime of their career. And we need to strike and strike soon with those guys. [Coach] Jason Garrett feels exactly the same way about it and understands how urgent it is. Candidly, you're looking through rose-colored glasses if we all don't realize that now is the time to compete on the field."

There continues to be talk around league circles that Jones will obliterate this team if it doesn't perform well this year. I think that will happen without question and no one will be safe.

Sustaining DeMarco Murray

Murray's not durable to begin with and is coming off a surgically repaired ankle. Like so many other things with the Cowboys, on paper, he looks solid. But on the field, he has to be somewhat of a question mark.

Quick return on Claiborne investment?

Claiborne was probably the best overall physical talent in last year's draft. The Cowboys think Claiborne will be a Pro Bowler -- not in a few years but right away. They're right. Assuming his contract situation is settled and he's able to enjoy a full camp, Claiborne could have a quick impact. The one ingredient that Dallas secondary lacks is explosiveness and Claiborne could provide it.

Insider's Take

An AFC scout speaking on the Cowboys: "What would make anyone think the Cowboys could do it this year when they've failed in so many others? Not much has changed. Solid draft but the core of that group, especially the quarterback, haven't figured out how to be mentally tough when they need it most, late in the season. You can't count on the Cowboys until that changes. Bigger problem for them is they play in a division with the most mentally tough team in football [the Giants]. I don’t think the Cowboys have the toughness to stay with the Giants."

Xs and Os

By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider

The offense was a good example of inconsistency last year. They had six games when they couldn't score more than 18 points and they had five more when they were over 30 points. Protecting Tony Romo will get better with Bill Callahan coaching the offensive line, a unit that needs to get better against division opponents. The Giants sacked the Dallas QB nine times, the Eagles did it seven times and the Redskins five times. Division opponents got to the Cowboys QB once in every 12.8 pass attempts.

Cowboys' Rivals: NFC East

2012 Preview • Schedule
Giants @ Cowboys: 10/28 (4:15 p.m. ET)
Cowboys @ Giants: 9/5 (8:30 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Eagles @ Cowboys: 12/2 (8:20 p.m. ET)
Cowboys @ Eagles: 11/11 (4:15 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Redskins @ Cowboys: 11/22 (4:15 p.m. ET)
Cowboys @ Redskins: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)

Tyron Smith goes to left tackle, Doug Free moves to the right tackle and they have two new guards (Mackenzy Bernadeau, Nate Livings) to help remedy the situation. Keep in mind the Cowboys need to free release TE Jason Witten most of the time which puts some pressure on the running back to help the tackles and pick up a blitz.

The Cowboys would love to be an 11 personnel offense (one RB, one TE, three WRs) but I don't see the third wide receiver that could keep fullback Lawrence Vickers or tight end John Phillips off the field. DeMarco Murray showed flashes of brilliance but is recovering from a fractured ankle. Before he was injured his production was heading in the wrong direction. In his last four games he rushed 64 times for 223 yards (3.48 ypc) and didn't have a rushing or receiving touchdown.

In looking at the Cowboys' red zone offense they threw 16 red zone TD passes but ran it in only four times. Some would want more run calls down there, but you can't argue with the passing production.

On defense, it looked like Rob Ryan may have tried to do too much with the talent he had -- especially with a secondary that struggled to cover. Ryan likes to attack the quarterback and wants to play an intimidation game with a lot of man coverage. And that's fine if you have the corners to cover like his brother (Jets coach Rex Ryan) does with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.

Drafting Morris Claiborne and signing Brandon Carr will make this 3-4 scheme more effective. Pressure always comes from DeMarcus Ware, who has averaged 14 sacks a year for his career. If Anthony Spencer doesn't pick up the pace on the opposite side, look for Bruce Carter, Kyle Wilbur or safety Brodney Pool to get the green light to blitz.

We will see some old 46 (Bear) defense but teams check to the pass quickly and it doesn't create the fear it did when his father (Buddy Ryan) ran it in Chicago. The most critical thing the defense can do is eliminate mental errors.

Draft Recap

By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst

Jerry Jones is always active on draft weekend, but few could have predicted the Cowboys moving from the 14th overall pick to No. 6 in order to acquire cornerback Morris Claiborne. While most considered the former LSU Tiger a top-five caliber player, the Cowboys ranked Claiborne No. 2 on their draft board, behind only quarterback Andrew Luck.

Cowboys Draft Analysis

Claiborne wasn't a blue chipper out of high school and was recruited as a wideout before moving to cornerback as a true freshman at LSU. He became a starter in 2010 and led the team with five interceptions. Claiborne again showed off his tremendous ball skills in 2011 as a junior with six picks, earning All-America honors and bolting for the NFL.

Claiborne had left wrist surgery in March to repair damaged ligaments, but he's expected to be ready for camp. Look for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to use Claiborne creatively and in a variety of ways, lining him up all over the field to do what he does best: make plays on the ball.

Although he is far from unheralded as a prospect, Claiborne presents the most interesting fit from the Cowboys' recent draft class.

The rest of the Cowboys' picks:

1st Round - No. 6 overall - Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
3rd Round - No. 81 overall - Tyrone Crawford, DE, Boise State
4th Round - No. 113 overall - Kyle Wilber, OLB, Wake Forest
4th Round - No. 135 overall - Matt Johnson, S, Eastern Washington
5th Round - No. 152 overall - Danny Coale, WR, Virginia Tech
6th Round - No. 186 overall - James Hanna, TE, Oklahoma
7th Round - No. 222 overall - Caleb McSurdy, ILB, Montana

 
 
 
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