IRVING, Texas – With the Dallas Cowboys 2013-2014 NFL season in the books, let’s take a look back at the best and the worst of a rather familiar 8-8 record.
Helman: Tony Romo – This is such a cliché, but I just don’t think this team has playoff ambition without Romo. The Dallas Cowboys were competitive in the season finale without him, it’s true. It’s also worth pointing out the game-breaking mistakes – bad interceptions against Denver and Green Bay. Romo hasn’t been able to get the Cowboys over the hump and into the playoffs, but I don’t think they even get close without his 3,828 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Broaddus: Tyron Smith – Could probably say the entire offensive line after what they went through last season and the questions that were leading up to the 2013 season. With that being said, Tyron Smith would be my selection. Every week he battled the opponent’s best defender and did his job with the upmost skill and talent. It was rare that Smith was put in a poor position both run or pass. It started with his domination of Jason Pierre-Paul, Tamba Halli, Robert Quinn and ended with shut outs of Julius Peppers, Brian Orakpo and Trent Cole. Smith was honored with his first Pro Bowl honor and it should be the first of many to come.
Kavner: Dez Bryant – I would have said Tony Romo to start the year, and that’s not a wrong answer, but I’m going with Dez Bryant. Kyle Orton can still give the Dallas Cowboys a chance to win any single game as a backup, but the Cowboys simply have no reliable, game-changing receivers other teams have to worry about if Bryant were to go out. Terrance Williams had an outstanding rookie season and could be a productive player for a while, but they’re a different team without Bryant.
Eatman: Dez Bryant – The best player on this offense was Dez Bryant. When they needed a big play, they could go to him. Never was that more of an example than the New York Giants win when he willed them to a win. He also had a clutch TD against Philly in the last game. They nearly won without Romo and won games without Murray. I don’t want to see them try without Dez.
Helman: Sean Lee – Lee probably wasn’t the difference between wins and losses this year, as the Dallas Cowboys went just 5-4 in games he played in their entirety. There’s no denying the impact he had on a lousy defense, though. Lee was second on the team in tackles, and led the team in interceptions despite appearing in just 11 games. In the first game against Philadelphia, Lee helped limit the Eagles to 84 rushing yards and no touchdowns. In the second game, without Lee, the Cowboys surrendered 137 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Broaddus: George Selvie – When Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli took this job with the Dallas Cowboys, their projected starters at defensive line were DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Jay Ratliff, and Anthony Spencer. When the season opened, a journeymen named George Selvie was the starter at strong side defensive end. For Selvie it was his first time starting in five NFL seasons. In 2013, Selvie would not only start that game against the Giants but 15 other ones. He would finish the season with one more sack than Ware with seven and be a stable, reliable player at the point of attack against the run. As bad as the defensive line situation was, George Selvie was a there when they needed him the most.
Kavner: Jason Hatcher – The Dallas Cowboys needed Jason Hatcher if they were to get a pass rush, and for that reason he’s my pick here. When the front was able to bother the quarterback, this defense had a chance. Otherwise, quarterbacks would pick them apart. Typically if that rush was coming, it was through the middle from Hatcher, who put together a remarkable double-digit sack season as a defensive tackle. The Cowboys may be losing their defensive MVP.
Eatman: Jason Hatcher – He really had a great season, especially considering we thought he was the one player who could be the weak link on that starting line – only because he had never played a 4-3 and seemed out of position. He wasn’t. And when he missed the Saints game, it left a huge void in the middle. He’ll probably be gone but give him credit for playing so well in a contract year.
Most Significant Injury:
Helman: Romo – Plenty of players missed more time. Sean Lee missed five games, DeMarcus Ware missed three games – Anthony Spencer missed a whopping 15 of 16 games. But the Dallas Cowboys lost Romo with a chance to make the playoffs – a chance for him to put last year’s late-game gaffe against Washington behind him. This team was probably never going to make the Super Bowl – Romo or no Romo. But you had to like their odds to make the tournament with Romo playing at home against Philadelphia.
Broaddus: Anthony Spencer – When the Dallas Cowboys decided to make the switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3, I believed that Spencer would have been an impact player rushing off that left side. Coming into the season, I even predicted that Spencer would have ended up with more sacks than DeMarcus Ware. In the previous two seasons, it appeared that Spencer was finally getting it and the talent that we had seen in flashes during his career was being fully used. When he missed all of training camp, then tried to play that game in Week 2 against the Chiefs without success, I knew it was a bad situation. There were points during the season where they could have used his pass rush ability to create pressure when teams were having success. It was a shame that a player with his skill set, had to sit a watch.
Kavner: It’s tempting to take Sean Lee here, but to me it has to be Tony Romo’s back. Who knows what the result would have been had Romo been able to play in the season finale. Orton stepped in admirably, but it’s impossible not to wonder how the result would or could have changed with Romo behind center. This is also an injury that may never completely vanish, as the Dallas Cowboys are left to wonder how long it’ll take Romo to return to form.
Eatman: Anthony Spencer – This team missed his pass rush in a major way. I think you saw it with the cornerbacks who had trouble covering for a few seconds longer. Brandon Carr is a better player than he showed and I think not having a consistent rusher like Spencer was huge. D-Ware was banged up and that made Spencer’s loss even more of a problem. Selvie was a good pickup but I’d like to have seen him as the third rusher and not a starter.
Helman: Jason Hatcher – It’s easy to lose sight of the fact in retrospect, but there were plenty of questions about Hatcher’s transition to the 4-3 scheme. At training camp, we weren’t sure exactly which role he would play on the defensive line. In one season as a three-technique tackle, he had the best year of his career and led all defensive tackles with 11 sacks – he was one of just two defensive tackles to notch double-digit sacks. He definitely wasn’t expected to have the best season among Cowboys’ defensive linemen, but he ran away with that accomplishment.
Broaddus: Kyle Wilber – There is a reason that front offices and coaches don’t give up on players. Kyle Wilber is that example for this 2013 season. For Wilber it has been a difficult two years in trying to find a position for him. He was drafted as an outside linebacker, then the scheme change. Coaches tried him at weak side defensive end, then on the strong side. Wilber played with nice awareness and surprising toughness when it appeared that he at times lacked both. With his play at linebacker along with the development of DeVonte Holloman, there should be some nice competition at the Sam linebacker in 2014.
Kavner: George Selvie – That George Selvie finished the year with the second most sacks on the team behind only Hatcher, ending the season with one more sack than DeMarcus Ware. Selvie joined the group during training camp but demonstrated quickly he was more than just a camp body. With another year left on the contract, Selvie at least provides some depth at defensive end going forward and a little more stability at the position, which will likely be addressed in the draft.
Eatman: Travis Frederick – While I wasn’t down on the pick like most fans and media seemed to be, the rookie center performed better than I thought. He wasn’t just a solid rookie, he was a good center by any standards. I think he also impressed people with his poise and leadership qualities. He just “gets it” and I think Frederick will be an anchor to this line for many years to come.
Helman: Bruce Carter – The preseason storyline on Carter was that the transition to 4-3 would be smooth, as he excelled in that scheme at North Carolina. His superb play during Lee’s absence in 2012, combined with his experience as a 4-3 linebacker, made it seem like an obvious call for Carter to take the next step. That didn’t happen, though, as the third-year player struggled with coverage and confidence. His poor play against the Chargers and Saints stand out, although he did finish the season with 96 tackles.
Broaddus: Morris Claiborne – Probably unfair to do this to Claiborne because I could have said the secondary in general with the exception of Orlando Scandrick and Barry Church and I would have been right. After watching Claiborne play in that final Philadelphia game and how well he played, it was a huge disappointment to not see him play the entire season. Say what you want about his lack of confidence but it really is the lack of health that has robbed him of any opportunity to be a successful cornerback in this league. Having followed Morris Claiborne’s career in college at LSU, he is a much better player than what we have seen from him these first two seasons of his young career but he has to get these health issues behind him.
Kavner: DeMarcus Ware – The obvious answer is a third straight 8-8 season, but on an individual basis, I have to look at the production of DeMarcus Ware. I don’t think we realized how much pain he was in throughout the year, mostly because he denied he was in any. But the unstoppable force we saw during camp and the first few weeks of the season never returned. It’s possible with an offseason to get healthy we can see that again, but a career-low six sacks wasn’t to be expected.
Eatman: Jay Ratliff – I think the way that went down was just a really rough situation – and one we still don’t know all the details of. But the fact that a four-time Pro Bowler was able to just leave the team disgruntled and then sign on with another team, although we were told he had a serious injury. Just something wasn’t right about that. The Dallas Cowboys really could’ve used him in the middle this year and for it to end like it did, was a shame.
Most Improved Player:
Helman: DeMarco Murray – A gigantic second half turned 2013 into a banner season for Murray. The Oklahoma product had to answer questions all offseason about his durability, as he missed a combined nine games in his first two seasons. It’s true Murray didn’t manage a full season this time around, but his 14 appearances were a career best. Everything else was a career-best, too. Murray toted the rock 217 times in 2013 – 53 more times than his prior best – and his rushing total of 1,124 yards was a career high by 227 yards. He scored nine touchdowns, which is more than his totals from 2011 and 2012 combined.
Broaddus: Ronald Leary – Give Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack a great deal of credit for getting Ron Leary ready to play an entire 16 game season after spending the majority of his rookie season on the practice squad working on the scout team every day. While paired next to Tyron Smith, the left side of that Dallas Cowboys offensive line averaged over 6.2 yards a carry, which ranked them 4th in the NFL. Ronald Leary’s best trait is his power and you see this in both areas of run and pass. There is some shock in his upper body and you see him get push in the lower body. He was a steady, consistent and reliable performer at a position where there were huge question marks coming into the season.
Kavner: Terrance Williams – It’s odd to say this considering he’s a rookie, but from the start of the year to where he’s at now, I’d go with Terrance Williams. Obviously, this isn’t a year to year thing since he was in college last year, but he ended the year looking leaps and bounds better than the player we saw in camp. The jump was tremendous and he became an accountable deep threat, finishing with 736 yards, a 16.7 yards per catch average and five touchdowns.
Eatman: Orlando Scandrick – I really wanted to go with Tyron Smith here, but as a first-round pick, getting to the Pro Bowl and making All-Pro teams was expected by his third year. As for Scandrick, he really has developed into a solid player. He didn’t let Morris Claiborne get his job back and he’s played very well in a demanding spot. Yes, he can make more plays and interceptions but for his size and being a fifth-round pick, I think Scandrick should get a lot of credit. He’s a student of the game and he really played well from the start of camp to the end of the year.
Helman: Doug Free – I’m not trying to suggest Free should have made the Pro Bowl. But after the 2012 season, he was seen as a liability who could only be counted on to accrue false starts and allow sacks. He was far from perfect, but after taking a reduced salary in the offseason, Free performed admirably on the right side of the Dallas Cowboys line this season. After the beating he took in the court of public opinion last year, a little recognition seems justified.
Broaddus: Dwayne Harris – There is not a player on this team that does more for the overall benefit of the team than what Dwayne Harris does. We all see his ability as a returner and a tackler on special teams. Where Harris doesn’t get enough credit is his ability as a receiver but also the way that he blocks. This group of wide receivers did a much better job of point of attack blocking as the season wore on which allowed DeMarco Murray the space that he had to run the ball. When you build a football team, you try and find as many players as you can like Dwayne Harris.
Kavner: Sometimes we lose sight of just how valuable Dwayne Harris is. He led the team in special teams tackles, despite missing nearly a month toward the end of the season. He’s a complete special teams stud, leading the way as a cover guy and a returner, finishing second in the league in kick return average (30.6) and third in punt return average (12.8), while also securing the game-winning touchdown catch against the Vikings.
Eatman: Dan Bailey – Maybe this isn’t the right spot for him, but he’s got to go somewhere. Kickers are always unsung. And yes, he’s been heroic. So he gets my unsung hero vote. Bailey is just unreal how steady he’s been. Not only as a kicker, but a kickoff specialist, too. But the fact the Cowboys have confidence in him from the 40-50 range says a lot about
Top Offseason Need:
Helman: Defensive Tackle – The Dallas Cowboys’ first priority this offseason needs to be a defensive lineman, as far as I’m concerned. Whether that should be defensive tackle or defensive end is up for debate, but I’m going with the interior. My line of thinking is that DeMarcus Ware probably returns, and Anthony Spencer could very well re-sign. George Selvie is back, as well. Meanwhile, if Jason Hatcher leaves in free agency, which looks likely, the Cowboys are looking at Nick Hayden, Corvey Irvin, and Frank Kearse as their only current defensive tackles. Yikes. That needs to be addressed somehow – whether in free agency or the draft.
Broaddus: Defensive Line – I thought that this defensive line needed to be retooled last season even with DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher in the mix. Now there is a good possibility out of that group that you will only have Ware. The challenge for Jerry and Stephen Jones along with Will McClay is to dig those guys out that can come in and play from the word “Go” much like they have with Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick. There will be no time for sitting around and learning on the job. How they work on this position will once again have a huge impact how they go forward in the coming years.
Kavner: The Dallas Cowboys need defensive linemen, particularly tackles who can rush the passer. With the return of Hatcher unlikely, the Cowboys need to find a player that can cause some havoc in the middle. Getting Tyrone Crawford back from injury will help, though they could decide to keep him as an end. They need to find a way to affect the quarterback more consistently in this 4-3, and that starts with some pressure from the front four.
Eatman: Deee-fense! Just like they went offense the first three picks last year, they should go defense with the first three, if not four or five next year. This offense seems to be in good shape. But they need help on the defensive line and maybe more depth at linebacker and safety. The top need for me is a pass-rusher on the edge. Even if Spencer returns and Ware returns to form, you still need to get a young, hungry pass-rusher.