The Dallas Cowboys have benefited dramatically from some honest self-assessment that took place in the offseason.
Once the Cowboys made the decision that they were not going to bring back DeMarcus Ware to rush the passer following an injury-plagued 2013 season, owner Jerry Jones, head coach Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli knew the defense was going to have key personnel issues.
Specifically, they would be lacking a dramatic and game-changing pass rusher who had the ability to turn a game in the Cowboys’ favor. That weakness got quite a bit more pronounced when middle linebacker Sean Lee – who led the Cowboys in tackles with 99 a year ago – tore his ACL during an offseason practice and was lost for the year.
Many observers around the league felt the Cowboys were going to have an expansion-caliber defense. Neither Garrett nor Marinelli were concerned that the Cowboys would be at that level, but they knew that the defense was going to need protection from the offense.
It was shortly after Lee’s injury that the Cowboys made a commitment to DeMarco Murray and the running game. It was not a hard call to make, because Murray rushed for 1,121 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago, and his game seemed to pick up as his rushing attempts increased.
The idea was that if the Cowboys were having success with their ground game, they would help the defense by keeping it off the field. The Cowboys wanted to win the time-of-possess battle by having the offense on the field for at least 33 minutes every game.
Winning that battle is a philosophy that has become passé in today’s NFL. While not every coach is going to fall in Chip Kelly’s full-speed, high-octane attack that eschews time of possession, most coaches are willing to trade the time of possession advantage for a quick-strike offense.
Marinelli did not want that from the offense, and Garrett understood his concerns and went along with them without any hesitation.
The results have been greater than anyone could have expected. Not only has Murray given the Cowboys an exceptional rushing attack – 1,745 yards and 12 TDs — the defense has not been overworked and it has also exceeded expectations.
By staying fresh, the Cowboys have not played poorly on defense. Instead, they have performed quite well. They are 16th overall in yardage allowed and ninth against the run. While they no longer have a superstar like Ware, defensive tackle Henry Melton has given them an interior pass rush with 5.0 sacks, while strong safety Barry Church has a team-high 89 tackles.
Marinelli’s defense is performing even better than the way he envisioned. There are few spectacular players on the unit, but it functions quite well together. None of the Cowboys defensive players have been named to the Pro Bowl (six offensive players are going).
In addition to helping out the defense, the change in philosophy has eased the burden on Tony Romo. Instead of carrying the Cowboys on his shoulders and suffering a collapse in December, Romo has excelled this season and he has been at his best this month.
As the Cowboys go into their regular-season finale against the Redskins, Romo has a 10-0 TD-interception ratio in December. Romo leads the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating.
Romo has lead his team to first place in the NFC East, and as Murray tries to overcome a left hand injury (and subsequent surgery), the quarterback is playing his best football of the season.
“It’s probably the best year I’ve seen him play,” tight end Jason Witten said. “It’s special for him. I know he’s going to keep the perspective on playing for more, but he should be proud of what he’s done. It’s remarkable.”
The Cowboys have overcome their tendency to fall short in the regular season and have earned the division title. While most observers look at the Seahawks and the Packers as the best teams in the NFC, the Cowboys are not going to run away from either of them.
They have what appears to be a complete team. Perhaps they could be stronger on defense, but they are not going to fold up.
Offensively, they have the explosiveness to score on any defense in the league, and that makes them a legitimate threat to upset the NFC power structure and help return the Cowboys to glory.