The weight of expectations are a heavy burden in the uber scrutinized NFC East. Predictions for the division in 2012 spanned a wide spectrum, ranging from the top to the bottom of the division as Jason Garrett entered his first full season as head coach.
If anyone is still somehow convinced of a coastal bias in sports reporting, look no further than Dallas to debunk that myth, or at least prove that supernovas in the media universe exist in galaxies not dotting the I-95 corridor, where the Cowboys' division rivals all play. The only thing hotter than the oppressive Texas heat is the interrogation lamp burning above the Cowboys when they fail to make the playoffs, which they have now missed for two seasons in a row. The last time Dallas missed the playoffs for three seasons in a row, they had a new head coach.
Writ large on the marquee outside Texas Stadium are the same lead actors. Rob Ryan has to turn around a unit which did not match the flair of its coordinator. Questions about the future of head coach Jason Garrett will be repeated early and often through training camp, reaching a fever pitch with any underwhelming performances. Debate over quarterback Tony Romo will continue to polarize fans and the media, regardless of the results. Overseeing it all is Jerry Jones, the larger than life owner and general manager with a gunfighter's trigger finger.
Having exhausted the staples of Texas analogies, let's a look at where the Cowboys have been and might be headed in 2012.
Dallas' season moved in fits and starts. A four-game win streak in the middle of year, turned into a 1-4 run to finish the season. Looking at the Cowboys' 8-8 finish to the 2011 season obscures the fact that it all came down to a Week 17 showdown with the Giants. A win that week would have given Dallas the division title for the second time in three seasons.
For all criticism Romo draws, 2011 was arguably his best season to date. He started all 16 games, completed more than 66 percent of his passes for 31 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, with his top receivers battling injuries. Rookie running back DeMarco Murray added to the bright spots with a breakout campaign that included breaking Emmitt Smith's single-game rushing record.
The Giants exposed Dallas' two biggest Achilles heels in that Week 17 matchup. On defense, a weak secondary had no answers for Eli Manning and the Giants' receivers. On the other side of the ball, Dallas allowed a season-high six sacks, and the team was little more than a speed bump on New York's way to a championship.
Best Free Agent Pickup
Give Jerry Jones credit. He spared no expense in filling his team's most pressing needs with headline free agent additions. The signing likely to have the biggest impact is cornerback Brandon Carr.
Drafted by the Chiefs in 5th round of the 2008 NFL Draft, Carr, 26, proved to be a diamond in a rough. He may not be in the stratosphere as Revis Island, but he can cover well. Big and physical, he is exactly what Dallas needs to matchup with the division's other receivers.
To upgrade at guard, Dallas added an inconsistent Nate Livings of the Bengals. They also signed Mackenzy Bernadeau away from the Panthers, but a hip injury could put him on the shelf into training camp.
2012 NFL Draft
Visions of Dallas' secondary chasing around Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks must have really given the Cowboys' decision makers nightmares in the offseason. They swung a deal with the Rams to move up to the sixth spot in the 1st round in order to select blue chip cornerback Morris Claiborne from LSU. Though corners can require some adjustment time in the NFL, having Claiborne paired with Carr instantly makes this one of the league's toughest secondaries.
Defensive end Tyrone Crawford, the team's 3rd-round pick, beefs up a defensive line that struggled to find consistency on either side of nose tackle Jay Ratliff. Dallas 6th-round pick, tight end James Hanna, gives them another set of wheels to go with Jason Witten.
From SB Nation's Blogging the Boys:
Last season, the Dallas Cowboys had two opportunities to knock off their division rival, the New York Giants. Had Dallas been able to take advantage of either one of those chances, they could have won the NFC East and kept the Giants out of the playoffs thus preventing their Super Bowl run. The Cowboys failed on both occasions.
The Week 14 game between the two teams was Dallas' best shot and they blew it when their defense collapsed in the last half of the fourth quarter. This was a microcosm of the Dallas season - an offense that scored plenty of points and a defense that at times looked good, only to fall apart at crucial moments. Eli Manning destroyed the Cowboys pass defense on two drives with little resistance. Dallas had to improve their pass defense in the 2012 offseason to contend with their rivals.
That's exactly what the Cowboys did when they signed cornerback Brandon Carr in free agency and drafted LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne with pick #6 in the first round of the draft. Dallas released long-time corner Terence Newman to make way for the new-blood, giving defensive coordinator Rob Ryan weapons he could use to implement his aggressive defensive style. Without corners that could press in coverage, and be left on an island, Ryan couldn't use his full blitzing arsenal. With these new arrivals, Dallas should be dramatically improved in pass defense and be equipped to go after the Giants, and the rest of the NFC East.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
Rob Ryan's defense has to play better this season in order not be left out in the postseason for a third time. That starts in the secondary. If Carr and Claiborne can play like they are capable of playing, Dallas should be able to keep pace with any team in division. DeMarcus Ware, who had 19.5 sacks last season, should be most pleased with changes in the secondary as it should make Dallas' pass rush even more productive. This looks like the kind of defense that can earn a win on its own, should the offense suffer any inconsistency.
Tony Romo needs to keep playing the way he played. He should be helped by Garrett's February announcementthat second-year tackle Tyron Smith will move to the left side in 2012. A healthy stable of receivers and a productive tandem of Murray and Felix Jones, should give the Cowboys an offense capable of playing its way into January.