With training camp quickly approaching -- the Eagles open July 25 -- we'll take a look at status of their division rivals entering camp. We conclude with the Dallas Cowboys:
2013 Record: 8-8 (2nd in NFC East)
Key Additions: OG Zack Martin (R), DE DeMarcus Lawrence (R), LB Anthony Hitchens (R), DT Henry Melton, DE Anthony Spencer, QB Brandon Weeden
Key Subtractions: DE DeMarcus Ware, DT Jason Hatcher, WR Miles Austin, QB Kyle Orton
Training camp hasn’t even opened yet, and the Dallas Cowboys were already dealt a potentially fatal blow. Star-crossed middle linebacker Sean Lee sustained yet another torn ACL, this time during OTAs, and his return is deemed unlikely for 2014.
That means if Big D’s 18-year drought without a Super Bowl championship is going to end this season, the onus will likely fall on Tony Romo and the Cowboys offense to see it through. At least, they certainly can’t rely on the 11 guys on the other side of the ball to alleviate any of the pressure.
The Cowboys defense was horrid last season. The unit ranked 27th in the NFL against the run, 30th against the pass and dead last in total yards. Only one team, the Chicago Bears, surrendered more ground per play. Only six teams allowed more scoring.
The trouble starts up front. Dallas’ front seven got pushed around in the running game, allowing 4.7 yards per carry—third highest total in the league. Their pass-rush was ineffective as well, recording just 34 sacks—three more than last place.
And it certainly looks like things are only going to get worse.
Cowboys icon and future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware was released for cap reasons, and while he failed to reach double-digit sacks for the first time since his rookie year in ’05 or play 16 games for the first time ever, this seems like a mistake. Ware will be 32, but injuries played a huge role in his decline. If he’s healthy, there’s probably something left in the tank.
Defensive end Jason Hatcher also departed via free agency, and while he’s turning 32 as well, he led the Cowboys with 11 sacks in ’13. Between Ware and Hatcher, literally half of the sacks have been subtracted from that defense.
The Cowboys tried to plug the leak with a few low-end free-agent signings, but mostly they can only pray second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence becomes the next Ware. Don’t hold your breath.
Things don’t get much better in the secondary, where there are essentially no changes from a season ago. Opposing passers posted a lofty 96.0 rating against the Dallas defense, the seventh-most efficient mark in the league.
The biggest disappointment there was Morris Claiborne’s shoulder injury and subsequent poor play. Claiborne was eventually benched on top of missing six games, and doubts are beginning to grow as to whether the sixth overall pick of the 2012 draft will live up to his potential.
It doesn’t help that Brandon Carr hasn’t lived up to his $50 million free-agent contract, either, or that the back end is patrolled by a bunch of no-name safeties.
Now, take Lee out of the lineup, the one bona fide star remaining, the cornerstone of that defense. There is absolutely no denying the Cowboys are a completely different team when Lee is healthy. In the nine games he was able to start and finish last season, opponents averaged 23.2 points. In the other seven contests, that figure ballooned to 31.9.
Clearly, Dallas’ defense is a wreck. Still, the offense is in place to vie for an NFC East title.
The Cowboys feature several of the top playmakers in pro football today. 26-year-old DeMarco Murray broke 1,000 yards rushing last season for the first in his career, establishing himself as one of the most dangerous backs in the league. Tight end Jason Witten may be 32, but he’s coming off his ninth Pro Bowl in 10 years. Dez Bryant is proving himself one of the league’s most unstoppable forces, going for 90-plus catches and 10-plus touchdowns for the second straight season.
And Tony Romo, for all the grief he endures, is genuinely overlooked as one of the game’s most consistent signal-callers. He’s finished in the top 10 in passer rating every season since since he’s been named starter, minus 2010 when he only played six games due to injury. Romo is an outstanding quarterback, period.
Of course, the problem with Romo is he’s never quite been able to put the Cowboys on his back. The club is coming off of three consecutive 8-8 finishes, with three consecutive Week 17 losses with a playoff spot on the line, so despite stellar play under center, it hasn’t been enough to make up for the rest of the club’s deficiencies.
We’ve all seen Romo throw more than his fair share of games away, too. When it’s the fourth quarter, and the spotlight is pointed directly on Romo, he tends to feel the heat.
Whether that’s a label Romo can shake or not might not matter much. From the looks of things, he’s going to be forced to overcome plenty of adversity just to keep Dallas in the hunt this year. The Cowboys always seem to be right there until the end under Romo’s watch, though, so don’t count them out quite yet.