The Wulf Den: Return of the Wulf
After a longer hiatus that I had hoped for, the Wulf is back from open-heart surgery, and there’s a lot to howl about. Unfortunately, many of those howls are not for positive reasons, as the Cowboys find themselves with a .500 record with just four games left in the regular season. That’s not nearly as good as many, including myself, thought would be the case. But periodic lackluster play, inopportune mistakes, injuries, and downright bad luck have all contributed to derailing the season. And as bad as it has been, there is still a chance, albeit a slim one, for the Cowboys to pull it together and make it into the playoffs. Make no mistake, it will take a herculean effort, along with some help from other teams, for it to happen. But this is the NFL, and we’ve seen time and time again that anything can happen.
Since I’ve missed writing articles for a number of games in my medical absence, I thought it better to focus on the season as a whole, the immediate future, and take a glance at what may happen in the offseason, rather than try to catch up on a game-by-game basis. So with no further ado, let’s take a look at the state of the franchise at the three-quarter point of the season.
– Tony Romo takes a lot of heat when the Cowboys lose, especially if he has turned the ball over at all in the game. And I’ll be the first to say that there have been times in the game film when I have scratched my head trying to figure out what in the heck he was thinking. But there have been a significant number of his interceptions this year that were the result of receivers running the wrong routes or the receiver not reading the coverage properly, as well as tipped balls. Take away those turnovers, and not only would Romo’s numbers look much better, the Cowboys would likely have 2-3 more wins. I’ve often said that I think turnovers should be credited to the person whose fault it is. So if an INT was the result of a bad read or a bad throw, give it to the QB. If it was a catchable ball that was tipped instead of caught, or the result of the receiver not running the right route, the INT should be assigned to the receiver. And don’t even get me started on the pitiful offensive line play that has led directly to hurried throws and turnovers. But that’s not the way it works in the NFL, and the Romo haters will continue to point to the numbers and complain. I will simply say this: Romo is one of the few guys who has brought it to the field each and every game. If a number of other players on the offense had given as much effort, this season would be markedly different.
Kyle Orton hasn’t really played, and that’s a good thing, since it means Romo has stayed healthy. There is a certain comfort, however, in knowing that he’s on the sideline ready to come in and lead the team. That veteran reassurance is something a lot of teams in the league would love to have right about now.
– DeMarco Murray has the ability to rush for 1,600 yards if he can just stay healthy, even with this offensive line…and that’s saying something. Unfortunately, that “if” is a big one, and puts the injury-prone label on Murray until he proves he can make it through a full season. But if you want to know how important he is, and how much this team needs him over any of his backups, you only have to look at the improved success of the offense when he’s in the game.
Felix Jones has actually looked pretty good at times when spelling Murray, at times even flashing some of the explosiveness that we’ve been looking for since his rookie season. Unfortunately for Jones, his speed will diminish more rapidly than any other physical attribute, and it’s his best quality. If he has to depend on his vision, strength, and ability to cut to be successful, I fear we would see his production fall dramatically.
I’ve been disappointed that Phillip Tanner has not had more opportunities to carry the ball in Murray’s absence. Apparently, the coaching staff isn’t really comfortable with him in the backfield from a blocking perspective, and both Jones and undrafted rookie Lance Dunbar are better alternatives as receivers. I will give Tanner this, though—he has been a very solid contributor on special teams. If he puts his work in as a RB in the offseason, he should get more chances to carry the ball in the future.
Dunbar hasn’t done anything to make me think he’s going to be the next Warrick Dunn, but he has contributed when needed, and appears to have some significant upside as a change of pace back. A full year in the offseason program may work wonders for him.
– I was one that thought the addition of Lawrence Vickers would automatically increase the running offense, and that simply hasn’t been the case. Part of it, of course, is the offensive line play in front of him, which I will address a little later. Another part is the fact that he’s blocking for very different RBs who read the gaps and blocking schemes differently. There’s a feel and a rhythm to lead-blocking for a particular RB, and Murray missing half of the games has made that rhythm harder to find. If Murray can stay healthy for the rest of the season, though, I think we’ll see some marked improvement from Vickers as well.
– Jason Witten is one of the other guys who is bringing his lunch pail to work each and every game, and continues to prove why he is the best all-around TE in the league. If it weren’t for his ability and contributions, the offense would be lucky to have half of the passing success they have had thus far.
John Phillips has been pretty solid all-around, if not spectacular in any one particular area. It’s fairly obvious that he is now completely recovered from the injury that cost him a season, and he’s kept me from missing anything at all about Martellus Bennett. Unfortunately, he’s a free agent at the end of the season, and I’m not sure if the Cowboys will go out of their way to retain him, especially if he has the possibility of starting elsewhere.
James Hanna either hasn’t really had a chance to play that much on offense, or he hasn’t done much with the chances he’s had. I think it’s the former, to be honest, as a look at film rarely has him in the game when there’s a chance of him making a catch that would be significant. It’s a little surprising, in a way, considering how much Head Coach Jason Garrett likes the two TE formation. But with both Witten and Phillips healthy, that’s just the way it’s happened. If Phillips isn’t brought back next year, Hanna is going to have to put in a lot of work to be ready to be the primary back-up for Witten next season.
– There have been times when this group has made me want to stand up and cheer. But there have been a lot of times when I wanted to rip all of my hair out by the roots—and for a Wulf, that’s a LOT of hair. But specifically, there are a few things I’ll say. First, Dez Bryant shows all of the potential to be a legitimate #1 receiver. What he lacks is consistency. But he has been on the verge—literally a fingertip away—from winning a game or two for the Cowboys at the end of games because of his incredible God-given talent. If he can just lock in on that and build some consistency, there’s no reason to think that he won't be one of the best five WRs in the game in the near future.
Miles Austin is, in my opinion, one of the best—if not THE best—#2 WRs in the league. And I say that not to get down on Miles, but rather to say that I think he is at his most effective when he is lined up across from a legitimate #1 receiver like Dez. That may be true for anyone, of course, as it means coverage isn’t likely to be rolled your way. But Miles has the ability to run after the catch and make a short reception into a game-changing play, and that happens most when teams are afraid of the receiver on the other side of the field. Add in his flexibility to play any receiver position, including in the slot, and you can’t ask for much more. The one thing he really needs to do is to get his hamstring issues straightened out…and that may or may not be in his control.
Kevin Ogletree had everyone excited when he came out the opening week against the Giants and played a crucial role in the Cowboys’ victory. But he has done little since then, in part because of injuries and, in part, because he’s been passed on the depth chart by a couple of guys who are simply making plays. Barring injury, I don’t expect to see much of him for the remainder of the season, especially considering that he’ll be a free agent at the end of the year.
Dwayne Harris has looked really solid, and seems to finally be solidifying his place as the team’s primary return man. He’ll have competition, but I’m not going to be surprised if he is the #3 receiver going into next season.
I’ve been glad to see Cole Beasley getting some significant snaps. And he’s not wasting them, running solid routes and catching anything he can reach. He’s one of those guys that might never be a starter, or might not reach the level of success that someone like Wes Welker—with whom he is frequently compared from a stature perspective—but could develop into a solid role player who can come in at the slot and make some explosive plays underneath the coverage.
Anthony Armstrong is the most recent addition to the roster, and he has speed to burn. Of course, he’s going to have to learn the playbook on the fly, as he can’t just run the “go” route every time he comes into the game. I thought it interesting that his contract is showing up as a 2-year deal, which means he could very well be around heading into training camp next year.
I will also mention that Andre Holmes was on the roster for a significant portion of the season, and did very little with his opportunity. Oh, he was okay on special teams. There are any number of guys that could do the same job, however, who would have the chance to contribute at their position as well. He’s back on the practice squad, and may be around for the offseason. But at this point, we may have seen all we’re going to out of him.
– I’m going to try my best to be honest without blowing up my PC here, so bear with me if I understate some things. First, this group as a whole has been below average…and that’s putting it mildly. Injuries at the C position have contributed to that, but don’t come near to excusing it.
Tyron Smith has played the best on the line, and that’s to be expected. But he’s had some trouble as well, and has been beaten by speed rushers to the outside on multiple occasions. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because it’s his first year on the left side. As a first-round pick, though, I’ll expect significant improvement next year.
On the other side, Doug Free has been awful. He’s not blowing his guy back in the run game, and he’s getting consistently beaten to the outside because of poor lateral movement and slow footwork. The only way he seems able to counter that is to cheat to the outside with his first step, and any rusher with a legitimate spin move is then going to beat him to the inside sooner or later. He has a hefty contract, so he’s going to have to pick it up a lot just to be around next year.
Jermey Parnell has played fairly well when he’s needed to do so, and has shown enough for fans to feel a little better about him being the back-up OT on gameday. The Cowboys will definitely be looking for another OT in the offseason, however, as carrying only three on the roster as they have for the last two years is dangerous.
Both Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau were signed in the offseason to shore up the starting G positions, and they’ve had mixed results. There have been times when they’ve played well, pulling effectively or getting to the second level of the defense on an inside run. But they’ve both been inconsistent, and have been inexplicably beaten on the inside on more than one occasion. Again, the constant changes at the C position have contributed to that…but don’t excuse it.
Derrick Dockery and David Arkin are both wastes of roster space, though for very different reasons. Dockery was, at one time, a legitimate starting G in this league. But those days have passed him by, and he simply gets beat too often to be allowed to play for any significant amount of time. As for Arkin, they’ve been trying for two years to get him developed, even trying him at C in training camp. If he’s not showing enough to get game time ahead of Dockery at this point, it’s likely that he will never develop.
It’s hard to evaluate the C position because there has been so much transition. For all of the negative talk about him in the preseason, the one game Phil Costa started and played more than a few minutes was the Cowboys' best running game of the season in Baltimore. I’d really like to see him back on the field for a game or two before the season is over. If he duplicates the performance he showed against the Ravens, he’ll go into the offseason as your starter for next year.
Ryan Cook has been a pleasant surprise. He has filled in as well as anyone could have asked for at the C position, especially considering he had to learn the offense on the fly. I’d love to see him as the primary back-up for the interior O-line on gameday, as you’d have someone that could come in and play significant minutes without much of a drop-off in performance. He’s certainly had his challenges, but this was a nice pick-up by the front office just before the season started.
Kevin Kowalski was expected to compete for the starting job at C heading into camp, and has been injured for most of the time since then. With him on the roster as a legitimate back-up at both C and G, however, the Cowboys could actually have the best depth they’ve had all year for the last quarter of the season.
– A lot of people wanted the Cowboys to take a defensive linemen in the first round of this year’s draft, and didn’t seem too excited with Tyrone Crawford’s selection. Having seen him for 12 games, I have to say that I think he’s going to be a solid contributor, and appears to have the flexibility to play inside and out. He’ll get more explosive with an offseason under his belt, enhancing his strength to be able to brush by some of the slower interior O-linemen.
Jason Hatcher has played well. He’s had some difficulties with injuries, but shows up on gameday fairly consistently. He may not get another contract when his current one expires following next season, but he has lived up to the one he signed.
Kenyon Coleman’s injury likely ended not only his season, but his career in Dallas. He’s scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the year, and at his age, there’s just little point in bringing him back.
Marcus Spears stepped into Coleman’s starting spot, and has continued to do what he’s done throughout his career: play fairly well against the run while tying up O-linemen for the OLBs to make a play. Not explosive, but solid. He’ll likely have to battle with Sean Lissemore and Crawford for the starting job next year…and that’s assuming they don’t go with a D-lineman early in next year’s draft.
Speaking of Lissemore, he’s been injured for a significant portion of the season, but has appeared to be consistent when he’s been in there. Not great, mind you…but solid. His flexibility to play both inside and out makes him especially useful in Rob Ryan’s defensive scheme.
Ben Bass finally got his call-up and promptly ended up on IR. He will benefit significantly from the offseason program.
On the inside, Jay Ratliff has likewise been injured for a lot of the season thus far, and it’s a real shame, as he has been very disruptive when he’s been able to play. Only time will tell if this is a sign of his smaller stature playing the NT position finally catching up with him or just one of those seasons when things seem to go wrong. It’s a shame, too, as his fire on the field seems to really ignite the rest of the defense.
Josh Brent has had to play a lot of minutes because of the injuries to both Ratliff and Lissemore, and he’s done fairly well. I don’t think he’s done enough, however, for the Cowboys to be comfortable with him if he had to start over the long haul. A strong offseason by practice squad DT Rob Callaway could mean a pretty significant battle in training camp next year. This is another D-line position that could be addressed early in the draft next year.
– It’s ironic that I picked this position as the deepest on the roster at the end of training camp, and it’s been more decimated than any other by injury. Sean Lee’s loss was very painful, as he was one of the leaders of that group. If there was anything positive about it, though, it was the opportunity it gave Bruce Carter—an opportunity he seized. If I’m an offensive coordinator for a team on the Cowboys’ schedule next year, the thought of having a healthy combo of Lee and Carter in the middle makes me VERY nervous.
Dan Conner has had to play because of the injuries ahead of him, and he’s been okay. He doesn’t have the speed to cover guys out of the backfield or get to the sidelines on tosses or sweeps—at least not until there has been a significant gain. Because of that, I don’t think he’s a starting caliber ILB. But as a guy who could come in and back-up to give a starter a break, he’d be solid.
I have to say that I like what I’ve seen of Ernie Sims. I liked him at Florida State, and thought his lack of production with Detroit had less to do with his ability or lack thereof, and more to do with the poor overall defensive talent the Lions had around him. To be able to go from his couch to moving inside in a 3-4 defense and be able to contribute as well as he has says a lot about his ability. I won’t be upset at all if the Cowboys try to re-sign him to a reasonable deal to serve as a back-up for next year.
Alex Albright has been asked to play both inside and outside, as has contributed quite a bit on special teams. He’s the kind of guy you want on your squad as your #7 or #8 LB. Orie Lemon did some things with the short time he had, but it was too short to really make much of an impression. He’ll have to head into training camp clawing for one of the last roster spots, much as he did last year. Likewise, Brady Poppinga may step in towards the end of the season and show some things, but I’ll be surprised if it’s enough for him to be around past the final game of the season.
DeMarcus Ware is still DeMarcus Ware…and that’s a good thing. His sack numbers are not as high as I would have expected in Rob Ryan’s scheme, but that is, at least in part, a direct result of being dropped into coverage more than I believe he should be. When he’s put in a position to go after the QB, though, he’s still as dominating as he ever has been.
Anthony Spencer has played very well, in my opinion. In fact, it may well be his best season since coming into the league. He plays the run very well, and has been able to apply more consistent pressure opposite Ware this year. A lot of people were upset that the Cowboys used their franchise tag on Spencer, saying he wasn’t worth the $8.85 mil that tag required. Well maybe not. But he’s played well enough that I won’t be surprised to see the Cowboys try to re-sign him to a multi-year deal with a smaller average annual salary (say in the 4-5 years/6.5-7.5 mil per year range).
Victor Butler has played pretty well with the chances he’s had, but with Ware on one side and how well Spencer has played on the other, there haven’t been a lot of chances. Butler is a free agent at the end of the season as well, and I’ll be surprised to see him back next season.
Kyle Wilbur was drafted to be a developmental replacement player for next year, figuring they would need someone who could step into the gap left by the departure(s) or Spencer and/or Butler in free agency. He hasn’t been on the field a lot, so there’s not a lot to judge him on just yet. A year in the offseason program should make him ready to contribute in a significant way next year.
– No position was addressed more during the offseason than cornerback, and it’s come with mixed results. Rookie Morris Claiborne has looked lost at times, allowing completions to receivers for whom he has shown too much respect, in my opinion, giving 10-yard cushions on their release from the line. He has also shown flashes of the talent that caused the Cowboys to package their 1st and 2nd-round picks to move up and take him in the first round of the draft. It’s about what I’d expect for a rookie season, and we’ll have a much better idea of just how good he’s going to be next year.
Brandon Carr, who signed the $50 mil free agent contract last year, has likewise shown some ups and downs. There are plays where he blankets his receiver so well that it’s impossible for a completion to be made. There are other times, however, when he is playing off of his receiver and allows completions that really shouldn’t be as easy as they look. He was more of a physical corner in Kansas City, so a part of the problem may be Ryan’s decision to play more soft zone coverage. One thing is for certain, though: even with his difficulties from time to time, he’s looked much better than the Terence Newman we watched on the field over the last couple of seasons.
Orlando Scandrick has played pretty well, his slot coverage showing to be fairly effective. Like the other corners, he’s had his negative moments as well. Overall, though, it’s about what I expected out of him.
Mike Jenkins, for all of the negativity that surrounded him in training camp, has played fairly well when he’s had a chance to play at all. He even filled in and played some safety when the situation demanded it. I think the writing is on the wall for his exit from Dallas via free agency, though, so at this point, there’s little need to break down the areas in which he needs to continue to improve.
Vince Agnew and Sterling Moore haven’t been around long enough to really show much, and I doubt either will be more than a camp body headed into next season if they’re even still around. I won’t be surprised to see a draft pick used at the CB position again in next year’s draft, although not necessarily an early-round pick.
– At safety, the Cowboys finally had the starting duo they’d been looking for in Gerald Sensabaugh and Barry Church…at least until Church went down. Danny McCray stepped in and has played well, making it even more likely that the Cowboys will tender the future restricted free agent at a level that will guarantee he will be in Dallas next season.
The rest of the safety play has been from a mix and match group that, quite honestly, is lucky to be on the field because of the injuries the Cowboys have had. Charlie Peprah has the best resume, but there have been a number of plays where he was either way out of position or just plain beaten like a snare drum. Eric Frampton has done some positive things, and his contract suggests he may be around for camp next year. Meanwhile, the guy that was drafted and was supposed to come in and solidify the depth chart, Matt Johnson, had one injury after another until he was finally placed on IR. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and just count it as a redshirt year, especially considering the fact that I really like what I saw of him on film at Eastern Washington. But if he comes into camp next year and the injuries start again, I’m going to be done with him in very short order.
– L. P. Ladouceur has been consistent. So what else is new? He is scheduled to be a free agent after this season, which may explain why the Cowboys have been looking for a replacement for the last couple of years. But for my money, he’s this team’s version of Dale Hellestrae. Just keep re-signing him until he wants to retire…and then try to talk him out of it. Losing Chris Jones for the season was a bad break, but a solid veteran like Brian Moorman getting released just when the Cowboys needed him was a good one. It will be Jones’ job again next year. Dan Bailey has been as good as expected, despite missing the game winner against Baltimore. No reason to think there will be a change there in the near future.
Knowing that owner and general manager Jerry Jones is going to do whatever he wants, I thought I’d wrap up this review with a look at what could happen heading into next season, regardless of how this season ends up.
– I doubt there will be many, if any, changes to the coaching staff, barring them getting hired for other positions around the league. Jones remains convinced that Garrett is the man for the job over the long haul, and will continue to stick with that for another season or three. There are a couple of guys like Rob Ryan and Bill Callahan who could get interviewed for head coaching vacancies, and if they take them, it may open up more positions than just theirs, and they would likely take other coaches with them. If Ryan were to be hired as a head coach, for example, I’d be shocked if he didn’t take Eberflus with him as his defensive coordinator. But I think the Cowboys would like to stand pat, if possible.
– It’s hard to know who will be available via free agency from other teams, considering the cuts that are made for salary cap reasons. But looking at the Cowboys’ roster can give us an idea of where there may be some holes to fill. As it stands right now, here are the players that, I believe, are scheduled to be free agents at the end of the season:
RB Felix Jones; CBs Mike Jenkins, Sterling Moore, and Vince Agnew; OLBs Anthony Spencer and Victor Butler; ILBs Ernie Sims and Brady Poppinga; TE John Phillips; WR Kevin Ogletree; G Derrick Dockery; LS L. P. Ladouceur; P Brian Moorman; S Charlie Peprah; and DE Kenyon Coleman.
In addition, both C Phil Costa and S Danny McCray are set to be restricted free agents, and I expect both of them to be tendered and retained.
Of those potential free agents listed, the only ones I can see the Cowboys possibly pursuing are Spencer, Phillips, and Ladouceur, with the possibility of exploring the alternatives with Butler and/or Sims.
Also, while it’s not technically a free agent issue, there would be one significant cut: OT Doug Free. If there were anyone out there that I thought could step in and replace him now, he’d already be gone. And with base salaries of $7 mil and $8 mil over the next two years, it’s an easy way to clear cap space. Because of that, however, it would mean that the Cowboys would need to address the OT position in free agency, and possibly in the draft as well. And speaking of the draft…
– Looking at who will likely be leaving the roster, as well as who may be released, makes it fairly easy to see what positions the Cowboys may be looking to address when the draft rolls around next April. Of course, some positions will get addressed in free agency, making them less important in the draft. Likewise, re-signing their own players (like TE Phillips) may eliminate a position altogether. But given what we know as of right now, here’s where I think they’ll look, in no particular order:
Running Back – Felix will be gone, and I don’t think they’ll be comfortable with the winner of a Tanner/Dunbar battle being the primary back-up to Murray. There are typically some talented RBs who slide to the middle rounds, and I expect the Cowboys to take one there.
Offensive Tackle – Whether they cut Free or not, they need more depth at the position. If they do cut Free, of course, I think they’ll bring in a veteran via free agency, so I doubt this would be higher than a third round pick unless someone with a lot of talent slides for some reason.
Offensive Guard/Center – This position has been overlooked for a number of years, and I know a lot of people were chomping at the bit to take one in the first round last year. But that’s not what the Cowboys do, and I don’t think they’ll start now. They have had some pretty good luck with interior O-linemen in the second and third round, though, so that’s a possibility. If they like what they see in Ryan Cook, though, and they think both Costa and Kowalski will be healthy, I think it more likely that it would be a G. And brace yourselves, because if they like Ron Leary through the offseason, they may not address the position yet again.
Tight End – I think they’ll take one with a middle to late-round pick, even if they re-sign Phillips. If they don’t re-sign him, they may look in free agency instead.
Defensive End/Nose Tackle – I don’t think they’ll take both. So if they think they can make it work on the inside with the guys they have now, I’d expect this to be a DE. If they’re more comfortable with Crawford and Lissemore playing predominantly on the outside, it could be a Fletcher Cox-type DT or a run-stuffer like NT Casey Hampton.
Cornerback – Yes, I think they’ll go there again, only not in the early rounds. In the middle rounds, though, I think they’ll take someone to develop as the #4 corner. With Carr, Claiborne, and Scandrick in the fold, the need is for someone to groom for the future.
Linebacker – I don’t expect an interior LB to be drafted unless an unbelievable talent slides to them. They have their starters on the inside, and a number of guys to compete for the back-up positions. I do think they’ll look long and hard at an OLB in the first round, especially if they don’t bring Spencer back. Even if they do, though, I can see them bringing in someone to compete with Wilber.
The Rest of the Story
So there you have it. With three-quarters of the season behind us, there is still a lot up in the air. The schedule is such that the Giants could collapse and the division may still be within reach, or the other teams ahead of the Cowboys for the wild card spots could falter. But regardless of what happens with the other teams, the Cowboys have to win, plain and simple. In fact, I’ll say this: they need to win 3 of their remaining 4 games, including the season finale in Washington, to have a shot at making the playoffs. If they want any shot at the division, they’re going to have to run the table. Can they do it? Yup, they sure can. Will they? At this point, your guess is as good as mine. One thing is for certain, though—it won’t be boring!