Friday, August 23, 2013
#NFLRank: Time for Cowboys to cash in
By Dan Graziano
So when the final votes were tallied on this #NFLRank project and we added them all up by category, these were the three teams that had the most players on the two lists combined:
1. San Francisco 49ers: 15 (27-9-1 record past two seasons, defending NFC champions)
2. Seattle Seahawks: 13 (12-6 last season including a first-round road playoff victory in Washington)
3. Dallas Cowboys: 10 (22-26 the past three seasons, no playoff appearances since January 2010)
Something seems off here, and it's not that we're overrating the 10 Cowboys who made the lists. The six who have been revealed so far -- Miles Austin, Tony Romo, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff -- are all players of significant talent and/or accomplishment. If anything, you could argue that Romo (the 13th-ranked quarterback) and Austin (the 30th-ranked wide receiver) are underrated. And the four Cowboys yet to be revealed are, as you might expect, even better. You can almost certainly guess their names.
Rather, this list stands as the latest piece of evidence that the Cowboys are a team that is somehow less than the sum of its parts. They should be a better team than they have been in recent years, and the time to prove it is now. The 2013 Cowboys should win the NFC East and end the Dallas playoff drought, and if they don't, the world will have ample license to label them underachievers.
It's not hard to figure out how it's come to this. There are several very accessible excuses. For example, none of the 10 Cowboys who ended up in our rankings is an offensive lineman. This is no coincidence. The Cowboys have made a science of ignoring the offensive line in favor of splashy skill-position talent. They went 29 years without selecting an offensive lineman in the first round before finally taking tackle Tyron Smith with the ninth overall pick in 2011. They went offensive line again this year in the first round with center Travis Frederick. In the meantime, they have brought in and increased the power of offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, whose pedigree is as an offensive line coach. Finally, the Dallas front office seems to understand the need to prioritize the line so as not to squander the talent of Romo and his weapons. But there are years worth of neglect to overcome and holes that remain to be filled.
There is the issue of health. Several of the great Cowboys players on these lists have had trouble keeping themselves on the field the past few years. Ratliff stands as an obvious example, and there are others. I'm not saying these guys are or aren't on the list of players yet to be revealed, but players such as running back DeMarco Murray and linebacker Sean Lee are young leaders whom the Cowboys are counting on both now and in the future. The players who are to be the foundational building blocks have to find ways to keep themselves healthy if the team is going to play to its potential.
And there's Romo, of course, who's the franchise quarterback in Dallas now more than ever. The massive contract extension he signed this offseason, along with his own increased role in the game-week and game-day design of the offense, mean there's even more pressure on him now than there's ever been before. For all of his brilliance, there have been too many times when he's let the Cowboys down -- most recently the three-interception performance against Washington in the Week 17 game that decided last year's division title.
There's blame to go around. Add owner Jerry Jones' poor drafting and coach Jason Garrett's shaky play calling to the list if you want. Dumping the Cowboys' befuddling failures on one person or one group would be unfair. In the end, though, the facts are these: There are a lot of very good players on the Cowboys, on both sides of the ball. Yet they have played three full seasons now since the last time they finished over .500.
It's time now to stop the underachieving. The NFC East is eminently winnable. Robert Griffin III's health is in question in Washington, as is the defense. The Giants gave up more yards last year than all but one other team in the league. The Eagles are rebuilding under a new coach, implementing changes that will take time and likely delay their return to consistent contention. The Cowboys and all of their #NFLRank-ed players should look at this division, which they were one game from winning in each of the past two seasons, as theirs to claim. It's time to move past the problems that have held them back and find a way to win that deciding game for a change. If they don't do it -- and I mean this year -- they're going to look back someday and shake their heads at all of the talent they squandered in its prime.