Commentary

Will Ware ever regain All-Pro form?

Cowboys counting on pass rusher to be a difference-maker again for defense

Updated: December 13, 2013, 2:54 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- DeMarcus Ware has rushed the passer 87 times in the past three games.

He has one sack -- and that was a gift in the Dallas Cowboys' 45-28 loss Monday night to the Chicago Bears.

Ware is a better than that. He must be better than what we've seen lately. At least Jerry Jones and the Cowboys pray we're not witnessing the first indication the future Hall of Fame player is declining.

If so, this season is doomed, and the Cowboys' future will become bleaker a lot quicker than any of us expected.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDeMarcus Ware hasn't pressured QBs this season like he usually does. Is an injury to blame or are Ware's pass-rush skills simply declining?
Ware, who has spent his entire nine-year career terrorizing quarterbacks, is getting scrutinized for the first time in his career.

It's not personal, though he probably views it that way.

He's one of the NFL's highest-paid players on a defense that will be statistically the worst in franchise history by the time the season ends. It would be different if Ware were dominating the way he has virtually every season since he entered the league as the 11th player taken in the 2005 draft.

But he's not. We're not sure why.

That's the scary part.

Is it because he's 31 years old and Father Time is starting to kick his behind? Is it because the 4-3 defensive scheme requires him to tangle with 330-pound tackles more frequently than he did as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, robbing him of his effectiveness?

Is it because the strained quadriceps that forced him to miss three games has robbed him of the power and explosion he needs to destroy pass protections and hunt quarterbacks?

Can Ware still dominate? Is he still the epicenter of every offensive coordinator's game plan? These are important questions because if he's not going to dominate, the Cowboys can't afford to pay him the $14 million he's scheduled to earn next season.

Jerry Jones might demand Ware take a pay cut. What if he refuses? It could get ugly.

Ware can end any and all questions with a return to dominance. "What's my name?," Ware asked rhetorically Thursday afternoon, when a reporter inquired about his ability to still dominate.

"DeMarcus Ware," a reporter responded.

"Alright," Ware said. "Ain't nothing changed. I don't feel like nothing has changed."

Well, it has.

Sacks are cool, but they can be overrated. A better statistic is the combined number of quarterback hits and hurries a player has because that provides a much clearer picture about his ability to consistently disrupt the quarterback.

In six of the past seven seasons, Ware has ranked among the NFL's top six in combined hits and hurries while never posting fewer than 38.5 in a season. This season, he's currently tied for 22nd in the NFL with 26. Houston's J.J. Watt leads the NFL with 47.5, and Minnesota's Brian Robison is second with 41.5.

Obviously, Ware's totals would be higher if he hadn't missed three full games and most of another with a quadriceps injury. Ware has proclaimed himself healthy now, as has Jason Garrett. He's just not playing like it.

Bottom line: Ware has been just a guy the past few games.

We all see it. We all know it. We just hope it doesn't last. The closest Garrett will come to public criticism of a star such as Ware is to say he's confident the perennial Pro Bowler will play better.

Ware will not hide from the scrutiny. He has too much pride, and he accepts the responsibility that accompanies the eight-digit paycheck and his role as captain.

"People are always going to look at the worst," he said. "They don't see when you're out there hurting and you're still trying to be effective and get the job done.

"There are no excuses. I'm healthy to play. That's the bottom line."

Just so you know, the lack of a consistent pass rush is the single biggest reason this defense has been a joke all season. This version of the 4-3 is predicated on the front four creating a disruptive pass rush so the other seven defenders can drop into a zone.

The Cowboys are tied for 24th in the NFL with 27 sacks. Without a pass rush, even a journeyman quarterback -- such as Josh McCown, playing for his fifth team in 11 seasons -- shredded the Cowboys for 348 yards passing and four touchdowns.

The Cowboys have allowed 65 plays of 20 yards or more this season, which is 30th in the league. Only twice since 1995 have the Cowboys allowed more plays of 20 yards.

They gave up 67 last season and 69 in 2010.

At their current pace, the Cowboys will allow 6,829 total yards and 4,775 passing yards. Each would represent a new franchise standard of futility by more than a thousand yards.

Wow.

"When you talk about being frustrated, we can't give up the big plays," Ware said. "It comes from not being consistent in fundamentals. We gotta tackle, we gotta make the big plays -- the strip sacks -- and we're getting back to that this week."

The only thing this team does well is create turnovers. It struggles to win without them because the defense can't stop anybody.

The Cowboys have missed the playoffs each of the past three seasons. They must win their last three games, starting with Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers, to guarantee themselves a playoff berth.

To do that, Ware has to once again be a difference-maker, something Jones expects.

"He's a remarkable athlete. He should actually be in the prime of his career, candidly, strength-wise, explosion-wise," Jones said this week on KRLD-AM 1080. "That's one of the things we got to, I think, count on is him having more impact in the game as he moves away from his injury.

"He's feeling better, and we should be able to count on better production from him."

They must, or this is going to be an offseason of discontent for Ware and many others.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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