Cowboys Opponent Preview: The Team From D.C.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll start to get a much clearer picture of exactly who the 2014 Cowboys are as they maneuver through the end of training camp and the preseason. In the meantime, let’s focus on the opponents that will help Dallas define itself over 17 regular season weeks. First up is the rival team from Washington.

Head-to-Head History

Series History:
Dallas leads, 64-42-2
Current Streak:
Dallas has won last two in series, eight of last 11
Last Matchup:
2013 Week 16, Dallas wins 24-23 at FedEx Field.
The “Willis Romo Reed” Game.
The “4th and Goal” Game.
The “Romo Will Never Be The Same Again” Game.
This Year’s Matchups:
Weeks 8 & 17

2013 Season Review

Is it safe yet?

After ending their streak of four consecutive last place finishes with a surprise NFC East championship in 2012, the Washington franchise crashed back down to earth in 2013. The club returned to familiar territory, falling to last place in the division. Leading up to the season, we were told that quarterback Robert Griffin III was 100% healthy after suffering an ACL injury in the playoffs the prior season. He wasn’t, and the team from the DMV area struggled the entire season, on their way to a 3-13 finish.

Of course, they couldn’t reap the reward of being one of the league’s worst teams, as their first round pick went to St. Louis in the RGIII trade of 2011.

The players from Landover, MD had the league’s third worst net point differential, -144, on the year. Their net yards per attempt (NY/A) differential, a key indicator of overall team strength, was -1.4, one of the worst marks in the league. Their offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), measuring how much better the offense performs than league average in the same down/distance/game situation against the specific defense, ranked 23rd last year. Their defensive VOA was 21st. Their offensive EPA, Expected Points Added and how well they improved their chances of scoring on a play-by-play basis, ranked 24th while their defense ranked 23rd.

Their defense was putrid, and seemed to only avoid the stigma that’s been attached to the Dallas 2013 defense because their special teams gave up outstanding field position on such a regular basis. Many observers have called the 2013 Washington specialists the worst in league history, and Dallas was one of many teams that benefited; using a punt return for a TD and a kick return inside the 10 to propel them to an early season win.

Cowboys KR Dwayne Harris breaks ankles on his way to a score. (Getty Images)

On offense, their best players according to Pro Football Focus’ cumulative game grades were LT Trent Williams (+34.4, 1st in league), RT Tyler Polumbus (+14.0, 18th) and TE Jordan Reed (+11.9, 7th). Those were the only three players to grade in double digits. Reed’s number is of great import, as he amassed such a high rating on only 389 snaps. If healthy, he might be a bigger threat than any of their wideouts.

On defense, the only player with a grade of confidence was OLB Brian Orakpo (+23.7, 4th). DT Barry Cofield (+2.7, 26th) was the only other defender that played over 50 snaps and received a grade in the “green”, designated as being an above average player.

Their worst losses of the season occurred in Week 14, in the middle of an eight-game losing stretch to end the season. At home, the gents from Raljon were thoroughly embarrassed by the Kansas City Chiefs 45-10, in a game that showed the laugh-inspiring site of an almost empty stadium at halftime. The fans, as has become customary, gave up on a team that appeared to have given up on the season. They also lost by double digits to Denver, Green Bay, New York and Dallas in the first meeting of the season between the teams.

2014 Offseason Headlines

New Washington Coach, Jay Gruden

After such a dismal season, and really, a tradition of lackluster performance, Dan Snyder fired yet another coach in Mike Shanahan and brought in Jay Gruden as their new head coach. Gruden, younger brother of Super Bowl winning coach John, was the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati. It’s an interesting hire, as Gruden generates conflicting opinions as to whether his Bengals offense was the problem or the players in the scheme. He is a former QB who has head coaching experience in the AFL and the UFL, where his offenses received positive reviews.

The team, its players and its front office, have gone out of their way to blame Mike and Kyle Shanahan for the team’s 2013 woes. Reports that RGIII shouldn’t have played, that he and the coaching staff didn’t get along, as well as word that Mike Shanahan would often overrule Jim Haslett (who was retained) on defensive play-calling, have circulated the Ashburn offices.

DeSean Jackson gets down with future Washington lineman Lil Terio (Getty Images)

The biggest news of the offseason for the franchise representing the Nation’s Capital was the signing of DeSean Jackson after his strange departure from division rival, Philadelphia. The move made perfect sense, considering that a deep threat with speed was a key ingredient that was missing from their offense and the team hasn’t shied away from controversial figures in the past. So much so, that I predicted the move immediately after his release from the Eagles. Jackson was surrounded by strange questions of character that seemed to be a smear campaign enacted to relieve Philly of the public outcry factor.

Trademark? What trademark?

Dan Snyder(Getty Images)

The other major storyline for the club has been a long-standing one that seems to have bubbled to the surface yet again. This time, it appears that the naming controversy isn’t going away. Regardless of where you stand on the team’s need to make a change or not, one cannot deny they have completely screwed up almost every aspect of the ordeal. From hiring fake Native Americans to say they aren’t offended by the name, to hiring PR people that have tweeted insensitive remarks about Native Americans’ in their past, to setting up a “facts” website that skirts around the edges of truth, it’s been a giant cluster. Through it all, owner Dan Snyder has remained belligerent to the call for politically correct action. Earlier in the offseason, the patent and trademark office rescinded their nickname trademarks.

In free agency, the team decided not to give a long-term deal to their key defensive player Brian Orakpo; instead slapping him with the franchise tag. As is their custom, they overpaid for a Cowboys free agent, stealing away Jason Hatcher as he enters his ninth year in the league. Hatcher had his best season in a contract year, which is normally a red flag, especially for someone that is 32 years old in a game that isn’t kind to players on that side of the hill. Hatcher finally played this past week against the Ravens and showed well. The question is can he hold up.

Without a first round pick, Washington was able to snag Stanford pass rusher Trent Murphy in the second round, after moving back in a draft-day trade with Dallas (who selected Demarcus Lawrence). These two players will be linked throughout their career as the two teams face-off twice a season. The team also selected University of Virginia OT Morgan Moses, as well as Nebraska G Spencer Long.

2014 Outlook

If healthy, the Washington skill position players are some of the best in the league. WR Pierre Garcon is a workhorse that led the NFL in receptions and Desean Jackson, while not exactly a one-trick pony, is great at forcing the over-the-top safety to key on him for his speed factor. Jordan Reed will be the x-factor at tight end, as he has the skillset to be in the Top 3 at the position. His concussion issues from last season received hardly any coverage, which normally indicates there’s a serious issue at hand and it will be interesting to see how his career progresses.

Heavy interest should be shown in whether or not Alfred Morris can continue the rushing he’s done over the first two years of his career, now that the Shanahan “one-cut” zone rushing scheme is gone. Most importantly, though, is whether or not Griffin can effectively distribute the ball to all of the weapons. Based on camp reports, that success is not a forgone conclusion.

The defense added aged skill in Hatcher, and lost leader London Fletcher who looked long in the tooth last season. Adding Trent Murphy could see Washington utilize a three pass rusher set more frequently, as they try to cover for a questionable secondary. Second-year CB David Amerson is rumored to have made a big leap in 2014 to improve their chances.

As is the case with all NFC East teams, Washington is hard to predict. It would surprise few to see them in last place for the sixth time in seven years, finish atop the standings or be in the middle of the pack. Such is the life of the mediocre in the age of NFL parity.

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