Cowboys 2014 "Must Haves" Seemed To Work Out

"The Cowboys can't be accused of being on the lucky side of things these past few years. They'll need a little help to escape the .500 malaise." That was the article teaser last July. A year later, we take a look at how many things actually went right on the way to 12-4.

Last offseason, many people who cover the Cowboys or the NFL in general predicted doom and gloom for the league’s flagship franchise. Of course those predictions went out the window, as things often do in the year-to-year world of the NFL. The Cowboys not only failed to flounder, but found a way to flourish and compile a league-best 12-4 record. Only tiebreaking procedures kept them from having home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Dallas had finished three consecutive seasons with a loss in a game where a win would’ve sewn up a lackluster NFC East. The 2013 Dallas defense was one of the worst in team history, and the run game had finished a second consecutive underwhelming campaign. Tony Romo was spending a second consecutive offseason recovering from back surgery.That already-bad defense lost line leaders Demarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher to free agency and didn’t add any player with star expectations. They lost their only remaining defensive star on the first day of OTAs and would lose their top defensive draft pick for more than half a season in training camp.

Doom and gloom.

Of course, selling doom and gloom is often more profitable than selling hope. Hope is boring. The reality of the NFL is it normally takes a dysfunctional franchise to end up with a team that can’t manage five or more wins. Our own Mike Fisher often says “it’s an 8-8 league”, and this seems to be the reality of the situation. There are many teams that are mediocre, and based on health and luck will stray either three games up or three games backwards. There are very few really bad teams, and very few really good ones.

Still, writers do their best to try and assess the quality of teams in vacuums from those factors out of their control. A year ago, I penned a piece entitled, “America’s Team: Cowboys Must-Go-Right Needs”, to look at the myriad of things that would have to go swimmingly in order for the Cowboys to do better than my 7-9 final record prediction. In anticipation for this year’s version, here’s a review of the 2014 article and whether or not those things happened.

Must-Go-Right Need
Can Tony Romo and his back survive full-contact from people that want to do him harm? – A dislocated shoulder, a punctured lung and now a multi-year back situation with two surgeries. Good thing they have Kyle Orton, err, Brandon Weeden. Le Sigh.

OUTCOME? NEGATIVE


Romo wasn’t ready to start the season and it cost them the opening game against a San Fran team revealed to be excessively flawed in Coach Harbaugh’s Exodus Tour. Romo would later break his back and miss a game (think about that for a second) that would result in losses in both contests. He would need a weekly Toradol shot to play after that. Those were three of the four games Dallas lost on the season. The fourth loss? Thanksgiving against Philly when he wasn’t able to get an injection because it was too close to the last one (four days instead of seven). He still finished third in MVP voting, so suffice to say, a 16-game healthy Romo could have been epic.

Must-Go-Right Need
Travis Frederick has to continue developing and not regress. It's not a forgone conclusion that a solid rookie season means more of the same out of a guy. The assumption is that he'll have more games like he did against St. Louis than he did against Kansas City. Frederick was a mauler in the run game but needs improvement in pass pro.

OUTCOME? AFFIRMATIVE


Frederick’s run blocking continued to be that of the maul variety, and he improved his pass blocking skills as well. In 2013, he was credited with allowing 4 sacks and 24 total quarterback pressures. In 2014, only 1 sack and 16 total pressures. His worst game was with Brandon Weeden at quarterback.

Must-Go-Right Need
Doug Free to play like 2013 first half Doug Free and not 2013 second half Doug Free. It's a contract year for the right tackle who has had one of the most up and down careers of recent memory. Then Free had stinkers in four of his next six games, giving up 24 QB pressures over that stretch according to Pro Football Focus.

OUTCOME? AFFIRMATIVE


Free only played 11 games, compared to all 16 the previous season. He avoided the major “catastrophe games” that he experienced in 2013, so that earns this need a successful rating.

Must-Go-Right Need
Zack Martin has to have a rookie season similar to what Travis Frederick had. Nuff said.

OUTCOME? AFFIRMATIVE


Zack Martin laughs at the comparison, his rookie season was much better than Frederick’s… and that’s saying something. All-Pro? Maybe in name only, but definitely a Pro Bowler with a limitless ceiling at the position.

Must-Go-Right Need
Jason Witten has to continue to let the call go to voicemail when Father Time tries to get him on the line. Witten has been remarkably consistent, bouncing back every time it appears he's slowing down. A consistent drop in performance puts a lot of guys in a position they've never been in before.

OUTCOME? AFFIRMATIVE


He ain’t done yet. Witten’s receiving numbers didn’t drop significantly and he was a force in the two playoff games, catching 11 of 14 targets for 134 yards. He also had the least amount of drops (4) since 2011. While not totally about Witten, Dallas’ run average around the end’s edge jumped from 4.2 ypc in 2013 to 5.7 ypc in 2014.

Must-Go-Right Need
Henry Melton's return from ACL surgery. Not only does Melton have to actually return healthy, which is strangely assumed by so many, he also has a lot to live up to based on Jason Hatcher's career year performance of 2013.

OUTCOME? NEGATIVE


Melton wasn’t all the way right, and seemed to have an arc to his season. Started slow, played really well for a stretch and then disappeared. He did finish second on the team with 5 sacks, and third on the team with 30 total pressures. His season ended with a bone bruise on his knee Week 17. The only comparison to Jason Hatcher’s 2013 though is that he isn’t with the team the following year.

Must-Go-Right Need
Demarcus Lawrence has to play at a level above a normal rookie DE. Considering how most of the best pass rushers of this generation fared in their first years, that is a tall order indeed. However, the Cowboys need someone on the defense to make the offense gameplan for. That means that Lawrence's sack total might not be high, but his impact must be.

OUTCOME? NEGATIVE


Somehow, Dallas had a fine season without a legit pass rush. Lawrence’s injury and loss of camp time rendered him unimpactful even after he returned for the second half of the season. He finally made a mark in the playoffs, though, leading to a lot of 2015 hope.

Must-Go-Right Need
Sean Lee has to avoid the injury bug. Dammit! Dallas has to find a suitable replacement at middle linebacker. The replacement, whether it be Holloman, Durant, Hitchens or McClain, not only has to be able to cover the deep middle, but has to be able to command the front seven adequately. Although the latter role might be fulfilled by…

OUTCOME? AFFIRMATIVE


Through all of the BS last off-season and through this off-season, Rolando McClain was special when he was on the field during 2014.

Must-Go-Right Need
Bruce Carter has to act like he wants to be here. Whether it was because he was unsure what to do in a new system, a personal life situation or something we haven't thought of, Bruce Carter was benched for Ernie Sims because of a lack of effort. Ernie freaking Sims… #Stahpit. We need more, Bruce.

OUTCOME? NEGATIVE


Welp.

Must-Go-Right Need
There has to be a second professional-level safety emerge from the muck that is currently J.J. Wilcox, Matt Johnson, Jakar Hamilton, Jeff Heath and Ahmad Dixon. One of these guys has to be able to play at a respectable level; preferably as the single-high so Barry Church can remain the in-the-box option.

OUTCOME? AFFIRMATIVE


Wilcox did emerge as a professional-level safety. The issue is that level is of a box safety and Dallas still has him as the single high. Dallas continues to undervalue the position and will trot out the Church/Wilcox combination again in 2015 unless Byron Jones shows his position flex.

Must-Go-Right Need
Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne can't be out here selling wolf tickets about they are better in press coverage. They better prove it quick and in a hurry. Marinelli has said he will utilize the technique more to play to their strengths, but at this point it's still a 50/50 proposition that the play will improve. Hopefully a more consistent pass rush will help.

OUTCOME? NEGATIVE


Claiborne missed the majority of the season and Carr missed the majority of tackle attempts. We kid, but neither made much of a positive impact on the season, at least until Carr’s plus playoff performances.

Must-Go-Right Need
The injury bug has to say it's done f'ing around with at least 60 percent of the following: Lance Dunbar, Ryan Williams, Tyrone Crawford, Anthony Spencer, Ben Bass. Sean Lee was on this list originally and it was supposed to be 50%; but what do we do when we get roadblocked? We adjust! I need three of these guys.

OUTCOME? AFFIRMATIVE


Thankfully, that “three of these guys” caveat helped out here. Crawford showed his worth and Dunbar and Spencer made it through the season. Spencer came on towards the end of the year and Dunbar was never featured the way it was anticipated, but the health was there.

Must-Go-Right Need
I didn't even include things like Dez Bryant continuing to grow, or Tyron Smith being a Top 3 tackle, or Gavin Escobar being sent out on routes.

OUTCOME? AFFIRMATIVE


Most observers now admit Bryant has wrestled the title of league’s best receiver from Megatron, so that’s a win. Tyron Smith is being spoken of in Top 3 OT status, another win. Escobar still can’t get a lot of targets, but he’s the man for the score, catching 4 touchdowns on just 9 receptions… which is more than enough of a contribution.

While not all of the "must" go-right needs came to fruition, enough of them did so that when combined with the other unexpected changes Dallas made, a playoff run materialized. Later, we'll take a look at the list of "must-go-right" needs for Dallas to remain in the playoffs and establish themselves as a premiere team capable of maintaining excellence and continually competing for championships.


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