Here's our combined, two-part Q&A session with Breaking Burgundy's Ben Standig, as we get closer and closer to tonight's NFC East Showdown between the Dallas Cowboys and the team from Washington.
Breaking Burgundy: Before we get into the game, let’s talk focus, as in are the Cowboys fans – and perhaps the organization – now focusing on the offseason rather than the final five weeks o the 2015 campaign.
CowboysHQ: There's always a contingent of fans who feel it's blasphemy to look to the future when there's still a mathematical chance, but for the most part Cowboys fans lament a lost season and are ready to get into the offseason. Some don't pay much attention to the offseason, for them talking about the draft and free agent strategies really has nothing to do with how they fan. For others, the team building aspect is only a notch below the game results, so once it became clear 2015 just wasn't the year, the gears started turning.
It's been four-plus seasons since the team played a meaningless game, but they approach that now. Through it all, Dallas never appears to give up; the only games they weren't competitive in were against the two teams with the best record in the league. Every other game has been close. Jason Garrett makes sure they are competitive and it would shock a lot of people if the team didn't give maximum effort over the last few games. Dallas has a lot of free agents, 18 of them. People are playing for jobs.
CowboysHQ: What were your expectations for this team entering the season and what has or hasn't happened along those lines that has resulted in them sitting atop the division with only five weeks remaining.
Breaking Burgundy: The sitting atop the division part is easy: Your side lost Tony Romo, the Eagles lost their way under Chip Kelly and the Giants are once again pulling the schizophrenic act of looking great one week and horrid the next. As for the Redskins, I’ll need to double check the archives for the exact number, but I was thinking 6-7 wins. Generally speaking, I liked the direction first-year GM Scot McCloughan took by building up both lines via free agency (defensive linemen Terrance Knighton, Stephen Paea, Ricky Jean-Francois) and the draft (guard Brandon Scherff). For me sitting QB Robert Griffin III for Cousins was a no-brainer. My biggest issues involved the evolution of head coach Jay Gruden and overall team depth. Gruden impresses with his offensive schemes and he’s kept the locker room together despite some rough patches. Injuries especially on the OL and in the secondary have hurt at times. Another year of moves will help.
CowboysHQ: Washington has proven to be a Jekyl & Hyde team in 2015; outrageously competitive and prosperous at Fed Ex Field, while lacking on the road. Two parter, what's the team's take on this been and does it match your evaluation of what this team is?
Breaking Burgundy: I think the team wishes they had an answer. Most teams play better at home than the road, but obviously these splits are severe: 5-1 at FedEx, 0-5 anywhere else. The play of Kirk Cousins certainly fluctuated when away from home, especially early in the season.
Maybe we can simply look at the schedule and note the opponents. At home, Washington faced the Dolphins, Rams, Eagles, Bucs, Saints and Giants. On the road, Giants, Falcons, Jets, Patriots, Panthers. Yeah, that’s a big difference. At the time Atlanta was undefeated and Washington had the lead in the second half before losing in overtime. They also led the Jets before imploding in the third quarter. After Monday’s game, three of their last four are on the road and none against teams with winning records.
Breaking Burgundy: While you never know what might have been, does this feel like the most wasted of seasons considering a 3-1 record with Tony Romo and the current NFC East leaders are only 5-6?
CowboysHQ: Without a doubt. Nothing is ever guaranteed in this league, but the Cowboys had every right to feel confident they were prepared to challenge for a championship based off of 2014. The team seemingly addressed their most glaring need, pass rush, on a team that went 12-4 the prior season and won a playoff game. The team just seemed snakebit from the beginning though. Losing Scandrick right before the season, then Dez in Week One and Romo in Week Two basically changed everything this team planned on doing.
Watching the rest of the division flounder and not be able to take advantage of it will probably be remembered as big as a disappointment as going 13-3 in 2007 and losing in the first game of the playoffs.
Breaking Burgundy: Dez Bryant returned from a foot injury a few weeks backs, but it seems like his locker room outbursts have topped his big plays. How would you assess the Pro Bowl receiver’s game and health at this point in the season?
CowboysHQ: Dez isn't healthy, and he hasn't been since his return. Not only did he return on the quick end of the spectrum for his broken foot, but soon after he also injured his knee and ankle. It's basically been a throwaway season for the star receiver as he missed so much time over the summer do to the contract holdout, and then injured his hamstring and missed camp and the preseason. The season has basically been a complete wash. People have to consider the rationale of the it taking so long to reach a contract agreement of $14m a season that we at CowboysHQ predicted in June 2014.
The locker room incident was overblown and was primarily Dez's attempt at pulling off a "let's rally against outside forces". Dez is still the same Top 5 receiver he's been the last few years, but when every part of your legs are suffering, it's tough to perform at the expected level.
CHQ: Although I wanted Dallas to draft him as a potential long-term heir to Romo,in recent years I've compared Kirk Cousins to a newer version of Rex Grossman. What's your take on Cousins and his ability to be the long-term answer for Washington?
BB: I was one of the few pushing for Cousins as the starter and potential long-term answer going back to the end of last season. Sure there were too many interceptions, but when you look at the entire picture, it seemed clear he was the best hope. Cousins can make all the throws needed. He allowed Gruden to use his entire playbook. His ability to recognize defensive shifts before the snap has helped a young and limited offensive line avoid giving up many sacks. I like the Grossman comparison, but positively. Both have gunslingers mentality. Grossman never could clean up his penchant for horrid decisions. Cousins is improving; zero interceptions in last five home games. Factor in the late game heroics and no-drama vibe and I think the Redskins have their QB for at least next season if not several more – assuming they can keep him from leaving in free agency.
CHQ: Give us the names of three Washington players who might not be well-known but will make an impact on Monday night?
BB: Inside linebacker Will Compton recently moved into the starting lineup while Keenan Robinson battled a shoulder injury. Now in the starting lineup on the unofficial depth chart as of this week, Compton kept the job because of versatility and good tackling. Opponents ran all over the Redskins in part because of missed tackles. Compton recorded 35 over the last four games and Washington improved each week against the run.
You know the name DeAngelo Hall, but you don’t know him at safety. That’s where he’s officially listed as of this week after spending his entire career at corner. The move is partly because the Redskins have had issues at strong safety all season, but also this is where the 12-year veteran needs to play. His presence should help the overall pass coverage.
Lastly, keep an eye on wide receiver Jamison Crowder. The shifty rookie from Duke hasn’t looked green all season running routes from the slot. Crowder was actually their impact WR threat until DeSean Jackson returned from injury. Now that Jackson has a big play in three straight weeks, something tells me the Redskins look for Crowder about more as defensive coverage’s shift a bit more toward the veteran.
BB: What’s the biggest key on both sides of the ball for the Cowboys if they want to knock off the Redskins?
CHQ: Dallas' biggest boost might come from the fact that so many Cowboys fans are planning to attend the game. Kirk Cousins doesn't seem to do as well in front of hostile environments! Seriously though, the Cowboys will live and die with the offensive line and it becomes more important now that defenses don't need to prepare for an elite level QB like Romo. Fortunately, as surprising as the Washington defense has been, they don't present the same pass rush savvy as the Dolphins and Panthers front, so Dallas should have an opportunity to keep Cassel upright.
On defense, the Cowboys simply need to get home with their own rush. Washington is near the top of the league in Adjusted Sack Rate, and Dallas will need to overcome that in order to contain the offense. DeSean Jackson over-the-top of the defense will always be the biggest concern, and Jordan Reed is one of the best route-running TEs in the game. The matchup between Reed and rookie Byron Jones should be special, as he is the designated TE-stopper and with the expected return of Mo Claiborne, Jones should be able to return to that role.
BB: As for Tony Romo, the injuries are relentless and so is father time. Should the Cowboys seek a long-term replacement this offseason and if so, is that in the first round of the NFL Draft, in free agency, or with a trade for Johnny Manziel?
CHQ: I've been highly disappointed in the Cowboys reluctance to get someone in the pipeline behind Romo for the last several seasons and it bit them in the rear in 2015. This team is 0-9 in the past three seasons in games started by anyone but Romo; proving their idea of the veteran backup didn't work. If they had drafted a guy between 2012 and 2014, they would at the worst have a trade chip to help them get their young starter down the line, at best they'd have the heir apparent ready to roll.
You can rule out free agency. Free agent franchise QBs only occur when there is a serious health risk attached, like Drew Brees' shoulder or Peyton Manning's neck. Other than that, why would a team let a franchise guy go when there are only 15 franchise QBs in the league at any given time?
It looks like Dallas will end up with a Top 7 pick, so it will be interesting to see how the draft shapes up. The quarterbacks in this draft don't jump out the way Winston and Mariota did last year, or Luck and RGIII did in 2012, but there are still 3-4 guys who could become franchise cornerstones.
If there is any interest in Johnny Manziel, which I'm sure there is, it shouldn't impact their decision to target a high draft pick, even if JFF is brought to Dallas. Who in their right mind would hitch their wagon to him as a future solution? You can't trust that guy to do what he needs to do. If you bring him in and he works out, great... but it would be faulty logic to put all the eggs in his basket.