What Went Wrong in 2015? Reflecting on “Must-Go-Rights” for Dallas Cowboys

Every year, CowboysHQ lays out several things that "Must Go Right" for Dallas Cowboys success. Here are the results for 2015 (yes, we know it's not even over yet).

Well, that didn’t exactly go according to plan. At 4-9, the Cowboys 2015 season is effectively over. Sure, there’s a mathematical shot Dallas can still win the division or qualify for a wild card spot, but the chances are so remote it’s a waste of time even going through the scenarios that would have to unfold for it to happen. It’s time to say goodbye to the plans made for the season, and admit things are not what many hoped they would be.

Prior to the last two seasons, CowboysHQ penned an article listing a myriad of “toss-ups” that needed to fall just right for the Cowboys to have success. In 2014, Dallas accomplished many of these goals, as we documented here during the offseason.

This year? Not so much. Even without the season being officially done, many of these goals are so out of reach it might be mildly depressing for a Cowboys fan to read. Regardless, here’s a look at what we thought had to happen for 2015 to be a success. Better luck next year, fellas.

Must-Go-Right Need

The run game must produce over 1,920 yards and over a 4.5 ypc average. That’s 120 yards per game, and 26-27 carries per. In 2014, they averaged 4.6 ypc, and just under 32 carries a game. The Cowboys do not have to be as dedicated to the run as they were last year, but they do need to clear league average with room to spare. The league average has been steadily declining every year since 2011, but Dallas bucked that trend with a phenomenal 2014 that was only surpassed by a team with a running QB (Seattle). It doesn’t matter whether it’s 3 backs with 700 yards each or a bell cow, Dallas just needs to run the ball enough to keep defenses from triple-teaming Dez Bryant.

Verdict: Fail, Barely

This team is ooooh so close to achieving this goal, and man, looks couldn’t be any more deceiving. Thanks to yesterday’s gaudy rushing stats (20 carries, 171 yards for an 8.6 ypc average), Dallas is just below this average, getting 118.8 yards per game and a per carry mark of 4.4 an attempt. The amazing thing about this is, at the bye week, they completely changed their modus operandi. Dallas was running on a heavy ZBS diet, but once Darren McFadden took over as the lead back in Week 7, they incorporated much more PMG (Power/Man/Gap) principles. McFadden doesn’t have the skillset to run ZBS, but apparently the offensive line does. ZBS requires athleticism, PMG requires brute strength and this OL does both. In a down year, with an average back, they still are ranked 9th in the league in ypc. Imagine their per carry average if somewhere along the line they stopped running jumbo sets on 3rd and 1 or at the goal line…

Must-Go-Right Need

• Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and Devin Street have to combine for 100 catches on the season. Last year, the three combined for 76; but that was the running backs totaling 80 on their own. With Murray gone, it can’t be assumed the replacements will be a similar threat in the passing game. Possible yes, but not to be assumed. The three receivers not named Bryant have to continue to be a growing force, as it should be assumed that Jason Witten’s receptions continue on a downward trend from 110 in 2012, to 73 to just 64 last year.

Verdict: Fail For Now

Ouch. This one is even worse considering that all three were healthy throughout the year AND Dez Bryant missed considerable time with his broken foot and hasn’t looked right since returning. Of course, losing Dez (and a hobbled one) actually makes things even more difficult on the rest of the offense because a healthy version demands coverage and frees up so much for the rest of the offense. The group has combined for 86 catches to this point, so it is entirely reasonable that they reach 100 catches for the year; but with Dez only having 27 when he averages 91 over the past three seasons; perhaps this goal should’ve been more specific. One this is for sure, they definitely didn’t “continue to be a growing force” despite them reaching the milestone.

Must-Go-Right Need

Byron Jones has to be a better player than Brandon Carr. Dallas must get a better performance out of their secondary in 2015 and that starts with the cornerback rotation. The Cowboys will need an immediate impact from Jones for that to be a certainty, and if reports from the workouts are any indication he is ready to assume the role. If Carr is good enough, and this means Jones plays Free Safety, even better for Dallas if J.J. Wilcox can go home to in-the-box safety.

Verdict: Success

Well, the Junior Senator from Connecticut has clearly been Dallas’ best secondary player in 2015, much less better than Brandon Carr. Jones took on the role of swiss-army knife, playing everywhere Dallas needed him, but he appears to have settled in as a safety with TE responsibilities. Jones should only grow, and the impending return of Orlando Scandrick after his late-summer ACL tear should add to his ability with one less position to be concerned with. His aptitude for learning every position shined in 2015, and will allow him to be the defense’s quarterback once he settles into a single position.

Must-Go-Right Need

2015 Darrion Weems has to be better than 2014 Jermey Parnell. Parnell acquitted himself well enough to earn a fat contract with Jacksonville, but the run game suffered when Free was lost for the year. With third-rounder Chaz Green looking injury-iffy, Weems will be the swing tackle and must be ready to keep things moving smoothly should he enter ball games.

Verdict: Massive Fail

Weems was cut two days after the season opener after a horrible preseason. This despite Chaz Green opening the season on PUP. Welp.

Must-Go-Right Need

Someone must emerge with double-digit sacks, or three guys must get at least 7 each. Dallas’ leading sack artist last year had a paltry six. That’s embarrassing. Between Demarcus Lawrence, Greg Hardy, Randy Gregory, Jeremy Mincey and Tyrone Crawford, a pass rush must emerge.

Verdict: Fail

It doesn’t appear that this is going to happen, unless there is an unmitigated explosion over the last three meaningless games for the Cowboys. Demarcus Lawrence currently leads the team with 6 sacks, with Greg Hardy right behind him with 5.5. Outside of that? Nothing. Mincey is shut out. Gregory is shut out. Tyrone Crawford got an offseason extension that was a little too rich for some people’s taste and has been playing through a serious unreported injury, but he only has 4. For all the ballyhoo surrounding Rod Marinelli as the man’s man, leader of men; this team has not had a quality pass rush in either of his two seasons at the helm. Combined with this teams dismal turnover performance this season (proving regression to the mean is oh so real), it’s a little wonder he isn’t under much fire. Let it be noted, we here at CHQ aren’t above taking petty credit for something we had nothing to do with… but Demarcus Lawrence has 5 sacks in 5 games to get to his current total of 6. What happened before this great stretch? This article happened, that’s what.

Must-Go-Right Need

Sean Lee and Rolando McClain must combine for 25 or more starts. Seeing how McClain is already maxed out at 12, you know what this is really about. You can’t get two more talented linebackers than Lee and McClain. They rival any recent duo of LBs on talent alone. Too bad talent doesn’t automatically get you on the field above and beyond injury and knuckleheadedness. Yes, that is a made-up word. Anthony Hitchens showed a lot of promise, and Jasper Brinkley seems capable of at least being replacement-level competent. Even as the importance of linebackers wanes, having these two for the majority of games is imperative for defensive success.

Verdict: Success (?)

As it stands now, the tag-team will finish with 26 starts if they both make it through the rest of the season. Although, it’s a stretch of the imagination to consider what McClain did in his first four games off suspension as starter-worthy. Although, Lee only logged 15 snaps in Week 4 and missed the second half of Week 10, and the team’s defense fell off a cliff when those two things happened.

Must-Go-Right Need

It can be two different players, but Dallas must find someone to replace Dwayne Harris on Special Teams. Harris had 11 tackles on teams, leading Dallas and earning a +6.5 Pro Football Focus rating on coverage. On returns, Harris looked lost often times during the first half of the season, but found his usual stride down the stretch. The Cowboys didn’t have any return touchdowns, however, with the lone one being called back on a penalty. Someone in this mix of young receivers will need to at least match Harris’ 9.2 yard per punt and 24.7 yards per kickoff. Hidden yardage is a key ingredient for successful teams in the playoffs and Dallas will need this.

Verdict: Fail

This has been a disaster of sorts. Dallas kept Lucky Whitehead on the active roster through the beginning of the season, but chose to have Lance Dunbar return kicks and Cole Beasley to return the punts. Neither guy is very good at this job. Dunbar (24.3 yards per return), who was the sole “electric” offensive player left once Dez got hurt, was lost for the year on a kick return where he tore his ACL up. Beasley (5.8 yard avg on punts) effectively lost a game with a muffed punt turnover. Whitehead was finally inserted into both roles, and while his punt return average has been bad, he is having a great year on kick returns (33.7 on kicks, 4.2 on punts). Regardless, especially with the way Dwayne Harris is playing in New York, this replacement was an unmitigated regression.

Must-Go-Right Need

Tony Romo must play all 16 games. Last year, an injured Tony Romo led to four losses; the opening game against San Francisco, the Washington game where two transverse processes were broken, the following week against Arizona and the short-week Thanksgiving game to Philly where he couldn’t take his weekly pain injection. The Cowboys only lost four game during the regular season. Dallas’ scheduling will be daunting, despite how it measures up currently using last year’s records. The Cowboys will need a full complement of top notch quarterbacking to achieve greatness, which will be measured by a home playoff game in, at the least, the divisional round.

Verdict: Depressing, Season-Ending Fail

Four starts, two finishes. Le fin.

Must-Go-Right Need

One of the Cowboys redshirt freshman defensive linemen needs to become a rotational player. Both Ben Gardner (Stanford) and Chris Whaley (Texas) have plus characteristics, but neither was able to play last season as injuries kept both on the shelf. While Dallas has remarkably improved their depth at DE, DT is still a bit of a question mark. Gardner getting in the rotation at DE gives coordinator Rod Marinelli the ultimate freedom to rotate Mincey and Hardy inside at his convenience. Whaley could compete with Nick Hayden and oft-injured Terrell McClain for snaps and give that rotation youth and depth.

Verdict: Fail

Nope, not this one either. Gardner was released in the purge to the Initial 53 and Whaley tore his Achilles in training camp. Terrell McClain was the best 1-tech through camp, but of course he was injured and lost for the year again. Jack Crawford has been a surprise addition to the rotation with four sacks, but outside of that, there hasn’t been much to crow about with the DL rotation pieces.

 All in all, it’s easy to point to Romo’s injuries as the main reason Dallas’ 2015 season fell flat on its face. That’s the easy answer, and a big issue, but it’s far from the only thing plaguing this team. Now, Stephen Jones and Will McClay have to go about fixing it; with an eye on 2016 and the future all at the same time.

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