Can the Cowboys Learn from the Mistakes of 2008?

Jerry Jones today confirmed what most already knew—that Wade Phillips will be back next year and probably longer.

In three seasons under Phillips, the Cowboys have gone 13-3, 9-7, and 11-5, the latter of which produced a playoff win. Former Star-Telegram columnist Jim Reeves (now with ESPN) and many others believe that by bringing Wade back, the Cowboys have ended their Super Bowl-or-else expectations. I don’t agree, because I think next year is a Super Bowl (at least appearance)-or-bust season.

How that might happen depends on whether Phillips and the Cowboys can find a way to have the regular season success of the 2007 season and the late-season success of the 2009 season. Dallas also has to learn how to win more than one playoff game, which the franchise hasn’t done in 15 years.

For Phillips and the Cowboys to accomplish all of this, the team not only has to find areas to improve to get over the hump, but the team also has to avoid pitfalls that derailed the 2008 season. Here are some thoughts:

1. Don’t Forget About the Backup Quarterback

It’s easy to assume that the Cowboys are solid with the backup QB position, given that Dallas signed Jon Kitna last year. He didn’t play a down, meaning that nobody knows what Kitna might bring to the table. In 2007, Brad Johnson threw a total of 11 passes, and it wasn’t clear to the Cowboys—somehow—that he didn’t have anything left until Tony Romo went down with an injury. Johnson was 39 in 2008, while Kitna will be 38 next year. If Romo misses any time in 2010, the team can’t afford to give away losses if Kitna isn’t the answer. It’s possible that Stephen McGee could develop during the offseason, but that’s a big if.

2. Someone Needs to Complement Miles Austin

The emergence of Miles Austin certainly saved the Cowboys’ season, but when teams have been able to shut Austin down (Green Bay, Minnesota), the Cowboys don’t have a great second option other than Jason Witten.  Dallas has chosen not to go after receivers in the past several drafts, and some of the players available in those drafts have emerged as stars. This would include Syndey Rice (2nd round, 2007), DeSean Jackson (2nd round, 2008), and Steve Smith (2nd round, 2007). The Cowboys have a serviceable Patrick Crayton and a completely unreliable Roy Williams. The team’s second-round pick in 2008, tight end Martellus Bennett, showed little improvement in 2009.

What I wish will happen won’t happen, but here it goes: release Roy Williams, take a chance and draft a receiver late in the first round (or second round at the latest), hope for further development from Kevin Ogletree to provide a spark early in the season, and hope the rookie develops into a threat later in the season.

3. Continue to Worry About Offensive Line Depth…and the Offensive Line in General

The Cowboys were very lucky that Doug Free came through as a capable backup to Marc Columbo in the second half of the season, because during the preseason, it did not appear that the Cowboys had a viable backup tackle at all. Dallas fortunately did not suffer any injuries at the center or guard positions, but I don’t think the team can expect such great fortune every year. And I don’t think anyone wants to see what would happen if Cory Procter got back on field in 2010 to the extent that he did in 2008.

The Cowboys should get to see what Robert Brewster can do when he returns from injury in 2010, but I’m not sure that he provides any sort of answer at guard. Duke Preston may be an option, but he spent the entire season on the inactive list. Even with these players, though, the team can hardly afford injuries to Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis, or Kyle Kosier.

Even if the offensive line stays healthy, there’s still this matter of wondering whether the line is as talented as we’ve been led to believe. Against the Eagles, the line looked dominant in both pass protection and the running game. But against the Vikings and in some of the previous games, the line tended to look old and slow, failing to give Romo time or failing to give Dallas backs a chance on short yardage. This team isn’t going anywhere if the Minnesota game is any kind of reflection of the line’s true ability.

4. “This is What We Do. You Can’t Stop Us.”

Something stood out to me in watching the Jets perform against the Chargers. On several occasions near the end of the game, it appeared obvious to me that the Jets were going to run the ball right up the gut. What happened was that the Jets ran the ball right up the gut. This was against the same San Diego defense that stuffed Marion Barber on the goalline on three straight plays in a big game in Dallas in December. Unlike the Cowboys, the Jets kept moving the ball—so well, in fact, that Shonn Greene burst right through an arm tackle for a touchdown that gave the Jets what turned out to be an insurmountable lead.

On several occasions in 2009, I thought the Cowboys needed to pound the ball right up the gut. This was true when the Cowboys had a lead in the third quarter against the Giants in week 2, but Tony Romo instead threw a terrible deep pass that the Giants picked off. This was also true in the playoff loss to the Vikings, when Dallas ran the ball three straight times for 34 yards, only to call a play with Marion Barber running outside and right into the arms of Ray Edwards. In fact, I think this was true when the Cowboys needed to kill the clock against the Eagles when Dallas led 24-0 in the season finale. Instead, Tony Romo was throwing the ball, taking the risk that he could be injured.

I won’t pretend to know the nuances of Jason Garrett’s offense, but at some point, I think that the team’s offense needs to reach a point where the playcalling doesn’t seem to mask some sort of weakness. Of course, if there are truly that many weaknesses, this entire post is moot.

5. Cure All of the Special Teams Woes

Joe DeCamillis’ coverage units were so much better than Bruce Read’s that it’s hard to criticize the Cowboys’ special teams at all. In other words, put the field goal kicking situation in a separate category and be happy with the rest.

Bad field goal kicking has plagued this team for much of the decade. In 2005 and 2006, missed field goals cost the Cowboys games. The Cowboys had solid kicking in 2007 and 2008, but the coverage units broke down. In fact, poor punt coverage hurt the Cowboys’ chances against the Giants in the 2007 playoffs. Punting has been great under Mat McBriar, but when he was injured in 2008, the team lost a big weapon and also lost the field position battle in several games. McBriar was back to his old form in 2009, but the field goal woes returned. Moreover, the Cowboys could not manage any sort of effective return game.

I don’t know what the answer to all of this is, but the play of the special teams could easily be the difference between an 11-5 season and a 13-3 season. That’s the difference between playing in another wildcard game and getting a bye. It might also be the difference between home field advantage and yet another season of trying to win on the road.

Incidentally, it’s hard not to notice the quality of kickers who have missed huge kicks during the playoffs—Nate Kaeding, Neil Rackers, Shayne Graham, Stephen Gostowski. Moreover, none of the four kickers left in the playoffs has missed a field goal during the postseason. This includes 41-year-old Matt Stover, who is a Dallas native.

6. Hope That Terence Newman Has Some Time Left in Him, or That Orlando Scandrick Improves Quickly

Terence Newman has been the team’s best corner for most of this decade, but that was not true in 2009. Mike Jenkins looks like he may be better than Newman ever was, and it would seem that the team should have the benefit of two shutdown corners. However, Newman made some mistakes in 2009 that we should have expected from the youngsters in the secondary. Newman will be in his eighth year next year, but he will also be 32.

Orlando Scandrick did not emerge the way some (including me) expected. He had some trouble with slot receivers running right in front of him, especially on third downs. When Newman was injured briefly against the Eagles late in the season, Alan Ball went in, and I’m not sure that Ball wasn’t better at corner than Scandrick.

7. Hope for More Forward Progress from the Front Seven

There have been some calls for the Cowboys to make some changes in the front seven. I’ve seen criticism of the likes of Bradie James and Igor Olshansky, and I’ve seen more calls to bring in a big nose tackle to allow the team to move Jay Ratliff to defensive end. My reaction is don’t do anything other than watch this unit get better. Anthony Spencer’s play toward the end of the year was huge in the team’s late push, and the defense as a whole hasn’t been so dominant in many years. Dallas will get a chance to see what Brandon Williams might offer, and Jason Williams and Victor Butler are still developing.

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Here’s something for me to remember about my own superstitions when it comes to this blog.

One day before the Cowboys faced the Chargers, I predicted that Nick Folk would make two field goals and not miss any. He missed a big field goal, and Dallas lost by three.

One week later, I predicted that Folk would miss three field goals and three extra points in a Dallas loss. He missed one field goal, but the Cowboys still won.

I seem to have forgotten this trend last week when I predicted that Shaun Suisham would make the game-winner against the Vikings. He missed two field goals, which were costly in the Dallas loss.

So I apparently jinxed the team against Minnesota and apologize profusely. Just a reminder to myself: don’t express confidence in a kicker of you want the team to win.