Four Big Questions for the 2014 Cowboys

DeMarco Murray

DeMarco Murray

We have seen the Cowboys 2014 schedule and it doesn’t look easy to try to improve on a 8-8 finish in 2013. Games against the tough NFC West teams and a stretch in December that can be summarized as “brutal”, await them. I look at four questions that will be critical for the Cowboys next season.

1. Commit to the Run Game:
Last season the Cowboys ranked 31st (second to last) in rushing attempts. They only had 94 rushing yards a game but it wasn’t because they couldn’t run effectively as they produced a respectable 4.5 yards per attempt. And Demarco Murray had an impressive 5.2 yard average while making the Pro Bowl with over 1,000 yards.

The problem last year was the Cowboys play callers would simply abandon the run during the course of the game. Just look back (if you can stand it) to the Packers debacle where Dallas had a nice 26-3 lead but foolishly went to the pass and ended up losing a game they should have won. I noticed that most of the Cowboy’s rush attempts occurred early in games during the season while late in the game, rush attempts were scarce.

In 2014 the Cowboys will put first round pick guard Zack Martin next to center Travis Frederick which should clear a nice path for Murray, but not if the play calling is allowed to get pass happy.

Garrett is bringing in a new play caller Scott Linehan from the Lions, where he certainly had a tendency to pass the ball more than run. Seems like they are putting gasoline on the fire. The Lions were at the top of the NFL in pass attempts while Linehan was in charge of play calling but at this early point Linehan is saying the right things about running the ball.

In regards to giving the ball to Murray Scott said, “That’s going to be our strength, being able to lean on that running game a little bit more than they have in the past.” It’s what we want to hear but to quote Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.” It will be interesting to see if Linehan sticks to the run while in battle, and if Romo is not allowed to change from a run to a pass on every play.

There is no reason the Cowboys shouldn’t effectively run the ball next season but the question is will they commit to it for the entire game in 2014?

2. A Healthy Henry Melton:
The Cowboys defensive short comings in 2013 have been well documented in their first year of implementing a 4-3 defense. A critical piece of making Marinelli’s defense a success is having high productivity from the important 3 technique defensive tackle spot. Having a quick, athletic DT that can provide pressure up the middle is what makes this defense go and to address that need, Jerry Jones signed veteran DT Henry Melton.

Melton was a pro bowl DT for the Bears in 2012 before suffering a major knee injury in 2013. So far, Melton has sat out of OTA workouts to continue recovery but he is expected to be on the field when camp opens in July.

If the Cowboys get the 2012 healthy version of Melton this season, then it will make the entire defense better. Getting pressure from the defensive line should make the often exploited secondary in 2013, look much improved. Melton’s play will be critical to the success of the defense.

There is little doubt that a healthy Melton makes their defense better but the question is will Melton be fully recovered from the knee injury in 2014?

3. A Healthy Tony Romo:
QB Tony Romo missed the last game with the Eagles in 2013 with a back injury, and has been recovering in the off season. All indications are he is on course to play but no one really knows how he will hold up after taking some hits in the season. Having a backup plan for Romo if he can’t play, will be important for Dallas in 2014.

Jerry Jones passed on Heisman Trophy winning Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel in the draft which displayed a big commitment to Romo and confidence that he will play.

Back up QB Kyle Orton has been a no show so far in OTA workouts and it appears that he plans to retire. It’s becoming clear that Dallas shouldn’t expect Orton to help them in 2014.

Jerry did sign veteran QB Brandon Weeden who would appear to be Romo’s backup at this point. In two seasons with the Browns, Weeden had a record of 5-15 as a starter and a dismal 71.8 passer rating. Perhaps a change in scenery could benefit Weeden but I’m not buying into it and think things could get ugly if Romo goes out with injury.

In 2014 Dallas is counting on Romo to be fully recovered and hold up for 16 games and if not, they are counting on Weeden to step in and get it done. I don’t feel good about either one of those things happening. Can Dallas win without Romo in 2014?

4. Get the Ball to Dez:
Dez Bryant enters the 2014 season as the main target for Dallas in the passing game. Bryant has all the tools to have a big season but it will be important for the Cowboys offense to not move completely away from Dez when he draws double coverage. Remember the scene on the sideline during the Lions game last year between Dez and Romo? It wasn’t pretty and the Cowboys lost yet another game they were in a good position to win.

Dez has the ability to use his size and strength to make catches in traffic and new play caller Scott Linehan made good use of WR Calvin Johnson while with the Lions. Johnson put tremendous pressure on opposing defenses and Bryant should be able to do the same but he can’t just disappear in games like he did too often last season.

There is no question Dez Bryant can be a tremendous weapon in the passing game which creates opportunities for other receivers. The question in 2014 is will they find ways to get him the ball even when defenses are trying to take him out of the game?

Final Take:
During preseason camp in July, it will be important to see how Melton looks. His play will be an important part of the defense returning to respectability. How Romo holds up to taking some hits will be important as I fear Jerry Jones doesn’t have a solid backup plan for a injured Romo.

We aren’t going to know how committed to running the ball new play caller Scott Linehan is until we see him perform under pressure in game situations. Based on his past and Jason Garrett, I look for Dallas to remain a pass happy offense.

Opposing defenses will focus on taking Dez Bryant out of the game but how the Cowboy offense keeps him involved will be very important to their success.