5 Things Dallas Cowboys Must Do to Make the Playoffs in 2014
If there’s one thing that’s clear for the Dallas Cowboys heading into 2014, it’s that there’s more than one “right” way to do things and make the playoffs. Just last year, we saw a run-heavy team in the Seahawks take down a pass-oriented team in the Broncos in the Super Bowl. While passing often is probably a better long-term strategy than running for most teams, it’s not like there’s one singular path to success.
However, there are certain non-negotiables for this Cowboys team if they want to make their way into the postseason in 2014. We know that they have little shot if quarterback Tony Romo gets injured, for example. Regardless of the exact way they go about finding success, here are the top five things that absolutely must happen for Dallas to manage its way into the postseason.
1. Let QB Tony Romo Air It out
After the first month of the 2013 season, I wrote an article called “Tony Romo Isn’t Throwing Enough Interceptions.” I was obviously being a bit facetious with the title, but the idea was that the Cowboys are at their best when Romo finds a balance between aggressive and safe play.
In the past, Romo has been at his best when he’s thrown a moderate number of interceptions because those picks are a representation of a certain style of play. Obviously you don’t want your quarterback throwing too many interceptions, but too few can be a sign that he isn’t taking enough chances.
The Cowboys need Romo to find the happy medium between play that’s so aggressive that it results in 15-plus interceptions on the year, and a conservative approach that minimizes turnovers but doesn’t lead to optimal offensive efficiency.
Plus, let’s just face the fact that the Cowboys are average at best. They need to head into the 2014 with a high-variance approach—one that takes on a lot of risk (and hopefully maximizes upside) such that Dallas could finish 4-12 but also could end the year atop the NFC East. That range of outcomes is certainly preferable to another year of mediocrity.
2. Pressure the Quarterback Without Blitzing
Ideally, defenses want to not blitz the quarterback. Blitzing is a high-variance defensive approach that can maximize the probability of a takeaway but also that of a big play for the offense.
Blitzing can be beneficial, but ideally, you’d like your front four to get enough pressure that you don’t even need to blitz. When that happens, you get the benefits of quarterback pressure without the extra risk of leaving only five or six defenders in coverage.
The Cowboys are in a spot in which they could very well have some trouble reaching the quarterback this year. They signed free-agent defensive tackle Henry Melton, which was huge, but they lost veteran defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and All-World defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Whether or not Ware was on the way down doesn’t change the fact that the Cowboys are going to have an unimpressive (on paper) starting defensive line.
Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth ranked the Cowboys’ front seven at dead last in the NFL. If they don’t exceed expectations as a group, Dallas will likely need to blitz a lot to get pressure, which will eventually come back to bite it.
3. Stop Being so Predictable
I’ve written a lot about how predictable the Cowboys have been since Jason Garrett came to Dallas. Whether it’s formation-based predictability, predictability according to play type, personnel-based predictability or predictability based on the down-and-distance, there’s been a lot of it.
That needs to change in 2014.
The old-school crowd—of which Garrett and basically all of the Cowboys coaches are a part—will come out of the woodwork and argue that the players “just need to execute.” That’s true; the players do need to execute. But the job of the play-caller is to maximize the probability of execution.
Assume that the Cowboys’ play-caller—Scott Linehan this year—has a choice between two plays. One has a 90 percent chance of success and the other a 60 percent. The offense “should” execute both plays, but one is obviously the superior call. If the Cowboys continue to view play-calling in a deterministic instead of probabilistic manner, they won’t win in 2014.
4. Find Creative Ways to Get WR Dez Bryant the Ball
Over the past two seasons, wide receiver Dez Bryant has nine 100-yard games, including six with at least 140 yards. That’s awesome, but he’s also had eight games with either less than 23 yards receiving or three or fewer catches.
We could chalk that up to Bryant not being a consistent player, but it seems unlikely that a receiver as talented as Bryant just disappears due to factors under his control. More probable is that defenses clamp down on Bryant and the Cowboys move away from him because he’s doubled.
It’s difficult for X and Z receivers to beat Cover 2 Man-Under, which is why you see tight end Jason Witten excel against the G-Men, but the Cowboys still need to find a way to get Bryant the ball when defenses double him; they don’t really have many other options.
There are a few ways to beat the defense, including running more bunch formations to create natural screens for Bryant, as well as running him horizontally on crossing routes as to neutralize the deep safety.
5. Avoid Excessive Injuries, Particularly to Romo and Bryant
The first four “non-negotiables” for Dallas are more or less in their control. For the most part, injuries are not.
Nonetheless, if the Cowboys are going to have any shot of making the postseason, we can’t see a repeat of 2012. Romo and Bryant are the obvious players who need to remain healthy for Dallas to win; they’re simply irreplaceable. Left tackle Tyron Smith is high on that list, too, but the Cowboys could do certain things—like increase the frequency of their short passing game—to compensate for his loss.
If Dallas makes it out of the 2014 season without significant injuries to Romo or Bryant and without losing players in bulk, it’ll at least have a shot at surprising some people.