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June 26, 2017

10 reasons the Cowboys will be a dumpster fire this season

This week, all week long, we're taking a brutal look at each of the teams in the NFC East, in detail. The first target will be the reigning division champion one-and-done Dallas Cowboys. To note, we will not be talking about the positives of any of the Eagles' NFC East rivals, because, well, that's no fun. This will be 100 percent vitriolic. And yes, we'll torch the Eagles as well.

But before we get started on the Cowboys, I'd like to take a second to note that one of the teams in the NFC East will win the division. Last year, of course, that was the Cowboys. In the two weeks that passed between the Cowboys' final regular season game and the start of their playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, Cowboys fans endlessly tweeted out last year's Cowboys dumpster fire article, as if to say, "You stupid idiot."

Former Cowboys head coach Dave Campo (who we'll point out had a 15-33 career record) even got in on the act! Freaking Dave Campo!

Anyway, two things here:

  1. Thank you all for the tens of thousands of extra page views. They were much appreciated.
  2. I've never seen a fan base so assured that their team was winning a Super Bowl than Cowboys fans a year ago leading up to their first playoff game. And then, they proved once again what has been true over the last 20-plus years...

1) The Cowboys are choke artists

Soak it in. (The NFL makes you go to YouTube to watch their videos, so just click it twice.)

What was great about that kick was that it looked for a split second that it was going to miss wide left. Then it straightened itself out, and the Cowboys were little more than a fart in the wind in the 2016 playoffs. 

The Packers were missing their best wide receiver, two of their top three corners, the starting running back, and their starting center. The Cowboys, meanwhile, had their full starting lineup and couldn't take care of business, at home. My conclusion here: Chooooooooke! It's almost as if Tony Romo never left the lineup.

But, but...

Yes, I know, five rings. They were over two decades ago, and you grew up in Connecticut.

Anyway, if you enjoy schadenfreude, expand Mason Crosby's game-winning field goal video to full screen, and just rewind it over and over, picking out different people in the crowd individually. Watch as they think the field goal is going to miss, only to realize a moment later that the Cowboys took that L.

Seriously, go do it. Take as much time as you need. We'll wait...

Done? That was fun, huh? OK good, moving on...

2) The Cowboys still don't have a pass rush

Last year, we noted that the Cowboys did not have a single player on their defense with at least 10 career sacks and that their career sack leader was cornerback Orlando Scandrick (lol).

This year, we would like to formally congratulate Tyrone Crawford, who had 4.5 sacks in 2016, boosting his career total to 12.5! Congratulations, Tyrone. You are the new Cowboys active sack leader.

Of course, the Cowboys would love to take a mulligan on the awful five-year, $45 million contract they signed Crawford to in 2015, but I digress.

The one player on the Cowboys' defensive line who showed some promise last year was DE David Irving. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, as is a right of passage for Cowboys front seven defenders, Irving is facing a four-game suspension to start the season.

I, for one, am shocked that an organization such as the Dallas Cowboys, known for strict adherence to employing only the finest upstanding citizens our great country has to offer, could have this many scalawags run afoul of the rules. Surely, this is not the norm.

3) The Cowboys are replacing most of their secondary

The Cowboys overhauled their secondary this offseason, with four key contributors leaving in free agency. They were corners Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, along with safeties J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church.

Player 2016 snaps 
 CB Brandon Carr1077 
 S Barry Church723 
 S J.J. Wilcox574 
 CB Morris Claiborne432 

There certainly aren't any stars above, but Church and Carr were solid starters, while Wilcox and Claiborne both had good seasons last year after rocky starts their careers. 

The starting secondary now looks something like this:

• CB: Nolan Carroll (lol)
• S: Byron Jones
• S: Jeff Heath
• CB: Anthony Brown
• Slot CB: Orlando Scandrick

Carroll stunk last season with the Eagles, particularly in the second half of the season. He was so bad that the Eagles showed no interest whatsoever in bringing him back, despite having arguably the shakiest corner personnel in the league. The notion that the Cowboys signed him to a three-year deal worth $10 million still confounds me. 

That said, I will say that I admire Carroll's commitment to fitting in with the culture of his new team by being arrested for DWI less than three months after he signed in Dallas.

Otherwise, 2016 rookie Anthony Brown improved as the season progressed a year ago, and oft-injured Orlando Scandrick has always been a decent player when healthy (which isn't often), but the only player I would feel good about heading into this season in my starting lineup is Byron Jones.

Now, the Cowboys did draft a bunch of defensive backs, many of whom I liked quite a bit as prospects. But, prepare for high-level analysis here... They're rookies. 

Remember when Morris Claiborne was the Cowboys' highest rated corner prospect since Deion Sanders? As noted above, he's already gone. Let's just say that you don't want to have to rely on rookie defensive backs when you think you have a championship caliber roster.

4) Ezekiel Elliott seems like a jackass, and he may eventually pay for it

Elliott has been under investigation by the NFL for 11 months now, stemming from an incident, or rather a pattern of alleged abuse over the span of several days in July of 2016, in which Elliott's girlfriend filed a report with police.

In a story for Sports Illustrated from back in December of last year, Tim Rohan gave a thorough explanation of the incident itself, and the process the NFL will undertake to come to a resolution. It's very well done.

While under investigation, Elliott pulled down a woman's shirt during a St. Patrick's Day party, exposing her breast on camera. That prompted women's rights groups to speak out against Elliott, like the example below, transcribed by The Washington Post.

“What happened in that video was sexual assault, period, full stop,” Shaunna Thomas, executive director of women’s-rights group Ultraviolet, told TMZ Sports. “The evidence for it is, he pulled down her shirt, exposed her breasts, and she slapped him away. She clearly didn’t want him to be doing it, she didn’t give him permission to do that.

“Ezekiel Elliott needs to be suspended. … Roger Goodell is in a position — yet again — to demonstrate that they do take seriously.”

If I were a betting man, I would guess that Elliott won't face any real discipline from the league. After all, vile human being Greg Hardy did some pretty horrific things and he was suspended for just four games. 

We'll see what happens with Elliott, but this investigation has lingered for a year. The NFL has a reason for not wrapping this thing up already, and Elliott doesn't exactly seem to be an Eagle Scout.

5) Elliott's body takes (and dishes out) a lot of hits

Elliott's immaturity aside, the guy is a beast as a runner. There's no disputing that. He has speed, and he's very physical, both as a runner and in pass protection. He looks to dish out punishment when finishing runs, he fights for extra yardage, and he's willing to expose his body (thus putting it at risk) by hurdling defenders.

While those are all traits that sound great in a running back, they can also be detrimental for a player as important to the Cowboys' success as Elliott is. 

In 2016, Elliott's body absorbed a lot of hits, both from opposing defenders and by his own doing when he dished them out. He led the NFL in carries, with 322. No other back topped 300. Including the playoffs, Elliott had 377 total touches (carries + receptions).

Elliott's combination of workload and running style may or may not be sustainable. Who knows? Maybe he's just indestructible. Time will tell. But when your best player's body takes the kind of hammering that Elliott's may need to for the Cowboys to succeed, that's not ideal. 

6) The Cowboys' OL suddenly has some potentially glaring holes

The Cowboys lost two of their offensive linemen this offseason in Doug Free and Ronald Leary. Free was far from a stud RT, but the NFL let him get away with holding often enough for him to be considered a solid starter. He retired. Leary, meanwhile, wasn't a stud either, but John Elway liked him enough to sign him to a four-year, $36 million deal this past offseason.

The Cowboys' plan to replace each player seems to be La'el Collins at RT, and either Chaz Green or Jonathan Cooper at LG.

Collins has some highlight reel blocks, but don't let that fool you. He has simply not been good on the whole when he has played early in his career. His hype far outpaces his actual play. And that was at guard. Now the Cowboys are moving him out on an island at RT? Good luck with that in a division where Ryan Kerrigan, Brandon Graham, and Jason Pierre-Paul primarily rush from his side.

As for LG, the front-runner seems to be Green. While Green is thought to be an intelligent player with versatility, the reality is that he has not played guard. Moving a player from tackle to guard doesn't work the same way in the pros as it does in Madden. There will absolutely be a learning curve.

7) The Cowboys' good offensive linemen have stayed almost impossibly healthy

Over the last two seasons, center Travis Frederick, LG Zack Martin, and former RT Doug Free played every snap. Tyron Smith played every snap in 2015 and missed 224 snaps in 2016.

 PlayerSnaps played - 2015 Snaps played - 2016 
 Travis Frederick1051 of 10511126 of 1126 
 Zack Martin1051 of 1051 1126 of 1126
 Doug Free1051 of 1051 1126 of 1126
 Tyron Smith1051 of 1051  902 of 1126

It is extraordinarily rare in the NFL to have that kind of injury luck along your offensive line, and it's unsustainable over a long period of time.

If the Cowboys lose one of their "Big 3" at some point, which is not only possible, but likely, they could potentially have three suboptimal starters along their OL.

8) Jason Witten continues to decline

As we noted last year, Witten's numbers are very clearly in decline. That trend continued in 2016:

Year Rec Yards YPC TD 
 2012110 1039 9.4 
 201373 851 11.7 
 201464 703 11.0 
 201577 713 9.3 
 201669 673 9.8 

In 2015, Witten had 36 first downs on 77 receptions. In other words, only 46.8 percent of his catches went for first downs, the lowest total of his career. In 2016, even with better quarterback play, only 47.8 percent of catches resulted in first downs. He's also not the blocker he once was.

Witten's biggest contribution to the team these days seems to be that of a hardworking, goody-two-shoes guy the coaching staff can point to and say, "Why can't you be more like Jason Witten?" In that sense, he's something of the Lloyd Braun of the NFL:

9) Dak Prescott had EVERYTHING going for him his rookie season

Earlier this month, our Matt Mullin put together a strong statistical argument that second-year Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (or any second-year quarterback, for that matter) won't experience a "sophomore slump," on the basis that they don't really exist.

He's right. There's really no reason to believe that Wentz, or in the case of the Cowboys, Dak Prescott, will have deteriorating skills in their second year. Both quarterbacks are likely to only get better at their craft.

However, if there were ever a quarterback who is set to not match his rookie season numbers, Prescott could be that guy on the basis that he had EVERYTHING going for him his rookie season.

• Rushing champion at RB: Check
• Great offensive line: Check
• Premium talent at wide receiver: Check
• Great complementary pieces in the passing attack, especially in the slot: Check

What more could you possibly ask for in a supporting cast if you were Dak Prescott in your rookie season? In year two, as we've pointed out above:

• The combination of the running back's running style and his extreme usage could be of major concern.
• The offensive line now has two potential holes and has to continue to stay almost impossibly healthy.
• The tight end could die of old age.
• The defense could take a step back.

If any of the above occurs, Prescott is going to have shoulder more of the burden to win games. Maybe he can. We'll see. But unquestionably, he had extreme advantages his rookie season.

10) There hasn't been an NFC East repeat champion since 2004

The last time a team repeated as NFC East division winners was when the Eagles did it in 2004. In each of the last 12 seasons, we've seen the previous year's division champion dethroned.

 YearNFC East Champion 
 2017Probably not the Cowboys 

That may feel a little bit like trivia, and not necessarily an indicator of what will happen going forward. However, the reason why the division has been so volatile over the last decade-plus is that none of the teams are good up and down their rosters. 

The NFC East as a whole is absurdly overrated. Many observers feel that it's the best division in football. No freaking way. I find that incredibly hard to buy when literally every division in the NFL has had a team win a playoff game more recently than the NFC East. Additionally, over the last five years, the NFC East is a combined 1-6 in the playoffs. That lone win was the game where the officials made an extremely obvious pass interference call on the Cowboys that would have all but sealed the game for the Lions, then inexplicably overturned it. 

You'll see an occasional departure from recent NFC East mediocrity like the Cowboys' 13-3 team of a year ago that earned a 1 seed, or those weird Giants teams that squeaked into the playoffs and then went on lucky improbable Super Bowl runs, but never year-over-year sustained success.

And that's no different this year. The Cowboys really aren't that good. They have an excellent offense but are very flawed throughout the rest of their roster. 

Additionally, as the NFC East champs a year ago, the Cowboys have to face the NFC South and NFC North champs. Those two teams (the Falcons and Packers) also happened to play in the NFC Championship Game last year. Here's who the NFC East teams have to face in those two floating games:

CowboysGiants Redskins Eagles 
 Falcons, Packers  Lions, Buccaneers Vikings, Saints  Bears, Panthers 

There's a very good chance that one of the other not-that-good teams in the NFC East will dethrone the Cowboys once again in 2017.

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