By Shawn Lealos
For the third straight year, the Dallas Cowboys lost the final game and will sit at home once during the postseason. Owner Jerry Jones announced after the final loss of the season that he remains committed to head coach Jason Garrett, but the rest of the coaching staff will be evaluated at a later time.
Here is a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from this season as well as what the future might hold for the Dallas Cowboys.
The Injury Bug Decimated the Cowboys’ Lineup
The biggest problem this season wasn’t the questionable offensive play calling or the worst defense in franchise history. The biggest problem in 2013 was injuries all over the Dallas Cowboys’ roster. It all started when cornerback Morris Claiborne opened up the season hurt and it just went downhill from there. In his second season, Dallas’ 2012 first round draft pick only played in 10 games and was limited the entire year.
That was just the tip of the iceberg. Wide receiver Miles Austin injured his hamstring again and missed almost a full month. After catching 10 balls in the opening game of the season, Austin only caught 14 more the rest of the year and he will likely end up cut before he is due for a raise this offseason. DeMarco Murray also missed a couple of games early in the year, but rebounded nicely.
However, it was the defense that was hit the hardest this year. The heart and soul of the defense, linebacker Sean Lee, missed numerous games this year with a neck stinger and was out of action the final month of the season. The team’s all-time sack leader DeMarcus Ware was injured early on and that limited him all year long. Jay Ratliff was supposed to be back midway through the season, but he claimed he could not return so Dallas cut him, only to watch him sign and play with the Chicago Bears.
At one point this season, every starting linebacker was injured at the same time and it was rare to see all four starting defensive linemen active in the same week. Add in the Claiborne injury and lingering problems for rookie safety J.J. Wilcox, and the Dallas defense looked more like a walking M*A*S*H unit than a football squad.
It all culminated in quarterback Tony Romo suffering a herniated disk in his back and missing that important final game. It was the proverbial icing on the cake.
While injuries can be blamed for the poor defensive performance, the fact is that Jerry Jones fired Rob Ryan and brought in 73-year-old Monte Kiffin to run the defense. Ryan joined the New Orleans Saints, the team with last season’s worst defense, and molded them into one of the league’s best. They made the playoffs. Kiffin came in and coached the league’s worst defense this season, and the third worst of all time.
While Kiffin remains on the staff for now, and said he wants to return, this was a performance that can’t be repeated. Injuries hurt, but the team couldn’t seem to stop running backs and receivers were wide open all season long. Changes need to be made.
Speaking of changes, DeMarco Murray had a fantastic year running the ball, finishing 10th in the NFL in rushing with 1,124 yards. However, he also ranked fourth for running backs with over 100 carries and first overall for running backs with 200 carries, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Despite the great average, he ranked 17th in the NFL in rushes as Dallas chose to throw the ball late in games with the lead instead of running out the clock.
While Tony Romo remains one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, the Cowboys needed to run the ball more to hold leads, and honestly, they could be in the playoffs right now if they relied on Murray to eat the clock in two or three of their losses, where opponents came from behind for the win. Murray was only the second Dallas running back since Emmitt Smith retired to break the 1,000 yard mark and he can help them win a lot of games if they give him the ball. As great as Peyton Manning is, the Denver Broncos ran the ball an average of 7.8 more times a game than Dallas. Manning broke the record for touchdown passes and yards while handing the ball off more than Romo over the year. The Cowboys could learn something from those numbers.
This all leads to the future of the Dallas Cowboys. Jerry Jones said that Jason Garrett is safe. However, major changes need to be made. Monte Kiffin needs to retire, as it looks like his time has passed him by. Bill Callahan also needs to either go or he needs to sit down and understand that Dallas needs to mix up the pass and run better, especially when they take an early lead in games. Denver proved that passing numbers can flourish when a team runs the ball more.
Dallas will likely lose a number of players this offseason, including Miles Austin and Jason Hatcher. While Austin is not a big loss at this point in his career, Hatcher is. The Cowboys need to head into the 2014 NFL Draft and focus solely on defense. They could use another good, big offensive lineman, but they need defensive linemen and at least one more playmaking linebacker. That is really all this team lacks to reach the next level.
It was a frustrating year for many Dallas Cowboys’ fans, but it also showed that this team is almost there. They just need more playmakers on defense and smarter play calling from their coaching staff. Better strength and conditioning work and less injuries would be nice for 2014 as well.
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Shawn S. Lealos is a freelance writer who graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2000 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. He writes for a variety of national publications and has over 15 years of sports journalism experience. Follow Shawn on Twitter @sslealos. Examiner.com.