By Shawn S. Lealos
The Dallas Cowboys entered the 2015 NFL season as one of the top picks to make the playoffs and even reach the Super Bowl. Their biggest losses were 2014 NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray and all-purpose special teams star Dwayne Harris. Neither man was replaced with anyone good enough to match their 2014 totals, and the loss of both Dez Bryant and Tony Romo has resulted in three straight losses and a 2-3 record heading into their bye week. Here is a look at the studs and duds of the Dallas Cowboys through their first five games of the 2015 NFL season.
Rising: Greg Hardy, DE
To understand how dire the Dallas Cowboys season is so far, their second best player this season has only played in one game. Greg Hardy sat out the first four games, suspended by the NFL for domestic violence allegations. He returned for one game, an embarrassing loss to the New England Patriots. However, his return changed the entire outlook of the Cowboys’ defense. After recording six total sacks in the team’s first four games, Dallas came away with five in the first half alone against the New England Patriots. Greg Hardy had two of those sacks, forced a fumble, and knocked Brady down five times. Hardy will be a huge star for Dallas the remainder of the season and will make the defense better.
Rising: Sean Lee, LB
While Hardy really changed the defensive looks, Sean Lee remains the best player on the Cowboys entire team right now. That is slightly surprising since he is coming off a missed season due to a torn ACL, but he looks like he never missed a beat. Lee had a concussion scare two weeks ago, but he is fine and leads the Cowboys defense in tackles with 41, despite the missed time. Lee is the true leader on this defense and will man the middle while Hardy dominates the front lines. Lee also has one interception and three tackles for a loss on the season so far. As long as Lee and Hardy are on the field, Dallas will field a strong defense.
Rising: Jason Witten, TE
One person needs to represent the offense, and that player is team veteran Jason Witten. The tight end had a career low year in 2014 because he blocked more than usual, but rebounded in 2015. Despite playing on two twisted ankles and a sprained knee, Witten still leads the team in receptions and yards with 30 catches for 271 yards. He also has two touchdowns through the air. Compare that to wide receiver Terrance Williams’ 14 catches in five games, and it is clear that Witten is who makes this offense run right now.
Falling: Bandon Weeden, QB
When Tony Romo went down with an injured collarbone, the Cowboys hoped that Brandon Weeden could keep them competitive. The team lost two games most expected them to lose without Romo, but also lost to the winless New Orleans Saints. Weeden had a great completion percentage at 72.4 percent, but he only averaged just over 7.5 yards a pass and only threw for 169.3 yards a game. He mostly just threw dump passes to running backs Lance Dunbar and Darren McFadden, and short passes to Jason Witten and Cole Beasley. Weeden has now lost his job to Matt Cassel, and that should mark the end of Weeden’s career in Dallas.
Falling: Joseph Randle, RB
When the Cowboys let DeMarco Murray leave, fans on social media claimed that anyone could run behind the Cowboys offensive line. However, those fans don’t understand the need for a running back to match the offensive line’s blocking patterns. Murray was a straight ahead power runner. Neither Joseph Randle nor Darren McFadden are power runners, and the line is not equipped to block their outside running patterns. Joseph Randle has 289 rushing yards through five games for a 3.9 yard-per-carry average. There are now rumors that Christine Michael will replace Randle in the offense after the bye. Joseph Randle has played himself out of favor in Dallas.
Falling: Terrance Williams, WR
When Dez Bryan went down with a broken foot, that gave Terrance Williams the chance to prove he was worthy of the starting wide receiver position. However, Williams appears to be more similar to Alvin Harper in the fact that he is a great secondary when it comes to big plays, but he is nowhere equipped to lead a team as the starting receiver. After catching nine passes in his first two games, Williams has five receptions for 16 yards in the last three games. There is no one to replace Williams until Dez Bryant returns, but Williams has proven that he is not reliable as the top target in the Cowboys offense.
The Dallas Cowboys are making some major changes coming out of the bye. Matt Cassel is replacing Brandon Weeden at quarterback, La’el Collins is replacing Ronald Leary at left guard, and Christine Michael might be replacing Joseph Randle at running back. If Dez Bryant somehow makes his way back after the bye, the worst parts of the Cowboys offense might be fixed heading into their divisional game with the New York Giants. On defense, the Cowboys are stronger than ever, and need to be if they want to keep pace until Tony Romo returns at Thanksgiving.
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.