Jason Garrett managed to keep his job after back-to-back 8-8 seasons and Jerry Jones’s patience paid off. After losing to the San Francisco 49ers to open up the season, the Dallas Cowboys won 12 of their next 15 games to win the NFC East for the first time since 2009. Like the 2009 playoff appearance, the Cowboys won at home and then got bounced from the playoffs on the road in the Divisional Round.
The question facing the Cowboys is one of consistency. They have not made consecutive playoff appearances since the 2006 and 2007 seasons. After experiencing so much success in the 1990s, the fan base has become jaded towards the current regime and a failure to follow up on the successes of last season would be very difficult to take. Garrett’s job security should still be in question after the 12-4 season and that could hang over the team in the early part of the year.
The loss of DeMarco Murray hurts, but it hurts double because Murray signed with the division rival Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys got to the point that they did because of their rushing attack and that will be a major concern entering the season. There were other significant losses as well. Defensive tackle Henry Melton signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Cowboys also lost defensive captain Justin Durant to the Atlanta Falcons. Bruce Carter’s departure has left a second hole in the linebacking corps.
In an attempt to patch the holes, the Cowboys have added Darren McFadden at running back and Greg Hardy at defensive end. Hardy is suspended for the first 10 games of the season stemming from a domestic abuse charge that cost him the entire 2014 NFL season. Jasper Brinkley will try to fill the linebacker void, but the Cowboys have had a poor offseason. That’s not what a team trying to build off of a playoff appearance wants to have happen. Byron Jones, a defensive back, and Randy Gregory, an outside linebacker, were the top two draft picks for the Cowboys and they could be impact players on the defense.
Regression is coming for the Cowboys offense. They were fifth in points, seventh in yards, second in rushing yards, fourth in passing touchdowns, fifth in rushing touchdowns, third in percentage of drives ending with a touchdown, and second in points per drive. Without Murray, the pressure once again falls back on Tony Romo’s shoulders. Dez Bryant was forced to stay because of the franchise tag and Romo’s other weapons like Jason Witten and Terrance Williams are still in the fold, but it’s impossible to ignore the 2,261 yards Murray amassed.
Interestingly, oddsmakers at the Westgate Superbook still have fairly high expectations with the Cowboys with a win total line that opened at 9.5, with -140 on the under.
|1||New York Giants||-5.5|
|4||@ New Orleans||PK|
|7||@ New York Giants||PK|
|10||@ Tampa Bay||-4.5|
|13||@ Washington (Mon)||-3|
|14||@ Green Bay||+4.5|
|15||New York Jets (Sat)||-7.5|
This is one of the most interesting schedules so far. The Cowboys play back-to-back home games just once and have some tricky scheduling situations. The beginning of the season features five tough games before the bye week. The schedule lets up beginning around Week 10, though the Cowboys play five of their final eight games on the road. They get Washington twice and other last-place teams like the Buccaneers and the Jets.
Is this a schedule with more bark than bite? There are a lot of big name teams on this list, which is not a surprise because the Cowboys draw the AFC East and NFC South outside of the division and play Green Bay and Seattle due to their first place finish last year. In looking at this schedule, the Cowboys are a team with a low ceiling because there are a lot of good teams on it. The first nine weeks of the schedule are huge for the Cowboys for win total and playoff purposes.
Why bet the over?
Tony Romo gets an insane amount of flack because he has struggled in the big games. He took advantage of the running game’s success last season to have the best completion percentage of his career and a 34/9 TD/INT ratio. It seems like Romo simply falls victim to having a large sample size of games that are close in the end. That puts his performance under the microscope that much more. With Romo starting, the Cowboys are 75-48 in the regular season, even with those three straight 8-8 seasons.
Are Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar ready to lead this team? They could be. The Cowboys probably had no illusions about their ability to keep DeMarco Murray since he ran the ball 392 times. Randle had just 51 carries, but he did average 6.7 yards per carry when he got the ball. It would have been nice to see Randle and Dunbar assimilated more into the Cowboys offense last season if the plan was to let Murray walk, but the Cowboys had to do what was in the best interest of winning. Randle and Dunbar are young and possess talent.
Dez Bryant is back in the fold after getting the franchise tag last offseason. The Cowboys could not afford to lose his 88 catches and 16 receiving touchdowns. Jason Witten showed some signs of slowing down but was still one of the league’s most productive tight ends. Home run threat Terrance Williams averaged nearly 17 yards per catch and also caught eight touchdowns.
The strength of this Cowboys team is the offensive line and that may be why some people are still high on them this season. Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Tyron Smith are all first round picks from 2011 to 2014. Veteran Doug Free was retained by the Cowboys this offseason and they could add third-round pick Chaz Green into the fold. This offensive line is extremely talented and also rather young. It will be interesting to see if Murray was the reason for so much rushing success or if it was this offensive line.
Defensively, the Cowboys had some big injuries last season. Fortunately, the defense is used to playing without ex-Cowboy Justin Durant, who left this offseason. This fairly young defense forced the second-most turnovers in the league and did so without much of a pass rush. Rod Marinelli was elevated from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator after Monte Kiffin was let go and it seemed to have an effect on the Cowboys defense. This is still a solid unit entering the season.
Why bet the under?
Tony Romo threw at least 522 passes in each of the last three seasons. He threw 435 last season and the Cowboys were 12-4. Is it possible that there’s a correlation there? Could the anti-Romo crowd be on to something? They certainly could be. The less the ball is in Romo’s hands, the better off the Cowboys are? We’ll find out this season, but the lack of balance is going to hurt this offseason and Romo is the one that it will hurt the most.
Don’t underestimate the losses from last season’s team. Everybody will be focused on DeMarco Murray, but the Cowboys lost some other impact players. The biggest one is probably the loss of Bruce Carter. Carter led the team with five interceptions from his linebacker position and having good coverage linebackers in a must in the present-day NFL. Carter was second with 11 pass breakups, trailing only Sterling Moore, who also left for Tampa Bay. Henry Melton is also gone. Greg Hardy can make up some of that production, but he won’t be in the lineup until November.
Another big loss will be offensive coordinator Bill Callahan. Callahan is now with the Washington Redskins he is somewhat of an offensive line guru. The strength of this Cowboys team is their offensive line and now they have to find a way to keep that unit together under the offensive scheme of Scott Linehan. Linehan was calling plays, but Callahan was the “running game coordinator”. As we all know, the running game was the strength of the team.
Pick: Under 9.5
The juice is on the under for a reason and this is a Cowboys team that will take a huge step back. They have lost some playmakers on defense and the running game is not going to put up the same production. The schedule is a bear for the Cowboys, especially early on while they are trying to get accustomed to life without Murray and life with Romo back in the spotlight. Don’t be surprised if Jason Garrett is on the hot seat once again and the Cowboys take a major tumble in the standings. The rest of the division is coming up to meet them as well.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
You wouldn’t know it by the venomous hate spit at Tony Romo on a weekly basis, but the 2013 Dallas Cowboys were the fifth-highest scoring offense in franchise history. In fact, a Romo-led offense has two of the top five scoring outputs in franchise history. On the flip side, for the second time in four years, the Cowboys gave up over 430 points. The 2013 version was one touchdown away from setting a new franchise record for points allowed.
The Cowboys defense gave up 6,635 yards, nearly 300 more than any other team. Only the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins gave up more touchdowns. The opposition ran 134 more plays than the Cowboys because they ranked 25th in third-down conversion rate offensively and 29th in stopping third-down conversions defensively. The defense allowed 20 more opposition first downs than any other team. The Cowboys also had the second-worst red zone defense.
Sweeping changes didn’t take place in the offseason. It remains to be seen whether the vote of confidence in the coaching staff will be a good thing or a major failure, but it’s clear what areas of the team need to be improved and which areas just need to be refined. One certainty is that a proud fan base with a storied history is running out of patience.
After three straight 8-8 seasons, it’s not particularly surprising the oddsmakers at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas have the Cowboys win total posted at 8. Sportsbook.ag has the Cowboys win total posted at 8 with -115 on both sides.
Lines courtesy of CG Technologies:
|3||@ St. Louis||PK|
|7||New York Giants||-3.5|
|10||@ Jacksonville (London)||-10|
|12||@ New York Giants||+2.5|
|14||@ Chicago (Thu)||+4.5|
Along with the NFC East, the Cowboys take on the NFC West and AFC South with Chicago and New Orleans thrown into the mix. The Cowboys play six of their eight home games before their Week 10 trip to London, which will paint a very clear picture of the Cowboys’ chances this season.
According to the oddsmakers, the Cowboys have a rather favorable schedule following their Week Four matchup with New Orleans. The Cowboys are favored in seven of their last 11 lined games and could also be favored at Washington to end the season depending on the state of both teams. There are some very interesting lines, especially the Arizona, New Orleans, and St. Louis lines.
It’s tough to set lines for Dallas because of their inconsistency. The Cowboys have shown a penchant for playing up to quality competition and playing down to inferior competition. With a front-loaded home schedule and five road games in seven weeks after the bye, this schedule is certainly a challenge, both for the Cowboys and for handicappers.
Why bet the over?
The Cowboys are such an enigmatic team that they’ve actually become more and more difficult to line on a weekly basis. There’s a very negative perception of Tony Romo among fans and the Cowboys always draw action on Sundays. Looking past Romo for a second, some really positive developments happened for the Cowboys that should lead to optimism. DeMarco Murray became a quality NFL back as he averaged 5.1 yards per carry, a full yard better than last season, and he also improved as a pass catcher. Having a running back that can catch is an absolute necessity in the NFL and Murray’s progress, which should continue, is big.
Back to Romo, he posted a 17/3 TD/INT ratio in the seven losses he played in. The narrative about Romo being the reason the Cowboys lose is out of control. That is a stellar ratio. Of the Cowboys eight losses last season, five were by three or fewer points and four of the five were by less than three points. The Cowboys suffered three losses by one point. Romo’s play is magnified in crunch time, but he’s probably a top 10 quarterback in the league all things considered. Ignore the narratives and view him for what he is.
Is the Cowboys receiving corps undervalued entering the season? Terrance Williams proved to be a big play threat with his speed and Jason Witten and Dez Bryant did their thing. Fifth-rounder Devin Street could be an impact player at 6’3” with a frame to grow into. It will be interesting to see what Street can do with a competent NFL quarterback throwing to him instead of what he had at Pittsburgh for so many years.
The defense was undoubtedly atrocious last season, but Sean Lee and Morris Claiborne each missed significant time with hamstring injuries and the Cowboys lacked quality depth. Those are two key cogs that play crucial roles on the defensive side of the ball. A lot of teams would have had trouble overcoming losses like that. Henry Melton, if healthy, should be a quality contributor on the interior of the defensive line.
Why bet the under?
Whether Lee and Claiborne are healthy or not, this defense projects to be bad yet again. The Cowboys were 29th in third down defense, second-worst in red zone defense, and managed only 34 sacks despite the fourth-most passing attempts against. Rushing the quarterback will be a problem yet again. The team loses 17 of their 34 sacks from last season with the departures of Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware from the defensive line.
If Romo is worthy of any kind of criticism, it could be his decisions on third down. With a lot of weapons and a potent offense, the Cowboys finished 26th in third down conversions. A case could be made that offensive coordinator Bill Callahan doesn’t run the ball enough. In his last four seasons as an offensive coordinator, his teams have ranked 21st or worse in rushing attempts. The Cowboys were 31st last season, but eighth in yards per carry. If Callahan is unwilling to change even though he has a quality back in Murray and a quarterback under a lot of pressure, the Cowboys will keep holding themselves back offensively.
The Cowboys did very little to get better this offseason and one could argue that they are worse with the departures of Hatcher and Ware. Zack Martin was a safe pick in the first round and will help with the offensive line, but the defense’s shortcomings weren’t addressed much in free agency and won’t magically get better. DeMarcus Lawrence may be an impact player one day, but it’s hard to see it being this season. The Cowboys gave up over 430 yards eight times last season and went 2-6 in those games. It’s hard to see much improvement.
The situation with Jason Garrett will make things very uncomfortable throughout the season. Garrett is firmly on the hot seat and the best part (if you can call it that) of the Cowboys schedule is in the first 10 weeks. Jerry Jones might have a quick trigger finger on Garrett and his staff with a slow start and the Cowboys will have no shot at an 8-8 season with so much turmoil and the brutal end of the schedule.
Pick: Under 8 (-115)
It will probably be another year of wasting talent in Big D. The offense has the ability to outscore teams, but the NFC West presents four high quality defenses and shootouts with New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Chicago are hardly best-case scenarios. If the Giants and Redskins improve, somebody has to lose games in the NFC East and that somebody would be the Cowboys. Neither team is guaranteed to improve and everybody in the NFC East has their warts and problem areas. That said, the defensive losses coupled with Bill Callahan’s unwillingness to change his mindset will hold the Cowboys back.
Realistically, the likely result for the Cowboys is to go 8-8 again, but with the schedule, the Garrett factor, and the defense, the value side is probably going to be the under. There are better bets on the board than this one, especially because the Cowboys are maddeningly inconsistent. They could easily go 11-5 or 6-10. They’ll win games that they should lose and lose games that they should win. Avoid the frustration and the hassle and just look for something better to invest in.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.