IRVING, Texas -- The calendar turned to 2016 six weeks ago. The NFL calendar turns to 2016 on March 9.
You’re done with looking back to 2015, right? The Dallas Cowboys finished 4-12, worst record in the NFC and the second worst record of the Jerry Jones era. No word on if players from the teams that finished 5-11 from 2000-02 popped open any champagne bottles after the season ended.
In a league designed to have teams finish .500 each year, the Cowboys have just as good a chance of getting to the playoffs in 2016 as the 15-1 Carolina Panthers.
Here are five things that must go right:
There will be injuries. Every team has injuries. Every team has a lot of injuries. This will sound cold, but the key is making sure the right guys don’t get hurt. The Cowboys lost Dez Bryant in the opener. They lost Tony Romo in the second game. The offense wasn’t the same. Losing Bryant was a blow, but the feeling was Romo would be able to lift up the remaining receivers and still make the offense go. And then he got hurt. And the offense went stagnant. Every team has a player or three they can’t lose. The Cowboys lost two of the three guys they couldn’t lose last season. It’s easier for teams to lose a cornerback or linebacker and survive.
Attack on offense
What gets remembered most about 2014 is DeMarco Murray's 1,845 rushing yards, but the Cowboys were not a plodding offense. They did not just run the ball to run the ball. They took shots down the field in the passing game. Romo averaged 8.5 yards per attempt. He had 34 touchdown passes. Bryant had 16 touchdown catches. Terrance Williams had eight. Including the playoffs they had 58 pass plays of 20 yards or more in 2014. In 16 games in 2015, they had 40, and eight came in the final game. Big plays lead to touchdowns. The Cowboys have to find big plays in 2016
Take the ball away
The Cowboys were great at taking it away in 2014 (31 times) and awful at it in 2015 (11 times). It’s not for a lack of practice. The Cowboys went through the same drills last season as they did in 2014 and couldn’t take the ball away. Why? The Cowboys played more Cover 1, man-to-man, and that does not lead to a lot of takeaways. But you can blame the offense, too. They were not able to put up two-score leads to force the other teams to throw the ball more, which leads to more takeaways. In 2014, 16 of the Cowboys’ takeaways came in the fourth quarter. In 2015, they had four.
Win the draft
The benefit of finishing 4-12 is having the fourth pick of the first round, but also high picks in the subsequent rounds. Finding needs is not a worry. Finding the right players in the right spots is. Do the Cowboys go after a quarterback in the first round? A defensive end? A linebacker? A cornerback? A running back? That’s the debate they will have leading up to the draft. The Cowboys have to find starters and contributors from this rookie class.
Every day I get asked about the Cowboys making a big splash in free agency and I give the same response: no. Having a ton of cap room can be a bad thing, because you’re paying high-end prices for mid-level production. In unrestricted free agency from 2009-14 the Cowboys signed six free agents to deals of at least three years. The only one to complete the length of the deal with the same terms was Keith Brooking (three years, 2009). Will McClay, senior director of college/pro personnel, has shown he can find players at any level to help. The quantity over quality approach seems to work best in free agency.