Dallas Cowboys 2013 Team Review: Another Year of Mediocrity

The offense has enough pieces, but is there enough cap room to bolster the defense?

The NFC East was an interesting division in 2013. Washington was the favorite after winning it last year, but they couldn't gain any traction all year long. The Giants got behind the eight ball quickly, though a late-season push allowed them to still finish 7-9.

Perhaps the biggest story within the division was the Philadelphia Eagles and Chip Kelly's offense. While the team also started slow, they finished the year winning four of their last five games.

But they weren't alone in the NFC East title hunt. Despite some losses towards the end of the season, the Cowboys had positioned themselves to win the division as well.

It came down to a Week 17 clash between the Eagles and Cowboys for all the marbles. The Cowboys were in a familiar situation - it was the third year in a row they had a chance to win the division in Week 17. However, the Eagles held on to win a close game (against a Kyle Orton-led team, mind you) and took home the division crown.

Before we close the book on the 2013 season though, let's remember the good and the bad of the Cowboys' season and discuss what they should do during the offseason.

The Good

Though the Cowboys finished 8-8 on the season, one win shy of qualifying for the postseason, their quarterback wasn't to blame. Here’s a quick snapshot at how the offense performed according to our Net Expected Points data.

Adj. NEPRankAdj. Passing NEPRankAdj. Rushing NEPRank

Even though Tony Romo received his typical blame for the team’s losses (e.g. the Broncos game), he did have plenty of redeeming qualities. In that Broncos game, for example, Romo actually outperformed Peyton Manning in terms of Passing NEP, but because his interception was at a crucial time in the game, he absorbs all the blame. It just added to the narrative that Romo isn't clutch, but Leo Howell dispelled that myth back in December.

Romo has been reliable, leading the offense to the 15th-best one in the league when adjusting for strength of schedule this year. Overall, that makes for a middle of the road offensive unit, but it's not as bad as some in the mainstream media would have you believe.

Tony Romo is not as replaceable you might think either, contributing 70.70 Pass NEP to the Cowboys this year, eighth-best in the league. He’s wasn’t Peyton Manning, but he wasn’t Geno Smith either. Romo also finished with the ninth-best efficiency rate on a per drop back basis.

At receiver and tight end, Romo had his selection of pass catchers. While Jason Witten wasn’t his usual self, he was still able to post 851 yards and eight touchdowns on 73 receptions. He contributed 44.46 Target Net Expected points, the number of points Witten contributed on every target, not just his receptions. His Target NEP was good enough to make him a top-five tight end on the year, something he does regularly.

Dez Bryant had a quiet year in leading the way for Cowboys receivers. He did it all, averaging nearly six catches a game for a season total of 1,233 yards. He was tied for the third-most touchdowns and was fifth-best in number of first downs caught among all receivers and tight ends. It all added up to a 52.44 Target NEP, 13th-best in the league.

Though the team loved to throw the ball, ranking fourth in the league in pass-to-run ratio, the running game for the Cowboys was actually their biggest team strength. DeMarco Murray had the best year of his young career, going over 1,000 yards for the first time. He also rushed for nine touchdowns despite missing two full games and parts of two others. Murray contributed 21.41 Rushing Net Expected Points over the course of the season, which was second best among all backs, behind only LeSean McCoy.

The Bad

Though the offense was solid for Dallas this year - albeit with poor play calling - the defense, well, was another story. Jason Hatcher totaled 11 sacks on the season, leading the team, but that was the lone star of the defense. Take a look at the numbers below reflecting Dallas' defensive ranks on the season:

Pass Yards AllowedRankRush Yards AllowedRankAdj. D Pass NEPRankAdj. D Rush NEPRank

It should be noted that the Cowboys gave up the most yards of any defense. But when our NEP data - data that isn't simply yardage based - considers the strength of their opponents, they come in as the 24th overall defense. Why is that? Let's examine the pass defense first.

While yards tell part of the story, our Defensive Pass NEP data can give us a bigger and better picture. Although the Cowboys gave up the third most yards against the pass, let's remember the quarterbacks they faced. The Cowboys got to face a resurgent Philip Rivers before they got into a Week 5 shootout with the Denver Mannings. In Week 8, they faced the Detroit duo of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. And in Week 10, Drew Brees and the high-flying Saints.

The aforementioned quarterbacks combined for nearly half of the passing yards the team gave up. And though it's easy to see that the Cowboys couldn't stop the pass (Even Matt Flynn threw for over 400 yards against them), our Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points adjust for strength of schedule. Using this metric, they ranked as the 18th-best defense against the pass, much higher than their rank in yards allowed.

For all the yards the Cowboys gave up against the pass, they had just as much trouble against the run. But there are not caveats when analyzing our Defensive Rush NEP metric. Despite facing LeSean McCoy twice, there wasn't any other elite running backs they faced. The run defense just stunk. But why? Was it talent? Injuries?

It was both.

DeMarcus Ware missed a game (three in fact) for the first time in his career. His season sack and tackle totals were also the lowest of his career. The nine-year veteran may have lost a step, but he's also arguably the biggest impact player the defense has. However, Ware needs to do something with his huge contract.

Ware is in the last two years of his $79 million deal, but considering the salary cap trouble Dallas faces, he will need to restructure. There is a chance the Cowboys could cut him on June 1st as well. They would save twice as much money cutting him than having him restructure his contract, but they would take a huge risk in losing a key player.

Ware was supposed to have some help from linebacker Sean Lee, too. Lee accumulated four interceptions and over 60 tackles before getting hurt in Week 10. He tried to come back on the field in Week 14, but ended back on the sideline for the rest of the season. He missed a total of seven games this season after signing a contract extension and has missed 15 games in the last two seasons.

Another example of money wasted was with Pro Bowler Anthony Spencer as he was given the franchise tag. Spencer was supposed to be the defensive tackle that plugged up the run but was a non-factor after getting hurt in the first game and missing the rest of the season. Spencer had been a big player the previous two seasons with 119 tackles and 17 sacks.

Between Lee and Spencer missing time and DeMarcus Ware not playing up to par, the defense was always on its heels. They struggled mightily with third down plays, allowing their opponents to convert over 43% of them, fourth-worst in the league. With the offense ready to go and the defense in dire straits, change will be needed to get out of their 8-8 slump.

What Should They Do?

The Cowboys have two big problems going into the offseason: play calling and salary cap issues.

Jerry Jones and the Cowboys may have the third different person calling players in three years when 2014 rolls around. If the new play-caller favors the run, then a move should be considered successful. The offense needs a big identity change as their pass-to-run ratio over the last three years has been extremely pass heavy: 1.85:1 in 2013, 1.95:1 in 2012, and 1.5:1 in 2011.

However, it doesn't matter what the team philosophy is if the Cowboys can't keep the team together. They have nine free agents and two restricted free agents for the upcoming 2014 season. While the secondary is young, the defensive line isn’t getting any younger. Dallas can still keep a core of the front seven if they get savvy with the salary cap predicament they have.

But the recent extension to kicker Dan Bailey doesn't describe a savvy owner - the Cowboys still remain $23 million over the salary cap. Who extends their placekicker for that long of a contract anyway? Jerry Jones is making Al Davis look like a saint!

Jones needs to focus on the two biggest free agents this year: defensive linemen Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher. The rest of the free agents the Cowboys have are all backups and are mostly replaceable.

By looking at Over the Cap's Salary Calculator, the team has many options for salary cap relief. Guys such as Jermey Parnell and Phil Costa are seldom used backups and could be the first to go. Receiver Miles Austin is likely a June 1st cut candidate. He has done little in the past few years and there are other emerging receivers that could take place. Kyle Orton could be gone as well, though not much would be saved with their cuts. Just between jettisoning Parnell, Costa, and Austin, the Cowboys could save over $8 million.

Staying on the offensive side of the ball, the Cowboys should look at Jason Witten's contract as well. He could be the first of the restructuring candidates. As an 11-year veteran, he still is a key piece of the offense, but he should be willing to take a pay cut to help the team build for a run as well as the future, especially with a young Gavin Escobar on the depth chart.

In order to get younger on defense, the Cowboys will have to continue to get creative with their cap. While they don’t want to start from scratch on defense, they can’t afford to pay a couple free agents very much. In order to have some wiggle room though, they can try to convince some of their veterans to restructure their contract in order to build while competing for the playoffs.

I mentioned DeMarcus Ware earlier - he's in danger of being cut if he doesn't restructure. There are three others that could restructure their contract: cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick and linebacker Sean Lee. Carr and Scandrick were a part of one of the worst secondaries in the league, but were also among the team leaders in tackles. If they both restructure, they’ll be around to mentor Morris Claiborne for the next couple of years.

Carr and Lee could both be cut outright as well to save a little more money. If Witten and these four defensive players are convinced to restructure their contracts, the Cowboys would have $8.5 million in their favor to re-sign a couple veterans as well as have room to sign their draft picks.

It might be unlikely to get that many players to restructure their contract, but if Jerry Jones wants another shot at a title, he's going to have to do some sweet talking. If not, next year will probably be just another mediocre season.