It was an atypical offseason in the NFL, but it was particularly strange in Dallas.
The cash-strapped Cowboys signed a grand total of two unrestricted free agents this summer, both of them fairly anonymous defenders brought to Texas from Cleveland by new Cowboys — and former Browns — defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
Abe Elam and Kenyon Coleman should add depth to the D, but Cowboys fans are used to bigger names. And while they apparently made a run at Nnamdi Asomugha, they ultimately didn’t have enough cap space to make radical changes to a defense that gave up the second most points in the league in 2010.
That doesn’t mean 2011 is a lost cause, but Ryan and Jason Garrett have a lot of work to do.
2010 in a nutshell: It’s a tale of two seasons. They start 1-7, fire head coach Wade Phillips, and then finish 5-3 under Jason Garrett. It’s still their worst season, at least on paper, since 2002.
Three predictions for 2011:
1. The secondary is going to get torched again: It’s a shame that the Cowboys didn’t sign at least one free agent cornerback. They also failed to take a corner before Round 5 of the 2011 draft. They even opted to keep overpaid and oft-injured corner Terence Newman around, and the 32-year-old is already hurt. This is a team that surrendered a league-high 33 touchdowns through the air while giving up a sickening 27.2 points per game in 2010. This pass defense won’t stand a chance with a quarter of their games coming against the Eagles and Giants.
2. The pass rush will take time: There’s an obvious connection between the pass rush and the performance of the defense as a whole. In 2008, the Cowboys led the NFL in sacks with the league’s fifth-rated D; in 2009, they were seventh in the league in sacks with a 20th-ranked defense; and in 2010 they dropped to 16th and 26th in each category, respectively. Ryan’s presence will eventually improve a pass rush that recorded just 35 sacks last year (despite 15.5 from DeMarcus Ware), but it’ll take time for everyone to learn the nuances of his complicated system. This is one way in which the lockout hurt the Cowboys.
3. The offense will be better: Thanks, Captain Obvious. Tony Romo is back after missing the final 10 games of last season due to a broken collarbone. Prior to that injury, Romo had completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and was once again on a Pro Bowl path. He returns with the support of stellar targets Miles Austin and Jason Witten. There’s also a good chance Felix Jones breaks out in his fourth season. Marion Barber’s gone and Jones has averaged 5.3 yards per carry thus far in his short career. The offensive line is in good shape, especially with the addition of top pick Tyron Smith, who’ll start at right tackle. This offense managed to rank seventh in the league despite myriad injuries in 2010, so there’s a chance they re-join the top five in 2011.
The final word(s): Hopefully there’s a new attitude in Big D with Wade Phillips gone and Rob Ryan bringing heat. But they don’t have a lot of time to prepare and I’m not convinced they have enough talent on the back end of the defense. Can they keep up with the improved Eagles? It’s unlikely. I’l guessing they go 8-8 in a tough division.