They say a football team is only as good as its weakest link, but it doesn't take much effort to dispel that notion. All other things being equal, you'd certainly rather have your weakest player at, say, offensive guard than at quarterback. In this way, certain positions are more vital to team success and, yes, some players are simply more important than others. There's a reason you hear "The Cowboys will go as far as Tony Romo takes them" and not "The Cowboys will go as far as Mackenzy Bernadeau takes them."
Prior to the 2012 season, I published a list of the Cowboys’ top five most crucial players, excluding Romo (who's clearly the most essential piece to the puzzle each season). If you want to understand what went wrong for Dallas this year, look no further than the play of these five players.
5. Miles Austin
Bryant will be the Cowboys' top receiver this year, but Austin could be a tad bit more important. In my article on the team's **slot receiver position*, I noted that Austin has played 15.5, 32.4, and 44.0 percent of his pass snaps in the slot over the past three seasons, respectively. Almost two-thirds of his 2011 targets came when he lined up inside. Austin's versatility makes him more valuable than your average wide receiver. *
This year, Austin actually played 69.4 percent of his pass snaps in the slot, but unlike past years, he simply wasn't that effective. Despite all the time in the slot, fewer than half of Austin's targets came there; he was actually targeted at nearly twice the rate when he lined up outside. That's perhaps one reason the receiver posted only 4.6 yards after the catch per reception, the lowest of his career.
4. Jay Ratliff
*Last year, Ratliff didn't rack up the sacks (two) that we have become accustomed to seeing from the Pro Bowl nose tackle. He actually pressured the quarterback more often than he did in 2009 (when he totaled six sacks) and the same number of times as in 2008 (when he registered a career-high 7.5 sacks). Backup nose tackle Josh Brent has shown flashes, but Ratliff's importance to the interior of the defense is obvious. *
If you want to know how Ratliff's 2012 season went, consider that 18 defenders played more snaps than him. Ratliff didn't record a sack in his 269 plays, although he still pressured the quarterback at a higher rate than every defensive lineman other than Jason Hatcher. Still, in the midst of a $48.6 million contract, the Cowboys received almost no production from their expensive nose tackle.
3. Jason Witten
Witten is as consistent as they come at the tight end position. Even if he has lot a half step, he's still one of the NFL's premiere receiving-blocking combination tight ends. With the loss of Martellus Bennett (who was **more valuable than you might realize*), Witten's health is crucial in 2012. If he goes down, unproven tight end John Phillips and rookie James Hanna will need to man the fort. *
Although I believed Witten's numbers would be down in 2012, the tight end overcame an early-season spleen injury to grab 110 receptions, the most for a tight end in NFL history. Witten's touchdown rate of only 2.7 percent wasn't great, but you can't ask for much more than the veteran Pro Bowler gave Dallas this season.
2. Tyron Smith
*Smith was excellent at right tackle in his rookie season. I recorded him yielding six sacks and 16 pressures. That equates to pressure on just 2.5 of pass protection snaps, which ranked Smith as the third-most efficient right tackle in the NFL in 2011. The 'Boys also averaged 5.43 yards per carry (YPC) when running behind Smith. Compare those numbers to a 4.7 percent pressure rate and 3.26 yards per carry for Doug Free. Moving to the left side in his second season, Smith is probably the most important non-quarterback on offense this year. *
Although Smith came on strong over the second half of the 2012 season, he simply wasn't as effective as he was in his rookie year. Smith allowed pressure on 6.0 percent of his snaps in pass protection, more than twice the rate as in 2011. I tracked the Cowboys as totaling 4.47 YPC when running with Smith as the point of attack, the best mark on the team but still down from his rookie campaign.
1. DeMarcus Ware
Mickey **got it right*. There's no one quite like DeMarcus Ware. He's the most critical player on the Cowboys' defense, the most important non-quarterback on the team, and probably the best defensive player in the entire NFL. The 'Boys could have a wealth of tremendous pass-rushing outside linebackers on the roster, and Ware would still claim this spot. He's just that good.*
While 11.5 sacks would be a career-year for most outside linebackers, it's the lowest total Ware has recorded since 2009 and the third lowest of his career. Hampered by various injuries, Ware didn't appear to be himself for much of the season. His production should pick up again in 2013, but it won't last forever; the All-Pro pass-rusher turns 31 this summer.
Money Down the Drain?
When you consider the expectations for the Cowboys' five most crucial players heading into the 2012 season, it's fair to say that all but Witten underachieved. That's bad in and of itself, but it's particularly crippling when you consider the dollar signs. In terms of the total value of their contracts, Austin, Ratliff, Witten and Ware are all ranked in the top six on the Cowboys. Those four players, representing only 7.5 percent of the 53-man roster, ate up just under 20 percent of the Cowboys' 2012 cap space. That alone isn't a problem, but it becomes an issue when the majority of them aren't producing, leaving less cap space available for the players who must pick up the slack.