IRVING, Texas – So the debate begins:
What do the Cowboys need most to narrow the gap between their 8-8 selves and the Super Bowl XLVIII champion Seattle Seahawks, who by the way will surely ungraciously play hosts to them at some point during the 2014 season? Yeah, up there in front of those overly-caffeinated souls filling to capacity what might as well be a sound tunnel constructed by Boeing. Again!
Geesh, can you just pass?
The Cowboys have won only once in the four times they have played in whatever today's name of that stadium is (CenturyLink), and it took a miraculous comeback at that to win the one in 2004, 43-39, scoring two touchdowns in the final 1:45. That's been so long ago, only Jason Witten and Tony Romo probably remember the comeback led by Vinny Testaverde, Julius Jones and Keyshawn Johnson.
But most of these guys here today surely remember getting scalded the last time up there by the Sea-Boomers, 27-7, that second game of the 2012 season.
So, knowing the Cowboys will get another up close and personal look at the Seahawks again this 2014 season, the various opinions of what they must do to catch those rascals from the Northwest come rushing in.
A hard-nosed running back.
An even more improved offensive line.
Better defensive line.
Of course, better coaching, play-calling and general managing.
Ha, all of the above has been suggested, too.
But let's make this a much easier exercise, and really it should be quite obvious what's most in need of repair if you watched the Cowboys sort of waddle their way to a third consecutive 8-8 season, along with having watched enough of the Seahawks' 43-8 shellacking this past Super Sunday of the Denver Broncos – that AFC team scoring 51 points against the Cowboys this season, third most by an opponent in club history if you need that reminder, and most since Cincinnati put half-a-hundred on them in 1985, nearly 30 years ago.
The answer is:
Greatly improve that defensive line.
You saw the game. You saw how uncomfortable Peyton Manning was in the pocket, moving around here and there as if he had ants in his britches. You saw him having to come off his primary receiver time and time again for preservation sake since his normally protective bubble was bursting at the seams far too many times.
Manning just couldn't hang in there long enough for the Denver receivers to run their patented crossing routes, their rub routes or even the double-move routes Seattle corner Richard Sherman brashly suggested afterward would have worked against the Seahawks. Thanks big guy, but you should have seen what was going on behind your back.
Officially, Manning was sacked only once while completing a record 34 of 49 passes but for only 280 yards, a paltry 5.8 yards per attempt for a guy who had averaged 8.3 during his MVP season. Says on the stat sheet the Seahawks collected four QB hits, which seems a tad conservative. He was intercepted twice, once when he was blindly trying to throw over onrushing Seahawks in his face and then the other that flutter-ball popup when his rotator cuff was nearly ripped apart by Chris Avril while attempting to throw.
They should have come up with a stat for number of completions no more than six yards. Here, let me provide that for you. How about 17? I mean 17 of 34 completions covered no more than a total of 18 feet. Manning had only one completion of at least 20 yards (22).
That's what happens when your "rushmen" put a quarterback under siege. Ball has to come out. No time for pump fakes or looking the safety off.
And none of this pressure was being generated by an exotic defensive game plan or an assortment of blitzes and stunts. Most of this suffocating pressure came compliments of Seattle's front four, a group that I'm guessing you'd be hard-pressed to entirely name even if I gave you Avril and Chris Clemons.
Now then, speaking of "rushmen," while this might be painful, you remember that 51-48 Cowboys loss to the Broncos in Week 5? Well, in that game the supposedly indomitable Manning was 33 of 42 for 414 yards, four touchdowns, one interception, with a passer rating of 127.
You've heard the expression time of day? Well, that's what Manning had in the pocket against the Cowboys that Sunday at The AT&T. Threw the ball 42 times and wasn't sacked a once. Threw the ball 42 times and was hit but once …. once, thank you very much George Selvie!
And get this: Of Manning's 33 completions against the Cowboys, only nine of them were for no more than six yards, and three of those couldn't have possibly been any longer since three of his touchdown passes were all of 4, 2 and 2 yards. Of the other six completions gaining no more than six yards, one lost four yards (poorly executed bubble screen) and the other five were for at least five yards.
Look, and I know the Cowboys had loose coverage at times, but again when you have time to complete eight passes for at least 19 yards – think about that, at least 19 yards – and one of those for 57 as Manning did against the Cowboys, you have to have all the time in the world for your guys to run routes.
Time was on Manning's side against the Cowboys, but absolutely not against the Seahawks.
This Denver game for the Cowboys defense was not an anomaly, either. The Cowboys finished with just 34 sacks this season, same as the previous season, and we thought those 34 were bad. In fact, after getting off to a great start, with 13 sacks in the first three games, the Cowboys only had 16 sacks in the next 12 before notching a five-spot against the Eagles in the finale.
So let's put those 34 sacks into perspective.
The 34 sacks matches the fewest in a single season for the Cowboys since registering 33 in the 6-10 season of 2004.
Prior to that, only seven other times since recording no more than 25 sacks in each of their first four seasons of existence (1960-63) did the Cowboys finish a non-strike season with fewer than 34 sacks, no matter if they were playing 14 games or 16 games.
Oh, and this will illicit an are you kidding me? out of you: From 1964 through even the 3-13 season of 1988, the last of Tom Landry's 29 seasons as head coach, the Cowboys never finished with fewer than the 32 sacks of 1972 in a non-strike season.
That streak was broken in 1989 when the Cowboys finished with just 29 sacks – uh, same as they had after 15 games this season – but back then they went 1-15, worst record in franchise history since that 12-game inaugural season of 0-11-1 in 1960.
That, my friends, is how bad a 34-sack season is, and I'll say it again: How in the world did this team, with a defense like this, forced to play an unheard of 20 defensive linemen over the course of the season, ever finish 8-8? How did it ever finish 8-8 with a sack total of just more than half of the *official *single-season club record of 62 set in 1985?
And look, I know it's not all about sacks. Pressures do count. But consider this: The Cowboys finished with 34 sacks this year, one fewer than they gave up. The Seahawks defensive front accounted for 33.5 of Seattle's 44 sacks and provided unending pressure on opposing quarterbacks, especially Manning during the Super Bowl. [embedded_ad]
So … this should easily answer any question you might have of what the Cowboys need most if 8-8 is going to improve to at least a game or two above .500:
Better rushmen on that defensive front. Period.
But finding a solution to that answer might be more difficult.
First, this season's sack leader, Jason Hatcher from the defensive tackle spot with a career-high 11, is an unrestricted free agent in a season the Cowboys must work diligently to reduce their $24 million in cap excess.
Then, of course, even if they wanted to re-sign unrestricted free agent Anthony Spencer, who finished 2012 second behind team leader DeMarcus Ware's 11.5 sacks with 11 of his own, they will have second and third thoughts about doing so for much more than a one-year minimum look-see since the veteran defensive end's rehab from microfracture knee surgery in October at this point is far behind what would be considered normal projections.
Tyrone Crawford would seem to be a logical choice to move into a possible starting defensive tackle role, but remember he missed all of last year following surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon. And yes, I know George Selvie had seven sacks, and that's good, but that's not going to cause any offensive coordinator a sleepless Saturday night.
So those of you subscribing to playing hardball with DeMarcus Ware (six sacks) accepting a pay cut, uh, you don't have much leverage do you after reading all this? The Cowboys desperately need a healthy Ware for an entire year, not one who misses the first three games of his career as he did this season and far too much practice time nursing an assortment of injuries, the most concerning one the reoccurrence of neck problems.
The cupboard is pretty bare.
So again, wish for what you want, for what you think the Cowboys need most in order to narrow that gap between themselves and the Super Bowl champs. But to me, whoever the Cowboys either draft or sign in free agency or re-sign obviously better come under the heading of rushmen.
Pressure does matter.