IRVING, Texas – With the completion of the 2012 NFL season and last Sunday's crowning of the Super Bowl XLVII champion, this inevitable question was bound to surface:
So how far away are the Dallas Cowboys from the Baltimore Ravens?
Well, never one to resist being a smart aleck, when asked that very same question over and over on Monday following the Ravens' narrow 34-31 victory over San Francisco, my sarcastic response was, "Two feet left."
Move Dan Bailey's 51-yard field goal attempt with time running out on Oct. 14 just two feet further to the right and the Cowboys would have defeated the now world champion Ravens 32-31 – in Baltimore no less – instead of losing 31-29.
Cute, huh, just two feet away … the distance between both teams finishing 9-7 and the Cowboys finishing 8-8 while the Ravens would go on to a 10-6 mark. That was good enough to win the AFC North, which was then followed up with four consecutive playoff victories for their second Lombardi Trophy since the turn of the century.
Plus, think about this: The Ravens got to that record and division title and playoff bid by losing four of their final five games of the season – the stretch of champions, right? Like the Giants the previous season, Baltimore got hot at exactly the right time. And if not for that 70-yard, last-minute Hail Mary in the playoffs …
The Cowboys, well, they were hot but cooled off at exactly the wrong time, winning three straight going into Game 15 of the season, only to lose the final two, narrowly to the Saints in overtime and then on the road to the Redskins.
So the answer is, as it always is at 8-8, close, but not nearly good enough. Sort of like a tie, right? Not much gratification either way.
Emotion aside, let's then look at this pragmatically as the off-season officials begins. We get there by summing up what the Cowboys' needs are once they begin preparation for the 2013 season. Just how long is that list?
First and foremost, the Cowboys must improve their offensive and defensive lines. Period. Rushing for a franchise 16-game single-season low of 1,265 yards just ain't going to get it. They must get strong up the middle, whether that means adding a guard, a center or two guards high in the draft. And for those promoting the release of right tackle Doug Free, then that would necessitate a much bigger need at right tackle, unless of course you're a fan of Jermey Parnell.
Oh, and by the way, keep in mind there is a hard salary cap in the NFL. No, it's not like you can go out there and buy what and however many you want, especially the Cowboys, who will be operating on a budget tighter than the pants of those folks who spent the previous Super Bowl week in New Orleans.
So can you do all that on the offensive line while still knowing the defensive line is in need of refurbishing, too? From the sound of things, might take a financial miracle to re-sign Anthony Spencer. So if you can't do that, then he too must be replaced, that is, if you don't think Tyrone Crawford is ready to man the strong-side defensive end position in the new 4-3. And just where are the Cowboys with Jay Ratliff? Might have a need outside as well as inside, and that's with or without Ratliff and most likely Josh Brent.
So instead of adding, you are replacing.
OK, strong-side linebacker in the 4-3? Good with either Alex Albright or Kyle Wilber? Might have to be for cap purposes. And if you must know, here are the Cowboys' usual starting strong-side 'backers from 1992-95 when they won their three Super Bowls in four seasons: Vinson Smith and Dixon Edwards. Ring a bell?
As long as we are on defense, how do you feel about safety? Now, did see Barry Church out here at The Ranch the other day, and he was walking fine, but can the Cowboys be 100-perecent certain he will return from his torn Achilles good as new or that Matt Johnson is what they envisioned him to be but never were able to find out his rookie season (injuries). Because if not, then they need a safety, not all of these band-aides they survived with during this past season.
And cornerback? Most viewed Mike Jenkins a luxury at the start of this season. He became a necessity, but oh, he's an unrestricted free agent as well, and likely too expensive for the Cowboys. Maybe Sterling Moore is a fourth corner. He had some moments. But if not, need one of those.
Oh, and since the Cowboys are going to this 4-3, and figure DeMarcus Ware will be a terror at weak-side defensive end, who might be his backup, someone else who can stick his hand on the ground and pressure the quarterback? Remember, Victor Butler is an unrestricted free agent, too.
Head swimming yet?
Now then, back to offense.
What are your thoughts about running back? Sure, DeMarco Murray is the guy, but with Felix Jones an unrestricted free agent and the likelihood of re-signing the sixth-year back unlikely, you feel good about a 5-8, 190-pounder (Lance Dunbar) the immediate backup to Murray? I'd think not. Probably need to draft one there or at least pick up an inexpensive veteran. Needs to be more than just a guy.!-- START EMBED CODE-->
Wide receiver? Got Dez for sure, but I hear all these cries to rid yourself of Miles Austin. OK, say the Cowboys do. Then what? Dwayne Harris, fine. But again, then what? Got anyone else on this roster capable of pulling down even the modest totals of 66 catches for 943 yards and six touchdowns that Austin had? Well, chances are if there is no Austin, you need someone else there, so again treading water instead of improving if he is not judged worth his $6.73 million base salary.
Tight end behind all-world Jason Witten, who was so deserving, by the way, of his Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award? James Hanna showed promise – as a receiver. But you need someone who can block as the second or third guy, and remember John Phillips also is an unrestricted free agent. Might need one of these.
Fullback? Lawrence Vickers as a lead blocker was, well, meh. Need a head-knocker in there.
Oh, and I hear all this clamoring for the Cowboys to draft a quarterback. Sure, but how high, since the guy will be no more than third string for the next two years – that is if you draft better than, oh, Stephen McGee. Do that at the expense of what, a safety or a running back, a 1-technique D-lineman, a guard? And consider, just because you take one in like the third round or lower, that doesn't mean he's going to be a keeper. Because for every Russell Wilson I can name you 10 guys like Colt McCoy, Pat White, John David Booty, John Beck, Brian Brohm, Ryan Flynn, Ingle Martin and Craig Nall [embedded_ad]
(by the way, the last four there all drafted by the quarterback draft gurus in Green Bay).
Sobering, isn't it. That's a whole lot of work to do in one offseason, especially with the impending salary cap headaches the Cowboys must either mitigate or migrate their way through. Prioritizing will be highly important. As will a heavy dose of frugality.
So how close? Two feet away? Or an overwhelming chasm as wide as the Mississippi?
Somehow, with all of this – and a slew of injuries – the Cowboys managed to finish 8-8, and for the second straight year the only team in the NFC east playing for the division title in the final game of the season both times
Close, absolutely. Good enough, absolutely not.