Are the Cowboys Still Contenders?

Heading into the 2015 NFL season, many sports analysts had the Dallas Cowboys contenders for the Superbowl. Even though they had lost DeMarco Murray to rivals Philadelphia Eagles, they had brought in Darren McFadden, Greg Hardy, Lael Collins, drafted Byron Jones, and extended the contracts of Orlando Scandrick and Dez Bryant. After a 12-4 record last year and winning the division, they fell short to Green Bay in the divisional game after a controversial call. This season so far, the Cowboys have started 2-1 and sit on top the NFC East division. However, both of those wins have come with huge losses. In the first game against the New York Giants, wide receiver Dez Bryant had fractured his right foot and is expected to miss ten to twelve weeks. In week two, quarterback Tony Romo sustained a broken collarbone against the Philadelphia Eagles as is supposed to return in eight weeks. Both Bryant and Romo are a crucial part for the Cowboys, and losing both players for an extended period of time could have playoff implications.

Last year, Tony Romo posted one of his best efficient seasons up to date. Romo threw for 3,705 yards with a 70% completion rate, tossed 34 touchdowns along with 9 interceptions, and had the best quarterback rating in his career with 113.2. He is also ranked at third for value per play and fifth with overall value. When compared with the NFL, the cowboys boasted the 4th best passing game. Dez Bryant is another cornerstone of the Cowboys offense. Since his rookie season, he has 56 touchdowns in the past six years, second to only Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots. Bryant is also extremely reliable, only missing missing one game in the past five years. Last year, he caught for 1,320 yards and led the NFL with 16 TD receptions. His total value and value per play was ranked fifth for both categories for wide receivers in the NFL. However, the Cowboys had DeMarco Murray. DeMarco Murray had a career season last year, rushing for 1,849 yards and 13 touchdowns. This eased a lot of pressure from the passing game. Murray was ranked 1st for total value and 5th for value per play. His explosive season was one of the reasons for the success of the Cowboys.

But, these players these three who had a profound impact on the Cowboys last season and directly contributed to the playoff run, are either not with the team or out for an extended period of time. In addition, the Cowboys also have a somewhat difficult schedule until Thanksgiving. The Cowboys play a couple of current 0.500 and up teams, including the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers. They also play last year Superbowl runner-up Seattle Seahawks during this stretch and have two divisional games against the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles. Losing even a couple of games can have playoff implications, especially because the Cowboys have an equally tough schedule after thanksgiving, having to play the Buffalo Bills, the Green Bay Packers, and the New York Jets.

In order to contend for the Superbowl, major changes would need to happen. Backup quarterback Brandon Weeden would need to step up and take control of the offense. During his couple of years playing for the Cleveland Browns, he was less than average and was favored out by coaches during his second year. Weeded did start one game last year against the Arizona Cardinals, but failed to perform after throwing for 183 years and tossing 2 interceptions in a 17-28 loss. However, there are some bright spots for the Cowboys. Finishing the game for Tony Romo against the Eagles, he went 7/7, threw 73 yards, and also had a touchdown. The offensive line was also ranked number one last year and this could help starting running back Joseph Randle. Though playing second fiddle to DeMarco Murray last year, he ended the season with 6.7 yards per carry off 51 attempts and three touchdowns, which ranked first for running backs with at least 50 attempts. Also, second string wide receiver Terrance Williams looks to step into Bryants shoes. Even though he was ranked 21st for overall value, he was ranked second for value per play. He also reeled in eight touchdowns for 621 yards. But, the defense would need to step up if they want to win games. Two seasons ago, the Cowboys had one of the worst defenses which was ranked 30th. Last year, they raised manys expectations they improved to 22nd even though they lost Sean Lee. This year, many are expecting to Cowboys to be better because of their offseason moves. Currently, they rank 14th in passing, but 22th in run defense. These rankings should improve when Rolondo McClain and Greg Hardy return from their four game suspension in week five to play the New England Patriots.

In week three, the Cowboys had their first experience without Bryant and Romo when they played the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. They had started the first half in an excellent fashion, leading 28-17. Weeded was nearly perfect, going 13/14 for 164 wards with an interception. Joseph Randle ran for 92 yards and three touchdowns and Darren McFadden also scored from the two yard line. However, the second half proved to be a different story. Randle fished the game with 87 yards, while Weeden threw for only 68 yards more yards. But, it was the defense that could not contain the Falcons. The Falcons scored 25 unanswered point en route to a 39-28 victory. Davonte Freeman exposed the porous Cowboys run defense, rushing for 141 yards and three touchdowns. Julio Jones caught 12 receptions for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Last week, the Cowboys defense was ranked 5th overall, but now they ranked 21th after a dismal second half performance. After an explosive first half, the Cowboys fell off the radar and could not impact the game.

The Cowboys do have the personal and quality of players to possibly set up a late title run in the playoffs if they are able to continue their success, which can be especially seen in the first half of the game with the Falcons. Randle was effective as the Cowboys and Weeden did not play badly, but they were unable to play a complete game. If they loose too many games as the offense falters and the defense does not step up, then the Cowboys might just have to look forward for next season to build a title run.

All statistics from Football Outsiders, ESPN, or Heavy.

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