The Dallas Cowboys surprised the entire NFL last season by winning 12 games and the NFC East division title.
Entering the season, Dallas was supposed to be somewhere between ‘rather ordinary’ and ‘absolutely terrible.’ It was coming off of an 8-8 season in which its defense was atrocious. Most folks expected much the same in 2014 and nothing special out of the Tony Romo-led offense. What the Cowboys delivered was much different.
Now heading into 2015, expectations are sky high. The reverse happened and Dallas needed to make a number of important moves this offseason to avoid the reverse happening throughout the season as well.
The most pressing move took place in the offensive backfield. Last year, the Cowboys had the second-best rushing attack in the league, trailing only the Seattle Seahawks.
Running back DeMarco Murray torched his competition at the position on his way to the NFL rushing title, eclipsing the second-place runner by nearly 500 yards! Dallas as a team averaged 4.6 yards per carry, tied for third overall, and scored 16 rushing touchdowns, tied for fifth.
It was an all-around spectacular unit thanks in part to Murray but also to the best offensive line in football. For 2015, Murray is out, replaced by free-agent acquisition Darren McFadden and incumbent Joseph Randle.
It has been a tough slog through a seven-year career thus far for McFadden. The former fourth-overall draft pick of the Oakland Raiders has never been able to put healthy seasons together.
With only Randle in tow, it now falls on McFadden to not only stay healthy but also carry, pardon the pun, what was an elite rushing attack only last season. In those seven years as a Raider, he never played 16 games in a season. McFadden never even topped 13 games in any one season. Despite the pedigree, he has only one 1,000-yard season to his name.
Murray had also had trouble staying healthy before last year, so perhaps running behind the Dallas offensive line rejuvenated his legs and the same could be done for McFadden. In all likelihood though, this unit is primed to take a major step backward.
That hurts Tony Romo and the rest of the offense. This group (assuming Dez Bryant signs his franchise tender) will look very similar to last year’s bunch outside of the RB position. But everyone played so splendidly last season that a significant drop in production from the backs could have a negative effect on everyone else.
The Cowboys will also be attempting to acclimate one new offensive lineman into their scheme: undrafted rookie La’el Collins.
Collins is not a normal undrafted free-agent signing. He was primed to be a first-round NFL Draft pick just days before the draft took place until news broke of the murder of his ex-girlfriend. He was taken in by police for questioning but was not charged with anything and was not considered a suspect.
Nevertheless, every team in the league shied away from selecting him. The Cowboys signed him to a contract after the fact and, assuming he has no legal issues moving forward, he may well be a starting lineman week one; he’s that talented.
The Dallas Cowboys organization made a couple of similar headline-making moves on defense as well. Besides signing Collins, Dallas also drafted mercurial rookie pass rusher Randy Gregory and signed free-agent end Greg Hardy.
Each of these moves individually could have easily been explained away. However, in the aggregate, the signings gave off the impression that Dallas didn’t care at all about character on its football team, whether that was a fair assumption or not.
Gregory plummeted on draft day (albeit not nearly as far as Collins) because of a failed drug test and concerns about his attitude and mental wherewithal heading into the NFL. Previously a possible top-10 pick, Gregory was taken 60th overall.
Hardy, meanwhile, is a proven NFL talent. He collected double-digit sacks in 2012 and 2013 before missing nearly all of last season. He is now in line to miss a majority of this season as well.
Hardy faced a 10-game unpaid suspension–which as of press time was reduced to four games–dealt with numerous legal issues stemming from domestic violence charges, although he faces no criminal charge in this recent incident because the victim failed to show up to court.
Both Hardy and Gregory are talented dudes capable of bringing this defense up a level if they can get on the field. That was the chance Dallas took, and it may end up being the right one. If neither pans out though, the defense could be the weak link on a team that has aspirations of making the Super Bowl.