On a scale of 1-10, what's your level of concern about the Cowboys right now?
Willie Funk: At this point I'm fairly confident that my Sunday will be ruined by two things -- my fantasy football team and the Cowboys. Both seem unreasonably adept at underperforming. The play calling must get better. Jason Garrett is doing his very best Andy Reid and letting the line take the blame for allowing teams to tee off on the pass rush. That's the key in my opinion. They need to run the ball more to control the clock, set up the pass and keep the defense fresh. If that happens, I think the 'Boys have a chance to turn it around. That said, I'm not terribly confident in that happening, and I wouldn't exactly suggest banking on the turnaround starting in Baltimore next week.
Tom Ryle: About a 9.5. But the concern is mostly rooted in uncertainty. I look at the team, and I don't know what I see. They have some huge issues offensively, have had some problems on special teams, and this has put too much pressure on a defense that has played some very good quarters so far. It mystifies me, because this is not what I saw Jason Garrett and his staff trying to put together in the preseason. The team, I believe, has the talent to win, and a staff that can call the games well enough to do so. But, except for the first game, they have just been somehow incomplete on the field. And I do not understand why. The need a good game against the Ravens - not necessarily a win, but a competitive effort for 60 minutes. Otherwise, 8-8 may be too much to hope for.
What's been the biggest reason for the Cowboys struggles through the first four games?
Funk: Inconsistency or they're just plain bad. It's the obvious answer, but a fair one too. They came out strong against a decimated Giants secondary in week one, but since then it's been a real struggle on offense. People love to jump on the offensive line, and they do deserve a solid deal of the blame, but the Giants have one of the best pass rushes in the league and it wasn't a struggle to score against them. Then again, even the Browns offense looked good against Big Blue.
The other part of the equation is that the Cowboys started to play good teams (sans Tampa). After watching them play the Seahawks and Bears, there's the obvious possibility that they're just not very good. Part of that is play calling and an inability to establish an offensive rhythm, and part of it is that they haven't played well, but really they're just not what we hoped after week one.
Archie Barberio: It's very simple to pinpoint the struggles the Cowboys have had in the first quarter of the season. The answer is mistakes and mental errors. I really don't know why this team is making all of the mistakes they are committing. Jason Garrett is known as a coach who really approaches the game with conquering fundamentals, but his team is still making maddening mistakes during key plays in the game. The Cowboys have been able to move the football down the field, but their errors cost them points on the scoreboard.
Does Romo's 5 INT game last Monday tell us anything about him we didn't already?
Funk: It was just another reminder that he's a bad Ben Roethlisberger. Like Big Ben, he extends plays. Unlike Big Ben, he consistently does dumb stuff when he does. He's completely abandoned his running ability and forces the ball instead. He always over-relied on Jason Witten, and now that Witten has lost a step (and apparently his hands too) he's going to struggle more. He's a good quarterback, but he can't carry a team to a title a la Brady or Manning. That said, you can still with him behind center -- hell, Trent Dilfer won a damn title. Really all it did was serve as a reality check for those delusional Cowboys fans who put on for him like he's Peyton Manning.
Barberio: Fans are going to take a lot of the blame and place it on Tony Romo, but I have never really felt that he was the problem in Dallas. Two of those interceptions can be attributed to the wide receivers, and another one can be partly blamed on right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau's inability to block Bears defensive lineman Henry Melton. If Romo can't play nearly perfect football, then the Cowboys lose. Romo is probably trying to do too much on every play because in order for the Cowboys to win he has to play like Superman.
Romo can be one of the best quarterbacks in the game, but I don't know if he will ever take the Cowboys far because the lack of an offensive line is preventing the offense from taking it to the next level. If he had a capable offensive line, Romo would definitely be elite.
What's happened to DeMarco Murray in the last three weeks? How do the Cowboys get the running game going?
Barberio: DeMarco Murray has superstar potential. He is a strong and powerful running back with elite size, but he also has the speed to be a home run threat. Murray isn't the reason why the Cowboys aren't running the football successfully. The offensive line is very inconsistent and lacks the talent necessary to push the defensive line back. Murray continues to get hit in the backfield before he even makes it to the line of scrimmage.
From a scheme standpoint, it may be effective for the Cowboys to continue getting Murray the ball in the receiving game. Murray has been very effective coming out of the backfield, so we may see more swing passes. Jason Garrett did this in 2010 when his offensive line became ineffective, and the swing passes and running back passes became a large part of the Cowboys' running game.
I don't know if the Cowboys will ever get their running game going in 2012. Tyron Smith and Nate Livings are keepers, but the rest of the offensive looks like they need to be upgraded. Doug Free looked better against the Bears, but he still hasn't regained his form from a few years ago. The line needs a serious talent infusion, hopefully we see an upgrade to the offensive line next offseason like we saw with the secondary this year.
In hindsight, should Dallas have made different decisions on the offensive line in the offseason?
Barberio: Yes but I wasn't overly excited with the changes that were made in the offseason. I thought the offensive line would improve, but I still didn't expect this line to become a very good one in just one offseason. The Cowboys totally ignored the offensive line in the draft. Jerry Jones should have invested some picks on the offensive line in the draft, especially on the interior lineman positions. I don't know if they could have afforded Brandon Carr and a marquee interior offensive lineman, but I really don't have an issue with locking up the secondary the way they did.
The lack of focus on the offensive line has gone on for a while now, so we can't look back to the 2012 offseason as the only failure to address the needs. Outside of Tyron Smith in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Cowboys have basically attempted to solve their problems on the line with low-level signings and late-round draft picks. That may have worked for Jimmy Johnson, but it clearly isn't working in Dallas. If I were the general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, I would devote my entire offseason and draft on the offensive line. If this team had a good offensive line, they would be a very good football team.
How has the Cowboys D-Line fared in Jay Ratliff's absence and what impact will he have when he returns?
Ryle: The defensive line has been mostly more effective than I would have guessed, especially with the additional missed games by Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears. However, Ratliff just isn't an impact player, he is an emotional leader out there as well. He can only improve things by his return. Given that the D-line has been pretty good so far, they could be excellent with J-Rat back in place.
Barberio: Actually the play of the defensive line has been a surprise this year. For the most part the defensive line is elevating their game and playing very good football. Josh Brent was a player that I have always admired. Brent has been very good since he has taken over as the starting nose tackle in Jay Ratliff's departure. Brent is more of the "space-eater" type of nose tackle that can stuff the run and occupy multiple blockers. With Brent, the Cowboys have more of a prototypical nose tackle. The rest of the defensive line has been pretty solid.
Jason Hatcher continues to grow into one of the better five-technique defensive ends in football, but rookie Tyrone Crawford is starting to come on strong as well. Sean Lissemore received a well-deserved contract extension a few weeks ago. Lissemore has been very disruptive and looks like he will be a big part of the defensive line going forward. The Cowboys have their most talented defensive line in a very long time, but they could still use one more pass rushing defensive end.
Ratliff's return offers Rob Ryan to be a lot more versatile along the defensive line. I would love to see more four-man fronts because Ratliff can be the disruptive pass rushing defensive tackle, while Brent could be the defensive tackle that takes up blockers and eliminates the run. Ratliff is beginning to wear down, but he is still one of the best defensive tackles in the game. If he can manage to stay healthy, Ratliff will be another weapon for this improved defense.
How good a player can Bruce Carter be?
Ryle: A near perfect compliment to Sean Lee. He is very fast, extremely athletic, and seems to have very good football smarts as well. And he is learning from the best young 3-4 ILB in the league, in my opinion. The fact they could be paired for the better part of the next decade, health permitting, is one of the most exciting prospects to consider about this team.
Barberio: Bruce Carter may not be a popular or well-known, but he has completely changed the Dallas defense. Bradie James and Keith Brooking were liabilities that opposing teams picked on when they were in coverage. Carter is a fantastic athlete who possesses sideline to sideline speed. The combination of Sean Lee and Bruce Carter gives the Cowboys one of the best linebacker tandems in the NFL.
I believe Carter can grow into one of the best linebackers in football. Now I am not saying he will be Patrick Willis or Brian Urlacher, but I envision Carter growing into a Navorro Bowman type of player. The Cowboys were really high on Bowman back in the 2010 NFL Draft, so I imagine they saw some of the same characteristics in Carter when they gave him a first round grade. I thought that Carter would elevate his game in his second season, but for such a young player he is really developing quickly.
How would you explain the lack of turnovers from the Dallas defense? Lack of talent or an aggressive coordinator doesn't seem to be the issue.
Ryle: I don't think you can explain this except for random chance and the bounce of the ball. There is not much else that can really be done about it - unless you can clone Sean Lee and put four or five more of him out there. My belief is that it will get better with time.
Funk: I really can't say, but the pass rush has to do better than it did against the great J'Marcus Webb and company last Monday night. That's where it all starts. More pressure means bad throws, less room to run, longer third downs and forces teams to take more risks. But to say the pressure has been bad isn't exactly accurate. Just a matter of time I'd say.