A fantastic five shall lead the way
The root of most of the Cowboys' troubles in 2015 can be easily pinpointed: In the 12 games that quarterback Tony Romo missed because of a broken left collarbone they went 1--11; in the four games he started they were 3--1. Just having a healthy Romo throwing to All-Pro receiver Dez Bryant (who missed seven games due to a broken right foot) would help an offense that last year finished 31st in scoring.
The defense, however, also struggled. It came up with only 11 takeaways and 31 sacks in 2015, ranking last and tied for 25th in the NFL, respectively. Though corner Orlando Scandrick returns after missing all of '15 with a right ACL tear, at the start of this season Dallas will be without three starters due to suspensions: linebacker Rolando McClain (10 games) and defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence (four games) and Randy Gregory (four games). Dallas's D will clearly be a work in progress this year.
The defensive issues were no secret to coach Jason Garrett, owner Jerry Jones and his son Stephen, the team's vice president, when they met at the beginning of the year to discuss how they wanted to build their 2016 roster. But when they didn't see a difference-making pass rusher available, they chose to change their off-season emphasis. "The biggest thing that kept coming up was that the strength of the team was clearly our offensive line," Stephen Jones says. "So [we asked], 'How do we take advantage of that?'"
Their answer: Draft Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick, the highest Dallas had taken a running back since choosing Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett second in 1977. The Cowboys' view was that adding Elliott gives them a trio of capable runners (with Darren McFadden and free-agent pickup Alfred Morris from Washington), which will allow the offense to take even greater control of the time of possession—Dallas ranked 13th last year—and keep the beleaguered defense off the field. The addition of Elliott could also help the 36-year-old Romo stay healthy. One of the rookie's many appealing traits: In 108 pass-blocking snaps for the Buckeyes in 2015 he allowed just one quarterback pressure.
For the most part, though, the 6-foot, 225-pound Elliott is in Dallas to take advantage of others' blocking. The offensive line, which comprises five homegrown starters, ranked as the best run-blocking and pass-blocking unit last year, according to Pro Football Focus. Over the past two seasons Dallas has rushed for 4,244 yards, good for third most in the NFL, while getting only 180 of those yards from its quarterbacks. (Compare that with a combined 2,577 QB rushing yards for the two higher-ranked teams, the Seahawks and the Panthers.) Last year it was McFadden who benefited the most from the team's dominant hogs, as he rushed for 1,089 yards—nearly doubling his average over his previous four seasons in Oakland.
The talent on the O-line allows for simplicity in scheme. In 2015 the Cowboys ran outside zone on 47.7% of their handoffs, the fifth-highest rate in the league, while their second-most frequent run play was the blast. These two basic rushing plays are found in every NFL playbook. "We definitely don't try to trick anyone," says right guard Zack Martin, one of the line's three All-Pros.
But if the line carries the team as far as the Cowboys think it can, that will be an impressive trick indeed.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
If the Cowboys are to regain their form of 2014, when their running backs averaged a league-best 142.9 yards per game, they'll need 1) Tony Romo back healthy, calling run-play audibles at the line of scrimmage and 2) improved play from the most talented O-line in football. The group's headliner is the spring-footed left tackle Tyron Smith. But the keystone is 25-year-old center Travis Frederick(left). Dallas is primarily an outside zone running team, which requires the front five to stretch blocks toward the sideline and pin defenders back inside. The center's job is the most difficult: Not only must he snap the ball before firing into his block, but opponents also align their largest D-linemen over his head or shoulder. Frederick is one of the NFL's best at quickly getting around that defender. He'll need to keep up that pace in '16 to get the Dallas run game back on track.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 10--6
2015 Record: 4--12
SEPT. 11 vs.NYG [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 atWAS
SEPT. 25 vs.CHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 2 atSF [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 vs.CIN [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 16 atGB
OCT. 30 vs.PHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 6 atCLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 13 atPIT
NOV. 20 vs.BAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 24 vs.WAS [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 1 atMIN
DEC. 11 atNYG
DEC. 18 vs.TB [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 26 vs.DET [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 atPHI
= PREDICTED WINNER