New York Jets Opponent Spotlight: Dallas Cowboys

David Aitken takes a closer look at the 4-9 Dallas Cowboys, the New York Jets week 15 opponent

The New York Jets take their first ever trip to Jerry World to play their second Thursday Night Football match-up of the season…on Saturday night. Since everybody loves hearing about the Cowboys win, lose or draw, here are five interesting topics that define the team’s recent past, present and future.

Normally, the Cowboys are exactly the kind of team you hope to play in December. There are bad teams that expect to be bad, usually in the early phases of a rebuilding process. Those teams can get a little better as the year goes on and can actually gain some confidence toward the end of the season. Then there are teams like the Cowboys that came into the season with big expectations, saw them crumble before their eyes, and fans are counting down the days until the pain and misery can finally end. Except for this Cowboys team, they’re actually not giving up yet. Somehow, someway, the 4-9 Cowboys are still mathematically alive in the playoffs.

NFC Least

If you have ever expressed your annoyance to a fan of an NFC East team about how the division somehow seems to get half of the primetime games every year, sometimes it is justified by the response of “it’s the most competitive division in the league!” Even though it’s not really the reason these teams get so much national limelight every season, it’s a stance hard to argue against. Each team has won the division once the last four years. In the past ten years, every team has made the playoffs at least three times. The Giants and Eagles both competed in a Super Bowl in the last eleven years. Historically, they’ve all won multiple Super Bowls besides the Eagles. And yet, if there was any year that could prove how competitive a division the NFC East always seems to be, it’s this year. When they’re bad, they’re all bad.

When Tony Romo suffered yet another injury setback, it was reported the Cowboys would wait to place Romo on injured reserve in the event that they could still win the division. Everyone laughed, but why not see what happens? The Giants have planned this season as a work of torture for their fan base and Chip Kelly’s Eagles blueprint has been to dismantle a team that probably would have sleepwalked to the division crown this year. The Redskins may actually be in the driver’s seat at the moment factoring in schedule, but they celebrated the chance to take a lead in the NFC East two weeks ago by losing to this struggling Dallas team. This is a division nobody wants to take control of, and it would almost be fitting if Dallas found a way to climb  back into the mix and win the division on a series of tiebreakers.

As insane as it is to say, the Jets and Cowboys find themselves in similar situations. They’ll have to win the last three games to have a real shot at the playoffs.

Life After Romo

The Cowboys at present are experiencing what a season without Romo means to their franchise. It is not good, especially when the next man up is a struggling has-been or a never-was. The question then becomes if the Cowboys, with Romo to be 36-years-old next April, should be thinking heavily about their future at quarterback as well as their present. While the Cowboys still have a slim shot at the playoffs, a number of more realistic fans undoubtedly have moved their minds to what next year may bring. The silver lining for Dallas is that they’re still in the running for the draft’s first overall selection and the franchise-changing power such a pick can hold.

With a fortunate twist here or there, a crushing season like this one for Dallas could be beneficial long-term. The 2011 Colts are the poster child for this, turning a season without Peyton Manning into a generation of Andrew Luck. This draft doesn’t have a Luck type of talent, but early signs show it does have some talented prospects, led by California’s Jared Goff. Jerry Jones has been shrewd in the draft lately, particularly in ignoring flash and focusing on building the league’s most talented young line. If this season finishes as badly for Dallas as it’s been so far, the draft’s biggest storyline could be whether Jerry Jones grabs an instant impact player versus a blue chip quarterback to sit behind Romo for a few seasons.

Everybody Hates Greg

Nobody likes Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy. The general public doesn’t like him for obvious reasons and even the Cowboys are beginning to sound as if he is not worth the trouble. The Jets aren’t going to like him very much either on Saturday night, for very different reasons.

In terms of on-field impact, Hardy is a player with rare ability that can cause the Jets a lot of issues and turn this into the trap game that fans are fearing. His numbers don’t jump off the page, but having missed the first four games they show his impact: he is tied as the team leader in sacks with DeMarcus Lawrence and leads the team in run stops, per Pro Football Focus. His explosion off the line should be a lot for Giacomini to handle, while he’s the type of big-strong-explosive pass rusher that could bully a regressing D’Brickashaw Ferguson on certain snaps. He sees 75% of his snaps on the right side of the defense, so it’ll largely be on Brick to mitigate Hardy’s impact.

How Could I Live Without You? 

Of all the divorces seen from the onset of last March’s free agency, has any been as mutually fruitless as the Cowboys and Demarco Murray? Granted, when you look into the realities of free agency it is easy to understand why it played out the way it did. Murray was only seeing a major deal from the Eagles and Dallas knew there were better ways to spend their limited cap space. Still, the change of scenery has played out far worse than either of them could have imagined.

When Murray was sold on the Eagles by Chip Kelly, Chip probably didn’t mention he would be cutting former All-Pro guard Evan Mathis a few months later.  Chip Kelly is also guilty of fooling himself, thinking for whatever reason that a player who made his name as a downhill runner was worth such a massive gamble in a scheme relying on lateral, slow-developing zone running plays. Murray himself though can’t escape some blame either, showing telltale signs of the “curse of 370.” Initially signed as a seamless replacement for LeSean McCoy, there’s an argument to be made for him not starting altogether.

Meanwhile the Cowboys’ plan to rely on a stable of backs wasn’t a bad idea, but where they find themselves now cries out for a reliable, workhorse back. For one, with the loss of Romo the Cowboys have all season tried to lean on the running game without the one running back they could lean on specifically. The Joseph Randle hype died quickly and he was released midseason for off-the-field issues. Lance Dunbar, more a receiving back than a pure runner, tore his ACL in October. Darren McFadden has now been cast in a role that he could barely perform in his prime years ago.  He has provided some bright moments, but perhaps it could have been different if Jerry Jones decided to take a shot on a player like Ryan Mathews or Justin Forsett rather than one from his Alma Mater.

Dezperate Times

Even for a player that has missed five games and played most of his games without his starting quarterback, Dez Bryant’s lack of production is shocking. Extrapolate his statistics for a 16-game season and he has just 54 catches, 702 yards and 4 touchdowns. Forget about the Jets figuring out a way to stop Dez Bryant, the Cowboys themselves have done a pretty good job.

There is a good chance that Bryant’s foot injury is bothering him and hurting his level of play, but he still isn’t seeing the opportunities he should be. Bryant has gotten double-digit targets just once this season, simply unacceptable for a player that good and on an offense with no one better to get the ball to. By comparison, Brandon Marshall has seen at least ten targets in eight games this year. The Bengals and Chiefs, two teams that throw the ball roughly the same amount as the Cowboys, target their respective number one receivers much more frequently. Maclin sees 9.09 targets a game and has five with double-digit targets, A.J. Green sees 8.23 targets a game and has three games with double-digit targets. Dez Bryant sees just 7.25 targets a game.

Perhaps the Cowboys gave up on Brandon Weeden too quickly, who did not even get a start with a healthy Dez Bryant. That isn’t to say that Weeden is better than Cassel, but their abilities are more or less negligible and Weeden was in the system for two years as opposed to Cassel joining the team in late September. Chemistry issues aren’t uncommon between a receiver and quarterback with little time to work together, and Cassel throughout his career has been known to be wary of taking chances, perhaps to the Cowboys’ detriment.

*Greg Hardy data and WR target information courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Photo Credit: NFL Streaming