The NFC East looked like it could be one of the strongest divisions coming into the season, but, right now, it looks like it might be the worst division in the NFL. The Washington Redskins don't look like the same team with Robert Griffin III not 100 percent, the Philadelphia Eagles have an explosive offense but a porous defense, and the New York Giants … well, I think they're done at 0-5.
The division is clearly there for the taking for the Dallas Cowboys, who proved Sunday in a loss to the Denver Broncos they are much improved from last season and the class of the NFC East. How much better are they than last season, and how far can they go?
One of the biggest reasons the Cowboys are better this season is new offensive playcaller Bill Callahan. Under Callahan, the Cowboys are predominantly an "11" personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs) offense, with "12" personnel (one RB, two TEs, two WRs) as their secondary grouping. We pretty much never see two backs on the field together. Callahan has used two-tight end sets more and stuck to the running game with more regularity than Jason Garrett did as play caller.
Although Miles Austin was inactive on Sunday, Dallas has plenty of weapons at its disposal. Dez Bryant is a truly special talent and the guy every opponent tries to take away. But by doing so, the rest of these weapons are set up extremely well to step up. And, as Denver found out Sunday, taking Bryant away is no easy chore.
Jason Witten might not be quite what he once was in terms of explosiveness and quickness, but he is as savvy, sure-handed and reliable as ever. He beat the Broncos' quicker linebackers in man coverage with regularity on Sunday or sat down in holes in zones to give Tony Romo a great target. Sunday also might have been a coming-out party for Terrance Williams, who made several big plays against single-man coverage Sunday. Williams is a big-play option who is coming into his own in a very favorable environment. Romo also spread the ball around to receivers likeGavin Escobar, Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris. Romo is gaining more faith in these supplementary options, and, like his counterpart on Sunday, Peyton Manning, Romo doesn't force feed one guy -- instead just throwing to the open man.
While the personnel groupings and play calling are more advantageous for this Cowboys roster than last season's, maybe the biggest key to Dallas' impressive offense is a vastly improved offensive line. Callahan made his bones as one of the most respected O-line coaches around and clearly stresses this area of his offense more than most. Last season, after Tyron Smith switched to left tackle and Doug Free to right tackle, Free simply had a brutal time. Smith struggled, by his standards, with the change, but he is a remarkable specimen who is now knocking on the door to be one of the best left tackles in the game. Needless to say, both Free and Smith are much more comfortable now than in 2012 and have found their ideal positions. At center, the Cowboys were bashed by many for their very late first-round selection of Travis Frederick. Well, Dallas is getting the last laugh there. He has been a little up and down during the first five professional games but very much has the look of a longtime starter at the pivot. Lastly, Brian Waters now looks to be in football shape and is a huge upgrade at right guard.
DeMarco Murray is having a great season behind this line and has provided Dallas with a running game it can now count on, which was very far from the case last season. The Cowboys still have a habit of getting away from their running game sometimes -- and we saw that again Sunday -- although Callahan can hardly be blamed since Romo was carving Denver up through the air. While Murray lacks great agility, he runs with great conviction and can set the tone for the offense with his downhill style.
Now that Romo has weapons, a running game and protection, he is flourishing. I thought he put the Cowboys on his back last season and his play was largely overlooked by much of the football community. But he is playing even better this season and put on a show Sunday with precise decision-making, perfect throws in terms of trajectory and touch, amazing improvisation with great poise and playmaking skill when the play broke down, and finished the day with a whopping 506 passing yards and five touchdowns. However, as will be discussed all week, he made a very bad read on the biggest drive of the game in the fourth quarter, leading to an interception and Denver's win. Such mistakes have occurred too often in big spotlight situations for Romo, no matter how outstanding he was for 98 percent of this game.
Defensively, the Cowboys hired Monte Kiffin, a Cover 2 guru, to take over as defensive coordinator. But Kiffin has thrown much more at opposing offenses than just a strict diet of Cover 2. This is of huge importance because Dallas used big free-agent money on CB Brandon Carr and traded up in the draft quite a ways to get CB Morris Claiborne in 2012, both of whom are much better in man than zone coverage. While Claiborne, who was beat several times by Eric Decker, and weakside linebacker Bruce Carter have struggled in coverage this season, Kiffin has not forced square pegs into round holes and has varied his coverages very effectively while still generating pressure from his front four. While DeMarcus Ware & Co. didn't pressure Manning much Sunday -- no one pressures Manning, so that isn't a fair criticism -- it has been a very good group overall at getting to quarterbacks, and George Selvie has been a real find in Anthony Spencer's absence.
Dallas played the majority of this game with four defensive linemen, two linebackers and three defensive backs and struggled quite a bit with Denver TE Julius Thomas, but this is a pretty solid defense overall on each level.
In standing toe-to-toe with the Broncos, the Cowboys proved they have far fewer flaws than any other team in the NFC East, and I fully expect them to win this division. But how far they go in the playoffs will fall ultimately on Romo's decision-making. He was nearly flawless in Week 5, but the one mistake he made cost the Cowboys the game. I believe the Cowboys are capable of making some noise in the NFC postseason, but, right now, I like Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans and Green Bay ahead of them.