Cowboys: How to Replace the Irreplaceable


The Cowboys embark on the difficult task of replacing Dez Bryant and Randy Gregory.

The Cowboys avoided disaster by pulling out an improbable come-from-behind win over the New York Giants on Sunday. While they managed to escape the disappointing night with a win, they lost two vital pieces in the process.

Randy Gregory, already the Cowboys’ most dynamic edge rusher, will be out the next 4+ weeks nursing a high ankle sprain. Gregory was supposed to be the primary right defensive end (RDE) in the nickel defense, but his loss, coupled with Greg Hardy’s current 4-game suspension, forces Jeremy Mincey into a very heavy workload.

The Cowboys’ once-deep defensive line rotation is now in nearing crisis mode as they wait for Hardy and Gregory to return. Mincey, last season’s top producing DE, is a good player by all accounts, but it’s clear he doesn’t possess the same dynamic edge skills as the rookie.

DeMarcus Lawrence, manning the left the side of the line, actually graded out pretty well from week 1. He failed to get to the quarterback, but he displayed a deeper arsenal of pass-rush moves, controlled the edge, and kept the Giants working all night.

Ryan Russell and Jack Crawford can certainly factor into the DE rotation, but the bulk of the load must be carried by Lawrence and Mincey. Unfortunately that combination isn’t striking fear in anyone the Cowboys are facing the next few weeks.

The loss of Randy Gregory means the Cowboys will be relying on their recently extended 3-technique undertackle, now, more than ever.  Tyrone Crawford will need to help pick up the slack the next three weeks, because Lawrence and Mincey can’t do it on their own. The Cowboys need to generate a pass-rush from their front four or they risk exposing their confidence-deficient secondary.

It’s hard to understate the loss of Dez Bryant, yet that very thing seems to be happening everywhere. Numerous columns are calling the Gregory loss bigger than the Bryant loss. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Dallas Cowboys offense is built around Dez Bryant. Dez demands two, sometimes three defenders EVERY SNAP. He forces teams to respect the big play and, as a byproduct, opens things up for everyone else. Dez doesn’t even need to catch the ball to have a significant effect on the offense.

With no Dez, teams can pack the box to stop the run. Opposing defenses have been daring the other Cowboys receivers to beat them for years, and yet they’ve still struggled to get open. Terrance Williams is facing a big challenge these next few weeks as defenses shift more attention to him.

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Can we rely on Williams to be a legitimate big-play threat now that defenses are more focused on him? Jason Witten will get his plays, but when was the last time you’ve seen him pick up consistent yardage after the catch (YAC)? Nope, Witten gets open and catches the ball. He also gets tackled immediately. It’s a valuable asset, but nothing remotely close to what Dez Bryant provides.

The Cowboys will need to fundamentally change their offense while Dez is out the next 6-10 weeks. And yes, it could very well be 10 weeks. The Cowboys offense will look more like Sunday’s short passing offense than the run-heavy, big play juggernaut we’ve grown accustomed to with Dez Bryant.

The Cowboys proved they can win this new way, but it’s a much tougher road with a greater potential for mistakes. The running backs this season will need to grind it out more than DeMarco ever did last season, because the defense doesn’t need to fear the passing game.

You just can’t replace the irreplaceable.

Witten and Williams now change from the opposition’s secondary concerns, to primary concerns.  Check-downs to Dunbar, Joseph Randle, and Darren McFadden will continue in the passing game, and goal line plays will get a whole lot tougher.

The losses of both Randy Gregory and Dez Bryant are significant ones. These players are irreplaceable to the Cowboys, so the Cowboys will have to adapt and change their strategy — and expectations.

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