Jeff Risdon. 7th August, 2008 - 6:19 pm
Last Season: 13-3, 1st in NFC East, lost divisional playoff round, +5 turnover ratio, +130 point differential
Additions: LB Zach Thomas, CB/KR Adam ?Pacman? Jones (maybe)
Subtractions: LB Akin Ayodele, CB Jacques Reeves, WR Terry Glenn, S Keith Davis, RB Julius Jones, TE Anthony Fasano, DT Jason Ferguson
Rookies of Note: CB Mike Jenkins, RB Felix Jones, RB Tashard Choice, TE Martellus Bennett
What I like
Offense: Continuity is the name of the game. Every starter except Julius Jones returns from a highly effective offensive unit, and Jones was the starting RB in name only. Marion Barber takes over the starting role although he?s been the back they rely on in key situations for years. His bruising running style and exceptional balance at top speed place Barber firmly among the upper echelon of RB's. I have little doubt he can handle an additional 5-8 carries per game now that Julius Jones has gone to Seattle. Barber gets knocked for not being a real good blocker or receiver although his pass blocking has improved, and he?s a willing hitter. The Cowboys drafted a pair of RB's to serve as backups. Felix Jones is the sexier name, with his blazing speed and outrageous yards per carry average, but I?m of the belief Tashard Choice might wind up being the better fit here, if he can stay healthy. His hands out of the backfield and a more patient, shifty style is a nice contrast to the hellbent-at-all-times Jones and the power of Barber. Regardless, the Cowboys have a stable of runners they can rely upon.
Tony Romo has played his way to the last two Pro Bowls and answered a lot of questions regarding his 2006 playoff choke job and romantic diversions. He moves very well in the pocket and has better running ability than most QB's, but what makes Romo special is that he has a preternatural command of pressure. Having a good arm and confidence in his ability to make tight throws helps that calm and cool presence. Also helping that confidence is his mind-meld chemistry with Terrell Owens who proved, that when he shuts up and plays, he is among the best in the league. TO was a physical nightmare who extended his range down the field last year, running deeper routes and remaining lethal after the catch. He?s also a top-notch blocker and a major red zone threat with his size and precise fundamentals.
The Cowboys also have the best TE in the game in Jason Witten. Tony Gonzalez might catch more balls, Antonio Gates might be more athletic, but Witten is consistently outstanding in all facets of the game. He has enough speed to stretch the field a little, great hands, exceptional footwork, sound blocking, and he competes 100% on every snap. Witten is perhaps the best 3rd down target in the game, and the Cowboys understand how get him favorable matchups by moving him around, splitting him wide or bringing him in motion. Wideout Patrick Crayton thrived in the slot, netting 50 catches and 7 TDs with his shiftiness and knack for finding the hole between the LB's and safeties.
Up front the Cowboys feature 3 returning Pro Bowlers in LT Flozell Adams, RG Leonard Davis, and C Andre Gurode. Davis was a revelation in the run blocking game, often erasing the defenders with his 350+ pound mass and newfound nastiness. Gurode and Adams benefitted from the 13-3 record in terms of Pro Bowl merit, but both are very solid starters who seldom lose individual battles. It?s one of the rare lines that excels at both run blocking and pass blocking, and it is a veteran line with solid experience playing together.
Defense: When Wade Phillips took over as Head Coach, he brought with him a more attacking style of the base 3-4 defense. That change brought out the best in OLB DeMarcus Ware, who stepped up as one of the elite pass rushers in the league. Too fast around the edge but strong enough to counter inside, Ware wreaks havoc on opposing tackles and gets to the QB with an eerily similarity to the late, great Derrick Thomas. Ware also improved his run integrity on the edge, shedding blockers and reading lanes more quickly. He and fellow OLB Greg Ellis often both flank the ends, presenting a confusing 5-man front that keeps offenses off-guard. Ellis is the reigning Comeback Player of the Year thanks to his 12.5 sack output following a 2006 lost to an Achilles injury. Young Anthony Spencer provides another pass-rushing OLB who fits well in the scheme.
The linemen aren?t as dynamic as most 3-4 front men (think Patriots and Chargers), but Dallas has a solid group that effectively does the job at hand. NT Jay Ratliff surprised everyone with his solid move inside, showing a pugnacious nature heretofore unknown. Ends Chris Canty and Jason Hatcher hold their own against the run but have enough ability to rush the passer to really free up the outside for Ware and Ellis. Marcus Spears has not lived up to expectations as a 1st round pick, but he has been a solid starter who now looks to provide depth with Hatcher.
So long as his groin injury suffered in camp doesn?t linger, Terrence Newman gives the Cowboys a legit Pro Bowler at one corner spot. Newman is capable of handling receivers with both size and speed, and he is a proven playmaker on the corner. The rest of the CB pecking order is highly dependent on if and when Adam ?Pacman? Jones gets reinstated by the league. If Jones gets clearance to play, the Cowboys have themselves another playmaker in the secondary and a freakish athlete with pretty developed natural coverage skills. If Jones fails in his quest for reinstatement or has to serve a few more games of suspension, veteran Anthony Henry will stick at CB and compete with 1st round rookie Mike Jenkins for the #2 spot. Henry is generally better in coverage and worse in run support than his reputation, making the long-alleged move to safety somewhat puzzling, but he?s a reliable, physical cover man with good size and football IQ. Jenkins was the best cover corner in college football about half the time he was on the field for USF last season, but it?s that other half of the snaps that worried some scouts. Much like Jones, Jenkins has a bad habit of doing his own thing, which often leads to big plays either for or against his own team. Also like Jones, he tries to deliver the highlight reel hit on every tackle, often to amusing failure but occasional with brutal effectiveness. If Jenkins matures quickly, the Cowboys might not even need Pacman, as they will have three capable cover men. They also have Pro Bowl safety Ken Hamlin, who ranks as one of the better coverage safeties in the league. The other safety Roy Williams also made the Pro Bowl, but this is more of an indictment on the pointlessness of the honor than on actual merit. More on Williams later, but the Cowboys have done a decent job of covering for his inadequacies in return for his physically imposing run support and proclivity for making illegal tackles that break opponents? legs. Overall, the secondary excels at forcing turnovers and providing very good short and intermediate pass coverage, and it?s one of the deepest secondaries in the league.
Kicker Nick Folk and punter Mat McBriar both bring incredibly strong legs to the table, with Folk earning a Pro Bowl nod as a rookie last season. McBriar has a strangely devoted cult following amongst Cowboy fans, but as someone who still worships my Craig Ehlo poster, I?m not going to insult them for loving a decent but eminently replaceable role player.
What I dislike
Offense: No real complaints with the starters, but beyond that 11 the picture gets real bleak, real quick. Other than RB and perhaps G, the depth on offense ranges from anemic to downright embarrassing. The most notable chasm is at backup QB, currently manned by Brad Johnson. Johnson is 40 with a weak arm and the mobility of Drew Bledose, which was the primary reason why Tony Romo ever got a shot in the first place. I still have a few unanswered questions about Romo himself (his 4-7 record in December and beyond, his penchant for off-field distractions with blond singers, competitive fire or lack thereof), but the Cowboys are in real deep trouble if Romo doesn?t take every snap from center this season. As of this writing, the Chris Simms and Byron Leftwich rumors are just that although Jerry Jones would be wise to act on them - both of them.
That ugly thought becomes much more probable if one of the two starting tackles, Flozell Adams and Marc Colombo, goes down with injury. Consider Adams is 33, weighs a ham sandwich or six north of 340 and racked up a buffet full of penalties last year, and Colombo missed more than 70% of his first 5 seasons due to injuries. Colombo hasn?t missed a game in two seasons with Dallas, which is either a newfound healthy trend or a postponement of the inevitable. The only proven capable reserve on the OL is Pat McQuistan, one of those classic utility linemen who play for 10 years with about 8 career starts, and he fits best at guard. Those playoff dreams evaporate quickly if Adams, Leonard Davis, or Andre Gurode suffers a season-ending injury.
The wide receiver position isn?t as dire as some detractors would have you believe, but it is heavily reliant on TO remaining healthy and a cast of young, unproven receivers. Sam Hurd, Isaiah Stanback, and Miles Austin all have speed and varying degrees of potential, but they have a combined 29 career receptions in 4 full seasons (Hurd has 24 of them). Owens is 35 years old, with a fickle persona and a growing aversion to catching passes between the hash marks. Because they utilize superb TE Jason Witten so well, basically as the de facto #2 receiver, their lack of proven depth and experience is somewhat mitigated. If either Owens or Witten misses any sort of time or unexpectedly fall off, that mitigation morphs quickly to desperation. Patrick Crayton is a stretch as a #2 WR (although a very good #3), and he would be the #1 if TO goes/melts down.
Defense: Once again, it?s difficult to find fault with the starting 11, or at least 10 of those starters, anyway. Safety Roy Williams just might be the worst pass defender in any secondary in the last decade, an eminently exploitable liability who cannot shed the giant bullseye placed upon him by opposing offensive coordinators. Why they haven?t asked Williams to add 10-15 pounds and move to linebacker just baffles me, because he is a fearsome hitter with great run-stopping instincts.
The other potential pitfall is at inside linebacker. Bradie James is a solid overall player who rarely misses a tackle, but he has his limitations, particularly in deeper coverage. The other starter will be Zach Thomas, one of my favorite neckless persons of all time. Thomas has been a tackling machine and bundle of intensity for the Dolphins for over a decade, but there are valid questions about what he?s got left. He missed most of last season with both a neck injury and post-concussion syndrome; he?s 35 and has played 13 seasons as an undersized middle linebacker known for violent hits, and he has to transition to a new defensive system. That?s asking a lot but I would never doubt Thomas? work ethic or will. The backups are 1st round bust-to-be Bobby Carpenter and coverage specialist Kevin Burnett, who the team likes to play exclusively as the nickel backer. It?s not a bad group, but it?s probably the most exploitable weakness on the defense.
The team chemistry is certainly a major issue to watch. Romo is affable, but his love life is often front-page tabloid news, which can rub some the wrong way, as can his goofball persona and perceived lack of seriousness. Owens is a bigger diva than Whitney Houston and Cher combined; he kept it largely in check in 07, but his needy, selfish persona requires constant mollification to avoid the meltdowns of SF and PHI. The two defensive additions Jones and Thomas couldn?t be more polar opposites. Jones is a miscreant hoping to return from being banned from the league for a plethora of police blotter activities; Thomas is a blue collar, native Texan with little use for nonsense and bravado, false or otherwise. Coach Phillips gives a great deal of latitude (some would say rope) to his players, which means this team can turn from ?The Young and the Restless? to the episode of ?The Jerry Springer Show? where the trailer trash redneck girl brought home the black-power gangsta to the fat, mouthy mama and shotgun-toting stepdaddy/uncle.
Best Case: The freakish run of good luck on the injury front continues; much of what went right in 2007 carries over, from the strong OL to the Romo-TO connection to the consistent QB pressure from all angles by the defense; the team doesn?t limp to the finish as it did last year, losing 3 of its last four games (including playoffs) as well as an ugly win over the lowly Lions just before that string. On paper, this is the best team in the NFC and it would be no surprise to see the Cowboys host the NFC Championship game and advance to the Super Bowl.
Worst Case: That bad finish is a sign of things to come and not just an indication that the team peaked too early last year. The chemistry experiment with all the volatile and individualistic personalities blows up. The injury bug bites extracts virulent revenge, particularly to the offense. TO, Thomas, and Adams all show their ages. This was arguably the best team on paper in the NFC in each of the last two seasons, and they?ve yet to win a playoff game. Anything less than exorcising that ignominy will make 2008 another failed season.
Bellwether Games: There are many intriguing games, including the opener at Cleveland followed by a home date with the rival Eagles, but for a team built to play into late January the games that matter most are those down the stretch. On Thanksgiving, the Cowboys play host to Seattle, travel to Pittsburgh, then return home for a date with the Giants. Both the Seahawks and Giants are capable of deep playoff runs, and it?s never an easy trip to Pittsburgh in December. If Dallas rolls to a 2-1 or 3-0 mark in that stretch, they should earn homefield advantage through the NFC playoffs and have confidence and momentum headed into those playoffs. Winning only one or the horror of being swept in all three will mean that even if this team somehow squeaks into the playoffs, it?s one and done again.
Prediction: Last season I went out on a limb and predicted the Cowboys would unexpectedly struggle to an 8-8 finish. Some might find that foolish, but I?m going to call it overly prescient, a year too early for the surprisingly weak record. Once again, this is the best team in the NFC on paper, but once again the games aren?t decided on paper. The injury bug, soap opera drama, difficult schedule, and negative karma for adding Pacman Jones all conspire to derail the assumption of greatness. They could very well make me eat my words again, but I see Dallas opening no better than 1-2 and winding up no better than 9-7, once again failing to win a playoff game.
Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com, and no, I?m not a Cowboy hater or the product of incestuous relations between my mother and an escaped convict/mental patient. You Cowboys fans loved it when I prematurely buried the Giants or continually insulted Dan Snyder and his Ethnic Slurs. Just don?t forget to also write if/when I?m proven right and you?re the one covered in rotten egg!