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2009 Season Preview: Dallas Cowboys
Jeff Risdon. 3rd August, 2009 - 4:07 pm

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2008 record: 9-7, 3rd in NFC East

Key Stats: Turnover Ratio: -11, Sack Differential: +28, Point Differential: -3

Coming In: DE Igor Olshansky, QB Jon Kitna, LB Keith Brooking, S Gerald Sensabaugh

Going Out: WR Terrell Owens, LB Zach Thomas, DL Chris Canty, S Roy Williams, QB Brad Johnson, CB Pacman Jones, DT Tank Johnson, LB Kevin Burnett, CB Anthony Henry, LB Greg Ellis

Key Rookies: KS David Buehler, S Michael Hamlin, CB Mike Mickens

Offense

QB: This is the make-or-break season for Tony Romo in Dallas. After sending Yoko-esque Jessica Simpson to the showers (there?s a fine mental image!) and with the overdue departure of TO, Romo has no more excuses. One of the best improvisational QBs in the league and a gifted athlete, Romo has put up huge fantasy figures but few wins when his team truly needs him. He also tends to start games slowly, which takes away from the power running game that Dallas does quite well. The fan base is tiring of his seemingly aloof persona, and Romo appears more focused and serious heading into preseason. If he can play with consistency and develop rapport with someone other than Jason Witten in the passing game, there is no reason Romo won?t threaten to throw 30+ TDs and make several spectacular plays. Pretty much everything he needs to improve is related to concentration and consistency, and the losses of Simpson and TO can only help in that regard. Now when he starts dating Kellie Pickler...

The Cowboys made a brilliant move in bringing in Jon Kitna as his backup. Kitna is a similar type player, a small-college afterthought who worked his way into being a prolific passer. While his Detroit era was uneven, his competitive fire and intense demeanor never waned. If that can rub off on Romo, Dallas is much better for it. Kitna is also a much more viable option if/when Romo gets hurt than Brad Johnson, who was simply pathetic in relief last year. He will take too many chances, but Kitna can fire the ball downfield with accuracy and command respect in the huddle and from the opposing defense, two things Johnson never did. He also applies some pressure for the job on Romo, which the coaches will quietly tell you is a very welcome pressure. They drafted Stephen McGee in the 4th round as a developmental project and perhaps a Wildcat package specialist. He essentially ran that sort of offense at Texas A&M and brings great athleticism to the table, though he?s quite raw fundamentally.

RB: Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett has a barrage of weapons to use here. The ?feature? back is Marion Barber, who runs as physically hard as anyone in the league. Barber fights for every last inch with a great leg drive and very quick feet for a man of his size. He never recovered from a toe injury, and it showed in his stats down the stretch--he rushed for just 106 yards in the last 6 games. That gave the opportunity for others to prove they could capably step up, but it also shows just how little it takes to slow down a runner with such a go-for-broke style. Barber was much more functionally effective when sharing the load, and I expect Garrett & Co. to return to that, using Barber more judiciously early in games and having him fresh when the defense is fatigued and the Cowboys need to eat clock. He must cut back on the needless contact and the bad fumbles.

That backfield-by-committee style only works if the committee is committed, and this group appears fine with it. Felix Jones is a special talent with his instant acceleration and high-speed cutting ability. He is a legit home run hitter--he averaged almost 9 yards per carry--but he proved frail, playing just six games before a package of lower body injuries ended his rookie year. Fortunately for Dallas, fellow rookie Tashard Choice was NFL-ready as well. He slid in the draft because of questions about vision and speed, but that looks foolish after seeing him light it up last year. He lacks patience, but he reliably finds the hole and dashes through with balance and power. Choice isn?t as powerful as Barber or quick like Jones, but he has all the tools to make a great platoon back for 8-10 carries a game.

All three are accomplished receivers, though Jones didn?t catch a pass. Barber has very nice hands for a power back, and Choice looked very natural catching dumpoffs and the occasional screen. Pass protection was more iffy, particularly for Choice against blitz-happy BAL and PHI in the last two weeks. Deon Anderson never touches the ball as the fullback, but he is an effective all-around blocker.

WR/TE: Terrell Owens has left the building. To steal from Skip Bayless (the only time I?ll ever do that!), Team Obliterator won?t be missed even though he was still far and away the most prolific wideout on the team. That role now falls to Roy Williams, who must live up to the heavy price tag Dallas paid to get him from Detroit. Health issues and what?s perceived as apathy on his part have dogged Williams, but when he?s right physically and mentally he is a worthy #1 WR and a serious matchup problem for DBs. He is not a burner or quick out of breaks, but he uses his size and hands with expertise. I?m more bullish on Roy than most; I believe being near his beloved home and with a QB that can reliably get him the ball where and when he wants it will bring out the best in Williams.

The pressure on Williams is imperative, because other than slot man Patrick Crayton the cupboard is pretty bare. Sure, you know the names--Miles Austin, Sam Hurd, Isaiah Stanback, but that?s only because they play for the most prominent sports franchise in America; if they played in Seattle or Baltimore you?d laugh at the prospect of these guys being counted on to contribute more than 25 catches and 350 yards. Crayton becomes the #2 WR by default, but if the coaches are smart they?ll keep him in the slot, where he is much better at getting separation. The question is, can he remain as effective without TO easing the pressure to his flank? Austin has some potential as a downfield threat, but he has less than 20 catches in three years. That?s asking for a giant leap, though he has the talent to make it interesting. One attribute this group has in spades is blocking, where they might be the best unit this side of Pittsburgh.

All the questions at WR should mean a monster year for the best TE in the NFC, Jason Witten. Romo?s favorite target could very well lead the league in receptions in 2009, and Witten is seemingly always the #1 option on 3rd down--and he delivers. While not blessed with the speed of other elite TEs, Witten has impeccable footwork and a great feel for getting open regardless of coverage scheme. He is a better in-line blocker than Indy?s Dallas Clark, the player to whom he most readily compares. The Cowboys have hinted they will use Martellus Bennett more in 2009, and my spies tell me the big (6?6?, 260) second year man has made ?giant leaps? in terms of football progress. Using more 2 TE sets would certainly mitigate the problems at WR, if Bennett is up for the challenge. The third TE is rookie John Phillips, who has all the appearances of a guy who sticks around for 10 years as a quality backup.

OL: Last preseason I identified this as the primary cause of the impending downfall of the Cowboys, and most scoffed. Now everyone is on the bandwagon to the point where this group might actually be underrated, so long as the aging starters can all stay healthy--a major question. It?s a very big line that handles power run blocking and straightforward pas protection well, but almost completely lacks mobility and struggles with stamina and speed. A lot hinges on how much LT Flozell Adams has left; he was quite good last September but was an embarrassment late in the season, the second year in a row the 34-year old rapidly declined as the season wore on. In their last four games, Adams committed six penalties and allowed five sacks and 11 other QB hurries. The fact he made the Pro Bowl is all the proof you need that it?s a completely pointless honor, as he was the worst starting tackle, left or right, in his own division. Losing LG Kyle Kosier to injury after three games really hurt Adams? run blocking, so a healthy return by Kosier offers some hope. The Lions castoff (thanks Mr. Millen) was sorely missed for his tenacity and football IQ, even though he lacks both size and agility.

Further proof that the Pro Bowl is a complete sham is the fact that center Andre Gurode was named to the team. The primary function of playing center is to deliver the football to the QB with speed and accuracy every single snap, but Gurode struggles more than any other center in the game at this basic skill. He is a very good, nasty run blocker up the gut--and getting Kosier back will help that out, because too often last year Gurode tried to compensate to his left. He doesn?t need to help to his right, because man-mountain Leonard Davis continues his nice career resuscitation at RG. Davis fell back a bit from his stellar 2007 but is still a definite asset and the Cowboys best lineman. Right tackle Marc Colombo is incredibly inflexible but somehow manages to do a very good job in run blocking. You can hear his knees squeaking and sense his back pain just from watching him, but he leaves everything on the field and knows all the tricks. He needs to stay healthy, because the top backup tackle is, uh, well, Pat McQuistan? Doug Free? The only functional depth the Cowboys have along the OL is Cory Procter, though UFA Greg Isdaner could be a real find. Montrae Holland flopped as Kosier?s replacement. They drafted big, bespectacled Robert Brewster to help, but he tore his pectoral muscle and is out for the season before he signed his contract. Expect Jerry Jones to be more active in scouring the waiver wire for some more functional depth up front, particularly at tackle.

Defense

DL: Dallas found itself a rising star in Jay Ratliff, who played on the nose last season but could slide to end this year. For a zero-technique nose tackle to get 7.5 sacks with very little help from the ends is a testament to Ratliff?s dramatically improved skills. He is very undersized but combats that with tremendous quickness and amazingly effective hands. No DT in the league is quicker with his hands to defeat blockers. The club is hopeful that former Charger Igor Olshansky can provide a boost at the RE spot, where he replaces the solid but overrated Chris Canty. Olshansky is more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher, but his nonstop motor will net him a handful of effort sacks and give blockers trouble. He thrived under Coach Phillips in San Diego, though he is coming off a lousy season. Marcus Spears holds down the LE spot and has been a major disappointment, averaging barely one sack per season in his career. If you?re not getting consistent pressure on the QB, you?d better be great against the run, but Spears is on the low side of average in run defense too. When Dallas moves to a 4-man front in passing situations, Stephen Bowen or Jason Hatcher comes in at LDE and Spears slides inside. This configuration is markedly better at producing a pass rush--Ratliff got 6.5 of his 7.5 sacks from this alignment, and the two reserves both showed competence, with Hatcher showing he might be a starter someday. If backup NT Junior Siavii can harness his 345 pounds into more functional use, the depth up front will be much better, but right now he simply occupies space well.

LB: There are some changes here, but the constant is ROLB DeMarcus Ware. No player has generated more QB pressures over the last three seasons, and Ware?s 20 sacks topped the league. He is a legit Defensive MVP candidate and the type of player that offenses spend all week scheming to try and neutralize. Ware improved his run defense and physicality in setting the edge, virtually erasing any doubts about his ability. He is the complete package and will challenge for all sorts of honors if he?s healthy. The Cowboys desperately need him at full tilt all year, because the rest of the LB corps is iffy. Anthony Spencer takes over for Greg Ellis at the other outside spot. While the former 1st rounder has impressed with his run blitzing, he was drafted for his pass rush skills, which have proven deficient. He must at least double his career output of 4.5 sacks (in two seasons) or else the Cowboys pass rush will really struggle. Behind Ware and Spencer are rookies Victor Butler and Brandon Williams, both of whom were ends in college making the transition to 3-4 OLBs. Both have fair potential (they were both correctly slotted as 4th rounders) but much to learn and to prove.

The starters inside will be Bradie James and newcomer Keith Brooking. James has more tackles this century than any other Cowboy, but the fans grow tired of his egregious missteps that seemingly always lead to disaster. He is coming off his best season and really emerged as a leader once Coach Phillips took over the defensive controls. James also proved very adept at blitzing right behind Ratliff, netting eight sacks despite limited opportunities. Brooking will almost certainly represent an upgrade over 3-4 misfit Zach Thomas, though at some point Troy Aikman will have to learn there is no ?s? at the end of his name. He is a savvy vet who can still rack up tackles, though he doesn?t avoid blocks like he did during his ATL heyday. He must show he can still attack the run and not let plays come to him, or else the interior run defense will suffer. With Kevin Burnett gone, Bobby Carpenter is the best coverage ILB and will replace Brooking in the nickel package. This is Carpenter?s last chance to escape complete bustdom, but expectations are pessimistic. Rookies Jason Williams and Stephen Hodge will fight it out for the other active roster spot, with Williams having the upper hand based on his athleticism and cover skills. Hodge is essentially the same player as the departed Roy Williams, an oversized strong safety who can?t cover a lick, except Hodge accepts the obvious move to LB.

DB: This group might as well be called Terrence Newman and the Question Marks. There are enough potential answers that this group should improve, however. Newman is always fighting a minor injury or two (groin, ankle, hand) but remains a reliable #1 cover corner. His technique with his feet and hips is textbook, and Newman has shown a knack for having great timing when making a play on the ball. His lower body must be healthy though, because when he couldn?t run at full speed he was easily exploited. With the departure of Anthony Henry and Pacman Jones, the onus is on second-year players Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins to really step up. Scandrick is a weak tackler and dropped three shoulda-been INTs, but in terms of coverage ability he was a very pleasant surprise. He should hold down the slot corner, where he thrived last year. Jenkins did not pleasantly surprise as a rookie. A first-round pick based on a reputation of toughness and great measurables, Jenkins played tentative and seemed petrified of illegal contact penalties. He also proved a major liability in run support, enough that if rookie Mike Mickens proves the ?soft? label is a misnomer, he could take Jenkins? job. Despite that, the team remains bullish on Jenkins and the potential is certainly there for him to make a big leap forward in year two. I?m on record as being a Mickens fan based on his pre-injury career at Cincinnati, so there should be good depth with some very young, high-ceiling talent in place at corner.

Safety is a different animal entirely. Gone is ?I can?t cover 8th graders? Roy Williams at the strong safety spot, replaced by former Jaguar Gerald Sensabaugh. He?s not the thumper that Williams was, but Sensabaugh is a solid tackler with quick diagnosing skills. His ball skills vastly trump anything they?ve had at this spot in years, though he?s not really that great in actual man-on coverage. Like Williams, he has a disturbing knack for getting (and staying) hurt. Ken Hamlin returns as the free safety, for better or worse. He played very much like a guy who got his big contract and had nothing more to prove, though to be fair he was often asked to do far more than most free safeties in helping bail out the CBs. If the corners can do a better job, Hamlin can focus more on what earned him that fat deal, roaming the deep middle and quickly blowing up passes to RBs and underneath routes. Pat Watkins is the primary backup at both spots, but if rookie DeAngelo Smith meets my expectations (I admit I?m a sucker for Bearcat DBs) he should usurp that role quickly. Courtney Brown played like a small-college 7th rounder as a rookie last year, showing enough promise to justify a roster spot but a big-time need for development before he?s game-ready. Hard-hitting rookie Michael Hamlin also figures in the mix. As at CB, this position will be made or broken by the influx of young talent, though the pool here is shallower.

Special Teams: The specialists themselves are major assets. Kicker Nick Folk earned a Pro Bowl berth (as opposed to his OL teammates) for his great accuracy on FGs, while P Mat McBriar returns from the broken foot that felled him last year (you might remember, it cost them the Arizona game and a playoff berth). As Folk was inadequate on kickoffs, the Cowboys will carry two kickers, using physical freak David Buehler as a kickoff specialist who can also play on punt cover units. They will have a new positional coach and several new faces on the cover units, both overdue and welcome changes. All that change might lead to some early breakdowns, but their draft focused on depth players with special teams ability for a reason.

3 Keys to the season:

1. The progress of Tony Romo--can he make the jump from fantasy stud to franchise QB, or will he be remembered as the guy who always folds down the stretch?

2. How well can a very shallow defensive front seven and a greenhorn secondary handle a schedule chock full of potent offenses?

3. Can the offensive line, also terribly shallow and with age issues, avoid another late-season collapse and support a potentially high-powered rushing attack?

3a. How much of a bump does the team draw from its palatial new stadium?

Forecast: This could very well be another season where the Cowboys surge to a very strong start, then try to hang on for dear life as the schedule toughens and the pressure mounts. The first eight weeks (including their bye) look to produce no less than five wins, but they will likely be underdogs in each of their final five games. That?s terrible news for a team helmed by a QB with such a terrible December record and a coach not noted for circling the wagons very well. It could very well be that the games in between those patches will decide their fate. Those games--@PHI, @GB, WAS, OAK--are the difference between 8-9 wins and major offseason changes or 10-11 wins and a playoff berth, with a real chance to do some January damage. I think the lack of depth in the trenches and a secondary that looks to be in chronic flux will lead to the former. Dallas finishes 8-8 and will undergo some serious renovations before next season.

- Jeff Risdon is RealGM's senior football writer. He may be reached at Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com