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Roster Roundouts: A Dallas Cowboys Season Preview

Previous Roster Roundouts: Bills, Rams, Bengals, Chiefs, Saints, Jaguars, Packers, Raiders, Vikings, Browns, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Colts, Lions, Cardinals, Chargers, Eagles, Titans, 49ers, Panthers, Giants, Texans, Falcons, Jets, Ravens, Broncos, Redskins, Seahawks, Bears

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flickr.com/ladybugbkt

For all the daily rhetoric that the Cowboys generate–Jerry Jones famously said, “no publicity is bad publicity”–you can’t blame the media firestorm for sweeping the general public under the rug regarding the weaknesses of the 2008 Cowboys.  That’s a cop out.  Not “everyone else” thought the Cowboys were a likely super bowl contender.

Here are some other poor excuses for the Cowboys dropping to 9-7 last year: Tony Romo is a bad leader.   Terrell Owens divided the locker room.  Jason Garrett isn’t the offensive coordinator we thought he was.  Wade Phillips didn’t have control of the locker room.  The team couldn’t deal with adversity.

None of those things are necessarily incorrect, but they distract from the actual problem in Dallas, which is that this is a very mediocre team in a top-of-the-line division.

The fundamental issues with the Cowboys run very deep, from offensive line play, to terrible coverage units year in and year out, to downright embarrassing run defense, and even include an offensive identity crisis.  Talent cures most ills, and the top end talent on the Cowboys is as strong as any other team in the NFL.  That’s what you can see, that’s what I can see, and that’s what overshadows the problems.  The Cowboys scored 9 quality starters, which is as many as the Redskins and one more than either the Giants or the Eagles.  There’s your talent.

Yet the Cowboys QDS figure comes out to only a relatively weak 11, lowest in the NFC East, thanks to a thin offensive line and defensive unit.  The team doesn’t have very many holes, but you win in this league by having quality talent throughout the roster, not stars and serviceable stop gaps.

The Cowboys didn’t get the memo.  They struggled with offensive line quality, and did nothing to assist it, losing the only lineman they drafted–Ball State’s Robert Brewster–to a season ending injury.  Flozell Adams absolutely cannot handle modern pass rushers at the LT position anymore, but they can’t swing him and his contract over to RT because they just extending Marc Columbo over on the right side, and he was never capable of handling left tackle.  Kyle Kosier was injured most of last year, and when he was, Cory Procter and Montrae Holland were horrific replacements.  Kosier returns this year, which should be a boost to the line, until something else inevitably goes wrong.

Depth on defense was, and continues to be enemy number one for this team. So when the Cowboys traded their decent No. 2 CB, Anthony Henry, to Detroit for…Jon Kitna, you have to wonder exactly what the Cowboys learned from last year.  Henry was the team’s best corner when Newman went down, and while I can understand how opening up a spot in the starting lineup for the young talent to compete for can be beneficial, other teams have enjoyed success by moving a veteran corner to safety and filling a hole there.

Instead, they traded him for another quarterback who wont be able to provide vertical offense if the team loses Romo.  They do have Orlando Scandrick, a 5th round pick from Boise State in 2008, who played very well as a rookie, but might be under pressure to push 2008 first round CB Mike Jenkins onto the field.  Either way, it’s going to be a learning experience because behind them are two functional safeties who offer little pass support.  Former pro bowler Ken Hamlin has decent range for a free safety, but is not good enough in coverage to take the tight end away.  Gerald Sensabaugh, signed away from Jacksonville in the offseason, is a perfect example of the team’s stopgap attitude.  He does a lot of little things well, and he will look professional while chasing Kevin Boss and Chris Cooley into the end zone this year.

With little depth in the secondary, you’d hope that with all the Cowboys picks over the last ten years on the defensive side of the ball have developed into quality starters plus depth on the defensive end, but only three players drafted by the team in the first round are penciled into start.  One, LB DeMarcus Ware, led the league in sacks last year.  He’s not a complete player yet, but he’s only 26, and few doubt that because of his talent, that he will one day win a few defensive player of the year awards.  The other is DE Marcus Spears, who is now in the last year of his rookie contract, and just hasn’t developed.  A lot of observers felt that he needed to be replaced, but the team lost their other, much stronger, DE Chris Canty in the offseason, and replaced him with Igor Olshansky, a 2nd round pick of the Chargers in 2004 who hasn’t lived up to the hype.  Olshansky is fine, but again, another stop gap on the side of the ball where the Cowboys have spent all their picks of value in the first round over the last ten years.

What’s remarkable is that the third player, DE/OLB Anthony Spencer, is now the unquestioned starter in his third year, and he has about half a season of starting experience under his belt, and the Cowboys need his timely development.  They took him with the idea of having bookend pass rushers, but he hasn’t done anything in his first two seasons.  No cause for alarm just yet, the Cowboys really think he’s ready to make the jump, but if he’s a hole in the defense this year, this is a weak unit at every level.  If he breaks through, the Cowboys feature a strong four-man group of LBs: Ware, Spencer, a quality starter in Bradie James, and Keith Brooking, who is a nice scheme fit and probably the best of all the Cowboys signings–a big upgrade over the aging Zach Thomas.

One place where the Cowboys are strong, despite losing Terrell Owens, is at the skill positions.  Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice make up a proverbial three-headed monster at tailback, and while Roy Williams is a little bit over his head as a No. 1 receiver, Miles Austin, Patrick Crayton, and Sam Hurd all provide excellent options for Romo to go with the football, and great depth at the position.  The Cowboys starting offense features not one, but two excellent starting TEs.  Jason Witten is widely regarded as the league’s best TE, and rightfully so, while Martellius Bennett would be one of the 10-12 best tight ends in the league on any team, and on the Cowboys, he’s simply that guy who lines up on the left side.  Rather than award a point of depth, I gave the Cowboys two quality starters at this position.

flickr.com/esthereggy

flickr.com/esthereggy

The passing offense is as versatile as it is powerful, but unfortunately limited by the quality of it’s offensive line.  The rushing attack does not seem to be hindered in any way, the Cowboys have a chance at producing two 1,000 yard rushers, and maybe another 300-400 yards from Choice.  That would certainly help the defense if the Cowboys could control the clock and limit the amount of possessions an opponent gets in a single game.  The decreased sample size would help the Cowboys win games.

Turnovers have always bitten Tony Romo, and that’s a personal adjustment that he’s going to have to make now that he’s lost his go-to deep threat and will be under constant siege this year.  Romo often lets his footwork decide where the ball is going, and never seems to not know where his outlet receivers are, but has thrown up his share of picks and fumbles over the years by making gambles of questionable reasonableness.  If Romo doesn’t cut down on the turnovers, it’s hard to see an improved offense.  The pressure is on him, maybe more than any quarterback in the league.

The Cowboys were able to enjoy a 13 win season in 2007 with relatively poor depth because the starters stayed remarkably healthy through 16 games, although less so at the end of the season and into the playoffs.  A natural regression to 11 wins was likely, until the injuries struck last year, keeping Tony Romo out of action for 3 games, Terence Newman out for 5, S Roy Williams out for the season (he was released), and knocked Felix Jones out at midseason.  The result was a 9 win season, and they significantly outperformed performance indicators such as Pythagorean record.

If everything goes right, the Cowboys are still a playoff contender behind their talent, but this team isn’t all that different from the 2008 team.  It’s weaker in some places, stronger in others, and the performance is linked strongly to Romo’s personal improvements.  A 61.3% completion isn’t getting it done at this level for this offense.  He has help, but at 29, he’s no spring chicken, and improvements in his game will be marginal.  Can the Cowboys re-invent themselves as a grind-it-out, stretch them wide, throw it deep type offense?  They have the talent, but have to prove they are disciplined enough to beat different opponents in different ways.  I’m not writing them off yet, I’m just less than convinced.

Cowboys Headquarters: Valley Ranch, TX

For a 9-7 team, the Cowboys don’t have a whole lot of promising camp rookies.

-WR Manuel Johnson has looked very good in camp, and appears to be a trendy pick for the 5th wide receiver spot currently held by former Washington quarterback Isaiah Stanback.  Stanback’s impact has been mostly on special teams to date.

-G Greg Isander is running with the second teamers, and trying to show that he can offer more to the Cowboys than any of the other backup lineman they’ve trotted out there in recent seasons.  He’s competing with Ryan Gibbons for the ninth lineman spot.

-LB Matt Stewart has his work cut out for him.  The Cowboys like to keep between 8 and 9 linebackers, which puts him on the bubble.  If he can prove his worth over a veteran such as Stephen Hodge or Victor Butler, he’ll add some much needed youth to the ILB position for the Cowboys.

-S Michael Hamlin from Clemson, no relation to Ken Hamlin, is a talented four year college starter who is pushing veteran Pat Watkins for everything he has.  Not to go overboard with hyperbole, but Hamlin is probably the best safety prospect on this team to pair with the other Hamlin, and I don’t see how you keep him off the roster.  You can probably keep five safeties, if you’re the Cowboys.

Surprise Cuts?

  • WR Patrick Crayton
  • G Montrae Holland
  • C Cory Procter
  • DE Marcus Spears
  • LB Bobby Carpenter
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