The NFL draft is in our rear-view mirror. The bulk of free agent signings have been completed, and OTA’s and mini-camps are well under way. Let the speculation and hype for the 2009 season officially begin.
Expectations are always lofty in Dallas when it comes to the Cowboys. In fact, these expectations can be so high that they are often misconstrued by outsiders as entitlement. But Dallas is a football town. Winning five Super Bowls can spoil a fan base, resulting in a demand for certain levels of excellence.
It's somewhat difficult for me to gauge realistic expectations for the Cowboys’ upcoming season. On one hand, this is a very talented squad that still has 11 of its 13 Pro Bowl players from 2007’s 13-3 campaign.
On the other hand, this is the same team that completely imploded at the end of 2008.
The bar seems to have been lowered for the Dallas Cowboys coming into this year. There are many who believe that the team has lost some punch, or may have been overrated to begin with.
Doubters will point out that the Cowboys lost one of the best receivers in the NFL in Terrell Owens without signing or drafting any kind of viable replacement. Many have questioned whether Roy Williams, who the Cowboys traded for last year, can fill Owens’ shoes as the team’s primary target.
First and foremost, I believe that the loss of T.O. is less damaging than most seem to think. I am willing to buy in to the addition by subtraction theory.
When Tiki Barber left New York after 2006, many thought that this would harm the Giants. This despite the fact that Barber had made himself a distraction with derogatory comments about quarterback Eli Manning, and his threat to leave the team to pursue a television career. Besides, Barber rushed for 234 yards and three touchdowns in his final game as a Giant.
As we all know, a Tiki-less New York team went on to upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl the following season in part because Eli was able to flourish in a less controversial environment. I think we could be looking at the same scenario in Dallas this year.
There is no question that Terrell Owens was the most talented receiver in Dallas, but he was also a distraction and a divisive force in the locker room. Statistically Owens was responsible for 69 catches, 1,052 receiving yards and ten touchdowns in 2008 leaving the Cowboys with an obvious void.
Can Roy Williams fill T.O.’s shoes as the go-to wideout? Only two seasons ago Roy snagged 82 balls for 1,310 yards and eight TDs with the Detroit Lions. So, to say that there is no way Roy can step out of the shadows to replace Owens is without merit.
Let’s face it. Terrell Owens will turn 37 during the upcoming season. This is not the same receiver that made fodder of NFL defensive backs in years past. The bang to hype ratio is no longer tilted in Terrell’s direction these days, and it was time for the Cowboys to move on.
Last season proved that Owens had lost a step in the speed department, and was unable to separate from corners and safeties like he could in the past. Add in the fact that Owens has never been renowned for his hands, and you now have a player that is to slow to go deep and not dependable enough to be a pure possession receiver.
If you ask me, Jerry Jones made a great decision in this case.
Coming into last 2008, the Cowboys were a favorite to go to the Super Bowl with a receiving corps that consisted of Terrell Owens, Patrick Crayton, and Jason Witten. So it is hard to convince me that the Cowboys are absolutely doomed with Roy Williams replacing Owens.
I’m willing to admit that the talent level drops a bit with Roy, but I will not miss having a ticking time bomb on the sideline every week. Williams never griped or groaned when the Lions drafted three straight first round receivers after he was taken in 2004. Can you imagine the fallout if a team with Terrell Owens had done the same?
I’m not a T.O. hater, but I am a T.O. realist. I supported him as a Cowboy, ate my popcorn, enjoyed the ride, and wish him the best. It’s too bad that he insists on constant drama, because it will tarnish the legacy of a great player.
It was time for the team and the player to part ways, and although it is a bit of a risk, it had to be done. But the loss of Owens is not the only reason that there is a cloud of doubt over Valley Ranch.
There are also still those that would label Tony Romo as a choke artist that doesn’t have the ability to make plays in the clutch. Romo has yet to guide the Cowboys to a playoff victory after three failed attempts leaving some to speculate that he can’t handle pressure situations.
This reputation wasn’t exactly helped by the fact that Romo failed to get his PGA tour card after a collapse on the back nine last week. In reality, there are few quarterback in the NFL that I’d be willing to trade head up for Tony Romo.
I believe in Tony. Cowboy fans believe in Tony. And it is his emergence that fuels rising expectations in the eyes of Cowboy fans. Years of Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson, Drew Henson, and even Ryan Leaf left Cowboy fans starving for a franchise quarterback. Romo was the answer to many a Cowboy fans prayers.
The Cowboy haters will also point to a draft that looks to provide no immediate impact outside of the special teams. The Cowboys didn’t go out and sign any marquee free agents, and they let go of a couple of Pro Bowlers in Owens and Chris Canty.
Without question, there have been some key losses from last year’s roster. The Cowboys also parted ways with Adam Jones, linebackers Kevin Burnett and Zach Thomas, and safeties Roy Williams and Anthony Henry.
All of these losses play a role in decreasing the hype surrounding America’s Team, but perhaps that is a good thing. Without the glare of the preseason spotlight, the Hard Knocks cameras, or the inevitable drama that surrounded the likes of our dearly departed T.O., maybe the Cowboys will be able to focus and improve.
But, keep in mind that Dallas also had some under the radar signings during the free agent period this offseason. Many of the players signed will be able to contribute immediately and fill voids left by free agency and roster moves.
Igor Olshansky, the Ukrainian defensive end from the Chargers was brought in to replace Chris Canty. After speculation that Pro Bowl nose guard Jay Ratliff could move over to defensive end, I think the Cowboys made a smart move by signing Igor instead.
Olshansky is a load at 6’6” and 309 pounds. His stats in San Diego were very consistent with the season that Canty had last year. Igor had one less tackle and one less sack than Canty, who cashed in on free agency by signing with the Giants, making this pretty much a lateral move that saved the Cowboys some cap room.
Dallas also addressed the backup quarterback issue that haunted them in 2008. In a trade for Jon Kitna, the Cowboys were able to acquire a proven backup who still has some tread left on the tires. Kitna would be much more effective than the train wreck that was Brad Johnson should Romo miss time again this season.
The Kitna trade temporarily took some depth away from the Cowboys defensive backfield. After all Anthony Henry, who was shipped to Detroit, provided depth at both the safety and corner position. Not to mention that safety Roy Williams was finally released after years of getting toasted in Big D.
To offset their losses the Cowboys signed safety Gerald Sensabaugh from the Jaguars. They also drafted Michael Hamlin, Deangelo Smith and Mike Mickens, and are working Alan Ball at both corner and safety.
Along with Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick, who both proved that they can contribute at corner, these acquisitions will provide the Cowboys’ secondary with a solid cast to accompany Terrance Newman and Ken Hamlin.
Defensively, the Cowboys also addressed the inside linebacker position by way of free agency and the draft. Keith Brooking was brought in from Atlanta to replace an aging Zach Thomas, who ended up spending only one year in Dallas.
Although Brooking doesn’t have as many skins on the wall, he is younger and has not missed a start since 2000. Jason Williams, Victor Butler, and Stephen Hodge were all chosen in the middle of the draft in hopes of providing depth and potential for the future at linebacker.
I think the Cowboys made enough moves to say that they have improved this team overall. Of course, most will judge this offseason based on the loss of Owens because that was the headline-grabbing transaction, but I think Dallas will be a better team overall in 2009.
Maybe Tony Romo will be allowed to simply run the offense and find the open man instead of forcing the ball to a certain player enough times to keep the locker room from turning into a war zone. This should help the Cowboys offense to be less predictable this season.
The offense will also be bolstered by a very strong backfield consisting of Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. Jones proved to be a big play type back who can complement the bruising Barber before he was lost for the season to injury. The silver lining was that Tashard Choice was given a chance to prove that he can contribute as well.
With a proven offensive line that remains intact from last season, all of the tools are in place for this offense to continue to be one of the best in the NFL.
Defensively, the team addressed its needs and got younger. There is still plenty of depth in the defensive backfield, our linebackers are just as strong, and the defensive front should be just as imposing. This wasn’t the best defense in the league last season, but it did show improvement when head coach Wade Phillips took over the play calling duties.
Although I believe the Cowboys improved overall as from a personnel standpoint, there are still many roadblocks that could stop this team in dead its tracks again in '09.
Most importantly, there needs to be an attitude adjustment in the locker room. There are players on this team such as Romo, Ware, and Witten who must take on more vocal leadership roles. All of these guys have stated that they need to step up as team leaders, but it has yet to be proven if they will actually follow through.
And don’t forget that the Cowboys also play in the toughest division in football. The Eagles and Giants have been very strong over the past few seasons. The Eagles made what looks to be a ton of great roster moves to improve their team, and that’s after they made it to the NFC Championship last year.
The Giants will have to prove that they can adjust to the loss of Plaxico Burress, but are still a threat to make a lot of noise in 2009. And it’s not like the Cowboys are getting anything easy from the Washington Redskins. The rest of the NFC is no cakewalk either with the likes of New Orleans, Carolina, Green Bay, Chicago, Minnesota, and the Cardinals all looking very strong as well.
So as I try to figure out just what to expect from this team, I find myself torn. I really do think that the Cowboys can contend for a Super Bowl, but then again, this team hasn’t even proven it can win a playoff game as of yet. The talent seems to be there, but there are plenty of obstacles in the way.
But I am willing to go out on a limb and say that this is the year. Yes, the Eagles got better, but the Cowboys got better as well. I’m going to project that less distractions, a deeper and healthier team, and a new workman’s attitude will allow the Cowboys to pay back their fans for the disappointments of the last three years.
I’m not guaranteeing anything, but the parts are in place. If this team can progress, grow, and come together, there is no reason to believe that the Cowboys can’t go all the way in 2009.