A Preliminary Examination of the 2009 Dallas Cowboys
Boy, has America's team had quite the offseason.
First, they have to see their title given away to the Pittsburgh Steelers by various fans and analysts. Then they part ways with Terrell Owens and still have a media circus surrounding them. Finally Tony Romo breaks up with long time distraction—I mean girlfriend—Jessica Simpson.
However, at the end of the day, these could all be positive moves for them that see the Cowboys, though less talented than in the past, ready to suprise people.
I don't know if they can but I can certainly acknowledge that with the parity of this league it is very possible. So let us examine their personnel and see the chances of said parity playing out.
I have never met a more hated player for absolutely no reason in my life than Tony Romo. Whether you like him or not—boy that is a familiar sentiment for the big three NFC East quarterbacks—Tony Romo is an excellent quarterback.
Once I was a person who did not understand the praise surrounding Romo, I now understand and wonder why he doesn’t receive praise from the fans outside of Dallas.
Romo is a playmaker which is one of the key factors in evaluating a player at the position. He has an outstanding Favre-esque ability to extend plays and make something out of nothing.
Unfortunately with that ability comes the ability to force throws in an attempt to make plays that are not there. This is a case of taking the good with the bad because the good outnumbers the bad at a 1.75 to one ratio.
Romo finds himself with a new backup this season, one that many are on the fence about. The wily veteran Jon Kitna replaces Brad Johnson as the backup, and there is no doubt that the present Kitna is superior to Johnson.
Kitna is a quarterback that many feels is serviceable because he can play at a good level, but cannot be a winning starter for a 16-game season. However, at this point Kitna is the best backup of the available options in the NFC East.
Behind Kitna is 2009 fourth round pick Stephen McGee who I won’t even pretend to know about. As it stands, the Cowboys are better off at this position than they are last year as Romo has a new confidence and his backup is capable of stepping in for a game or two in the event of injury. If the Cowboys go anywhere this year it’ll be as far as Tony Romo takes them.
During the Tony Romo era the backfield has been an afterthought for the Cowboys’ offense. However, this year it’ll play a much larger role than ever and needs to be a thorough contributor in order for the Cowboys to have the season that many aren’t predicting.
The penciled in starter is Marion “The Barbarian” Barber. While I’ve never been as impressed with him as the masses have seemed to be, there is no denying that he is one of the premier power backs in the league and loves to fight for extra yardage.
Barber, once a premier ball carrier, experienced a bit of a fumbling problem last year and the question looms about whether or not that was a fluke. What isn’t a question, however, is that a healthy Barber will gain over 1,000 all-purpose yards and score numerous times.
The backups looking to play prominent roles are second year players Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Jones was an invested pick by the team that worthy of first-round status despite not having the appeal of his collegiate teammate Darren McFadden where as Choice was a late round steal.
Had Jones not gone down he was probably a shoo-in for the rookie of the year even with the success of Flacco and Ryan. Jones speed was unmatched by the league last season as he provided over eight yards from scrimmage per touch and had a penchant for finding the endzone.
After Jones went down and Barber was hampered by turf-toe, Choice stepped up against the Steelers and had an outstanding outing as both a runner and receiver. Now both look to contribute in more ways than one, making the backfield a viable option for the team this year.
Offensive Line: 8/10
It seems like a distant memory that two seasons ago the members of this unit were receiving undue media coverage and as a result received unwarranted Pro Bowl berths. That’s not to say they’re not good, hence the rating, but they were never a truly elite offensive line.
However, they’re great at doing what they’re asked to do which is holding their blocks long enough for Tony Romo when the play breaks down. The strength of this offensive line begins with its interior lineup.
On the inside, Kyle Kosier returns after injuring his foot last year; his absence was noticeable by the Cowboys franchise. His return is an immediate upgrade to the interior running game and arguably to the passing game as well.
Lining up next to Kosier is Andre Gurode whom many feel is a Top 10 center. Gurode has trouble snapping out of the shotgun and can struggle mightily at times, but when he is on he is very good, so for the backfield’s sake I hope that he is the latter this year.
The third member of the interior is Leonard Davis who is the standout on this line. Davis is quite possibly a Top 10 guard in the league who has trouble sometimes with pass blocking, but is no slouch in the run game and is easily Marion Barber’s favorite lead blocker. The interior lineup, however, isn’t really the question.
The question for the offensive line in Dallas is the tackles that have to deal with the immense pass rushing talent in the NFC East. Flozell Adams has proven himself viable enough to be a “franchise tackle” though I’m sure that many fans would disagree. Adams is an average to good pass blocker who can drive someone off of a block. Perhaps that’s because he gets his feet off of the blocks quickly; sometimes too quickly, as he has earned the nickname “Mr. False Start”.
Opposite Adams is Marc Colombo, who is arguably the better pass blocker. Their tackles aren’t exactly the best, but again, they’re amazing at what they’re asked to do which is to buy time for Romo when plays break down, hence their high sack allowed totals. All in all the Cowboys offensive line may not be the best, but it’s great at doing what it is asked to do, hence the score.
Receiving Corps: 7.5/10
Some people may feel that this is too high, but the Cowboys might actually have the most solid options at receiver in the division. Though I stated earlier within the offseason that I feel that Roy Williams might be more on the verge of bust than worthy of his first round selection, the fact is that he is the most “talented” wideout in the NFC East.
Whether or not that “talent” can be actualized to the tune of a 1,000 yard season outside of a Mike Martz system is the question left to be answered this coming season.
Lining up at split end this season should be sure-handed Patrick Crayton who doesn’t quite have the talent to be a No. 1 in this league, but has all the assets required to be an alright split end or slot receiver. Bill Parcells used to attest to his hands all the time and Crayton is an alright to good route runner in my book. Lucky for Cowboys fans Crayton was the split end part of 2006, all of 2007 and at the start of 2008 and knows the role and should succeed in it.
Sam Hurd and Miles Austin who are the slot receivers are very good at just that. They’re the Cowboys’ version of the Eagles’ Jason Avant or the Giants’ Steve Smith with their abilities to come up strong on third downs. Though not bringing in as many first downs as their counterparts, they know how to score on said plays. Unfortunately, the depth behind these two is scarce and consists of two long-time practice squanders and a seventh round pick from the previous draft.
Last but not least, however, are the two pieces that will make this offense move next season which saves them from a score resembling that of the Giants. The people to which I am referring are Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten and his "backup" Martellus Bennett.
Witten who is, without question, the best player at his position in the league has sure hands that Romo can rely on and can run any route in the route tree to perfection. He is a tough as nails player who plays for the love of football, not for the paycheck.Witten is the premier pass catching option in the NFC East and his presence does nothing but tremendously raise the score of the Cowboys’ receivers.
Bennett on the other hand is a better athlete than Witten and may not care as much for the game of football but he brings a lot to the table.
Rather large—even for the tight end position—and freakishly fast for someone his size Bennet can spread the field whether lined up as a tight end or as an extra wideout. Despite being a "backup" Bennett is a playmaker.
He's very underutilized and once he focuses on not being the "funny guy" in the locker room, but rather on being the best player he can be full-time, he could be a star.
Defensive Line: 7.5/10
There is no way to talk about the Cowboys’ defensive line without mentioning the man in the middle—Jay Ratliff. Ratliff may not be an excellent nose tackle as per the way the position the way that most coaches desire it to be, but he is an excellent 3-technique playing the nose tackle position.
He may not be a stout run defender, but he doesn’t have to be. Believe it or not, his pass rushing ability helps DeMarcus Ware than would an ability to hold both a-gaps.
Next on the line is former first round pick Marcus Spears who, at this point, is more of a role-player than a “standout”—if there is such a thing as far as 3-4 defensive ends go.
Jay Hatcher rotates in with Marcus at times in order to give him a rest and that makes the two an excellent duo that compliments one another however neither are amongst the upper echelon at the position and neither looks to play a role as big as the one that I expect for newcomer Igor Olshansky this season.
Olshanksy—as I stated in another piece—is a guy that can make a big bang or could be a huge bust for stretches of time over a season and as of late he has been a bust.
However, with a nice pass rusher as his nose tackle this season and the premier pass rusher in the league lining up behind him, Olshansky has a diminished role that he should easily fill this season. I think that Olshanksy emerges as a consistent force this season.
Linebacking Corps: 8/10
With Bradie James leading the way as the captain and DeMarcus Ware playing at an unparalleled All-Pro level it is no secret that the Cowboys’ linebacking corps is the key to its defensive success.
Everybody knows about DeMarcus Ware but few actually watched him last season.
Ware has the quickest first step off the snap that I have ever seen. If he doesn’t get that quick step than he can be contained, but the problem is...he’s going to get that quick step every single time this year with Olshansky playing in front of him so teams should be prepared to set a chip against him.
Opposite Ware this year is conversely a hug question mark as Anthony Spencer and Brandon Williams are question marks as far as pass rushing is concerned.
Manning the middle may be the best inside duo that the Cowboys have had since undertaking the 3-4 defense this decade. The unquestioned leader, defensively, in my opinion is Bradie James.
Formerly just a role player who happened to rack up decent statistics James began to emerge as a very good 3-4 Mike linebacker towards the end of last season and I expect nothing more than for that to continue this season. Lining up at the Mac linebacker is free agent acquisition Keith Brooking who is a solid and wily veteran.
While he may be on the downslide of his career he is most certainly capable of performing the duties of a Mac and crashing the line of scrimmage as that is his strength at this point in his career.
It is no secret that next season the success of the Cowboys’ secondary will be in the hands of longtime standout cornerback Terrence Newman. Unfortunately the question revolving around Newman is whether or not he can return to health this season and be the guy he was from 2005 to 2007 which was as close to a shutdown cornerback that one could be without actually being one.
Newman is a freakishly fast specimen with tremendous catch-up speed and nice leaping ability which allows him match up against all split ends and flankers in the league. Newman, however, is the smallest question in the Cowboys’ secondary.
Lining up at the corner position opposite of Newman could be any number of players now that the often underrated Anthony Henry was traded to the Lions. The Cowboys invested a lot of draft picks into the secondary this offseason; however the starting position should be between 2008 draft picks Orlando Scadrick and Mike Jenkins.
I feel that both are talented and physical cornerbacks, but their talent was more innate than actualized last season and I see it remaining towards the former than the latter this season. Teams would probably look to pick on them if not for the fact that the Cowboys are even weaker at the safety position.
The better of the two safeties is Ken Hamlin, however if Hamlin is the best of your two safeties than you know you have a problem.
Hamlin is merely a reincarnation of former Cowboy Roy Williams with the exception that Hamlin can take intelligent angles. Hamlin is a big hitter—hence his nickname “The Hammer”—but his coverage leaves much to be desired. He often looks lost but he does know how to recover.
New at the strong safety position is former Jaguar Gerald Sensabaugh who had impressive numbers on paper in 2008, but is nowhere near as good as they imply.
Sensabaugh, like Hamlin, is a liability in coverage and looks lost at times as if he doesn’t know the play. With that said, he should be much better than the guy he is competing against Patrick Watkins.
Watkins is perhaps the biggest liability of them all as I believe his concept of coverage to be “let the receiver run five yards ahead of him and then try and tackle them after the catch”. While he has improved a lot since his rookie year he still has a lot of steps to take.
Honestly? If the Cowboys didn’t invest so much into the secondary with this recent draft their score would drop tremendously, but I decided to be nice as they’re making an attempt.
Wade Phillips as the head coach receives much criticism for being too lenient and lacking leadership as at the position, but there’s no denying his talent as a defensive coordinator. While Phillips will remain the head coach, he is predominately acting as a defensive coordinator this season.
Phillips isn’t exactly a defensive mastermind but when it comes to bringing the house on a blitz the only person that can compare to him in NFL history is Buddy Ryan. Phillips loves to blitz up to 38 percent of the time which is ridiculously high. He is the reason that Merriman turned in his 17-sack season and that Ware has turned in his 20-sack season.
The offensive coordinator remains Jason Garrett who is one of the more talented offensive playcallers in the league. He has a nice penchant for arranging players and you can believe that some of Felix Jones, Tashard Choice was a result of Garrett’s playcalling. Now that he is no longer hampered by Terrell Owens Garrett’s playcalling should be crisper than ever and allow the Cowboys’ offense to transcend those numbers attributed to them.
Prediction: 6-10 to 10-6
The Cowboys are expected to fail this season and if they do you can guarantee that the media and fans of opposing teams will bring the rain down on Tony Romo despite the fact that the Cowboys aren’t as well coached as the opposing teams as well as the fact that the other teams have made huge acquisitions in terms of talent.
They can expect losses to some of their NFC East counterparts as a result. Additionally, the Saints, Packers, Chargers and Broncos all have the assets necessary for a strong passing game which the Cowboys appear susceptible to.
However, Wade Phillips propensity to the blitz and Tony Romo’s ability to make plays out of nothing could surprise a lot of teams this season and win the Cowboys some games that people feel they shouldn’t be in.
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