High Expectations in Dallas for 2009: Go Big or Go Home

Richie ZawistowskiCorrespondent IMay 8, 2009

It is said that everything is bigger in Texas.

Owner and General Manager Jerry Jones is set to open the largest and most luxurious stadium in the NFL this upcoming season.  The Dallas Cowboys have the largest fan base across the nation, and America’s Team also holds the number one ranking for dollar value of all NFL teams. 

However when it comes to the Cowboys performance on a football field, they are falling short of living up to the “bigger” role that Texas upholds.  Moderately sized may be an accurate description.  In 2009 however, the Cowboys season must be bigger.  Much bigger.  Lombardi big.

December 28, 1996 is just another date to most.  It was three days after Christmas, and four days before the start of 1997.  On the surface there doesn’t seem to be any real significance to this date for most people.  However, fans of the Dallas Cowboys (and quite possibly their numerous detractors) may remember this date.  This was the last time the Dallas Cowboys have come out of a playoff game with a win.

After falling short (with different coaches and Pro-Bowl packed rosters) to make any real noise in December and January, the time is now for the Dallas Cowboys.  Fresh off the most disappointing season in franchise history, the Cowboys rid themselves of Terrell Owens, Tank Johnson, and Adam Jones in an attempt to improve team chemistry and get back into the playoffs. 

Losing to Seattle and New York in the 2006 and 2007 playoffs made many Cowboys determined to come out in 2008 and embark on a Super Bowl journey.  Dallas flew out of the gates with a 3-0 start, with many pundits penciling Dallas in as the NFC representative in the Super Bowl.  The wheels would eventually fall off, as Dallas went 9-7 and missed the playoffs altogether. 

Dallas is no longer a Super Bowl favorite for the NFC amongst many analysts.  Perhaps it is due to the monumental failure that is the 2008 season.  Or maybe it is due to not having Terrell Owens.  With the release of Owens, many critics have tried to suggest that Dallas does not have the firepower at wide receiver to compete for a Super Bowl.

One thing is certain.  Wide receivers do not win championships.  It didn’t work out very well for Larry Fitzgerald.  Or for Randy Moss.  Or hey, that Terrell Owens guy.

What does bring home championships, is defense.

If Dallas can play strong defense and they do not turn the ball over, the 2009 season has the potential to end with a Super Bowl victory - regardless of Owens absence.  This is all assuming that the team comes together as one unit.

Dallas had 59 sacks in 2008 which led the NFL, including league-leader DeMarcus Ware notching an impressive 20 sacks.  Dallas also did a good job at holding their opponents to 294.5 yards per game and allowing a 36% conversion rate on third down, both eighth in the league. 

However, they failed to take the ball away from their opponents as they forced a mere 22 turnovers, with only seven teams forcing less.  Their turnover margin stood at -11, which was second worst in the league.  The offense surely did not help matters as they threw 20 interceptions and lost 13 fumbles.

With the team losing former starting defensive end Chris Canty to the rival New York Giants, Zach Thomas moving on to Kansas City, and with the team trading cornerback Anthony Henry to Detroit, Dallas is losing several starters on defense that they must be able to overcome.  Dallas also lost linebacker Kevin Burnett, who was a main contributor in the nickel defense.

The team is confident in Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick to fill the void at corner after solid rookie campaigns from both.  They also added defensive end Igor Olshansky and middle linebacker Keith Brooking in free agency, who both are familiar with head coach Wade Phillips from their days with him in San Diego and Atlanta.  Both have experienced career bests during their years under the tutelage of Phillips.

With Phillips taking over defensive coordinator duties midway through the season, the results were immediate.  Dallas forced 15 of their 22 turnovers in the nine games Phillips was in control of the defense, and also brought down the quarterback 38 times out of their 59 sacks.  There is no reason to believe that the defense will not continue to succeed.  With seven returning starters, and more than ample players replacing the former starters, there could be the makings of a potentially devastating defense in Big D.

In order to do so, Pro-Bowler Terrence Newman, and fellow corners Jenkins and Scandrick must be able to create turnovers, and Ken Hamlin must improve on a poor outing in 2008.  Ware must continue to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks, and the rest of the linebacker crew must tackle well and get to the quarterback when asked to, in order to take pressure off of Ware.  Jay Ratliff must continue to disrupt offenses up the middle and Marcus Spears and newcomer Olshanksy must control the line of scrimmage, and make a play or two when called upon.

However if the offense cannot operate well, a dominating defense can only take a team so far. 

A revolving door at left guard, a season ending injury to remarkable rookie Felix Jones, and a broken pinkie finger on Tony Romo contributed to the Cowboys inefficient offense in 2008.  They also lost Marion Barber and Miles Austin for extended time.  Injuries were a clear hindrance to the offense.

However that is no excuse with the talent that Dallas has on the offensive side of the ball.  They must perform better in 2009, and everything will depend on how the offensive line plays.  If they can protect Romo and open up running lanes, this will help drastically in cutting down on turnovers, and of course creating opportunities to score.  While Romo will always be a risk-taker, one would have to think that he has learned from his mistakes turning the ball over after this past season.

A healthy offensive line and an apparent shift in game style may make the offense more efficient.  The days are gone of a receiver complaining about opportunities after a loss in which he was targeted 17 times.  A balanced game plan with an emphasis on getting their tremendous trio of running backs Barber, Jones, and Tashard Choice involved more is expected to be the focus.

The Cowboys also have Jason Witten, arguably the best overall tight end in football, and second year tight end Martellus Bennett has the athleticism that rivals that of Antonio Gates.  Patrick Crayton is a dependable slot receiver, and Dallas is very high on the potential and development of Miles Austin.  Austin has the most speed and the ability to stretch the field of any receiver, and would be a great compliment to Roy Williams.  Williams has to answer questions after a poor performance in 2008 partially due to playing with plantar fasciitis, a condition of inflammation in the foot.

First and foremost, Dallas must get the job done up front, but more importantly they must not turn the ball over.  If Dallas can protect the ball, there is no doubt that they will move the ball, given they can stay relatively healthy, unlike 2008.  If Romo is able to spread the ball around to the depth and talent around him, and the if the trio of running backs are able to get some room to operate, the offense can rival the production of the 2007 season.

With an efficient offense and a devastating defense, the Cowboys will have a recipe for success to challenge for a Super Bowl.  After all, this style of football won the Cowboys three Super Bowls in the 1990’s, when the Cowboys were setting the standard for what is bigger in Texas; the Cowboys talent and execution on a football field.  Lately however, the Cowboys performance cannot be classified as such.

The Dallas Cowboys better start to go big, or they should go home.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.