After a disappointing end to a 2008 season that began with Super Bowl aspirations, the Dallas Cowboys did a lot to change the culture of their locker room.
The “addition-by-subtraction” strategy that led the team to part ways with major contributors such as Terrell Owens, Tank Johnson, Zach Thomas, Anthony Henry, and Chris Canty led to one of the quietest training camps in recent memory.
The 2009 season has started with much lower expectations for this bunch.
Considering the recent late-season nose dives and lose of so much talent, many “experts” regard the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles to be prohibitive favorites in the NFC and leave the Cowboys and Washington Redskins as afterthoughts in the division.
Many analysts shy away from the Cowboys because they just are not sure what to expect.
Here are five questions that will determine how far Dallas can go this season.
1. Offensive Line depth
The Cowboys' starting offensive line is one of the best in the league. However, they are also older, and the drop off between the starters and the second unit is significant.
The starting line is an average of 31 years old and not a single starter is under the age of 30.
The best player on the second unit is probably journeyman Montrae Holland. Doug Free is a former fourth-round draft pick that was inactive for the first 13 weeks of last season.
The Cowboys had so much faith in Cory Procter last year that they signed Holland to take over for Procter following the injury to Kyle Kosier. Recently signed Duke Preston is a former fourth-round pick that both Buffalo and Green Bay have already given up on. Pat McQuistan is a former seventh-round draft pick.
Recently, injuries to Kyle Kosier and Marc Colombo have spelled disaster for the high-powered Dallas attack, and it appears that this year presents the same scenario.
For this offense and Romo to avoid another late season stall, the offensive line has to stay intact.
2. Cornerback rotation
Probably the biggest position battle at this training camp was between Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins for the starting cornerback spot that belonged to Anthony Henry.
Scandrick, a former fifth round pick, seems to have outplayed former first round pick Mike Jenkins, but the coaching staff has decided to rotate the two young corners instead of picking one over the other.
Rotations are a tricky situation. In football, it seems that defining roles for players usually works better than leaving a situation in limbo, which appears to be what the coaching staff has done in this case.
Dallas needs better secondary play. Whether Jenkins or Scandrick is on the field, the coverage has to improve. Adding a veteran safety in Greg Sensabaugh will help. The coaching staff must be sure to put these two young corners in a position to succeed.
The result of this experiment will go a long way in determining how effective Dallas’ defense will be this season.
The biggest hurdle this team has faced since the departure of Bill Parcells is its ability to stay focused.
When their playoff chances were on the line last season, the got manhandled by Philadelphia 44-6.
They have shown a lack of ability to handle physical football teams. Brandon Jacobs pounded Dallas relentlessly in Week nine. Pittsburgh hung around and eventually wore down the Cowboys. Baltimore manhandled Dallas in the last game ever in Texas Stadium. Even the lowly St. Louis Rams pushed the Cowboys around as Steven Jackson ran for 160 yards.
The idea behind much of the offseason roster purge appeared to be getting rid of distractions. As mentioned earlier in the article, the team gave up a lot of production in hopes of ridding itself of the negativity and divisiveness that may be the cause of the mental gaffs this team has faced.
With the talent on this roster, getting over the mental hurdles is the number one factor that will determine whether this team ever matches its achievements with its talent.
4. Sticking with the run
Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett seemed to abandon the run at critical times during the 2008 season.
The most obvious time was in the Week four loss to the Washington Redskins where Marion Barber finished with eight rushing attempts.
The injuries to Felix Jones and Marion Barber helped hamper the rushing attack, but Tashard Choice has shown himself to be a solid all-around back.
Running the ball will depend on some of the other issues mentioned in this column.
The health of the offensive line will help whoever is running the ball, as will the returns of Jones and Barber. Running the ball will also take some of the pressure off of the shoulders of Tony Romo and the questions at wide receiver. Finally, a strong running game will only come from a team that is physical and mentally strong.
This team has to decide it will run the ball at will. They have the skill and size to do it.
5. Spreading the ball around.
Finally, Romo has to get back to distributing the ball.
One of the justifications for getting rid of T.O. was that he required touches to stay in the game. If he was not involved in the game early, then he faltered in big situations later.
Not having him will allow Romo to fully take control of the offense. He can hit Witten without wondering what Owens will say about it. Roy Williams has shown himself to be a quality receiver, and much quieter than Owens.
Crayton, Austin, and Hurd need to step up to fill the void in production left by Owens, but this offense is loaded with weapons.
Aside from Witten and the receivers, Marion Barber had 52 catches last season. A healthy Felix Jones has proven to be a big play waiting to happen on screen plays this preseason. Backup tight end Martellus Bennett has also proven to be a receiving threat.
Defenses should not be able to match up with that many weapons on the field at the same time.
How the Cowboys answer each of these questions will determine whether they end the season in disappointment again, or if they can get over the hump and end Dallas’ playoff drought.