The Cowboys wide receiver paradox

 

It’s not often that you have an offense that roars through a regular season setting club records and yet is still questioned in terms of personnel. That is the Dallas Cowboys fate this offseason. One part of the equation was obvious and the Cowboys obviously fixed it. Dallas dispatched their third string running back, Tyson Thompson, early in the offseason while simultaneously displaying no intent at all to bring back one part of its dual running back combo, Julius Jones. This left them with only Marion Barber who was tendered at the highest level as a restricted free agent all but assuring his place on the 2008 roster. Once the RFA deadline passed the Cowboys had the Barbarian for this year and then added Felix Jones and Tashard Choice in the draft giving them a full stable of backs for the 2008 season. Problem solved.

The other part of the equation, the wide receivers, is a little more nebulous than running back and hasn’t been addressed in any meaningful way so far. The question is: Does it need to be addressed? Here is where the paradox comes into place. The Cowboys offense was a high-powered machine for most of the season and the wide receiver position was part of that explosion. So why did almost all the experts list WR as a need in the draft and why did the Cowboys seemingly acknowledge this need by pursuing a veteran through a trade that never came to fruition?

Even today, guys like Pat Kirwan are still referring to this problem.

Lots of people predicted the Cowboys would select a receiver early in the draft, but they never took one even though they had many opportunities to do so. The pressure point(s) in this decision fall in three places: 1. Can Terry Glenn stay healthy? 2. Can Patrick Crayton continue to grow? 3. Will Jerry Jones continue to look for a trade for a marquee player? Wideouts Early Doucet, Earl Bennett and Mario Manningham were still on the board when the Cowboys took tight end Martellus Bennett at the No. 61 spot. One of those players might have been able to help but maybe not enough to skip a player like Bennett, who will play in the Cowboys' two tight end sets. The best thing Dallas can do to relieve the pressure on the receivers is to find a way to make a trade before the season.

 

Yesterday, I linked to a Peter King article that pushed the same theme. I also linked to Wade Phillips’ press conference response saying that Dallas is just fine for the moment with its wide receiver corps. What gives?

There are a few things in play. One is the idea that the Cowboys main WR’s are aged and hobbled. Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn are both in their mid-30’s. Glenn is coming off a knee injury that effectively wiped-out his 2007 season and no one, including the Cowboys organization, is quite sure what his status for this year will be. Glenn is a good route-runner with good hands, but his bread-and-butter has always been his speed and his ability to separate from defenders. A severe knee injury to an older receiver brings up the very real issue that he may never be the same receiver again even if he does make it back on the field. Meanwhile, Terrell Owens, who it should be noted may be in his mid-30’s on a pure chronological basis, has the body of a much younger receiver and shows no signs of slowing down. But, and this is a big issue, when he went down with an ankle injury late in the season, the Cowboys offense began to sputter and his return in the playoff game against the Giants didn’t exactly fix the problem. It can be debated whether he was 100% but most observers would say he wasn’t and the rest of the receiving corps couldn’t make up for it.

When talking about the Cowboys passing game, the experts rarely point out one thing that plays a major role. The Cowboys #2 receiver is really TE Jason Witten. Even when Glenn was healthy they were probably 2a and 2b after T.O. Witten doesn't have to carry the load like some TE’s who were/are the #1 option on their teams like Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates, but he should be thought of in that class when evaluating the Cowboys passing offense.

Still, the Cowboys receiving corps is perceived as aging at the top with little backup potential and one injury away from real trouble. The truth is probably not that dire but there is some legitimate reason for concern.

The Breakdown:

Terrell Owens – His time in Dallas has been an unmitigated success and he’s proven that he’s among the elite receivers in this league. But he is creeping up their in age even though his mid-30’s appears to be like other receiver’s late-20’s. The Cowboys have a lot of contracts to settle with a lot of top players and T.O. is one of them, he finishes his original 3-year contract this year. Dallas will have to determine how long they want to re-sign him for and also work within the demands of money that T.O. and his agent drew Rosenhaus will surely ask for. Strictly in terms of football, Dallas most assuredly wants him back after this year, but the salary cap and the player’s age will shape the negotiations. He’s no lock for the future.

Terry Glenn – Just one huge question mark. Can he play again? Can he remain healthy if he gets back on the field? Will he be close to the same player he was if he does get back into the lineup? Dallas will be monitoring this situation very closely in the OTA’s and training camp. Glenn’s future in Dallas ranges from a return to the #2 WR spot to not even making on the 53-man roster because of lingering injury issues. Another WR where the future is uncertain, and unlike T.O., it’s uncertain for this season.

Patrick Crayton – An OK #2 option but a better #3 option. With Glenn’s injury he was pressed into service as the #2 (in pure WR terms, Witten actually fills that role) and during the biggest game of his life he failed not once, but twice, in a major way. Can he be counted on to handle the responsibility again this year?

Sam Hurd – A steady backup guy but doesn’t appear to have the potential to go much further.

Miles Austin – Has all the speed you’d want to break into the upper echelon of the receiving corps, yet seems better at drawing pass interference penalties instead of actually catching the ball.

Isaiah Stanback – We really don’t know what he can do since he was hampered by a foot injury last year and is trying to make the transition from QB to WR. A project with all the physical attributes but no one is really sure if he’ll be able to produce at the position in real games.

After that, you have some young veterans and some fresh-faced UDFA’s who will take their shot at muscling in on some playing time in training camp. So far, it looks like Danny Amendola has the early lead in making that happen.

So there’s the paradox. Essentially the same group of receivers returns that led the Cowboys offense to one of the best seasons in the history of the club. But they also proved the fragility of the situation through injury and inexperience rearing its head in the big playoff game last year. Unless Dallas makes a move for a veteran that can contribute in a meaningful way they will be rolling the dice and hoping to hit the big payoff. But with a little bad luck they could just as easily crap-out.

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