The 2009 off season has been quite the opposite of what we have grown accustomed to as Cowboy fans. No big-name free agent acquisition. No big-name first round pick. No drama. In fact, the organization has stayed under the radar this off season, save for the dreadful, catastrophic collapse of the Cowboys’ practice bubble.
Respectfully moving forward from the recent tragedy, things seem to be looking up in Cowboy country. Like every other NFL team, the Cowboys look toward training camp with a renewed hope. Cowboy fans can find optimism in the arrival of fresh new faces, and also in the departure of a few stale ones. I am no Cowboy insider, but from a fan’s perspective things just feel different. As impossible as it may seem, the Dallas Cowboys are beginning to blend into the NFL landscape. The new sense of calm at Valley Ranch is just one of the many reasons the Cowboys have to be optimistic about the upcoming season.
Here are a few others:
Safety Play: It is a touchy subject amongst Cowboy fans but the release of Roy Williams was an example of addition by subtraction. For a defensive coordinator, having Roy Williams in your secondary is the equivalent of dragging a bum leg into the octagon, and hoping that your well-trained adversary overlooks your obvious weakness. The hole the Cowboys have had at strong safety in years past has hamstrung this defense at every level. It affects the play of the other defensive backs and linebackers as well, as all were frequently involved in compensating for the poor play from the strong safety position. The weakness at safety also left Wade Phillips with no choice but to tone down the rush at times. Whether it's Gerald Sensabaugh or Michael Hamlin, whoever steps in at strong safety should be a significant improvement over Roy Williams in coverage. The change should allow the defense to operate more freely and attack the pocket with even more ferocity.
Wade is Calling the Shots On Defense: Credit the Cowboys’ front office for one great under-the-radar move this off season. After relieving Brian Stewart of his duties as defensive coordinator, the Cowboys replaced him with one of the game’s greatest defensive minds. Wade Phillips will be running the entire defensive show from day one this season. Last season the unit flourished after Phillips took over play-calling duties, and it is reasonable to expect the defense to pick up where it left off.
Jon Kitna: A Tony Romo injury is never a good thing for the Dallas Cowboys. However, with Jon Kitna in the fold it won’t necessarily be the end of the world. Brad Johnson’s play was horrendous in Romo’s brief absence last season. Kitna is not without his shortcomings, but at least a Kitna-lead Cowboys offense would have the entire playbook at it’s disposal. When Johnson filled in for Romo last season, we saw a lot of the deep passing game disappear due to Brad’s deteriorated arm-strength. The offense that Kitna (and Roy Williams) ran in Detroit featured much of the same terminology as the Cowboys’, and Kitna’s arm strength will at least force opponents to defend the entire field.
Field Position: When Round 5 - Pick 172- Dallas - David Buehler - K - USC scrolled across my screen I threw my beer just like you did. It wasn’t until that exact moment that I remembered how many times I threw my beer last season when a Nick Folk kickoff landed at the 18-yard line. Nick Folk is the field goal kicker without dispute. But if Buehler can consistently put the ball near the goal line or deeper, he will help this team immensely. DeAngelo Smith, while not quite Devin Hester-esque, will be a big improvement over Patrick Crayton as a punt returner. Add in new special teams coach Joe DeCamillis, and a bunch of athletic, hungry rookies and the Cowboys’ special teams may finally be special.
Pass Rushers: The Cowboys lead the NFL with 59 sacks last season. Basically the entire front seven returns with the exceptions of Chris Canty and Zach Thomas. The Cowboys also added four linebackers (two inside, two outside) through the draft who specialize in creating pocket pressure. Secondary play should be improved, so Wade Phillips may feel better about turning even more of these guys loose on occasion. The 1984 Chicago Bears hold the NFL single season team sack record with 72. Release the hounds, Mr. Phillips!!
Bash, Dash, and Tash: The Giants’ backfield still looks good after replacing the departed Derrick Ward (Tampa Bay) with North Carolina State’s Andre Brown, but I don’t think any backfield in the league compares to the one in Dallas. Jerry Jones said that he wants to make the team more Romo-friendly. The best thing the team can possibly do for Tony Romo is alleviate some pressure by running the tread off of Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. It is painful to think about what 2008 might have been for the Cowboys had Felix been able to maintain his health. Jones’ speed and elusiveness present an entirely different set of challenges for a defense. He was sorely missed down the stretch and could be the X-factor in 2009.
Offensive Line Health: While starting the same five players both years, the Cowboys had one of the league’s finest offensive lines in 2007, and one of the league’s most inconsistent units in 2008. Kyle Kosier’s injury was detrimental to the line’s cohesion. Flozell Adams playing the greater portion of the season with one bad wing didn’t help either. Of course there is no guarantee that the line will stay healthy in 2009, but at least they will start out that way.
The Sophomores: The Cowboys hit the jackpot in last year’s draft, striking gold with 5 of 6 draft choices. Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Martellus Bennett, Tashard Choice and Orlando Scandrick were all key contributors in their rookie seasons. However, none of these players have even begun to scratch the surface of their full potential. All five players are being counted on for expanded roles in 2009. If these five players continue to improve, the sky is the limit.
The Silence: They aren’t filming Hard Knocks at Cowboys training camp this year. The 24-hour "T.O. Watch" is now based in the northeast. Pacman Jones is now beating up Pros vs. Joes contestants rather than his own around-the-clock security detail. Gone also is the burden of Super Bowl expectations. No one is even picking the Cowboys to win the division this time around. Though media coverage will likely suggest otherwise, the Dallas Cowboys should be less of a circus from now on. For the first time in a long time, the players should be able to focus, and just play football.
Don’t get it twisted. I stomped on my rose-tinted Cowboy blinders right after Pat Terrell picked off Troy Aikman in the playoffs following the 1996 season. This team still has some issues, which I will address in my next post. However, this team most certainly appears to be headed in the right direction. The Dallas Cowboys have a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming season.