How Talented Are The Dallas Cowboys?

After years of disappointment, fans of the Dallas Cowboys tend to be a little morose about the talent level of the current team. Of late, a consensus has formed that there are a small handful of top level players and rising stars on the team, with most of the roster full of sub-par players that are holding the team back. And since we all know in our hearts that we are able to make better decisions about the team than Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Jason Garrett combined, we cry out loudly to clear out the deadwood and bring in the talent that players like Tony Romo, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware deserve to have helping them.

The frustration is understandable, especially for fans of a team with the history of success that the Cowboys had up until the mid-nineties. It is also a reasonable conclusion that there have been some horrible personnel choices made since then. Now we are waiting with barely controlled impatience for free agency and the draft to roll around. It is time to get that new talent in here and dump some wasted paychecks.

But the reality is that Dallas will have about $20 million to spend in free agency, and probably eight draft choices total going into the draft (counting the expected compensatory pick for Stephen Bowen). Based on what we saw last season, that is not going to fix all the problems if the only way to solve things is to remove and replace.

There have recently been some reports that the coaching staff, particularly Bill Callahan and Jerome Henderson, think that some of the solutions may already be on the team. Is this another case of overvaluing the roster we have, which lead to unmitigated fiascoes like the 2009 draft? Or is there more to see when a coach is on the inside with all the video and evaluation tools they have?

Seeking answers after the jump.

I pulled out the picture of Jason Garrett and the new hires to put on my article for a reason. Arguably the two biggest weaknesses in 2011 were the offensive line (particularly late in the season) and the secondary (particularly any time the other team had the ball). These problems were addressed immediately when Dave Campo was not retained and Hudson Houck retired - and I will always wonder if Hudson received a little encouragement in making that decision. Regardless, two well regarded coaches were brought in to get those units up to speed. In addition, Stephen Jones has stated that the offensive line and the secondary are the two biggest priorities for upgrade in the off season.

But there is that nagging issue of numbers. Free agency can only go as far as the team can afford it to. While $20 million looks like an enormous sum to most of us, in the NFL it can only bring in so many players. If you want to go with a couple of real impact players, that would use up most of it. Or you can go with solid replacements that have a lower price tag, but even then, you are only talking about three or four new people to bring in. Then your draft choices can only be expected realistically to provide three starters, and that is very optimistic.

I think we all know that the team needs to upgrade the play at more than six or seven positions. And even then, the question becomes how much of an upgrade can you get, and there will also be the inevitable injury issues to address.

Callahan and Henderson are already signaling that they expect to find some of the answers already on the team. Bill came out and stated that the talent of the Cowboys was part of what drew him to the team. He praised the offensive skill positions, and then had this to say about his job coaching the offensive line.

"That's the exciting aspect of this job. All those pieces are in place. You're always trying to get better. Now it's just a matter of shoring up the offensive line, continuing to improve that aspect of these young players and their development and again, get in this playoff and try to take a run at it."

Jerome seems to be on the same page when he discussed the way he sees his task with the secondary.

"I'm sure there are guys in place that will be on this team that will be big contributors on this team," Henderson said. "I just don't know the roles and I don't know what I have to do with them to get them to where I want them to be or where they should be."

Is that a reasonable view, or is that way too close to the "we just need a couple of players to get back to the top" theory?

I chalk part of what they say up to trying to show a little self-confidence in themselves. After all, improving things was what they were hired to do, and you would not really expect them to be defeatist in their first couple of weeks on the job. And they may be trying to change some attitudes out there as well. But how realistic are they?

In Callahan's case, he may have something to stand on. He likes young players he can coach up, and he has that with the Cowboys. There is already one likely improvement that almost everyone expects, flipping Tyron Smith and Doug Free, which it is widely believed will lead to better performance at the tackle positions. And it is not unreasonable to think that at least one of the interior line positions will be successfully manned next season by a player already on the team. Two is certainly possible.

And he does say much the same as many here when he points to the skill positions as something to build on. Trent Dilfer puts it a little more bluntly when he looks at Tony Romo.

I think the issue here is he needs more help from his teammates. I think they are not nearly as talented as people say they are, from 1 to 53. I'm talking about the total roster.

There is that lack of talent thing again. But is talent a static thing? We all know that players decline at some point in their career. However, they also can develop, particularly young ones with limited experience. That is apparently Callahan's position, and he has a track record that shows he is able to make a real difference.

Jerome may have some disappointment ahead, however. While you can point to some positives with the offensive line, and the fact that historically those players take a season or two to develop, the secondary is a different situation. It is hard to see how the best coach in the world is going to turn Alan Ball into an effective cornerback, or to realistically expect that Terence Newman has a good season left in him. Plus, he is just starting to evaluate his players. A few hours with the video may change his mind.

The good news is that there is hope to get some fresh, capable bodies for Henderson to work with. The draft is deep in cornerbacks. Safety is problematic, but at least he should expect to see some serious help with the corners. And the secondary is not the only place the team is looking to upgrade defensively. A more effective pass rush would help take some of the pressure off the defensive backs. The team will likely be looking for a stud pass rusher, and maybe there are some other moves afoot to accomplish the same thing.

The time might be coming for the Cowboys to switch back (to a 4-3) too. Sean Lee would be a great middle linebacker, and the Cowboys don't have a true nose tackle. But Jay Ratliff would be a monster of a defensive tackle. Demarcus Ware as a pass-rushing defensive end? Yes, please.

The thought has also crossed the mind of Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, who himself was a protege of Parcells.

"We played a lot of three-man line, and we also played some four-man line in different situations this past year," Garrett said told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last week. "We haven't gotten to the point where we're going to talk about what we're going to play yet. We're still evaluating the tape. ... Let us go through the process. You'll see some of that stuff once we get back on the field."

I fully realize that Garrettspeak is not the easiest thing to glean information from, but that does sound like an open door to me. It would really spark some excitement among the BTB participants who feel the team just doesn't have good 3-4 personnel, and in the minds of some who ought to know, it is really more about how you line up the team, anyway.

Last summer much was made about New England's move to a 4-3 from a 3-4, which seemed to irk coach Bill Belichick.

_____

"Honestly, I think that's something that is a media fabrication. There are a lot of different alignments out there. You see 4-3 teams use odd spacing. You see 3-4 teams use even spacing. You have 11 players, you can put them in various positions. Whether you want to put it on the pre-game depth chart as one thing or another, I think is a little bit overrated."

As I have talked about before, the parts of a football team don't work in isolation. Improving one part (pass rush or pass protection) can lead to improvements in other areas (fewer passes completed against the secondary, more passes completed by the offense). You don't have to find all pros at all the positions, just make improvements overall. It looks like the team certainly has a plan for making the needed improvements, and the fact that going to a 4-3 is at least being looked at indicates that they are willing to explore whatever options might pay off.

Still, I feel a little concern reading the new coaches talking about what we already have. As you might be able to tell, I think there is certainly some hope on the offensive line, but I start getting really skeptical when the secondary gets into that conversation. My hope is that the team is able to get better performance from many of the players on the roster, because most of them will still be there when the 2012 season starts. And I really hope that there will be some key new faces to help shore up the problem areas. It's going to take some of both.

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