A special guest post from our old friend Kegbearer, promoted from the FanPosts. -- Dave
Consider the Cowboys 2010 roster that Jason Garrett inherited as interim head coach. The offensive-line was breaking down, with four 32 year-old starters and Doug Free starting to reach his prime at age 26. Behind them, a failed first-round draft choice given a final chance at redemption and a collection of players with virtually no playing time in the NFL. Yet, while many complain about the uncertainty at the interior of the Cowboys o-line in 2012, that same uncertainty is driven by the competition between experienced and youthful prospects challenging each other for roster spots and a chance to start on game day. It's a miraculous improvement in less than two seasons.
And this is not the only place that the Jason Garrett regime has left finger-prints of this new philosophy being instilled.
By the end of 2010 there were several aged veterans on the Cowboys roster. But Jason Garrett is all about getting better every day as you achieve to be great. There is a certain point in a player's career when they will no longer be able to improve the next day. While the players can still compete in the NFL, they will never again get better. It seems the new Cowboy Way under Jason Garrett does not consider such players wise investments, and he has finally gotten a business man named Jerry Jones to listen.
By the end of 2010 there were several aged veterans on the Cowboys roster that did not appear to be improving from one day to the next. Not a single one of them remains.
Flozell Adams (actually before 2010 season) - Andre Gurode - Leonard Davis - Kyle Kosier - Terence Newman - Roy Williams - Jon Kitna - Keith Brooking - Bradie James - Igor Olshansky - Marion Barber - Alex Barron - Martellus Bennett? (Not due to age, but if not improving...)
Nearly a dozen starters from 2010 are no longer with the team heading into the 2012 season. That is a remarkable amount of turnover while keeping a team competitive. This may rehash the debate on re-building vs. re-tooling, but one thing is certain, Jason Garrett has wasted no time in making the necessary changes to achieve his vision for this team...and they were fighting for a playoff spot up until the final game of the 2011 season. This team is now competitive, not only on the field, but throughout the depth chart. One of the most exciting things about the 2012 Cowboys is all the competition that will be occurring at camp.
In years prior, Cowboys training camp has been about the competition at the bottom half of the roster, dare I remind us of those dark memories of a special teams draft. In 2012, there will be young talented players competing throughout the entire roster, including for jobs among the starting line-up. It seems there isn't a single player that can't get better if the Garrett approach and the coaches do their job, and the players buy into the approach and process that Garrett seems sure to instill.
Much more after the jump...
Before, during, and after the 2010 fiasco, there were three major points of crisis frequently cited by Cowboy fans and the BTB community (Not including coaching, organizational approach, and a revived Cowboy Way). The Cowboys offensive-line was keeping the offense from becoming elite, and the pass-rush and coverage by the defense were in total disarray. While I personally defended the Cowboys pass-rush and still persist that, while at times inconsistent, it has been above average but prone to collapses in the secondary. However, these were clearly the three areas where the Cowboys needed the most improvements. Jason Garrett must have felt the same way.
Besides the introduction of Rob Ryan and the other new coaches, which will/do deserve plenty of credit, Garrett has clearly attacked these deficiencies and done everything he can to improve them while not hampering future efforts for the team with bad contracts or impulsive decisions.
The Old Mercenaries in the Trenches
In 2010, four starters along the offensive-line were 32 years-old. In 2012, the oldest lineman at camp will be 30 (Nate Livings) and Doug Free (formerly the youngest starter) will be the second-oldest lineman. While some fans complain about the lack of known veterans on our starting lineup, there is only upside to be found along the o-line depth chart. If the organization and new coaching staff do their jobs properly, there isn't a single lineman on this roster that won't improve...or will lose ability due to age. And it's not simply a matter of getting younger and adding competition. Even the approach, the process of revitalizing the o-line, was done with the precision and care that only a coach with a long term outlook can provide.
When was the last time the Cowboys signed a big money contract to an aged veteran to bolster the offensive-line? How long had we been waiting for that first-round talent for the o-line?
The introduction of a potential franchise left tackle was the greatest way to improve the o-line and the Garrett regime did not hesitate to take advantage of the 2011 draft and the availability of Tyron Smith. Doug Free is now (under a long term deal) an experienced swing tackle that can go back to excelling on the right side. Behind them, Jermey Parnell is a young and athletic tackle who will continue to learn better technique as he enters his fourth year in the league. He also has the physical make-up to become a swing tackle.
The much debated interior of the o-line now has four players with NFL experience and three other young prospects with upside (David Arkin, Kevin Kowalski, and Ron Leary), and no one but Livings is above their mid 20's. There will be a fierce competition as all three starting spots seem up for grabs...and may the best man win. I've missed this kind of competition for the starting lineup.
The starting interior-line of the 2012 Cowboys could very well be Livings and Bernadeau at guard, both with NFL playing time and upside, and because of their introduction Bill Nagy could win the center spot if Phil Costa doesn't improve upon his first year as a starter. Personally, I would even prefer the dark horse line-up of Arkin, Costa, and Leary to a collection of high-priced veterans (say Carl Nicks, Andre Gurode, and Leonard Davis - a line that would scream of the old Cowboy Way).
The best offensive-lines in the NFL are created by relentless and hungry (sometimes angry) individuals that love to battle it out in the trenches, and know the movements of the guys beside them. The longer a group of o-linemen play together the better they get at reacting to blitzes, passing off blockers, taking advantage of another's pancake, or recognizing a lost block by a teammate in time to help out. I expect to see a fiery and competitive camp for the interior o-line and whoever rises to the top also has the chance to play with the same group of guys for years to come.
Oh, did I mention there is now a uniform template for Cowboys linemen? The mix of old maulers and technicians is now a group of smart and mobile linemen that have the juice in their legs to always finish the play, to make blocks on the move, to get to the second level, or to keep fighting to get a second block downfield. It's not the monstrous line of bruisers the Cowboys dynasty was sporting, but it is a clear approach with specific intent.
The Dreadful Secondary
What once seemed a promising future with two alternates making the Pro Bowl, became a nightmare for all but opposing offenses and quarterbacks that began to have the best games of the season (sometimes career) against the Cowboys. With a weak draft for corners in 2011 and resources needed elsewhere, Garrett hoped to revive the young corners who under-performed by quickly ending the Alan Ball experiment at safety, and bringing in a veteran safety who knew Ryan's system. Similarly, Cowboys signed a younger veteran safety to team with Sensabaugh in 2012 who also has experience in a Ryan style defense. Meanwhile, a collection of young safeties, two that showed promise in sub packages (Danny McCray and Barry Church) and another I think will make some noise in his rookie year due to his instincts and ability to react to the ball (Matt Johnson) are competing for a possible starting spot over Brodney Pool and/or a role in Ryan's various formations with extra safeties. Now another athletic prospect rejoins the secondary, and with some more experience perhaps AOA can still grow into the ballhawk safety many hoped a few years ago.
While the o-line saw the greatest amount of turn around and new talent in 2011, it is clear the cornerback depth chart will rule the changes of 2012. While Newman will end up an underrated Cowboy, he was past his peak and was no longer improving, so as Garrett's approach seems to signify Newman's time with the team had to come to an end. Without overspending for a veteran past his prime, the Cowboys managed to sign a solid starter in Brandon Carr who is just reaching his peak; but there were clearly more things to worry about. Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick did improve on their 2010 performances (tough not to) but the depth chart had no depth and could still be improved; Jenkins was also coming into the final year of his contract. If Garrett was going to avoid being held over the coals once that situation developed, one thing would have to occur.
Then, in much the same fashion as the 2011 draft, but with a little luck and the foresight to trade up to draft him, the Cowboys got the best corner in the draft, who incidentally was also the highest ranked defensive prospect on most everyone's board. As if by destiny or some wish upon a Cowboys star, the two greatest weaknesses for Dallas were met with two blue-chip prospects and likely franchise players. In my opinion, as a perfect marriage of BPA and need, Tyron Smith and Morris Claiborne were two of the best first-round picks at the perfect time for this franchise...but only time will tell.
What is clear is that the Cowboys have a high likelihood of having two starting corners that were not even on the roster in 2010, while still maintaining the potential upside of earlier draft picks in Jenkins and Scandrick. Competition will be fun to watch, and what was a major weakness for the Cowboys now seems a likely place for a bright future. It is an incredible turnaround in less than two seasons.
The Debated & Inconsistent Pressure
A great 3-4 defense presents the most threatening pass-rush with the outside linebackers, but the defensive-line must get push up front to make sure the quarterback can't scramble up into and out of the pocket. But the 3-4 is also based on deception and disguise, the ability to mask coverages and where the pressure and/or blitz are going to attack the offense. This is one reason an improved secondary is sure to help the Cowboys pass-rush. In one way, the Cowboys have already taken great steps to improve the pressure they can send at quarterbacks, if not the time they'll have to get there. The more he can trust the secondary, the more confusing the chaos Ryan can create with his blitz packages. But let's concentrate on the actual guys tasked with disrupting the backfield.
The final refuge of veterans near or over 30 years-old is along the defensive-line. Jay Ratliff is now 30 years-old, Kenyon Coleman is 33, and Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher are now 29. Rome wasn't built in a day (it took time to steal and imitate the Gods, sculptures, art, philosophy, and architecture of the Greeks), and clearly this is the next place the Garrett regime must add more firepower. However, this is also a deeper group than back in 2010. Jason Hatcher may be reaching 30, but he is also improving from week to week and played like a solid starter last season. Sean Lissemore is growing into his own and showed tons of potential, getting nearly twenty tackles, two sacks, five QB Hits, and four tackles for a loss (advanced NFL stats.com) with limited playing time in 2011, often playing more like a defensive tackle. Josh Brent continues to improve his ability to anchor as a nose tackle, maintaining leverage and keeping his pad-level lower. While most of these players were on the 2010 roster, Hatcher, Lissemore, and Brent have all improved over that time and gained vital NFL experience. Spears and Coleman can provide run stop support if they manage to stay on the team after the competition at training camp. Add rookie Tyrone Crawford into the mix, and you also have a young pass-rush specialist to groom. I think people underestimate what this kid can bring to the defensive-line, even this year as a sub-package specialist.
Jay Ratliff will be an ongoing debate. He seems the exception to the rule, getting a contract extension so late in his career, but perhaps the Cowboys staff and Woicik think they can still get the best out of him and teach him a few more tricks, while also lightening the burden of being the only pass-rush possibility within the group. Rob Ryan loves rotating his d-linemen and often switching to a front with two d-lineman and Ware or Spencer as the third man with his hand on the ground, and his 2012 roster has more experienced tools with a greater range of capabilities than back in 2010.
Anthony Spencer will also be an ongoing debate. While I find it difficult to tag him as anything worse than "above average," there are those that have called for his head on the block for a few years now. What was done with Spencer in the offseason, however, seems the only prudent course of action for a team that knows the truth of the situation. Spencer was the best free-agent option available to the Cowboys to play opposite DeMarcus Ware. Without signing him to a huge contract during a free agent bidding war, and without leaving the team desperate for a new starting outside linebacker in the draft, the team decided to put the franchise tag on him. This provides a few things. First, they have more time to consider if Spencer is the long term solution. Perhaps Ryan (as he has stated) thinks Spencer is doing everything they ask of him, but only an improved secondary will help him achieve things beyond their expectations. Certainly, Ware does everything you ask of him, and I imagine so much more. In any case, the Cowboys now have another season to decide if Spencer is still improving or if he has reached his ceiling. And they've done so without damaging the future plans for other parts of the team. They may also have the opportunity to negotiate an extended deal without other teams driving up the price.
Meanwhile, Victor Butler is growing into his own as a pass-rush demon and can continue to improve other aspects of his game without being forced to start. Rookie Kyle Wilber provides an option to groom that could take over if Spencer doesn't remain with the team. Either way, the Cowboys now have a backup at both weak and strong-side linebacker with upside. Here, I would also like to throw Bruce Carter's name into Ryan's bag of tricks. While Carter is known best for his coverage skills and will be in his own heated competition for a starting role as an inside linebacker, he also had experience and success rushing the passer in college and is athletic enough to be a threat in the NFL. This provides another versatile piece to Ryan's puzzle, a linebacker in sub-packages that can cover and rush the passer, further confusing quarterbacks in the chaos.
In 2009 the Cowboys defense was ranked seventh in total sacks, but faced a considerable drop to the middle of the pack in 2010. In Garrett and Ryan's first year, the Cowboys managed to improve and again rank seventh in 2011 despite one of the worst secondary performances in the league. It seems to me the lack of pass-rush that fans and some pundits point to is more a problem with consistent pressure which derives just as much from the breakdowns in coverage as from the failures of pass rushers. It will be interesting to see if after few personnel changes to the rushers (except for new coaching, more experience, and a better secondary) the Cowboys pressure and sack totals can again improve in 2012. Even if they do, don't be surprised if Garrett's next first-round pick helps support the last of the three struggling aspects of the team when he took over.
The Red Dawn
I don't think Jason Garrett's work is done, and I'm certain he doesn't either. Not every problem can be solved overnight. But in a very short time he has revitalized this team with youthful and hungry competition across the depth charts, invigorated the locker room with players that are driven to work hard and have a knack for inspiring teammates and becoming leaders, all the while fixing immediate problems without risking - nay, while drastically improving - the long term possibilities for this franchise. Garrett has systematically gone about the business of fixing the weakest aspects of the team by increasing the youth, talent, and competition along the depth chart. Along the way he has also been creating a new Cowboy Way, one with an organizational and coaching approach of which fans and players love to be a part.
Jason Garrett's coaching staff is now in place, Mike Woicik is getting an offseason with this young team, the camp will be dominated by competition instead of cupcakes...and there is not an overpaid over-the-hill player for as far as the eye can see. There is a beautiful horizon with a red dawn rising over Dallas. Call it kool-aid, but I am basking in the glow and expect the 2012 Dallas Cowboys to be competitive every game...as they strive to be great ever day.