Right now at BTB the Wednesday, September 5th showdown with the defending Super Bowl champion Giants in New Jersey can't get here fast enough...regardless of the G-Men having a 12% advantage in practice time, according to the Mothership's Mickey Spagnola.
One of the subjects that's been occupying the BTB hive mind (besides the feared inadequacy of our interior offensive line) has been how to keep the franchise solid and perennially competitive for the long haul. Why can't we, as America's Team, build a perennial contender the way Tom Landry and Co. did (with twenty consecutive non-losing seasons) before the salary cap era?
Despite the salary cap making such another sterling run very unlikely in our lifetimes, we still long to at least match the Steelers, Patriots or Ravens ability to crank out winning records and draft talent consistently. And for us BTBers contemplating Tony Romo signing what could be his final four year (with a one year option?) extension as a Cowboy, that means the dreaded process (there's that Jason Garrett word) of transitioning from the team core from what Bill Parcells built to a new one with current stars Dez Bryant and Sean Lee complimenting the core's evolution...[read more after the jump]
To see "Of Hamiltons and Franklins, Part II", click here!
Not Worried About Romo - or the Other Parcells Legacies Besides Witten
In short, where do we begin? Tony Romo's extension has already been extensively discussed both at ESPN's Cowboys page and in the comment threads at BTB. To be honest given Romo's RKG approach, it doesn't worry me. And if this team finally improves the interior o-line play Romo can easily play until 2015 (four more seasons from where we sit today or age 35) given his first three 'red-shirt' seasons in the NFL carrying a clip board.
Stephen Jones and Romo will find a way to get it done, possibly this year or in the 2013 off season, and keep it cap friendly enough to extend favorite target Dez Bryant (even if he gets 1200+ yards and 12 TDs this year) before Dez's agent reaches the stratosphere of Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald -type ridiculous money.
The NMVPs - Tyron, Dez, Carr, Claiborne, Free
Next in order of priority is DeMarcus Ware, who's already restructured his deal, as has Doug Free (though I suspect the team grooming Jeremy Parnell this long could be part of a contigency plan if Free doesn't return to form at right tackle if healthy). Completing the 'Parcells core group' of players that Jerry Jones spoke about this offseason in terms of windows possibly closing, both Jay Ratliff and Jason Witten are already be playing on the contracts they'll likely retire on.
Then there are the next most valuable players, NMVPs if you will. We all hope to see the 26-year-old Brandon Carr play at a high level until he's at least 30, and Morris Claiborne become a Pro Bowler opposite him -- a Pro Bowler whom we can somehow afford to keep. But without getting into the thickets of the NFL salary cap staying flat for years, or certain key rivals' machinations with the league front office to cut our cap room (John Mara, cough cough), the problem of keeping a contender together in this fractious era of modern pro football remains. We might be able to find a younger/cheaper replacement for Doug Free at some point in 2014, but Tyron Smith is gonna get a long term extension about that time.
Like a slight majority of the BTBers (judging by the comments, with all due respect to the old timers who remember Dandy Don) I came of age as Troy, Emmitt and Irvin had just won three Super Bowls in four years. Watching the franchise fall off its lofty peak, culminating in three pitiful 5-11 seasons under Dave Campo, remains seared in my memory. None of us wants to see a similar protracted plunge if, God forbid, Tony Romo is unable to stay our starter for two or three more seasons and we must do our best to soldier on with Kyle Orton while looking for a long term successor to the Staubach-White-Aikman-Romo legacy. I still remember Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson and Drew Henson enough to have no patience for the Romo haters and all the defensive collapses of 2011 that wasted the finest statistical season any Cowboys QB has ever had. I haven't yelled at the TV over the Cowboys as much as I did last year since the end of 2008.
Whom to Keep, Whom to Let Go? Jenkins and Spencer...the Consensus 'Goners'?
I recognize it's inevitable we're going to have to let some guys go to stay under the NFL's 20teens austerity cap. The consensus around these parts seems to be that Anthony Spencer is a goner in 2013, regardless of the OCC's documenting his tackling machine skills from the strongside OLB spot.
In my recent roster projection, I may have overrated rookie OLB Kyle Wilber's speed, and his ability step in for Spencer on the outside when 'Amost Anthony' goes home to play for the Indianapolis Colts in 2013. But with a full season's seasoning he could be ready to handle the job on rushing downs. What about passing downs? And what about his competition from superior athletes? Wilber's highlight reel includes some great sacks and tackles of future NFC East opponent Robert Griffith III when Wake Forest played Baylor. But how well can he hold off a more athletic Adrian Hamilton or a stud 1st or 2nd round draft pick in 2013 if Ware keeps soldiering on and we keep Victor Butler as a situational rusher?
The Dream Scenario for this Year...But I Say This Team Peaks with a Super Bowl Championship in 2014
If Adrian Hamilton developed into a terror opposite Ware, even a Ware in the 'downside' of his career, that might give us just enough juice with an improved secondary and o-line to finally get Romo his Super Bowl ring in 2014. Few BTBers seem to be koolaid-addled enough to suggest we'll make it all the way in 2013...although if some of that Giants mojo somehow were to rub off on us and make our playoff opponents start fumbling and dropping sure interceptions, who knows? With a miraculous amount of overachievement by the Yuglies we might just knock off the Niners at Candlemuck Park for a date with the Patriots or Ravens in the big dance.
The 'consensus' of BTB also seems to be that Mike Jenkins is also likely to be gone unless we inexplicably find ourselves as 'lucky' as the New York Giants were in keeping Osi Umeniyora around longer than would've been remotely possible had he stayed consistently healthy (I'm thinking here of Dan Graziano's ESPN piece comparing the two players, despite their wildly disparate impacts on their respective teams). I agree with the BTBers who say even an inconsistent Jenkins as a third or fourth corner for a cheap deal might be worth hanging on to in this age when one key starter's injury can wreck seasons. After all, why should the Giants have all the healthy corner depth in our division?
Controversial assertion: Jason Witten is the One You Must Groom a Successor for First
More than likely though we won't be able to keep either Spencer or Jenkins if both players show the slightest improvement this season on last year and play 12 or more games. So scratch those two names off the 2013 list and what are you left with? Questions of priorities. And this is where I want to present a contrarian case, that the player who most urgently needs to be succeeded (not, mind you, replaced!) from the Parcells Cornerstones Group (Romo, Ratliff, Ware, and...) one Christopher Jason Witten. [Please note: I started drafting this FanPost before Rabbie's posts, but his material gave me enough to complete it, as if we were anticipating the same 'long term' as in 2 to 4 season time horizon questions]...
Why Witten, you may ask? Hasn't Tony Gonzalez demonstrated that he can still light teams up for the Falcons at the ripe old NFL age of 36, and Witten just turned 30? Of course a guy as tough as Witten still has at least two if not three seasons in the tank. Being surrounded by so much offensive talent in Atlanta keeps Tony G. young. But Tony G and Jason W are two different players, with Jason having a bit more wear and tear on his body from more blocking down through the years. He was also drafted two seasons before DeMarcus Ware gave us the gift of the best pass rusher in the post 1990s-salary cap era.
Don't get me wrong, both are first ballot Hall of Famers. But the main reason for my belief that the Cowboys must prioritize Witten's successor in the 2013 NFL Draft (as it seems unlikely they'll find the next Antonio Gates as an undrafted free agent from the Australian rugby or college basketball power forward ranks) can be expressed in two words: Jay Novacek. As a longtime (as in Dandy Don era) Cowboys watcher once told me, Troy Aikman and the Cowboys passing juggernaut were never the same after Troy lost his longtime "security blanket" to back injuries and retirement in 1997, leading to Jerry Jones' reach for major draft bust David LaFleur.
Why do I make this comparison? Because Tony Romo has had Witten as 'the BFF' and security blanket in his game from 2005 onward! Surely without a competent tight end who's a serious threat to both catch and block, Romo will not enjoy the longevity that we all wish for him -- sticking around long enough to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy and triumph over all the haters.
Read more in Part II of this FanPost series in a few days (it got way too long in the first go-around)