What a difference a year can make. About this time last year we were reeling from a disastrous first round loss to New York after cruising through the regular season with 13 wins. While devastated, we looked ahead to the 2008 season as a promising step forward and one that we yearned would end in victorious fashion. After all, a team that had dominated so handedly but lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions could only be moving in the right direction, right? The Cowboys '08 draft class was extremely promising and were asked to contribute right away and some fans were thinking that playoff win drought was as good as dead.
Then reality set in and here we are back at square one. Instead of hoping for a promising season most of us are scared to death of a disastrous backslide. one where all of the franchise's warts come to haunt them more than ever. Things will only get worse before they get better, the saying goes, and this team has shown us there they have a very far way to travel before things start looking optimistically again.
Yet things sometimes have a way of turning themselves around with the right nudges in the right places. Sometimes the pieces just fall into place and what once seemed lost has found its way back on the narrow way. Here is what I am looking forward to in 2009, and how these small cogs in the big wheel could make the big picture that much brighter once again.
The New Stadium. Jerry World. Insert-highest-bidder-here-Stadium. The Dallas Cowboys said goodbye to Texas Stadium in forgettable fashion in 2008 with an absolute clunker against the Baltimore Ravens. The game was a failure on many levels: It was on Saturday night on NFL Network, a channel that much of the D/FW area does not receive and one that a good portion of the country pays extra for. For the last game ever at the stadium it was flat out unfair that a good amount of Dallas Cowboys fans either had to travel to bar to watch it, or not watch it at all. It was also against the Baltimore Ravens, a team the Cowboys had absolute ZERO history with. If there was any justice in the league at all the game would have been against the Redskins, the same as it was when the Cowboys helped close down RFK. That would have been the classic matchup to send off a storied venue. And then there was the game itself played in front of heroes from Dallas Cowboys lore, who all had to look on as this team embarrassed itself in spectacular fashion in the fourth quarter. What a way to end it.
Now the Cowboys look ahead to moving into the most incredible, artistic and state of the art sports stadiums in the world. The new home of the Cowboys is jaw dropping in it's scope: two record setting arches setting the foundation, a retractable roof that maintains the look of the old stadium, field level suites, a capacity of over 100,000 and a 60 yard long scoreboard. Those rich and/or lucky enough to see games here will no doubt be in awe at the sheer size and beauty of the stadium, and at it's center is the Dallas Cowboys. This is the perfect way to start fresh; a new home, a new field to move on from the issues that have plagued this team recently and move forward in the right direction. It wil be sad to never see opposing teams struggle with the infamous hump or see a bird's eye view into the stadium through that great hole in the roof. No more watching player's run through sun and shade for noon games. But it will all be worth it; a new birth for a team hopefully heading in a new direction.
Now if Jerry would only name the field after Tom Landry.
Tashard Choice. I couldn't believe it when this guy fell into the Cowboys' lap in the fourth round of the draft. He was an outstanding running back in college and was the ultimate leader in the locker room and on the field. He never quit, never backed down from a challenge. His running style is molded from Emmitt Smith: legs always churning, moving forward, and having the vision to find the best hole in front of you. His pregame speeches are things of legend.
There was doubt as to how much he would actually contribute in 2008. For some reason the coaches expressed doubt in his ability to play an extended amount of time and he rarely saw the field the first half of the season. He made up for it by emerging as a special teams playmaker, a transition that had to be tough for the leading rusher in the ACC and one of the best players on his team in college. About special teams, he has said then that he loved playing, no matter in what capacity and would do anything to help his team win. Then Marion Barber and Felix Jones were hurt and we all saw how much of a difference Choice could make.
It's still unclear just how the Cowboys will utilize Choice when all three running backs are healthy but it is certain now that he deserves the chance to make a difference on the field. Yet even if he has minimale touches a game, his presence and leadership alone will help the team move forward in a big way. In the NFL it's almost impossible for rookies to step up and become a vocal leader on the team. Now that his value has been proven and he heads into his second season with the team, his leadership ability should start to exert itself over the team. His philosophy of "Everything, or nothing" is one that should permeate every single player and coach on this team. If there is nothing else to take away from the 2008 season it's that some players started to put themselves ahead of the team. Choice's actions and words go against any selfish thought anyone might have, and he needs to let these guys know that. Tell them what it means to be a teammate, teach them how to play with emotion and pride. But most of all be a leader, but that is something this team is in need of more than anything.
Joe DiCamillis. I will always be a stern believer that the soul of team starts with the special teams. The past few seasons have been grim reminders of just how important this squad is to the team and how struggles here will permeate throughout the rest of the franchise. Special teams are made up of backup and fringe players and if these guys aren't giving it their all and showing aggression and intensity, then why would the rest of the team? It all starts from the ground up, and in 2008 we all saw the old saying come to life: You are only as good as your weakest link.
DiCamillis has a prime opportunity to immediately point this team in the right direction. His special teams have always been high performers and by all accounts he is a hard nosed, intense coach who will take no excuses for poor play. As Rafael as pointed out before the special teams in 2008 were a disaster before the season even started: Bruce Read needed help from position coaches just to get through the drills. Now comes a coach that has been doing this job for 15 years in the NFL and has had success everywhere he goes. He will also be the reasoning voice in Wade Phillips' ear, letting him know just how important his squad is and how much emphasis needs to be put on special teams. The team can only move forward from where they are now, but things are already looking up.
The rookie class. In 2008 we learned the hard lesson of just how important depth on a football team really is. We also learned how the impact of a rookie player can turn a season in the right direction. Felix Jones added a dimension to the Cowboys' offense that hadn't been seen in a very long time and then all too soon he was lost for the season. Yet Tashard Choice, Martellus Bennett, Orlando Scandrick and (to some extent) Mike Jenkins all made their mark on this team and will be important contributors for years to come.
This past season also revealed some worrisome holes in the team that need immediate help. While there is some possibility the Cowboys will look for some veterans in free agency, most likely the Cowboys will seek depth at important positions at this year draft. If the Cowboys can get significant rookie contributions at safety, nose tackle and backup offensive line then a lot of issues from 2008 will be addressed immediately. They will also most likely look at another cornerback in the draft as we all saw just how important depth at that position can become. If the Cowboys get the same level of play from the rookies in 2009 that they did 2008, then moving forward will become that much easier.
Of course, these things alone won't turn around the Dallas Cowboys. Yet there are always small details each season that can turn things in one direction or the other. Much work is needed in every aspect of the game to make these players into the team we desire and know they can become. But it's these little aspects of the game and the team that the Cowboys desperately need to go in their favor in 2009.