The parallels between the 2009 Cowboys and the 1991 edition have been fast and, I believe, generally accurate. In each case, a talented Cowboys team broke beyond the limitations of previous teams and generated euphoria among the fan base. In each case, the team had beaten the NFC's top seed to jump start its stretch drive. The '91 team defeated an 11-0 Redskins team on the road to ignite a season-ending five game win streak. It then beat Chicago in the wild card round.
This team beat the 13-0 Saints to ignite its season-ending kick. Now, as in '91, the fans relished a rematch in the NFC title game. Now, as then, it was not to be, because matchups matter in the NFL. That '91 bunch, while young, talented, and 11-5, had some important holes to fill before it became the Super Bowl juggernaut of '92, '93 and '95. It wasn't a matter of simply waiting for the sons of the Herschel Walker trade to mature. That '91 bunch didn't have the talent to simply drink its Ovaltine for the summer and then dominate the remainder of the '90s. The coaches, to their credit, took serious stock and did a lot of wheeling and dealing to get to the top.
That off-season offers a case study for the task at hand. This team is also young, talented and 11-5. It also has a few important holes which need to be filled if the Cowboys want to continue their ascent. Don't let the rippers who grouse that the organization has wasted "the most talent in the NFL" fool you. This team is closer to being full, closer than any team since '91, but it still cannot be considered complete.
February 1, 1992: Five Big Bricks Short of a Foundation
Let's examine the full extent of the work which still needed to be done on that '91 team. It already had ten of its Super Bowl starters in place on an offense which jumped from 26th in points scored to 7th in '91. That missing piece made an Erik Williams-sized difference to the offense. Dallas had drafted Williams out of tiny Central State in the 3rd round and didn't put him on the field his rookie year. The Cowboys played Nate Newton on the edge that year, to give themselves a fighting chance against the Eagles' Reggie White.
Big Erik was ready for '92 and made two positions drastically better. He anchored the right edge for year and proved kryptonite to White, whom E always teased with face jabs. His development let Dallas slide Newton back inside, where his bulk improved Dallas interior run push. The Dallas rushing offense, ranked a respectable 13th in '91, jumped to 2nd the next year.
The big holes were on defense. Dave Wannstedt had key building blocks in place, but he lacked the athleticism his back seven needed to play their read and chase coverage. Teams which could spread the Cowboys -- the run and shoot Oilers and Falcons, for example, gave Dallas fits. In the playoffs, they faced a Detroit team which ran a base 3 WR set, with Herman Moore, Brett Perriman and Brian Blades on the edges. Barry Sanders was in the backfield, so the Cowboys did not dare play nickel against them.
Dallas secondary that season was Larry Brown, James Washington and two greybeards. Ray Horton, a plan B signing from Cincinnati, played the free safety and Isaac Holt, a piece of the Walker mega-trade, played at left corner. This bunch could play zone, but it could not chase big, fast receivers. What's worse, Dallas didn't have a pass rush. Russell Maryland and Tony Tolbert were on board, but Jim Jeffcoat was wearing down playing every down. The team had just 24 sacks in the regular season.
The Cowboys were easy pickings for an average QB like the Lions Erik Kramer, because he had mismatches on the edges and got plenty of time to throw. He ripped the Dallas secondary early and once the Cowboys focused on the pass, he turned Sanders loose. A close game snowballed out of control in the second half. (sound familiar?)
Dallas was 11-5, but a soft 11-5. We see teams like this all the time in the cap era. They get healthy, they get hot, they maximize their talent, get satisfied, and then promptly fall to 7-9 the following year.
Jimmy Johnson didn't delude himself. He knew he lacked players on defense. A lot of players. Free agency was not a real option in 1992, but he had the last double year of the Walker trade at his disposal and made his version of the T.O. deal, shipping a 2nd to the 49ers for Charles Haley. Haley was the ignitor for Dallas' rush, a guy who commanded double teams and freed others to make plays. Haley sacked QBs just 6.0 times in '92 but he gave Tony Tolbert the space to get 8.5. Jeffcoat became a situational rusher and grabbed 10.5 sacks as the changeup guy. The team's sacks nearly doubled, from 24.0 to 44.0.
Jimmy and Jerry made a controversial, but ultimately successful move at MLB, dumping Jack Del Rio and going with rookie Robert Jones, his second 1st- round pick. He didn't have Del Rio's smarts but he had the speed the aging Del Rio lacked.
The most severe overhaul came in the back, where Dallas built a new secondary almost from scratch. CB Kevin Smith was drafted in the 1st and shoved into the lineup. Darren Woodson was drafted in the 2nd. He wouldn't play much as a rookie but was ready for a decade of exceptional play once the team figured out that he was ready. Jimmy didn't add the final part until the trading deadline, when he send a mid-rounder to Pittsburgh for holdout FS Thomas Everett. Everett was only 5'9" but he was smart and fast, and covered a lot more ground than the fading Horton.
The Cowboys added four new starters on a defense which went 11-5, and needed every one of them. They didn't fall in love with the talent they had and were thus able to improve faster than most every expert expected.
The challenge for this coaching staff is to replicate Jimmy's ruthlessness. Early signs are encouraging. Wade Phillips had a 13-3 team in '07, but has not been content to let his talent "season." Consider what he had then and what he has now:
(carryover starters in bold)
|LCB||T. Newman||T. Newman|
|RCB||A. Henry||M. Jenkins|
|SS||R. Williams||G. Sensabaugh|
|FS||K. Hamlin||K. Hamlin|
|SOLB||G. Ellis||A. Spencer|
|SILB||B. James||B. James|
|WILB||A. Ayodele||K. Brooking|
|WOLB||D. Ware||D. Ware|
|LDE||M. Spears||M. Spears|
|NT||J. Ratliff||J. Ratliff|
|RDE||C. Canty||I. Olshansky|
No sentiment here. Only six starters from Wade's '07 bunch remain. When you consider that Ken Hamlin was signed in Phillips' first offseason, only five of the thirteen defensive starters from Bill Parcells' last defense remain. (I consider nickel corner and nickel linebacker starting roles, because they play at least 25-30 snaps a week and are vital in this passing era.) What's more, almost every one of these spots has been upgraded. Who would prefer Anthony Henry to Mike Jenkins? Akin Ayodele to Keith Brooking? Roy Williams to Gerald Sensabaugh? Chris Canty to Igor Olshansky?
And the makeover shows no sign of abating. Dallas drafted a full set of linebackers last year, but only Victor Butler escaped severe injury. Keith Brooking shouldn't relax, because Jason Williams was drafted to challenge him. The same is true for Bobby Carpenter. Williams is gunning for you. And Stephen Hodge wants that nickel job too.
The intensity of the makeover has me convinced the Cowboys are not done here. Hamlin and Sensabaugh have re-introduced Dallas fans to solid safety play but neither is in the Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, Darren Woodson class. Spears has been a better player under Wade, but he's not a Richard Seymour-caliber player. Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen are restricted free agents in waiting.
This year's draft is rich in defensive linemen and safeties. You do the math.
On offense, the age and infirmity is on the line. Every Cowboys starter will be 32 or older next year. (Of the skill position players, only Patrick Crayton has seen his 30th birthday.) The Cowboys like to say they don't draft players to be backups. Of their bench, only Doug Free has challenged for playing time in the last few years.
Again, the math looks rather simple.
Teams which become content with their talent find themselves falling behind. That does not appear to be the case in Dallas. The team has been good at identifying one or two areas of need and saturating them with young prospects. The DL was reworked in '05. The secondary and linebacking corps were redone in '08 and '09. Running back was turned over in '08.
The Cowboys need a makeover on offensive line. Robert Brewster remains an x-factor, whose closeness to playing remains a well-kept secret. Free showed he has game. They key for Wade, Stephen, Jerry, and the assistant coaches it to remain as cold-blooded as ever in their self scouting, and for Tom Ciskowski and his scouts to keep playing the numbers in his draft patterns. The tactic has worked so far on defense and needs to keep working to get Dallas deeper in the playoffs.
Keep 'em sweating, gentlemen.