Lost in all the shuffle this week is the opportunity staring Stephen Bowen right in the face. As noted earlier this week, starting defensive end Marcus Spears is done for the year. Along with that Spears is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2010 season. Given the labor uncertainties, the economics that will arise if a new CBA is agreed to, and just the Cowboys own internal evaluation of its players and their worth after this year, there are pretty good odds that Spears will play his next NFL game in a different uniform.
One of the themes from Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones is that these next eight games are an evaluation period for everybody on the roster and on the coaching staff. Bowen has been hanging around the roster as a valuable backup, and a versatile one. Bowen was an undrafted free agent out of Hofstra in 2006 and managed to grab a spot on the practice squad out of training camp that year, and was then elevated to the 53-man roster later that season. He mainly comes in on passing situations when the Cowboys go to a four-man line.
For the next eight weeks, Stephen Bowen will have an opportunity to show whether he is starter-talent as a 3-4 defensive end.
Jason Hatcher could make his own play during this audition period, but he's fighting injury so it's Bowen's job for the next few weeks. His challenge - make it his job for the next few years. He has to produce in these first couple of games while Hatcher is out, because once he returns the Cowboys will want to play Hatcher, too. The organization will need to know about Bowen and Hatcher going into next year. They'll want to see how they respond to the new coaches and the - hopefully - new culture of the organization. They need to know if they're career backups, potential starters, or guys who should be working elsewhere.
Bowen has another challenge, he usually plays on the right-side, behind Igor Olshansky. He's having to switch over to the left-side for Spears. Is there much of a difference between the two?
"Just the way you're seeing blocks, your weight distribution in playing blocks," Bowen said when asked of the differences on the left and right side. "When you're used to playing one side for so long you don't have to think about anything and everything is second nature. Now I find myself having to re-think things."
If he doesn't show something quickly, the Cowboys will likely turn to Hatcher when he returns.
Can Bowen pass rush effectively enough from the base 3-4 alignment? He's always been a good run-stuffer, but can he do it consistently? He's mostly been playing in specialty situations, but this Sunday at 4:15 in the Meadowlands he gets a big opportunity to show he's not just a backup, but "the guy" at defensive end.
How is Bowen approaching this opportunity?
"I take it the same way as if I wasn’t starting," Bowen said. "I go out there and do my job and do it the best of my ability and help my team win."
Without Spears, Bowen has to deal with another new change, Paul Pasqualoni moves from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator with the firing of Wade Phillips.
"He definitely knows his stuff," Bowen said. "He's been in this game a long time. He's not going to give you anything that's not valuable for you to use in the game. He shows us every single thing that our team can possibly do."
Good luck on Sunday, Stephen.