Same Old Cowboys with Same Old Questions?

Jason Garrett was thrust into the captain's chair as the much hyped Cowboys ship hit an iceberg and sank faster than the Titanic. By getting the players to rally and fight instead of fret and quit, by quickly changing the pace and precision of meetings and practices in Valley Ranch, as interim coach Garrett began by leading the 1-7 Cowboys to a two game win streak and a final 6-10 record. It was no wonder that many fans thought that Jason Garrett should be officially promoted to full time HC and Jerry Jones lost little time before placing his stamp of approval on his man, the player turned coach that Jerry talked to about coaching for him a decade prior.

I was certainly excited by the hire and the Red Dawn that I envisioned to follow. But after two years of 8-8 records with Week 17 failed chances for division crowns and playoff spots, many feel it is High Noon in Texas and Jason Garrett should be fighting for his life in the final showdown for his Dallas Cowboys. Now, many (myself included and Jerry Jones) have stated that Garrett isn't coaching for his job. I think Garrett is simply continuing his process of building the team he envisions. But is this pure optimism or have there been any evident improvements during this proclaimed process?

Some fans worry that the offensive line and coverage issues are still the same old weaknesses of the Cowboys, and perhaps nothing has really changed. While ignoring the metaphysical and intangible changes I feel are blatantly clear, like the fight of the team in tough situations and during a plague of injuries (certainly not the quit of the team during the '10 fiasco) and the clear identity change of the franchise in how they run their football operations (practices, meetings, cap and draft), let's take a look and concentrate on the roster differences in search of some answers.

Charts compare the Week 1 roster from 2010 and the players with the best chance of making the 2013 roster.

The differences with the questions and issues of the '10 and '13 offensive lines seem quite apparent:

2010 Roster Pos. Age 2013 Roster Pos. Age
M. Colombo OT 32 T. Smith OT 22
D. Free OT 26 D. Free OT 29
A. Barron OT 28 J. Parnell OT 26
A. Gurode OC 32 T. Frederick OC/OG 22
L. Davis OG 32 N. Livings OG 31
K. Kosier OG/OC 32 M. Bernadeau OG 27
M. Holland OG 30 P. Costa OC/OG 26
P. Costa OC/OG 23 D. Arkin OC/OG 25
R. Brewster OT/OG 24 R. Leary OG 24
S. Young OT 23 R. Cook OC/OG 30
K. Kowalski OC/OG 24
D. Weems OG/OT 24

Entering the '10 season, the Cowboys had four of their five starting OL positions guaranteed to veterans over the age of 30; most in decline and overpaid for their production. The youngest starter was Doug Free at age 26 facing his first test as the season's starting LT. The leading backups were 30 year old Holland at guard and the former first-round bust Barron at tackle at age 28. The only competition along the oline depth chart was undrafted rookie Phil Costa, who eventually won a roster spot from the #3 center Travis Bright (Kosier was still primary backup center).

Fast forward to 2012 and not a single one of the 30+ year old linemen are on the Cowboys roster. Entering the '13 season, there is only one player over the age of 30 and he is competing for his starting role (and perhaps his roster spot). Ignoring that competition brings out the best in players and Garrett has clearly stated how he feels about it being at the heart of his football team, this is an incredible rejuvenation. This is the age of the Yuglies. The best OT is one of the youngest players on the team and still has an incredible amount of upside; not to mention was the first first-round OL pick in Jerry's tenure. At right tackle, the Cowboys have a veteran trying to return to form (and still young enough to do so) competing with the 26 year-old project that is now ready to prove himself. The starting center competition includes a 22 year-old first-round pick (second in Jerry's long tenure and Garrett's three drafts) and a 26 year-old former starter. Three of the four primary competitors for a starting guard spot are 24, 25, and 27 year-old linemen nearing or beginning their prime.

Are there still questions about the Cowboys oline? Certainly. But those questions have turned from "Which 32 year-old is most likely to make it through the season without requiring an unspectacular 30 year-old backup to start?" into "Which will be the best starting lineup after all the competition at camp concludes, and will the only 30 and 31 year-old linemen manage to make the final roster?"

There is a myth that the more questions about starting roles that exist, the less talent that exists on the roster...and thus the competition. But the refs are the only things that are black and white in football. Having young veterans competing for their starting role against even younger talent trying to break out is a far better situation than a depth chart of over-the-hill veterans as uncontested starters with no young talent near ready to play.

As for the troubled Cowboys secondary:

2010 Roster Pos. Age 2013 Roster Pos. Age
T. Newman CB 32 B. Carr CB 27
M. Jenkins CB 25 M. Claiborne CB 23
O.Scandrick CB 23 O. Scandrick CB 26
B.W. Webb CB 23
Alan Ball FS/CB 25 S. Moore CB/FS 23
G. Sensabaugh SS 27 B. Church SS 25
B. Church SS 22 M. Johnson FS/SS 23
D. McCray FS 22 W. Allen FS/SS 31
M. Hamlin SS/FS 24 D. McCray SS 25
AOA FS/CB 22 JJ. Wilcox FS/SS 22

The Cowboys entered the '10 season, unbelievably, with tons of questions at safeties and only three true corners on their roster. The fourth corner was the project safety that was forced to start. Not much needs to be said about the difference in age and upside of the current corner depth chart to that of the '10 roster. The #1 CB is far younger, just as accomplished, and in his prime. The #2 CB is also younger, just as proven, and has far more upside. The #3 CB is the same player, but three years wiser. But wait, the Cowboys also have two more young CB on their depth chart with the chance to see gameday reps. One is a fourth-round pick judged to have second-round talent, and the other (Sterling Moore) could be compared to 2010 Alan Ball. The biggest differences are that Moore is younger though has just as much gameday experience, and that he isn't forced into a starting role in his ‘secondary' position. In fact, Moore is actually fighting for a roster spot.

As for Gerald Sensabaugh, in '08 he got his break with the Jaguars becoming a starter for 13 games. In '09 Gerald started 15 games for the Cowboys and got fewer tackles and only one interception (though fighting through a thumb injury). Sensa had 39 starts under his belt, was guaranteed to start, and the most veteran safety on the roster. The most veteran safety on the '13 roster is Will Allen, with 33 career starts (though three years older), and he isn't guaranteed a roster spot, much less a starting job.

After Sensa and Ball, the '10 safety roster included four untested rookies. Two of those rookies are still on the team and now have experience as starters. Barry Church earned a starting job in'12 and appears on track to return to form after rehabbing injury. Danny McCray got some valuable gameday experience, and while already a ST MVP is still improving as a player. The other two '10 safeties were fourth and fifth-round rookies, one of which was released before the season ended while the other was placed on IR and released the following season. However, the final two safeties on the '13 roster include a third-round rookie and a fourth-round "red-shirt" rookie with enough talent to compete for a starting job.

The 2010 questions surrounding the safety position were just as prominent, if not more, and there was less experience and less upside with the players throughout the depth chart. In 2010, the Cowboys had no choice but to rely on Sensabaugh as a starter. With no real competition at the position, they were also forced to start a converted corner at safety. This season, the Cowboys have more players with actual experience playing at safety and more talented prospects throughout the depth chart.

In the NFL, every team has questions every year. There has not been a single Super Bowl Champion that did not have some questions or weak spots leading into the season. The important thing is having as many talented and viable options to answer those questions as possible. And Jason Garrett has systematically improved the depth chart in its entirety, but especially, specifically the two greatest weaknesses that have plagued the team since before he took over. And those same old questions now have new and far more exciting possibilities as answers.

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