Intangibles. They are impossible to quantify, yet they play an important part in the NFL game. Last year, the Dallas Cowboys were a troubled team, as was dramatized in the Amazon series All or Nothing (it may have been unscripted video, but you can be sure it was edited to play up certain elements).
But it’s a new year, and things may have changed just as dramatically for the better. In the news links post for Thursday morning, I included this tweet from the legendary personnel guru who did so much to create America’s Team.
A few notes from Cowboys minicamp:— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) June 13, 2018
Noticeably more enthusiasm than at this time last year. The malaise that sat over team in 2017 appeared gone, at least for 1 day.
“Malaise” is such a perfect word. A year ago, the team was facing some serious blows to its collective psyche. After such a promising 2016 regular season, they had exited from the playoffs early, falling for the second time in three years to the Green Bay Packers and the curse of Aaron Rodgers. Tony Romo had just departed to start his career in the broadcast booth. Ezekiel Elliott was still under investigation, and that would lead to the traumatic suspension and subsequent draining court battle. Other suspensions would soon add their weight to things.
Jason Garrett and the staff tried to keep everyone on point and on task, but there were just too many shocks to the system. The result was the desultory 9-7 campaign.
Drastic measures were called for. The first to come was a general housecleaning of the assistant coaches. Many felt that the changes did not go high enough, and should have included Garrett himself, Scott Linehan, and perhaps Rod Marinelli. But that was not the course chosen, and instead the team brought in promising new blood in Kris Richard, Sanjay Lal, Paul Alexander, and others, including the still controversial move of Kellen Moore from the roster to quarterbacks coach. The roster was also shaken up severely with the release of Dez Bryant, followed shortly thereafter by the surprise retirement of Jason Witten.
But they also did a lot of good things with the roster. Free agency, while not spectacular, saw the addition of some important pieces, particularly Allen Hurns. The draft looks to have been a good one, especially in the first three picks, Leighton Vander Esch, Connor Williams, and Michael Gallup. And two surprise trades brought Tavon Austin and Jihad Ward as well.
The management also deserves credit for handling some key contract situations. Using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence not only assured that they would have him in place this year, but got them time to continue working on a long-term extension without creating any rancor. A second-round tender on David Irving also kept him in the fold for a reasonable cost while he works on his personal issues in a prove-it situation. And while many teams are dealing with some holdouts over contract dissatisfaction, the Cowboys locked up perhaps the best offensive guard in the league, extending Zack Martin while making him the highest-paid player at his position (for now). While the media and fans were at times a bit concerned over that lengthy negotiation, both the staff and Martin’s team remained calm and got things done.
As Brandt’s tweet indicates, the team seems to have responded very well.
One result is that the Cowboys now have one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, with Sean Lee the only position player over the age of 30. For young players, it is essential to create a belief in themselves. Just maybe, that is happening, and that is crucial.
There still are many things that have to be proven on the field, but the Dallas staff at least has a plan for all. Here are some significant ones.
- The offensive line had a disappointing year in 2017. Zack Martin’s retention is a foundation piece, the guard situation was addressed with Williams, and the lack of depth was also addressed with the signings of Cameron Fleming and Marcus Martin (interestingly, the latter is shown as a center on the roster at DallasCowboys.com). And based on early indications from OTAs and minicamp, they are not putting too many eggs in the Chaz Green basket, with Kadeem Edwards getting the first team nod during day 2 minicamp practices while Zack was still waiting to sign his contact.
- There was a lot of perturbation about the loss of both Bryant and Witten, but it seems clear the plan for now is to go with receiver by committee, and that includes both the wide receiver and tight end groups. One concern from the offseason practices was the number of dropped balls, but given the repeated reports of the focus Lal has placed on route running, that may not be as big an issue as some may think. It may be more a matter of progression. Make sure the receivers are in the right place for the quarterback to deliver the ball first, and then start working on bringing the catch in.
- Side note: I think Cole Beasley is going to thrive again with the changes.
- Speaking of tight ends, the top three of Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, and rookie Dalton Schultz may be a better group than most expected. Brandt had this in his observations.
Two players stood out to me:— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) June 13, 2018
TE Blake Jarwin (6-5 1/8, 250, 4.72 40). No one will replace Witten but Jarwin is a good player w/ big hands. Cupboard wasn't left bare
DB Chidobe Awuzie (6-0, 202, 4.46). Looks like he can play S or CB and is real deal. Should have breakout year. https://t.co/sVQ5huLDxL
- Elliott had to have been the most affected member of the whole roster last season. And yet he was still the best running back in the league by one measure.
- And word is that Zeke is in very good shape and looks more than ready to rip through the NFL again this year. With that O line fixed . . .
- “Dak friendly” has been overused, but there seems little question that the new approach to the offense is going to key on fitting things to his skill set. RPOs, moving him around, and letting him work his progressions all look to be big parts of it. That should go a long way in overcoming the case of shell-shock he had following the beating he took at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons last year.
- On defense, the Kris Richard hype may be for real. Byron Jones is looking perfectly comfortable at corner, and the second-year defensive backs have also been doing well. The defense looked ahead of the offense in minicamp, which is not an unusual situation at this time of year for any team. But it may also be at least partly Richard’s influence.
- It is hard to remember a time when there was so much talent on the defensive line. And we still are waiting to see if Randy Gregory is going to get a chance to be in the mix. The expectation of almost everyone is that the team will carry ten D linemen on the 53 - and that still looks to involve some very painful cuts to get to that number. It’s a good problem to have.
- Finally, the younger players like Dak, Zeke, Zack, Geoff, and DLaw are stepping up to fill the leadership roles. And the defense still has Sean Lee, one of the premier field generals in the entire league. Things look to be in good hands in that department.
Sean Lee wanted more intensity during individual drills today. At one point, yelled multiple times for radio guy to turn it up (Shipping Up to Boston was playing) pic.twitter.com/OsusDr5MQc— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) June 14, 2018
It’s the time for optimism everywhere in the NFL, so there is always the caveat that it is just a bunch of non-contact drills and reps going on. But things just feel better this year. We are now in the long drought before training camp and the preseason, and three months away from real football. Right now, however, it looks like the Cowboys have their collective mind in the right place. And that is so very important for success on the field.