The best thing about this year is that it isn’t last year. The Cowboys’ 1–7 start in 2010 quickly ended any Super Bowl talk. The team is looking to start over this year with a new head coach and a good-as-new quarterback. Jason Garrett inherits a team that returns most of its starters, including quarterback Tony Romo, who missed the final 10 games with a fractured left clavicle.
Some things have changed with the Cowboys, including the defensive coordinator, as have some names. But the expectations remain the same.
“I don’t consider us to be rebuilding,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says. “I consider us to be a team that’s trying to add to what we’ve got so we can compete.”
Rob Ryan has the biggest job. The former Browns defensive coordinator — who is the outspoken twin brother of Jets coach Rex Ryan — arrived at Valley Ranch to fix a defense that was the worst in team history. The Cowboys allowed 436 points and 5,628 yards, the most points and yards given up in franchise history. Ryan will build around one of the league’s top pass-rushers, DeMarcus Ware, who has led the NFL in sacks in two of the past three seasons.
In Romo’s his absence, backup Jon Kitna went 4–5 as the starter, completing 65.7 percent of his passes for 2,365 yards with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Kitna turns 39 in September, and despite tight end Martellus Bennett’s suggestion that Kitna be allowed to compete with Romo for the starting job, Romo is the unquestioned starter. However, Romo has only one playoff victory in four-plus seasons as the starter. Third-stringer Stephen McGee, a fourth-round pick in 2009, won his first career start in the season finale against the Eagles. The Cowboys showed their faith in McGee by not drafting a quarterback in April.
Felix Jones has become the team’s go-to running back, having carried a team-high 185 times for 800 yards and one touchdown. His 185 carries represented 43.2 percent of the team’s rushing attempts, including quarterback sneaks and scrambles. It was 39 more carries than he had in his first two seasons combined. But Jones needs to share the load. He averaged 11.6 carries and 3.0 catches per game last season and can’t handle much more than that. Tashard Choice and rookie DeMarco Murray, a third-round pick, will compete for the backup job. Choice likely is in his final year in Dallas unless he has a big season.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant showed flashes of brilliance until he broke his right fibula on a kickoff return Dec. 5 against the Colts. He should know the playbook better and understand defenses better in his second season in the league. Miles Austin was not as productive as he was in 2009, but he still caught 69 passes for 1,041 yards and seven touchdowns and earned a second Pro Bowl nod. He will remain the team’s go-to wideout. Roy Williams’ production never matched what the Cowboys paid for him, and he was released in late July.
Tight end Jason Witten, 29, seems to get better with age. He earned All-Pro honors last season with 94 catches for 1,002 yards and nine touchdowns. He has been and will be Romo’s favorite target. Bennett, a second-round pick in 2008, remains maddeningly inconsistent and unproductive. He has the talent but has yet to show it on the field with only 68 catches for 702 yards and four touchdowns in his career. Bennett is running out of time to make good on his potential.
The Cowboys have grown old on the offensive line, and they addressed that in the draft. USC’s Tyron Smith became the first offensive lineman drafted in the first round by the Cowboys since Howard Richards was the 26th overall choice in 1981. Smith, 20, is expected to begin his career at right tackle. Left guard Kyle Kosier and center Andre Gurode are in their early 30s. Left tackle Doug Free, who allowed five sacks in his first season as a full-time starter, was the team’s most consistent lineman. He could vie for Pro Bowl honors this season. Veterans Leonard Davis (guard) and Marc Colombo (tackle) were released shortly after the lockout ended.
Nose tackle Jay Ratliff, a former seventh-round pick, has become one of the top players in the NFL at his position. The Cowboys found a capable backup in the 2010 supplemental draft, as Josh Brent had 16 tackles in limited time. The Cowboys shored things up at end by re-signing Marcus Spears after the lockout. He will team with fellow starter Igor Olshansky and reserves Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman to form a solid rotation.
Ware had another Pro Bowl season, leading the league in sacks for the second time in three years with 15.5. He also had 66 tackles and 36 quarterback pressures. Anthony Spencer did not take the next step expected of him, though he did have 63 tackles and recorded five sacks. Bradie James didn’t have one of his best years, but he led the team in tackles again with 118. Keith Brooking had a huge drop-off, and at 35 years old he appears to be nearing the end. The Cowboys do have a capable replacement in Sean Lee, a second-round pick last season. Injuries are the only thing that slowed Lee as a rookie. Dallas drafted North Carolina’s Bruce Carter in the second round this year, and the team expects to groom him as James’ future replacement.
Free agent signee Abram Elam is expected to take over at free safety, teaming with strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh, who signed a new deal after the lockout. The Cowboys also like Danny McCray and Barry Church, who both showed potential last year as rookie free agents. The Cowboys began last season with only three cornerbacks — Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick — and none of the three lived up to expectations. Alan Ball, who struggled at safety last season, has been moved to cornerback.
In his first season as the team’s placekicker, David Buehler went only 24-of-32 on field goals and missed two extra points. He will need to kick well in the preseason to win the job. Mat McBriar is at the top of his game, having led the league in net (41.7) and gross (47.9) punting last season. His performance earned him Pro Bowl honors. Bryant returned two punts for touchdowns. The Cowboys hope Murray will become a threat as a kick returner, something they haven’t had in a few years.
The Cowboys would love nothing more than to finish what they couldn’t last season. The Super Bowl won’t be in Cowboys Stadium, but it would be just as sweet for a team that hasn’t been to the big game since the 1995 season. A lot depends on how Romo rebounds from his broken left clavicle and whether Ryan can fix a defense that was nothing short of awful last season.
Outside the Huddle
Protect this house
The key to making the playoffs is winning home games and going at least .500 on the road. Only the Patriots went 8–0 at home last season, but among the 12 teams in the playoffs, only the Eagles (4–4) failed to have a winning record at home. In a year in which the team was hoping to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium, the Cowboys were 2–6 at home and 4–4 on the road. They were 6–2 at Cowboys Stadium in 2009, when they won the division, and then won a wild card playoff game at home.
The Cowboys were second in the NFL in points allowed in 2009 at 15.6 per game. Despite having 10 returning starters on defense, they ranked 31st in 2010 by allowing 27.3 points per game. The 436 points surrendered were the most in Cowboys history.
Kicker David Buehler missed two extra points and was only 24-of-32 on his field goal tries, although he did manage to kick two game-winners in the final five games. His 38-yarder in overtime beat the Colts, and his 39-yarder against the Redskins — which came with 50 seconds left — was the difference in a 33–30 Cowboys win.
Act like you’ve been there
The Cowboys had three post-touchdown celebration penalties. One of them, on right tackle Marc Colombo, ultimately resulted in a 34–27 loss to the Titans.
DeMarcus Ware won his second sack title with 15.5 after recording three on Kevin Kolb in the season finale. He was runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 when he led the league with 20 sacks.
Second half surge
After a 1–7 start, the Cowboys won five of their last eight games. That stretch of solid play included upsets of two playoff teams. Their three second-half losses were by a total of seven points.
It was supposed to be a breakout season for Anthony Spencer, but the 26th overall pick in 2007 didn’t take the next step in 2010, posting only five sacks and 14 pressures. Spencer did have 63 tackles, which was sixth on the team, but the big plays he contributed late in the 2009 season weren’t there in 2010. For the Cowboys to get back to where they were as a defense late in the 2009 season, they need Spencer to play as well as he did then. The Cowboys are counting on it. “Don’t get me wrong, sack numbers are important, but pressures are important and plays where he affects the quarterback is important,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett says. “The quarterback has to hurry because this guy is in (his) face, a hand in his face — he has to move quickly in the pocket and throw a ball up there that might create a turnover. All those things are factors that don’t show up on the stat sheet necessarily. He needs to get better. He’s working to get better. He understands that.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says that the team had targeted offensive tackle Tyron Smith for the ninth pick since USC’s Pro Day workout March 30 — the only Pro Day that Garrett attended. “I think in our evaluation of him, he distinguished himself beginning at his workout,” Jones says of his new right tackle.
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