By Dave Halprin, Blogging The Boys
Introduction - The Dallas Cowboys are coming off their most successful season in a good while. The 2009 ‘Boys won the NFC East crown and got their first playoff win in over a decade. The season ending win over Philadelphia coupled with the subsequent playoff win over the same Eagles finally got Dallas over the hump. The team had been labeled as under-achievers in December and January; the critical months in an NFL season. By finally breaking through in those months, including beating eventual Super Bowl champs New Orleans when they were undefeated, the organization gained confidence for 2010. But, in the week following their playoff win, they got hammered by the Minnesota Vikings, taking a little luster off of what was a very good season.
Significant Offseason Additions/Subtractions - The biggest offseason addition for the Cowboys was Dez Bryant. The Cowboys originally had the 24th pick in the 2010 draft and considered a player of Bryant's talent out of reach at that position in the draft. When Dez started to slide in the first round because of some off-the-field issues, the Cowboys pounced by moving up a few spots and grabbing the talented wide out. His yards-after-the-catch ability is very intriguing and his enormous hands allow him to catch anything thrown near him. Injuries have set him back but he's scheduled to resume practice this week and should be a go for the season opener. The Cowboys also added tackle Alex Barron in a trade with the Rams to create depth along the offensive line.
Dallas cut ties with a couple of veterans who were starters. Long-time left tackle Flozell Adams was let go. The Hotel had served the Cowboys well for over a decade, but age was catching up with him and nagging injuries were causing concern. The organization had drafted Doug Free a few years before and he saw playing time at the end of 2009 when right tackle Marc Colombo was hurt. Free played very well during that time, enough so to convince the organization that he could man the left tackle spot in 2010. The team also let starting free safety Ken Hamlin go. Hamlin had an up-and-down few years in Dallas, but his inability to be a ball-hawk from the position was a big issue. Alan Ball, a converted cornerback, will take over; the hope is he can create more turnovers from the position.
Offense - The Dallas Cowboys offense is equal parts prolific and puzzling. The hub of the offense is quarterback Tony Romo who is coming off an excellent 2009 season with over 4,000 yards passing and, perhaps more importantly, a season in which he cut down on the turnovers. This had been one of the big problems with the offense, Romo being cavalier with the football, but 2009 seems to have represented a turning point. (Although he had turnovers in the playoff loss to the Vikings, a lot of that was due to the offensive line.) The Cowboys offense is prolific in amassing yards and has quick-strike capability. They also boast a trio of talented running backs in Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Last year, the Cowboys were rewarded with a breakout star in WR Miles Austin who got his shot early in the season because of an injury and hasn't looked back. He's the clear #1 WR and will be joined by a new weapon, Dez Bryant. And you can't forget TE Jason Witten who is a reception machine and, what a lot of people don't know, an excellent blocker. That Cowboys offense is explosive and doesn't lack weapons.
But there are puzzling parts of the offense, too. Even though the Cowboys gain yards in bunches, they have trouble in the redzone. Too often they have to settle for FGs when they should be putting up six. Part of the problem is the running game which stalls in the redzone even with such talented backs. Some of the blame has to go to the offensive line. The Cowboys have a huge offensive line but strangely enough they struggle in short-yardage situations, something that causes them problems at the goal line and on 3rd-and-short plays. There's also speculation that OC Jason Garrett won't stick with the running game long enough to establish it, he too quickly abandons it to utilize Dallas' strong passing game. For an offense with so many weapons that gains so many yards, they really should be putting more points up on the scoreboard.
Defense - The Cowboys converted to a 3-4 defense back in the Bill Parcells' era, but have to re-adjust to Wade Phillips' version of the 3-4. Parcells ran a two-gap scheme that was more read-and-react, Phillips runs a one-gap scheme that has the down linemen attacking a gap and trying to disrupt plays in the backfield. It's a much more aggressive scheme. Phillips has now basically filled the positions with his kind of players and the Cowboys front seven is tough to deal with. DeMarcus Ware is a terror from the outside linebacker position and NT Jay Ratliff is under-sized, but extremely quick and has been playing at Pro Bowl level. Keith Brooking has added veteran leadership to the squad at inside linebacker and also brings a lot of energy for a player his age.
The secondary is an area that the Cowboys had problems with in the past, but recently they've been able to add some talent. Mike Jenkins was drafted to play opposite the Cowboys best corner, Terence Newman, and in his two years he has improved immensely. Orlando Scandrick is another young corner who does a good job as the nickel corner in the slot. The secondary is improving, and is not quite the sieve it was a few years ago, especially that Roy Williams is no longer with the team at safety. His coverage skills were a real problem.
The Cowboys defense is very difficult to run on and generates a lot of sacks. They sometimes struggle in coverage and they don't create enough turnovers to be truly elite. That may change this year.
Special Teams - A couple of years ago, the Cowboys special teams was a disaster. But then they hired Joe DeCamillis and he's managed to turn things around for the most part. The coverage units that were once awful are now pretty good, both on punts and kickoffs. Dallas is now in the process of trying to add punch to their punt and kickoff return units. Dez Bryant is a possible candidate for punt returns, as well as a few other rookies who can also double as return men on kickoffs. Patrick Crayton is the incumbent return guy on punts, and while he's reliable, he doesn't possess top-end speed or the shiftiness you'd like. But, DeCamillis has fixed the return unit to the point that Crayton returned a few punts for TDs last year.
The Cowboys punter is Mat McBriar and he is one of the best. He has a huge leg but also can directional kick. Where there's a huge question mark this year is on FGs. Nick Folk handled the duties last year but fell off so badly from previous seasons that the Cowboys released him towards the end of last season. David Buehler is the new guy, although he's not new to the Cowboys. He was the kickoff specialist last year and his huge leg was dynamite in creating touchbacks. Now, we need to see if he can be accurate on FGs.
Coaching - After the 2008 season, there was a lot of speculation about Wade Phillips' future. The Cowboys tanked in December/January and the patience of owner Jerry Jones was surely tested. But he stayed with Phillips, the Cowboys had a successful 2009 and Wade was rewarded with a two-year extension. Phillips has a reputation as a brilliant defensive coordinator but a suspect head coach. The Cowboys playoff win last year was his first in five tries as a head coach, something he really needed to secure his job going forward. Phillips is the opposite of Parcells, he's soft-spoken and tends to do anything to protect his players in the press. The Cowboys have a very talented roster, so Phillips has no excuses for not winning big with this team. The pressure is on for 2010 as the Super Bowl will be played in Cowboys Stadium, and you know Jerry Jones is dying for the ‘Boys to be in that game.
Jason Garrett is the offensive coordinator and his reputation has gone up-and-down with the team's fortunes. He runs the timing offense made famous by Norv Turner with the Cowboys in the early 90s. As noted before, there are whispers that he can't stay committed to the running game, but overall he has gotten the Cowboys offense to a place where they are dangerous. Wade Phillips acts as his own defensive coordinator, which is a good thing; no one knows his defensive schemes like he does.
The Cowboys coaching staff has been very stable over the last few years with very little turnover. They are counting on this continuity to help them reach the big game.
Conclusion/Prediction - The Dallas Cowboys of 2010 certainly have all the weapons they need on offense and defense to make a run at the Super Bowl. The NFC East is seeing a lot of turnover this year. Mike Shanahan is now in Washington with Donovan McNabb, the Eagles are without McNabb and relying on untested signal-caller Kevin Kolb, and the Giants are trying to re-build a defense that fell apart last year. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have maintained continuity and have a very talented roster. They should come out on top of the NFC East again this year, and if injuries don't take them down, make a legitimate run at being the NFC representative in the Super Bowl.