- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- The two white-haired men kept talking about Super Bowl aspirations as they sat at the front of a Valley Ranch meeting room in the glare of television lights.
Jerry Jones and Wade Phillips have that sort of optimism about the Dallas Cowboys' future because of a bunch of guys young enough to be their grandsons.
The Cowboys ended a postseason win drought that lasted more than a dozen years and saved their coach's job this season. But the most important thing that happened in the 2009 season, as far as the immediate future of the franchise is concerned, was the development of several young players into core pieces.
"We have, in my opinion, a great nucleus of young players that are going to keep coming," Phillips said at the Cowboys' end-of-season news conference Thursday. "We've got a chance to do what we all want to do here, and I foresee that in the near future.
That 25-and-under nucleus is led by four players who emerged as stars this season: receiver Miles Austin (who is 25), cornerback Mike Jenkins (24), outside linebacker Anthony Spencer (25) and running back Felix Jones (22).
Austin morphed into the NFC's most productive receiver after getting his first start in the middle of the season. People snickered when Jerry Jones said this past spring that Austin could replace Terrell Owens' production, but the fourth-year undrafted free agent did that and more. If Jones succeeds in his offseason goal to lock Austin up to a long-term contract, there will be little laughter, least of all from NFC East defenses.
Spencer, Jenkins and Felix Jones simply played like the first-round picks they are, particularly in the latter portion of the season.
Spencer was the defense's most dominant player in the last eight games, including the playoffs. That's quite a statement considering that the Cowboys' front seven features a pair of All-Pro players in outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and nose tackle Jay Ratliff. But Spencer had eight sacks in those games and continued to be a beast against the run.
You can't tell by the Pro Bowl rosters, but Jenkins emerged as the Cowboys' best cornerback in his first season as a starter. He's a playmaker (team-high five interceptions) who thrives on playing press-man coverage with no help, giving Phillips a lot of freedom in designing coverages and blitz schemes.
Jones, who has a career average of 6.5 yards per carry, is on the short list of the league's most dynamic backs. The question with him is whether he can stay healthy enough to fulfill his immense potential. That's why his final six games, in which he had double-digit carries in each, were so encouraging.
The Cowboys don't need Jones to be a workhorse. But they have reason to believe that he can be the lead back in the committee, meaning they'll have a home run threat in the backfield more often next season.
Those four stars' emergence is far from the only reason for excitement about young players at Valley Ranch.
The front office, coaches and scouts are thrilled that tackle Doug Free, 25, appears to have ended their long drought when it comes to drafting quality offensive linemen. Free's performance at right tackle in the seven games when Marc Colombo was recovering from ankle surgery gave the Dallas decision-makers confidence that he can be a long-term starter.
Defensive end Stephen Bowen, 25, who did a good job as an interior rusher in the nickel, proved he can contribute to an elite defense. So did Alan Ball, 24, who was solid in four starts at free safety when Ken Hamlin was injured. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick, 22, who played in the slot after Jenkins beat him out for a starting job, struggled in the first half of the season before regaining the form of his stellar rookie campaign.
We've got a lot of young guys coming up who have just kind of touched on what they can be. Hopefully, they'll continue to grow and get better. We need some other guys to continue to step up.
”-- Cowboys QB Tony Romo, 29
Running back Tashard Choice, 25, plays a small role but always seem to take advantage of his opportunities. Undrafted rookie receiver Kevin Ogletree, 22, flashed glimpses of playmaking potential when given the chance. Tight end John Phillips, 22, a rookie sixth-rounder, exceeded expectations. Tight end Martellus Bennett, 22, fell short of expectations but has the physical tools to be great if he "gets down to business," as Jerry Jones put it.
"We've got a lot of young guys coming up who have just kind of touched on what they can be," said quarterback Tony Romo, who at 29 has plenty of prime years left. "Hopefully, they'll continue to grow and get better. We need some other guys to continue to step up."
The list of guys who need to step up includes the entire remaining 2009 draft class with the exception of Phillips and kickoff specialist David Buehler, who excelled in that role. (But it would be a big bonus if Buehler became consistent enough to kick field goals.)
Inside linebacker Jason Williams, outside linebacker Victor Butler and safety Michael Hamlin were nonfactors. Offensive tackle Robert Brewster, inside linebacker Stephen Hodge and outside linebacker Brandon Williams missed the entire season with injuries.
The Cowboys are counting on all of them to contribute next season, when they'll have a "draft class and a half," in Jones' words.
"The good news is that half of that group has been in our strength and conditioning program," Jones said. "They have done an outstanding job."
The Cowboys' young players -- along with stars in their prime such as Romo, Ware and Jason Witten -- can form the core of a contender for the foreseeable future.
Jones is counting on his white-haired pal to make sure that happens.
Cowboys' youth has team's elder statesmen daring to dream of big things.