Cowboys keeping positive thoughts
Analyzing five assets and five liabilities for Dallas after the team's first minicamp
With the Dallas Cowboys having completed their first mandatory minicamp of the offseason, the players will have time to relax until the team next meets July 24 for the first day of training camp in San Antonio.
The Cowboys addressed plenty of questions in the offseason through the draft and through trades, but that doesn't mean everything is perfect.
With that, we look at five issues you should feel good about and five items that may cause concern for Cowboys fans.
And for extra credit, we'll even throw in our post-minicamp 53-man roster projection.
DON'T WORRY, BE HAPPY
He was one of 10 quarterbacks to throw for over 4,000 yards last season and has done so twice in the past three years. Romo solved two problems regarding his game: turnovers and winning late in the season. In 2009, he threw a career-low nine interceptions and led his team to a 3-2 finish in the regular season. Both could be attributed to the Cowboys winning the NFC East last season and earning a playoff victory for the first time in over a decade. This year, the Cowboys tinkered with Romo's throwing motion and want him to work on the back-shoulder fade routes to Miles Austin and Roy E. Williams. Romo seems to have taken more of a leadership role on the team, calling Austin and urging him to return to organized team activities and speaking with Patrick Crayton about missing a few OTA practices.
In three years as the head coach, Wade Phillips has won two division titles and a playoff game and hasn't had a sub-.500 season. The Giants, Redskins and Eagles have either an 8-8 finish or one sub-.500 year. Phillips doesn't get the respect he deserves within his own division. Yes, Tom Coughlin (Giants) and Mike Shanahan (Redskins) have won Super Bowls, and Andy Reid (Eagles) has pushed the Eagles to five NFC title games -- but Phillips, at least recently, has had his team in the playoff hunt every year. He's calmed the club down from a turmoil-filled 2008 season and has the players buying into his family-first attitude.
One of the main things Phillips has done with the Cowboys' defense is improve the pass rush. In 2008, the Cowboys led the NFL with 59 sacks, yet last year those numbers dropped to 42 -- good for seventh in the league. However, the Cowboys emerged with two strong pass-rushers: DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. We all know about Ware, who is considered one of the top defenders in the game, but Spencer surged in the last five weeks of the regular season with 16 quarterback pressures, four sacks and three tackles for a loss. Opposing offenses used to double- and sometimes triple-team Ware; now they must also contend with Spencer off the edge. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff, named to his first All-Pro team in 2009, should be able to play pain-free for the first time in years after offseason elbow surgery. Ratliff is one of the quickest nose tackles in the game and draws constant double-teams as well.
Despite the lack of success with Roy E. Williams in the passing game, Miles Austin became a powerful threat in the passing game with his ability to make defenders miss and his speed to beat defenses down the field. When the Cowboys drafted Dez Bryant in the first round, it allowed offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to give Tony Romo another target. Bryant is a physical receiver that has impressed the coaches and scouts with his hands and body control. Kevin Ogletree, another young player, is slowly gaining Garrett's confidence so he can gain more playing time. Garrett wants to use his receivers in different spots on the field to maximize their potential, and even if Williams improves on his poor 2009 numbers, it's a bonus.
Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said despite the Super Bowl aspirations for this team, nobody is talking about it. He hears owner Jerry Jones speak of it, but the players know they can't rely on the 2009 playoff win as if the team has arrived. Ware said the team is more together than in years past and that hardly anybody is worried about playing time and such. Jay Ratliff said when he returned to the team after rehabbing in Atlanta, he noticed few players talked about a Super Bowl.
"We have good chemistry on this team," Ratliff said. "Everybody is down for one goal."
STARTING TO GET SUSPECT
Let's be honest: Felix Jones has loads of potential, but he's battled injuries his first two years in the league. Toe, hamstring and knee injuries have kept him off the field or limited his progress. When he's on the field, Jones has averaged 6.5 yards per carry and 6.1 yards per reception. The Cowboys are lining him up at wide receiver and want to give him a bigger role. If he can stay healthy. Marion Barber is another story. He's also battled injuries the past two seasons. Whether or not you believe his quad injury was worse than what's being said by running backs coach Skip Peete, Barber has not been as productive as he was in 2007, when he averaged 4.8 yards per carry. In 2008, Barber averaged 3.7 and last season he averaged 4.4. The Cowboys need both their main backs, Barber and Jones, to remain healthy for an entire season if they expect significant success in 2010.
Coach Wade Phillips said he's pleased with his three main cornerbacks: Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick. There is concern about the fourth cornerback. Phillips called the players battling for the fourth cornerback spot "up and down." Bryan McCann, Cletis Gordon and Marquis Floyd all have attributes the team likes, but they need to be more consistent. Secondary coach Dave Campo said playing well on special teams is another way one of these players could make the 53-man roster. The Cowboys had five corners last year, but will go with one fewer this year because Alan Ball is moving from corner to full-time safety.
When the Cowboys let Flozell Adams go, it meant Doug Free was going to become the man at left tackle. In the OTAs and mandatory minicamps, Cowboys coaches and scouts praised Free's ability. Despite having more experience, Alex Barron is currently the backup left tackle. He spent several years in desolate St. Louis and is still learning the terminology of the Cowboys' offense. Tony Romo, who will have Free covering his backside, is confident in what Free can do. But nobody is quite sure whether he can command the position. He played well at right tackle last year, for an injured Marc Colombo, but facing elite pass-rushers such as Justin Tuck and Jared Allen on a regular basis is a different deal.
The Cowboys thought Ken Hamlin was just an average free safety last year. In the Cowboys' defensive scheme, the free safety is designed to make plays in the middle of the field. While missing four games due to an ankle injury, Hamlin broke up just four passes and had no interceptions. None. Enter Alan Ball, whom the team believes is more athletic and, because he played the cornerback position, will make more plays on the ball. When the Cowboys go to training camp, Ball is the projected starter at free safety, but don't be surprised if Michael Hamlin challenges for a starting spot.
Forget about what the Cowboys have or haven't done in December; their 2010 schedule is the third-hardest in the league. They will play six teams that reached the playoffs last season and have tough road games at Minnesota, Green Bay and Indianapolis. In the first three weeks of the season the Cowboys play at Washington (season opener), and make a Week 3 visit to up-and-coming Houston. Closing the season at Arizona and Philadelphia might decide another division title, or possible playoff seeding.