- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Dallas Cowboys fans were plenty excited heading into 2006, as the acquisition of Terrell Owens figured to be one of the final pieces of the puzzle. Veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe would be firing deep passes to TO all day. Speedy Julius Jones would make things easier for Bledsoe by opening up the running game. And in those close playoff games, we'd all see the most accurate kicker of all time, former Colt Mike Vanderjagt, knock in the game-winners as Dallas would return to the Supe wow, what a strange trip that was! Was the only constant on this team really Terrell Owens?
Bledsoe was brutal for a few games, then was handed the clipboard in favor of new heartthrob Tony Romo, who piled on the fantasy stats and ladies' phone numbers, for a while at least. Jones did top 1,000 rushing yards, but they were hollow as backup Marion Barber III burst onto the scene by scoring touchdowns at a greater rate than anyone not named LaDainian or Larry. You've heard of them. And finally, when Romo dropped the snap on what could have been a game-winning field goal, it wasn't Vanderjagt ready to make the kick. He was long gone.
And there was TO, laughing all the way with another productive campaign.
The Cowboys have a new coach in 2007, but the philosophy and talented core remain the same. But will Cowboys fans recognize the names come January?
Coach Bill Parcells
OL Jason Fabini
Key Backups/Position Battles
One can debate the value of backup quarterbacks, but the fact is they usually come into play when you least expect it, and in critical situations. Romo is now the undisputed starter for America's Team, but he's still only a sophomore developmentally. Bledsoe had to go, and the older, barely more mobile Brad Johnson was brought in. This certainly doesn't seem like Johnson's kind of system, but then again, nobody in Big D wants to find out for sure. Johnson looked fine throwing short passes in 2005, but last year he was an interception machine.
There's little question which running back fantasy owners would rather see handle the ball on a consistent basis, but there's no indication Barber will get more carries than Jones at this point. This really isn't a platoon in the normal sense. Consider that, to use NBA terms, Jones is the one handling the ball up court, then Barber is the guy who dunks it. Both guys are young and seem hungry, but it will be difficult in fantasy to draft them both, since each is a top-30 running back option. Tyson Thompson should return as the third running back, but there's no reason to handcuff him to the other two.
Even though a finger injury probably hindered his production and a carton of stickum might be warranted for his league-leading total of drops, Owens remains the focus of an opposing team's defense, and extremely productive. This was actually good news for the forgotten Terry Glenn, who had a quiet 1,000-yard season, though he didn't appear to be real happy as the No. 2 option. Winning should change that. Crayton remains a solid No. 3 receiver, especially in the short passing game, and didn't drop a pass all season.
Fantasy owners thought the change from Bledsoe to Romo would harm the production of Jason Witten, with the theory being the new signal-caller would look deep more often. In actuality, Witten didn't do much statistically with either guy, managed only one touchdown all year and seems farther away from his breakout 2004 campaign than ever. Anthony Fasano is a better blocker, and could earn more time in a double tight end offense. Witten is no longer one of those tight ends you overreach for during that fifth-round run at the position.
What to look for in 2007
Romo didn't play like a rookie last season, even though it was his first time taking snaps in an NFL game. Years of holding the clipboard helped, and now, at age 27, fantasy owners might consider him a blooming star. Figure that 19 touchdowns in 11 starts are impressive, plus Romo made quite a statement in front of your family and friends in that five-touchdown Thanksgiving Day game. This will all likely get Romo overrated in a fantasy draft. While Romo might have delivered 4,000 passing yards with a full season of starts, he also threw critical interceptions, even in December, when Dallas lost three of its final four and Romo had six touchdowns to match the six interceptions. Let's assume he's no longer needed to hold on kicks, which could ease his mind a bit after the wild-card game disaster, but the offensive line remains older than most, and Romo's main threat on offense could disappear just as easily as he can dominate. Dallas brought in a veteran presence in Johnson who knows it's not a battle, so that could help the younger QB.
At running back, the Cowboys are blessed with two options, but there's no need to upset what worked statistically to abuse one of these guys. Expect Jones to be motivated as he enters a critical fourth season. Three of his four regular-season 100-yard rushing games came in the first five games, and then the carries really dried up, with no more than 13 in any game after Week 11. From a usage standpoint, he looked a lot like the much older Warrick Dunn. Meanwhile, Barber reaped the benefits of goal-line situations by scoring in all but five games last season, and scoring more than once in five others. Barber could be the No. 1 option at some point, and it could be soon, but draft him as if he's not, just in case those 16 touchdowns get chopped in half.
At receiver, Romo has one of the best duos in the game. Now he just has to make sure they're both happy with the attention they receive. Both Owens and Glenn have been paid their roster bonuses for 2007, so forget about speculation someone is leaving. The question for fantasy is: Can each be as productive as 2006? Owens should be fully healed now after finger tendon surgery, and even as the injury hampered him much of last season, he delivered his most receptions since 2002, played in all 16 games for the first time since 2001 and caught double-digit touchdowns for the fifth time in eight seasons. The case can be made he's a top-three fantasy wide receiver, even at age 33. Glenn is only a year younger, but his 70 receptions represented his most since 2001. Due to how old these guys are and how Romo should be among the league leaders in passing yards, even Crayton can make a case for being fantasy relevant.
The tremendous talent at wide receiver, as well as running back, should again reduce Witten to few scoring opportunities, and his catches and yards aren't enough to warrant surefire top-10 status among fantasy tight ends. Witten could get used more in the vertical passing game, which would surely help, and while consistency and durability are strong traits, we're unlikely to see him flirt with 90 catches and 1,000 yards, as we did in 2004. Fasano enters his second season with a good chance at doubling his production.
Defensively, the Cowboys didn't really scare anyone in the Parcells era, but new coach Wade Phillips could change that. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware keeps getting compared to a young Shawne Merriman, so those in IDP leagues should pay particular attention, and the extra attack on quarterbacks should help Ken Hamlin and Roy Williams create more turnovers in the secondary. Don't be too concerned over Jon Kitna and the Lions putting up 39 points on the Cowboys in Week 17. This should be a better defensive unit this time around, and worthy of being selected at the back end of the top 12 in fantasy drafts.
Quite a few Cowboys will have their names called early in fantasy drafts, with Owens and Barber likely spotted for third-round status at least, and Jones, Romo, Glenn and Witten ending up as fantasy starters chosen in the first eight or 10 rounds as well. While Owens remains a fantasy star statistically, don't forget what happened in the second year of his last stint with an NFC East team with visions of Super Bowls in its head. All these Dallas offensive players could be a bit overrated based on where they play, but would it surprise anyone if infighting breaks things apart? The division schedule doesn't make things easier. Don't expect 10 wins from this team, as this team has double-digit wins only one time since 1998, but the Cowboys should be contenders, which keeps their fantasy values alive until the new year.
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