Published August 23, 2011
| Sports Network
The city of Dallas finally rejoiced when NBA superstar Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks brought a championship back home in June.
The Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets have given the state of Texas a combined seven NBA titles since the mid 1990's, a time when the Cowboys were relevant in discussions of dominant NFL clubs. It's now been more than 15 years since Dallas won the last of three Super Bowls in a four-year span, however, and the franchise has produced only one playoff victory during that dry spell.
Starved football fans in Big D are now wondering if Tony Romo can pull off what many thought Nowitzki couldn't when the Cowboys quarterback returns at full strength for the 2011 season. With his arm left in a sling after suffering a broken left collarbone against the New York Giants in October, Romo's season was over much like his team's after Dallas had a dreadful 1-7 start to a season which had astronomical hopes for an appearance in the Super Bowl that was to be held in the Cowboys' backyard.
Prominent owner Jerry Jones had seen enough of head coach Wade Phillips and reluctantly let him go at midyear in favor of up-and-coming mastermind Jason Garrett. The promoted offensive coordinator led the Cowboys to a 5-3 mark the rest of the way, leaving many to wonder whether the players had given up on the previous regime.
Either way, Garrett brought the Cowboys back to respectability and now gets an entire offseason to prepare for his first full stint in charge.
Former Dallas head coach Chan Gailey, who now holds the same position in Buffalo, knew Garrett had the tools to become successful when the latter was serving as a backup quarterback to Troy Aikman as a player.
"I wasn't sure if he was going to be smart and not coach, or go ahead and coach," Gailey said of Garrett. "But I knew if he wanted to, he could. He decided to go this way and I knew he would be very successful. Just the way he prepared, his knowledge of the game, the way he communicates, his leadership when he got his opportunities...all of that was great."
Garrett's winning record was lost in Dallas' 6-10 finish a year ago, much like that of the players' focus when Phillips was running what seemed to be a resort. The defense was especially lax, finishing 23rd overall in yards allowed and 31st in scoring in a season where the group received more criticism than President Obama.
Dallas needed a change in that department and tabbed Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator. Ryan, of course, is the twin brother of New York Jets outspoken head coach Rex Ryan, as well as the son of former NFL head man Buddy Ryan.
Also never short on words, Rob Ryan got his own trash-talking started early on when he tabbed fellow NFC East member Philadelphia as the "all-hype team" following the Eagles' spending spree during the free agent period. He went on to state he won't be eating those words when his stop unit faces Philly twice in the upcoming season.
"I don't know if we win the all-hype team," Ryan said. "That might have gone to someone else, but we're going to beat their [backside] when we play them."
One Dallas defender who clearly has his new coordinator's backing is All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who could be more important than Romo to the team's success and has been a terror on opposing offenses ever since the Cowboys drafted him out of Troy in 2005.
Ware had 16 sacks in 2010 and has registered 11 or more in five straight seasons, while having appeared in all 16 games in each of his first six years in the league. Like Ryan, he's confident the Cowboys can quickly turn around last season's results.
"We weren't a 6-10 team last year, but that's what the record said," Ware quipped. "I know we can really improve from that 6-10, especially with the new improvements we have on defense. We think the offense is going to keep rolling. I think there's not going to be another 6-10 season."
Ware credited Ryan's new philosophy and the way the players have adapted to the changes as reasons for his optimism. And if the defense can indeed turn things around while an offense that will have a few new faces behind the line of scrimmage gets back in gear under Romo, Dallas should have reason to feel good about its prospects.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Dallas Cowboys, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 6-10 (tied 3rd, NFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009, lost to Minnesota in NFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Jason Garrett (5-3 in one season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Garrett
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rob Ryan (first season with Cowboys)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Tony Romo, QB (1605 passing yards, 11 TD, 7 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DeMarcus Ware, OLB (66 tackles, 15.5 sacks)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 7th overall (16th rushing, 6th passing), tied 7th scoring (24.6 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 23rd overall (12th rushing, 26th passing), 31st scoring (27.3 ppg)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Roy Williams (to Bears), OG Leonard Davis (released), OT Marc Colombo (to Dolphins), RB Marion Barber (to Bears), WR Sam Hurd (to Bears), OT Alex Barron (to Saints), DE Stephen Bowen (to Redskins), ILB Leon Williams (not tendered)
QB: Romo (1605 passing yards, 11 TD, 7 INT in 2010) wasn't able to build off a successful 2009 campaign in which he led the Cowboys to the Divisional Round of the NFC Playoffs. He threw for more than 4,400 yards with 26 touchdown passes and nine interceptions that season, but expectations for a grand encore in 2010 were trounced even before Romo went down with a broken clavicle. The three-time Pro Bowl selection has the advantage of playing for a former NFL quarterback in Garrett, and said he's "ready to roll" now that he's back healthy. The Cowboys will go as far as the right arm of Romo will take them, and his rapid release and quick decision making are among the best at his position. He will have to run a complex system under Garrett, but should have the experience and the tools around him to succeed. Jon Kitna was handed the reins when Romo went down and passed for 2,365 yards with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The veteran is a reliable backup and proved that a year ago by leading Dallas' strong surge in the second half. Third-year pro Stephen McGee saw action in two games in 2010 and is again expected to serve as the third option.
RB: Now that the Cowboys have cut ties with hard-charging running back Marion Barber, now with the Bears, the tandem of Felix Jones and Tashard Choice will take center stage in the backfield. Jones (800 rushing yards, 1 TD) will most likely get the majority of the carries and is also a major threat out as a receiver out of the backfield. The 2008 first-round draft choice still must prove he's durable enough for an increased load to make sure the release of Barber, whose aggressiveness and passion for the game will be missed, will not come back to haunt the team. Choice (243 rushing yards, 3 TD) is also entering his fourth season but hasn't had as much success as Jones, though he's gotten better over the years and should make a fine replacement for Barber, who never cracked the 1,000-yard rushing mark in any of his six seasons in Big D and had been demoted to short-yardage work upon Garrett's takeover. Chris Gronkowski is slated to get the starting nod at fullback in his second year and appeared in 14 games a season ago.
WR/TE: The Cowboys do not have Roy Williams anymore, as he was released and also caught on with Chicago. That departure opens the door for a greater role for second-year wideout Dez Bryant (45 receptions, 6 TD), who was limited to 12 games last season because of a broken ankle but appears ready to break out into stardom in 2011. A speedy and physical wideout, Bryant can stretch defenses and pull defenders away from No. 1 receiver Miles Austin (1041 yards, 7 TD), Dallas' 2009 breakout star who recorded a career-best 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns on 81 catches that season. The undrafted Monmouth University product was second on the Cowboys with 69 catches in 2010 and finished the year with seven touchdown receptions. The Cowboys need all the weapons they can get playing in the competitive NFC East, and the presence of tight end Jason Witten gives them yet another one. Witten (94 receptions, 1002 yards) led the Cowboys with nine touchdown catches last season and recorded over 1,000 receiving yards for the third time in the last four years. Backup tight end Martellus Bennett played in 16 games and caught 33 passes a season ago, though his contributions as a receiver are limited with Witten aboard. Felix Jones is also a pass- catching threat out of the backfield and had 450 yards on 48 grabs in 2010.
OL: Two major pieces to Dallas' 2010 offensive line are gone, as right tackle Marc Colombo and right guard Leonard Davis were released in the offseason, and the team also decided not to retain reserve tackle Alex Barron. The unit will still have some familiar faces across the board for the upcoming campaign, as center Andre Gurode is back and recovered from offseason knee surgery and the Cowboys re-signed both left tackle Doug Free and left guard Kyle Kosier. Free, a fourth-round pick out of Northern Illinois in 2007, was considered Dallas' top priority in free agency after becoming a solid full-time starter last year, while the reliable Kosier will be entering his 10th NFL season and sixth with the Cowboys. Top 2011 draft pick Tyron Smith will most likely start at right tackle in his rookie campaign after the former USC star was taken by Dallas with the ninth overall selection, while fellow draftees David Arkin (4th Round, Missouri State) and Bill Nagy (7th Round, Wisconsin) have been getting looks at guard during the preseason. The Cowboys finished sixth in passing yards last season and the line gave up 31 sacks, a number that could be cut down simply because Romo's a more mobile option than Kitna.
DL: Dallas hopes Ryan's bag of defensive tricks can improve a disappointing stop unit from a year ago. Primarily a 3-4 scheme, the new coordinator will also implement many new looks along the front line like he did while serving in that same role for the Cleveland Browns the past two seasons. Ryan says players make his scheme, and he's got a good one at nose tackle in Jay Ratliff (31 tackles, 4 sacks), a three-time Pro Bowl honoree whose tenacity and tremendous athleticism gives opposing offensive lines trouble. He will be sandwiched by run-stopping ends Marcus Spears (19 tackles) and Igor Olshansky (38 tackles), with Kenyon Coleman (68 tackles, 2.5 sacks) coming over from the Browns to be part of the rotation. Spears agreed to terms on a five-year deal in the offseason and missed half of 2010 with a torn calf muscle.
LB: Ware (66 tackles, 16 sacks) is an All-Pro linebacker enjoying a Hall of Fame career. He's always the top priority to account for when opposing offenses scheme for Dallas, but more often than not cracks the code and comes up with game-changing plays. One of the top sack masters in the game over the past few seasons, Ware hopes to continue to thrive under Ryan, who will most likely have a few designs for his best pass rusher when the regular season commences. Anthony Spencer (63 tackles, 5 sacks) had a bit of a down year playing opposite of Ware on the strong side, and the former first-round pick may have a lot to prove to the new defensive staff, as he's been pushed for time by Victor Butler and (18 tackles, 2 sacks) and Brandon Williams in camp. Keith Brooking (97 tackles) is in the same boat as Spencer, as the veteran inside linebacker needs to have a more productive season to fight off second-year pro Sean Lee (32 tackles, 2 INT), who will again start out the year handling nickel duties. Brooking turns 36 in October and was battling a hamstring injury in preseason. Bradie James (118 tackles) led the Cowboys in tackles from the other inside post last season, while rookie Bruce Carter -- a second-round pick out of North Carolina -- could see extended time once he fully recovers from an ACL tear suffered last December.
DB: Cornerback Terence Newman (79 tackles, 5 INT) and free safety Gerald Sensabaugh (71 tackles, 5 INT) will anchor a Cowboys secondary that was burned by opposing offenses a year ago, as the team ended 26th in pass defense. Dallas made a run at coveted free agent Nnamdi Asomugha over the summer, which led to rumors that Newman would be cut, but the 33-year-old will be back at left cornerback after the Cowboys ultimately lost out in the chase. Newman may miss the start of the season due to a groin injury, however, with Orlando Scandrick (46 tackles, 3 sacks) penciled in as the replacement until he returns, while right corner Mike Jenkins (55 tackles) will be aiming for a rebound after the promising youngster produced only one interception during a disappointing 2010 campaign. New strong safety Abram Elam agreed to terms with Dallas just prior to camp after spending the past two years in Cleveland playing under Ryan. He had 79 tackles, two interceptions and two sacks with the Browns in 2010. Defensive backs coach Dave Campo received some more added depth to his group with the Cowboys' selection of University of Buffalo cornerback Josh Thomas in the fifth round of April's draft.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker David Buehler returns for his third season and connected on 75 percent of his field-goal attempts in 2010, going 24-for-32. He blasted 4-of-6 from 50-plus yards and made 42-of-44 PAT tries in an inconsistent year, which prompted the Cowboys to bring in undrafted rookie Dan Bailey to provide preseason competition. Punter Mat McBriar's job is safe after he averaged 47.9 yards per kick and landed 22 balls inside the 20-yard line last year. The Australian also serves as the holder on field goals and extra-point tries. Bryan McCann and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah handled kickoff return duties last season, with McCann averaging 22.0 yards per return and Owusu-Ansah 21.7. Bryant averaged a team-best 24.4 yards per runback in that department, as well as an outstanding 14.3 yards per punt return while scoring two touchdowns, but likely won't be used as much on special teams after suffering his ankle injury taking back a kick. McCann handled punts in Bryant's absence and averaged an excellent 20.6 yards on eight returns, along with a 97-yard touchdown. L.P. Ladouceur is back at long snapper and has been with the Cowboys since the 2005 campaign.
PROGNOSIS: Jerry Jones' Super Bowl dream of last season actually turned into a nightmare twofold when first his team did not reach the NFL's showcase event, then inspectors found numerous safety problems at Cowboys Stadium and about 400 people were denied a seat despite incurring great expenditures on tickets and travel for the game. Just like obstructed viewing was an issue with the team's state-of-the-art facility, visions of the Cowboys ending their championship drought were hindered after a 1-7 start. Dallas no longer has a bulls-eye on its back after last year's debacle, but there will still be big expectations for the Cowboys with Romo ready to return from a broken collarbone. Romo has to feel a bit cautious with a new-look offensive line, but still looks to be set up for success with Austin, Witten and Bryant still catching his passes. The defense will also have a new attitude with Ryan taking over, and the Cowboys hope the change leads to more positive results as well. Though Ryan has some big words to back up, only injuries and a lack of focus may be able to prevent Dallas' from returning to the postseason after a one-year hiatus if the defense shows great improvement.