Baseball's no fun from now until September, and we can only watch old NFL highlights on YouTube for so long before we need to start prognosticating on the '06-'07 NFL season. Fall can't come soon enough. In the meantime, here's the 10th of our 32 team previews for the upcoming season, the Dallas Cowboys.
TOM'S TAKE: The Cowboys aren't going to have an easy time this season, despite the fact that many pundits consider them a Super Bowl favorite. The addition of The Player I Heretofor Refuse To Name (TPIHRTN) brings nothing unexpected -- lots of talent, lots of press, lots of trouble. TPIHRTN will make a significant impact this year, obviously, but his real contribution might not be tangible. Parcells won't get him 100 catches, that's not Tuna's style. But 70 catches will be enough for 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns; more importantly, it'll be enough to open lanes for recently re-signed tight end Jason Witten.
The Cowboys' offensive line will benefit from the return of Flozell Adams from injury, but their are questions everywhere on the front five, specifically on an interior which will need to be successful to keep stonehedged quarterback Drew Bledsoe on his feet. There is absolutely no depth behind Bledsoe, so the line will have to accept McQueen's mobility limitations and step up to improve the 40+ sacks allowed last year. I'm not sold on free agent addition Kyle Kosier at left guard or center Al Johnson, and Jason Fabini is an aging player who will struggle to guard Bledsoe's strong side. To help mask these deficiencies, Parcells is switching his offense to a two tight end, one back set that will depend on Witten and second round pick Anthony Fasano to help out the line. The problem is, Witten's a valuable part of the offense, the best threat the Cowboys have had in the last couple of years pre-TPIHRTN, and Fasano is primarily a pass-catcher as well -- rookies aren't the guys you want to depend on to block. If Witten is required to spend a lot of time blocking, it could affect his numbers. Ask Tony Gonzalez what happens when an elite tight end needs to spend his time blocking, as Gonzalez had to do with the Chiefs last year when Willie Roaf was hurt. It severely hurt Gonzalez' numbers; this situation might have similar effects on Witten. The other problem the Cowboys' line could potentially cause is at running back, where Julius Jones has missed 11 games in the last two years. By eliminating the fullback from the Cowboys' personnel, you're putting the injury-prone Jones, who saw Marion Barber steal a fair amount of thunder last year, in a precarious position. You need two running backs to survive in the NFL these days, and the Cowboys will need Jones to stay healthy. Can the line protect him? I, again, have my doubts.
This will be Dallas' second year with the 3-4 defense, and they've done an incredible job beefing up the personnel. Jason Ferguson was a letdown at nose tackle, a crucial position in the 3-4, but he has looked far improved in the offseason and will pair with ends Marcus Spears and Chris Canty. The linebacking corps is the best unit on the team, and may be one of the best starting four linebackers in the league. DeMarcus Ware experienced some rookie pains last year, but these were sprinkled in the middle of an otherwise outstanding season. He's going to be a Pro Bowler this year. The Cowboys signed former Jag Akin Ayodele, a veteran on the rise who will play outside on the right next to Ware, a dangerous duo coming off the quarterback's blind side. Rookie Bobby Carpenter will be playing at the other outside linebacker position. Carpenter is a workout warrior who was drafted higher than merited because of his athletic skills. He also benefited from having to clean up after A.J. Hawk at Ohio State, a player who made Carpenter look far better than he was. He lacks explosiveness off of the snap and the recovery speed to catch back up to the play, but his strength allows him to shed tackles well. He's not the type of guy who will ever lead a defense but with some help, as he showed at OSU, he can contribute. Parcells will be able to coach him up, and with three other talented linebackers Carpenter won't be relied on to make all the big plays.
The Cowboys secondary isn't as good as people would like to believe. Roy Williams is a flashy safety who the Cowboys are trying to lock up long-term, but they'd be better served letting him walk. Williams has made a name for himself with his (often dangerous) big hits, most notably the now-banned horse-collar tackle. While Williams is one of the best in the league at laying the lumber, he's absolutely horrific in coverage. One needs to look no farther than the infamous Cowboys/Redskins Monday night game from last year where the Skins recognized Williams' weakness and used Santana Moss to exploit it twice with long touchdowns in the last two minutes to win the game, 14-13. Anthony Henry is a prototypical #2 cornerback, and Terence Newman has quietly developed into the reliable player the Cowboys had hoped he be, despite not getting the attention of contemporaries like DeAngelo Hall and Nate Clements. But the safeties are decidedly less-than-stellar.
Most consider it a foregone conclusion that Dallas and Washington lock up the two playoff spots in what will be the best division in football. I don't agree. All four teams will expend a lot of energy beating up on each other all season long and, specifically, I don't think the Cowboys' offensive line can handle the stout pass-rushes that will come from the rest of the division, specifically Strahan and Umenyiora in New York. When a good team makes a move like signing TPIHRTN, people get something like beer goggles -- they tend to think that the hole filled by TPIHRTN was the only one between the team and the Super Bowl. But the Cowboys have yet to adequately improve their line and what happens if Bledsoe gets hurt? Or if he just doesn't have it anymore? You can get by with a couple of holes on your roster, but a shaky line is something that effects everything else on the team. If one domino falls, the rest will go down as well, and I'd be naive to believe that everything will go right in Dallas this year. The dominos will fall, it's just a matter of when, and whether or not the season will be salvageable at that point. The NFC East is a toss-up, but if Dallas makes the playoffs they'll have to settle for a wild card.
KYLE'S TAKE: We all know what Dallas's big story was this year. It's been covered enough, so I'm just brushing on it quickly. T.O. will definitely have a good first year on and off the field. He did that in Philadelphia. The real question is whether he'll be a dick after that. I don't think so. At this point, he's got to realize that if he fucks up one more time, he's done.
Drew Bledsoe will be starting at quarterback once again for the Cowboys. He has a nice gun and should be able to connect nicely with Owens. His 2nd best target is two-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, who the Cowboys just signed for six more years. Terry Glenn is a decent second receiver (he had 1137 yards and 7 TDs last year). Bledsoe needs to stay healthy for the Cowboys. His back up Tony Romo had -2 yards rushing last year and that's it. Drew Henson, number three in the depth chart, didn't play at all last year and has never seemed to earn any trust from coach Parcells. The Cowboys were fourth to last in the league in sacks allowed (50). They didn't do much in the offseason to improve that, either. It's going to be tough to keep Bledsoe healthy if he finishes his plays on his back. Running back Julius Jones is good, although his numbers don't scream it. His touchdowns were low last year, but Marion Barber is the Cowboys' goal line man.
Parcells usually puts together a good defense. They were in the top ten last year and even with the loss of La'Roi Glover and Dat Nguyen, they'll still be there. They acquired Akin Ayodele from Jacksonville and signed him for five years to replace Nguyen. Roy Williams is a Pro Bowl safety who can give some of the best receivers trouble. And if Keith Davis doesn't get accidently shot again, he's not too bad at the other safety spot. Dallas also signed former Indy kicker Mike Vanderjagt for those big playoff missed field goals.
The Cowboys' defense will keep them in the hunt as contenders and their offense can succeed if everything can click and Bledsoe doesn't hurt himself. However, they are in a tough division and I don't think they are going to make it out of it with a playoff spot. It's not impossible for them to grab the wild card over New York or Washington and they'll be a tough team for any other team to face. Playoffs or not, the Cowboys will be in the hunt until the very end.