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2009 team preview: Dallas Cowboys
He challenged the players mentally and physically with the most grueling camp in his tenure.
More important, the Cowboys were all business and all football, a departure from years past. There was no more soap opera. Gone were the distractions of the HBO cameras, controversial receiver Terrell Owens, bad boy players like Pacman Jones and Tank Johnson and Tony Romo's former celebrity girlfriend Jessica Simpson.
"That's the direction certainly we needed to go," Phillips said. "We'll see how that works out, but that's helped us. Football-wise, we are in tune."
It wasn't just the coach singing that tune.
"We definitely needed less drama," linebacker Bradie James said. "The dramatics, the saga, the soap opera, that's pretty much gone. We are still 'America's Team,' and there will be things that come up. But this camp has been strictly football."
The Cowboys were more focused, from the offseason through the summer on-field workouts, and intent on making amends for last season's disappointment.
But what did the team accomplish?
Romo and new No. 1 receiver Roy Williams established chemistry and appear primed to forge a nice passing combination. Williams is not Owens but he is dependable and will catch almost everything thrown his way.
The Cowboys' offense will feature running back Felix Jones and Marion Barber as the focal point of the attack. Jones is a breakaway threat and the Cowboys will try to get him the ball in as many ways as possible.
The Cowboys still have some concerns. For starters, they'd like to have better depth on the offensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary. It's clear the Cowboys can't afford injuries to any of their starters.
Still the Cowboys have a team good enough to make a playoff run. The early schedule is very favorable. But if the team has learned anything from recent seasons, the real question is what the Cowboys are going to do when it matters most down the stretch.
The Cowboys haven't had a winning record in December since 1996.
The schedule is again becomes progressively more difficult through November and December and, until the Cowboys get the job done, recent history is what counts.
COACHING: Wade Phillips, 10th year, 3rd with Cowboys (22-10).
REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 9-7 (3rd in NFC East).
PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 9-7 (3rd in NFC East); lose in NFC divisional playoffs.
Notes and Quotes
But with the starters expected to be held out of Friday's game, the preseason finale against the Vikings represents Holley's opportunity to finally showcase what he can do.
"I'm pretty excited," Holley said. "I have been waiting a long time for this. This is a big week and hopefully I can get out there and really show them what I can do. I look forward to it."
The Cowboys first-teamers have outscored their opponents by a 31-16 margin and had a yardage advantage of 519 to 214.
"The first game we had two series offensively and had seven first downs and a touchdown drive," Phillips said. "We had an interference penalty on defense that put us in bad shape, but gave up three points there in that ballgame. Tennessee game, we played a half with our first group. We had 17 first downs and 249 yards. They had four first downs and 78 yards. Then this last game we had 195 yards at the half and they had 102 and three points. Basically, the guys have kind of played the way we'd like them to play. There are certainly things we can clean up offensively and defensively."
--The Cowboys' rookie draft class has been decimated by injuries. No one thought much of the group on draft day when it was dubbed a special teams draft after the Cowboys didn't make a pick until the third round. But any chance of the class making an impression has been hindered by injuries.
OT Robert Brewster and LB Brandon Williams are out for the season with injuries. Jason Williams and safety Mike Hamlin will miss at least six weeks because of injuries. Quarterback Stephen McGee has not been impressive in camp and is out the rest of the preseason with a knee injury; linebacker Stephen Hodge has been bothered by a knee injury since minicamp. He faces a crossroads game against the Vikings.
Cornerback Mike Mickens has not looked good and could be cut. Safety DeAngelo Smith has likely secured a spot as a backup safety. Linebacker Victor Butler is the primary backup at outside linebacker. The best player has been kicker David Buehler who has upgraded the kickoff unit.
Receiver Manuel Johnson has been the least impressive and will be hard pressed to make the team.
3 -- Since 1969 only three of teams have recorded 45 or more sacks and recorded single digit interceptions. The 2008 Cowboys were one of the three with 59 sacks and eight interceptions last year. Getting more turnovers is a focal point this season.
38 -- Number of touchdown passes from Tony Romo to Terrell Owens over the past three seasons. The group of Roy Williams, Patrick Crayton, Sam Hurd and Miles Austin has caught 33 touchdowns combined the past three seasons.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Shoot, history tells us plenty of people have done it. Everybody remembers your moments. Is Michael Jordan not Michael Jordan because of Washington? He came back, he was still a good player, very productive, but you hold such a standard -- can you ever reach the level you were at in your prime? I don't know. That's why they all come back, to try and do that." -- Quarterback Tony Romo on the return of Brett Favre, his childhood hero.
Strategy and Personnel
Final cuts are set for Saturday, following Friday's preseason finale with the Vikings, when the team must set its 53-man roster.
The move with Brewster is worth noting considering it was assumed he was out for the season after tearing his right pectoral muscle before training camp. He is now eligible to return in six weeks.
Phillips said it's still a long shot the Brewster plays this year but he said the Cowboys are taking the chance that he might be ready if they needed help late in the season.
"At least we'd have a guy who has ability and who knows what to do," Phillips said.
--WR Roy Williams returned to practice Monday after suffering a bruised shoulder last Thursday. He missed the final two preseason games but he said he is good to go for the regular season.
--WR Sam Hurd missed the final three preseason games with a strained quad. He should be ready for the season but he has lost out on his bid to win the third receiver job.
--LB Stephen Hodge returned to practice but suffered a setback and remains hobbled by knee swelling that has sidelined him for much of training camp and the preseason. He will get a chance to play in the preseason finale but there is a question of how much he can do and whether it will hinder his chance to make the roster.
--S Alan Ball will miss Friday's preseason finale with a concussion. Ball should be back for the season opener. He is slated to be the third cornerback.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 3/69, LB Jason Williams, Western Illinois -- Will miss four to six weeks with a sprained ankle. Will contribute on special teams.
Rd. 3/75, OT Robert Brewster, Ball State -- Is on Reserve PUP and will be sidelined for at least six weeks. Could provide late season depth.
Rd. 4/101, QB Stephen McGee, Texas A&M -- Has struggled in camp and missed the last two preseason games with a knee injury but will stick as third QB.
Rd. 4/110, LB Victor Butler, Oregon State -- Has struggled in the regular defense but is the primary backup at outside linebacker.
Rd. 4/120, LB Brandon Williams, Texas Tech -- On injured reserve with a torn ACL.
Rd. 5/143, S DeAngelo Smith, Cincinnati -- Will be a backup safety and special team player. He hasn't overly impressed though.
Rd. 5/166, S Mike Hamlin, Clemson -- Has showed good hands and field awareness. Will be a backup safety and special team performer.
Rd. 5/172, K David Buehler, USC -- He has been the best draft pick the team made in 2009 based on preseason and training camp. He consistently kicks ball in end zone on kickoffs and he will cover on punts and kickoffs.
Rd. 6/197, LB Stephen Hodge, TCU -- Has been slowed by a knee injury since minicamp. If healthy, he will make team as special teams player.
Rd. 6/208, TE John Phillips, Virginia -- Will be the team's third tight end. Has impressed as a blocker.
Rd. 7/227, CB Mike Mickens, Cincinnati -- He has struggled in camp but might be brought back to practice squad.
Rd. 7/229, WR Manuel Johnson, Oklahoma -- Will be cut and unlikely to be brought on practice squad.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
Romo has worked hard to become a better quarterback. He has improved his conditioning and worked on taking better care of the football. The question he must answer is whether he can win games in December and finally live up to the legacy of Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach and become a big-game quarterback. Otherwise, he will be a guy that puts up a lot of stats but can't win the big one ala Danny White. The Cowboys have removed all the excuses for Romo with the departure of Terrell Owens making the huddle and locker room more "Romo friendly." He should be more focused than ever in 2009. Jon Kitna has upgraded the backup quarterback position. The Cowboys drafted a "backup" quarterback for the future in McGee.
The Cowboys' running backs are the strength of the team. The threesome of Barber, Jones and Choice are as good as any in the league. Barber is the lead back. Choice may be the best all-around back. But Jones is the game-breaker. The Cowboys are going to do whatever they can to get Jones the football in any way possible. Look for packages with Barber and Jones in the backfield together. And look for packages with Jones and Choice on the field in the Wildcat offense. Also, there are a few packages with all three together.
Jason Witten has been overlooked this offseason because of all the talk about Bennett's emergence. But he is still the best receiving option on the roster. The five-time Pro Bowler is Romo's most trusted pass catcher and will be the go-to guy in crunch time. But Bennett's development has the Cowboys looking to implement a two-tight end offense as their base attack. Phillips, a rookie, should fill the all important do everything role of the third tight end.
Roy Williams is the go-to wide receiver now that Terrell Owens is gone. Williams was acquired from Detroit for three draft picks last season, but he had a disappointing output, spawning questions about his ability to be the No. 1 receiver. He is motivated to prove his critics wrong and is poised for a big year. He might not equal the number of touchdowns that Owens had but he will move the chains. No. 2 WR Patrick Crayton reliable and capable if not spectacular. The Cowboys are gambling that speedy Miles Austin, who has 18 career catches, will have a breakout season. He will be counted on to replace Owens as the downfield big play threat.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- RT Marc Colombo, RG Leonard Davis, C Andre Gurode, LG Kyle Kosier LT Flozell Adams. Backups --T Doug Free, T Pat McQuistan, T Robert Brewster, G Montrae Holland, G Ryan Gibbons, C Duke Preston, Corey Proctor, G Travis Bright.
The return of guard Kyle Kosier has made the offensive line a dominant unit again. And the linemen seem to be more comfortable in their second season under coach Hudson Houck. The Cowboys missed Kosier last season, and especially Flozell Adams. He had a down year following his $43 million contract extension. If he doesn't return to form, this will be his last in Dallas. C Andre Gurode and RG Leonard Davis are coming off back to back Pro Bowl seasons and are the anchors to strong up the middle attack. Marc Colombo is solid on the right side. The big questions are depth. If something happens to Adams or Colombo at tackle, the Cowboys aren't sure they have anyone to move into the lineup.
There is no questioning nose tackle Jay Ratliff. The former seventh-round pick notched 7.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl last season. He is now considered one of the top nose tackles in the league. He can rush the passer and play the run. Spears is in a contract year and is hoping for a big season. He has lost weight and is in the best shape of his career. Junior Siavii will replace the departed Tank Johnson as the backup nose tackle. The Cowboys let starting right end Chris Canty walk in free agency and signed Igor Olshansky to replace him. Olshansky is familiar with Phillips' defense from his days in San Diego. He is solid and the Cowboys don't expect much drop off.
The Cowboys have three sure things in Ware, James and Brookings. Ware is the league's most feared pass rusher and is a perennial defensive player of the year candidate.
James might be underrated league-wide but the Cowboys know what he can do. He has been the emotional leader of the defense. He has also led the team in tackles the past four years.
Brooking was signed to replace Zach Thomas alongside James at inside linebacker. He is aging but comfortable in the Phillips' 3-4 and is a better fit than Thomas. Brooking played his first 11 seasons in Atlanta, including 2002-03 when Phillips was the Falcons' defensive coordinator. Brooking had his best years under Phillips. The only question is Spencer, who is replacing the departed Greg Ellis. Spencer, a first-round pick in 2007, has double digit sack potential but he has yet to put it all together. The Cowboys believe he will have a breakout season in 2009. However they have little experienced depth if he falters with rookie draft pick Brandon Williams out for the season. Butler has moved over from the weak side to be the primary back up.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Mike Jenkins, CB Terence Newman, S Ken Hamlin, S Gerald Sensabaugh. Backups -- CB Orlando Scandrick, CB Alan Ball, CB Mike Mickens, S Mike Hawkins, S Pat Watkins, S DeAngelo Smith, S Courtney Brown.
The Cowboys are set at three positions in the secondary with Newman coming back from injury to return to Pro Bowl form, Hamlin and Sensabaugh.
Newman is one of the league's top corners when healthy but he missed six games last year with a groin injury. He will make a difference for the Cowboys in 2009 and allow the Cowboys to play to man to man in the secondary behind the blitz packages. Ken Hamlin should rebound from a down year at free safety because the continuity around him. He played with three different strong safeties last year and a constant flux at cornerback because of injuries and suspensions. Gerald Sensabaugh is an upgrade over the departed Roy Williams at strong safety because he can cover and stop the run. The only thing up in the air is right cornerback where Jenkins and Scandrick are vying to replace the departed Anthony Henry. Scandrick played best as a rookie last season. But Jenkins was a first-round pick in 2008 and will give every chance to win the job. No matter what, both will play as Scandrick is best against the slot receiver in the nickel defense.
The Cowboys have finally made special teams a priority. They have a new special teams coach and have made special teams a focal point in practice. There was never any question about their specialists. Punter Mat McBriar, kicker Nick Folk and deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur are considered among the best in the league. They added rookie kicker David Buehler to be the kickoff specialist. He has consistently put the ball in the end zone during the preseason and should help the coverage unit. The Cowboys have a game-breaker on kickoff returns in Felix Jones. Patrick Crayton and Terence Newman will share punt-return duties.