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Cowboys' personnel decisions to blame

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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The Cowboys are the most talented 1-7 team in the NFL.

Yes, the players might have taken advantage of Wade Phillips’ easygoing approach, but more critically their offensive line got very old in a matter of months. Also, the calculated decision to make Alan Ball the starting free safety precipitated a full-fledged collapse of the secondary. Ball will never be confused with, say, Nick Collins, the Packers’ talented deep defender.

Regardless of who is coaching in Dallas next season, the personnel department, headed by Tom Liskowski — an experienced hand who worked under Jimmy Johnson — has many priorities. No. 1 will be finding offensive linemen, followed by a safety, cornerback and pass rusher. The Cowboys are loaded with skilled players and in most seasons receiver Dez Bryant would be an offensive rookie of the year candidate, but injuries derailed his season and Rams quarterback Sam Bradford figures to be a shoo-in.

The offensive line has cost the Cowboys in several games, most memorably the Week 1 loss to the Redskins when Alex Barron’s holding penalty negated a winning touchdown pass in the final seconds. The interior of the line has struggled all season with quicker, slanting pass rushers. Right guard Leonard Davis has looked like his feet are stuck in cement against teams like the Titans and Giants.

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It’s possible that both Davis and right tackle Marc Colombo, whose many injuries have sapped his overall play, won’t be with the Cowboys next year. Amazingly, left tackle Doug Free, the big question mark going into the season, has been the unit’s best and most consistent player. One move the Cowboys failed to make was retaining Flozell Adams this season and moving him to right tackle like the Steelers have.

There are eight games left. Interim head coach Jason Garrett has been preaching accountability to all the players all week, so the Cowboys should be able to gauge which players are worth keeping.

For example, cornerback Mike Jenkins has been taking heat for his olé or non-tackle attempt last Sunday night on a Packers touchdown. Jenkins made the Pro Bowl last season, but this year has played like someone who should be sitting on the bench.

If the season ended today, the Cowboys would own the third overall pick in the draft behind winless Buffalo and Carolina. Next year’s draft is top heavy with quarterbacks and two cornerbacks in LSU’s Patrick Peterson and Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara. If the Cowboys want to stick with Tony Romo, they may be able to collect some picks by trading out of their spot for a team desperate for a quarterback. There could be as many as three quarterbacks taken in the top five or six picks.

Finally, owner Jerry Jones may hold the title of general manager, but his son, Stephen, really holds the personnel power in the organization — with Jerry then rubber-stamping most of his decisions. Yes, Jerry is at the front of the major personnel moves — remember taking Terrell Owens over the objections of Bill Parcells — but Stephen is more involved in the day-to-day operation of the personnel department. And there’s no way that Jerry is firing his son because of the blunders along the offensive line and in the secondary this season.

NFL ON FOX games: Minnesota at Chicago, 1 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Vikings are 4-4 against the Bears since coach Brad Childress took over in 2006. The teams have split the past two years, with each winning its home game. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson set a then-franchise record for the Vikings when he rushed for 224 yards and tied a team mark with three rushing touchdowns in a 34-31 victory on Oct. 14, 2007 at Chicago. Peterson also established a team record with 361 combined yards (224 rushing, nine receiving, 128 kickoff returns) that day.

This will be the first meeting between Vikings LT Bryant McKinnie and Bears DE Julius Peppers, who has only two sacks this season. McKinnie had his worst performance of the 2009 season against Peppers, who was then playing for the Panthers. Peppers had only one sack in a 26-7 Carolina victory last Dec. 20, but he also had a tackle for a loss and three quarterback hurries. That performance was enough to get McKinnie benched in a season in which he was selected to the Pro Bowl. Peppers last had a sack on Oct. 3 against the Giants. However, he leads the Bears with 12 quarterback pressures, two forced fumbles and all linemen with 28 tackles.

Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz plans to keep calling a balanced offense despite the team’s inability to bust any long runs last Sunday against the Bills. With WR Percy Harvin (migraines) feeling better, the Vikings decided against activating WR Sidney Rice, Favre’s main man last season. Favre needs WR Bernard Berrian (groin) to find some open areas in the Chicago zone. Favre excelled last week in the two-minute drill, and Minnesota may elect to use a hurry-up approach today.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Talk about two embattled head coaches. If the Bears don’t make the playoffs, Lovie Smith could be a goner. In Minnesota, regardless of the Vikings’ finish, Brad Childress, who is in the first season of a new contract extension, figures to be fired at the end of the season. Had the Vikings lost to Arizona last Sunday, owner Zygi Wilf was prepared to fire him then. Instead, Wilf was the locker-room greeter praising his players last Sunday. Both GM Rick Spielman and VP Rob Brzezinski have distanced themselves from Childress in order to protect their own situations in management. Wilf is capable of doing anything. He has the money to go after a top coach like a Bill Cowher, but with Favre going into retirement — it sounds real this time — if may be difficult to attract a major name without a top quarterback. Regardless, there will be many changes in Minnesota next season, starting with the many personnel decisions on almost 18 potential free-agents.

Carolina at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Rookie QB Jimmy Clausen (0-3) will start while Mike Goodson will make his first start at running back for the Panthers. In addition, Jon Beason moves back to his old spot at middle linebacker, and Nic Harris, a castoff from the Bills, will start at weak-side linebacker. The Bucs are coming off a tough loss in Atlanta to the Falcons when LeGarrette Blount was stuffed on a fourth-down run. Clausen might be OK because the Bucs have only six sacks this season. First-round pick DT Gerald McCoy, the third overall pick, remains sackless. In fact, Bucs are on pace to finish with one of the lowest sack totals in NFL history. The worst total was posted by the 2008 Chiefs, who finished with just 10 as a team. The Bucs plan to use some new rush combinations that will include McCoy with linebackers Quincy Black, Dekoda Watson and perhaps newcomers such as defensive linemen Alex Magee and Al Woods.

As a rookie, Bucs QB Josh Freeman was intercepted five times against the Panthers, but he’s a much steadier player today and he has a game-breaker in rookie WR Mike Williams. Clausen, who has completed eight passes for 99 yards to Steve Smith in three games, must get Smith more involved and be quick about it. Bucs CB Aqib Talib will be focusing on Smith all day.

CZAR’S SCOOP: This is definitely the worst season in John Fox’s Carolina career. Fox has been unhappy about the club’s austerity program. The season has strained relationships in the front office and with owner Jerry Richardson. Fox will be moving on when this season ends and who knows what kind of commitment Richardson is going to make in re-stocking talent. GM Marty Hurney has been a loyal employee for a long time. Hurney has always talked about retiring at a young age. He could stay and help mentor the next coach, who most likely will be a current NFL assistant coach. There is no way that Richardson is spending a lot of money on someone like Bill Cowher.

The 1-7 Panthers, who happen to have the lowest scoring total in the league and the worst-ranked offense, put four players on injured reserve this week. They were the youngest team in the league coming into last week, and just got younger with quarterback Matt Moore, offensive tackle Jeff Otah and linebackers Dan Connor and Thomas Davis all heading to IR. Moore (torn labrum) will have surgery in about 10 days and won’t be able to throw for four to six months. “Physically I’m sore,” Moore said. “Mentally it’s tough.”

Detroit at Buffalo, 1 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Something is bound to give today. The Bills are 0-8 for first time since 1984 while the Lions have lost 24 straight on the road, tying the team’s own record for road futility from earlier in the decade. QB Shaun Hill starts again for the Lions with Matthew Stafford out with a shoulder injury. Hill will wear a glove on his left hand and also have a cast to protect his left forearm that was broken three weeks ago. He is wearing the glove because his hand has lost strength since the injury. He may also not run as much because of his forearm, fearing further injury if he’s sliding out there. In Hill’s five starts, the Lions have averaged 26 points a game and he’s thrown nine TD passes.

Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has been clicking with WR Stevie Johnson lately as opponents have been doubling Lee Evans. Buffalo also lost its slot receiver, Roscoe Parrish, for the rest of the season with a broken wrist. Parrish had already set a career single-season high with 400 yards receiving and two TDs on 33 catches. His absence will give more playing time to rookies David Nelson and Donald Jones. Buffalo’s secondary has yet to intercept a pass and the defense, which led the AFC with 28 picks last year, as a whole has just one pick. Expect the Lions to put a lot of pressure on Fitzpatrick like they did Mark Sanchez last week and Donovan McNabb the week before that.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Lions coach Jim Schwartz took offense to Jets linebacker Bart Scott calling his team “the dirtiest team” he had ever played against. Schwartz responded to Scott’s rant by saying, “Consider the source.”

At the rate the Bills are going, they could own the first pick in next year’s draft, one that is loaded with quarterbacks. But is Stanford’s Andrew Luck really going to announce in January that he’s entering the draft if he knows his destination could be Buffalo? Another major pitfall to next year’s draft is the unknowns. If there’s no CBA agreement between the players and the owners, potential draft choices won’t know the financial parameters. NFL people have been talking for years about implementing a rookie wage scale, a move that would drastically lower the huge bonuses paid to first-round picks. The Rams guaranteed about $50 million to No. 1 pick Sam Bradford over the first four seasons of his contract. There is no doubt that Buffalo may want to pick a quarterback despite the nice season that Ryan Fitzpatrick is having.

Stafford made the trip to Buffalo, but will be examined by Dr. James Andrews this week since season-ending surgery for a torn labrum seems likely. LB Shawne Merriman tweaked his Achilles'  tendon in his right leg just 15 minutes into his first practice as a Bill, and it looks like it’s going to be a couple weeks before he plays in a game.

Dallas at N.Y. Giants, 4:15 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: If the Giants are going to match Atlanta’s seven wins in the NFC, they must do it with a totally revamped offensive line against the Cowboys. New York is minus two starters in C Shaun O'Hara (foot) and LT David Diehl (hamstring and hip). It means that Rich Seubert will make his second straight start at center and must neutralize Dallas NT Jay Ratliff. But the most critical matchup could be LT Shawn Andrews against the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware, who has eight sacks. Andrews has resurrected his career with the Giants, and in his glory days with the Eagles he was a Pro Bowl guard in the mold of Larry Allen. The new left guard figures to be Kevin Boothe, who just came off the PUP list. If he can’t handle it, rookie Mitch Petrus will take over. Despite the injuries, the Giants should be able to run and pass against the Cowboys. Eli Manning, though, won’t have his most-trusted receiver in Steve Smith, meaning that Dallas can double Hakeem Nicks if they want to.

Jason Garrett called only 15 runs in the earlier loss to the Giants, but you figure he wants to keep the game close and that could mean more runs this time around. He needs to protect QB Jon Kitna, who has six interceptions in his last two starts. He’s also been sacked nine times, which is two more than Tony Romo was sacked this season despite 101 fewer pass attempts. Dallas RB Tashard Choice could see more action in this game because he’s solid against the blitz. A Cowboys win would prevent Dallas from losing six straight games for the first time since the last two weeks of 2000 and the first four of 2001. The Giants have won three straight against Dallas.

CZAR’S SCOOP: It is difficult to confirm, but two league sources believe that the Cowboys have already spoken to ESPN’s Jon Gruden to gauge his interest in coaching there next season. No job offer, simply a fact-finding mission. Despite a rich contract with ESPN, friends of Gruden insist that he may be interested in jumping back into coaching. A huge salary reportedly won’t be demanded by Gruden, either. Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher doesn’t appear to be a good fit with Jerry and Stephen Jones based on how the Cowboys are run from a personnel standpoint. Cowher would prefer to work with someone like current Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert, who signed a long-term extension with the Steelers earlier this year. Another name to consider with the Cowboys might be Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, who would have to get out of his rich contract with Bud Adams.

There is no question that current Redskins coach Mike Shanahan had some interest in the Dallas job a year ago if Jones was going to fire Wade Phillips. But Shanahan knew more than a year ago that Jones planned to be keep Phillips as his coach in 2010. Remember all the talk about the Giants’ coaching job opening up in the summer time? Fat chance of a coaching change now, unless there’s a total collapse by the Giants. Wes Phillips, who is a quality control assistant for Garrett, remains a part of the Cowboys’ coaching staff despite his father’s firing.

St. Louis at San Francisco, 4:15 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Very little is expected to change in the way the Rams approach this game. They will seek to run with Steven Jackson, which can be difficult against the 49ers, who have allowed just 14 runs of 10 or more yards. QB Sam Bradford has been extremely efficient and he’ll look for his favorite target, Danny Amendola, who has 45 receptions. Defensively, the Rams need to stop RB Frank Gore, who has 691 rushing yards after eight games, and try to limit the potential damage that TE Vernon Davis can do.

The Rams have only two takeaways in their three road games, and both came in Oakland. Rams DTs Fred Robbins and Gary Gibson and MLB James Laurinaitis must contain Gore and keep him from stretching the field. This game also marks the first NFL meeting of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks since Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer and Dallas’ Vinny Testaverde met in 2004. “That is a cool dynamic that we have going in this game,” said Bradford, the 2008 Heisman recipient from Oklahoma. “But I’m really not thinking much about it, and I doubt he is, either.” Troy Smith, winner of the 2006 Heisman with Ohio State, starts his second consecutive game while Alex Smith continues to recover from a separated left (non-throwing) shoulder.

CZAR’S SCOOP: This is the latest the Rams have been in first place in a season since 2003, when they last won the NFC West with a 12-4 record. The 49ers still haven’t cleared Smith to resume practicing with the team. Rams WR Danario Alexander suffered another left knee injury in practice on Oct. 29. The injury was described as a torn meniscus, but Alexander said there was a meniscus flap in his knee that was known to be there. He subsequently had surgery to trim the flap. The question now is how cautious the Rams will be with Alexander. While the recent procedure was relatively minor, it still is the fifth one on his left knee in three years, and the second since February. Alexander said he hopes to play in a few weeks.

49ers rookie safety Taylor Mays was a surprise starter at strong safety in Week 4, and he’s started every game opposite Dashon Goldson since. But Mays has been burned twice on deep completions in the last two games and now third-year player Reggie Smith will get some snaps Mays’ expense. The team is saying that Mays plays on so many special teams that he needs some rest. Rams safety James Butler is out again and 49ers CB Nate Clements will test his ankle in the morning. If he can’t go, Will James will start.

Seattle at Arizona, 4:15 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Seahawks need to get back to what they do best —- stopping the run. They’re hoping the addition of DT Brandon Mebane can get things turned around for a defense that allowed 74 points in the last two games. The Seahawks need to be better against the run against the Cardinals, who love to pound the ball with Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower.

Offensively, the return of QB Matt Hasselbeck should stabilize the Seattle offense. Hasselbeck will be looking for WR Mike Williams, who caught 11 passes for 87 yards and a touchdown against Cardinals CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie three weeks ago. Williams made a handful of spectacular catches late in the game against Rodgers-Cromartie. Seattle’s offensive line should also be getting back a couple more starters although rookie LR Russell Okung (high ankle sprain) remains a game-time decision.

Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald will be going against Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant for the 14th time. The two know each other well, and Trufant has the size and speed to match up with the athletic Fitzgerald. There is no question that Derek Anderson looks for Fitzgerald every time he drops back. Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett said the rematch with the Seahawks will be personal after his team's 22-10 loss at Qwest Field three weeks ago. Marshawn Lynch ran for 89 yards in that game, and the two players were seen jawing more than a couple times.

CZAR’S SCOOP: At 3-5, the Cardinals are only a game out of first. They are positioned perfectly to make a run, at least in terms of the schedule. Starting with Seattle, four of the next five games are home. Three are against division teams. If the Cardinals are to make a move in the division, now is the time. “Honestly, I’m worried about Seattle,” Fitzgerald said.

The Seahawks brought back quarterback J.P. Losman to add some stability to that position after losing quarterback Zac Robinson to the Lions, who claimed him off waivers Tuesday. The Seahawks had activated Robinson last Saturday as the team’s emergency quarterback against the Giants and had hoped to clear him through waivers so they could add him back on the practice squad. The organization is saying that backup QB Charlie Whitehurst still has a future with the team, but that seems unlikely with a $4 million salary next season.

This could be a special teams bonanza. Both teams excel in this area. The Cardinals have been opportunistic in other areas. They have eight returns for touchdowns, including four via fumble recoveries, which ties a league record.

Other Sunday games

Cincinnati at Indianapolis: These two cities are only 110 miles apart, but the Colts have won six straight and figure to win again unless the Bengals can get Cedric Benson untracked against Indy’s porous run defense. Jim Caldwell is 10-1 at Lucas Oil Stadium, including 5-0 this season. Who knows where Bengals coach Marvin Lewis stands with owner Mike Brown? He’s in the last year of his contract. The funny twist to this game is that Terrell Owens, not Chad Ochocinco, is now the main receiver with the Bengals. And we all know that Ochocinco hates it and also being fined for his gold cleats on Monday night.

N.Y. Jets at Cleveland: This is the first time Eric Mangini has played the Jets since being fired after the 2008 season. This is also the fourth showdown game between Rex and Rob Ryan, the Browns defensive coordinator. Rex’s Baltimore defense won the first three. This is the fourth start in a row for rookie Browns QB Colt McCoy, who is 2-1 with wins over New Orleans and New England after losing to Pittsburgh in his first game. Also, as an interesting sidelight, Mangini traded his fifth overall pick to the Jets in the 2009 draft in order for them to be able to draft QB Mark Sanchez. Oh, yes, and Braylon Edwards returns to Cleveland for the first time, too.

Houston at Jacksonville: The Jaguars’ pass rush will be hurting minus DE Aaron Kampman and that should be all Houston QB Matt Schaub needs to have a big day. The Jaguars have allowed 17 TD passes this season and opposing quarterbacks are completing 67 percent of their pass attempts. Schaub will have WR Andre Johnson, but not reliable TE Owen Daniels in the lineup. The Texans have looked awful lately and need this game to get back into playoff consideration. Houston last won here, though, in 2006. Houston has moved Brian Cushing back to his outside linebacker position after the second-year pro struggled inside.

Tennessee at Miami: There is a chance that QB Vince Young (left ankle) can play today because he did split the reps with Kerry Collins during Thursday’s practice. Young will test his ankle in the morning. One good thing is that Collins played with new WR Randy Moss in Oakland, so the two know each other pretty well. The Dolphins are going with Chad Pennington, who is highly accurate but a dink-and-dunk passer. Miami is hoping that Pennington can deliver in the red zone where Chad Henne was failed this season. Henne also has 10 interceptions. Moss said this week, that “I didn’t want to go to Minnesota and mess anything up. I guess everybody blamed me for it. I’m going to say it again; I’m not coming here to start no trouble. I’m just coming here to work every day and hopefully we win.”

Kansas City at Denver: The Chiefs lead the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 179.6 yards per game. The Broncos rank No. 31 vs. the run, allowing 154.6 yards per game. The Broncos are also pass-happy, and rank last in running the football, averaging just 67.3 yards per game. Both Chiefs running backs Jamaal Charles, with 719 yards, and Thomas Jones, 570 yards, have rushed for more yards than the entire Denver team (538 yards) this season. In an odd meeting of brothers, Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt competes against Denver punter Britton Colquitt. This may be an NFL first.

New England at Pittsburgh: In this huge AFC showdown game, the Steelers are really hurting on their offensive and defensive lines. And it could get worse if OLB James Harrison’s back spasms don’t relent. Harrison is a game-time decision for Pittsburgh, a team desperate to put pressure on Tom Brady and see how his sore foot responds. It looks like Pittsburgh will feature RB Rashard Mendenhall and hope he can run consistently against the Pats. If he can, that will allow Ben Roethlisberger to take some play-action shots down the field to Mike Wallace. The Patriots’ passing game has been out-of-sync lately and their running game is still minus Fred Taylor.

Tagged: Bills, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Packers, Titans, Chiefs, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, Giants, Jets, 49ers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Jaguars, Cardinals, Steelers, Texans, Mike Brown, Jon Kitna, Chad Johnson, Brett Favre, Kerry Collins, Chad Pennington, Thomas Jones, Leonard Davis, Terrell Owens, Matt Hasselbeck, Steve Smith Sr., Fred Taylor, Mike Williams, Bryant McKinnie, Julius Peppers, Marc Colombo, Shaun Hill, Rich Seubert, James Harrison, Andre Johnson, Marcus Trufant, Tony Romo, Matt Schaub, Larry Fitzgerald, Ben Roethlisberger, Shawn Andrews, Eli Manning, Thomas Davis, Alex Barron, Nick Collins, Alex Smith, Alex Smith, Mike Williams, Ryan Fitzpatrick, James Butler, Vince Young, Vernon Davis, Owen Daniels, Alan Ball, Troy Smith, Steve Smith, Doug Free, Adrian Peterson, Jon Beason, Matt Moore, Mike Jenkins, Chad Henne, Tim Hightower, Dan Connor, Reggie Smith, Mike Wallace, Mike Goodson, Nic Harris, Mark Sanchez, James Laurinaitis, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy, Taylor Mays, Sam Bradford, Donald Jones, Danario Alexander

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