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Thoughts as Cowboys' season approaches

Bob Sturm discusses all of the big Cowboys questions as the 2012 season approaches.

Finally, as of Monday, we will have exhibition games to discuss and breakdown. At which time, we will try to remember that these games are highly anticipated and then roughly 30 minutes into the game, most fans try to remember why they looked forward to the game in the first place. Of all of the amazing accomplishments of the NFL, surely, high on the list must be their ability to get people to pay to attend preseason games.  


Nevertheless, I am happy to apply more meaning to the results and events of a preseason game over a practice or a 7-on-7 drill that we have seen in Oxnard. There are plenty of media people who disagree with that, reading meaning into every stretch and into every catch. Their reports are available all over online as well, but for me,  I count practices as a place where coaches decide they need to see more of a player - not a place where players win jobs. They win the chance to audition, but the auditions, in my opinion, come in the form of competition outside of the organization via preseason and regular season game action.


Which bring us to updates and discussions on all of the big questions when we arrived. Let's start tackling them now that we are two weeks into camp and about to see things in Oakland and San Diego that will move these narratives forward:


1) - Who is playing safety for this team?


With all of the discussions about how bad the secondary was last season (and it was), it is interesting to point out that Terence Newman has been kind enough to end up as the full target for any and all blame for this issue.  His exit and the subsequent entrance of Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne are the kind of quick fix logic applied this time of year.  I believe, once we dive a bit deeper into the substance of reality when live ammunition is used, that we will notice once again that the safety position continues to feel the effects of neglect since the days or Darren Woodson and young Roy Williams.  


Last year, the Cowboys had a safety who took bad angles to plays allowing crucial plays, went months between big moments, did not play physical enough, and looked to be a weakness on the defense.  So, the Cowboys decided to give Gerald Sensabaugh a six-year/$25 million extension with $8 guaranteed.  Meanwhile, the other safety, the one who made more big plays and did not seem to have nearly as many busts, Abe Elam was sent away in exchange for a retread in Brodney Pool who never had a chance to make the team because his skills had so diminished. If I was to keep either safety last year, it was Elam, but the fact is that I understand why the front office was quite attracted to Alabama's Mark Barron to fix that position once and for all.


Regardless, because of Pool's crash and burn, the job has been given to a prospect that many inside the organization have been saying was ready for a while now: Barry Church.  Church is another "box safety" who is going to have to demonstrate the ability to go sideline to sideline in space to break up plays, because we know that this is what the safety position calls for in 2012.  The real issue here is that I think the Cowboys have 2 safeties up high in their depth chart who are not ideal coverage safeties as it pertains to playing the Cover 1 or Cover 2 style.  A safety must be able to read and react by getting to the scene of the completion in perfect timing.  A step slow, and Eli Manning is carving you up again.  So, to say that they are rolling with Sensabaugh again is an issue, and now to bring in Church is just an unknown.  


Beyond those two, I am still eager to see the rookie Matt Johnson, but his health has not exactly helped his case (see also, Claiborne, Coale, Bernadeau). But, from what I saw at Eastern Washington, I would like to submit my optimism that he will help improve this position in time, although his health is going to delay that a bit, it appears.  


Overall, since it is not being discussed near as much as some other spots, allow me to sound the alarms of concern about safety.


2) - Is the offensive line better?  Or just different?


Again, I do not wish to sound like a broken record, but there is no more important spot on the field (other than QB) when a team is trying to figure out why things aren't going right than offensive line.  As I try to remember the last time the Cowboys had an offensive line that didn't betray them during the course of a 16 week meat grinder, I look back to 2007.  There, Leonard Davis joined the ranks and settled down a group that was finding its stride.  But, since then, each year, the OL has betrayed the team.  This, of course, has gone largely unnoticed by the national media on their way to another Tony Romo slice and dice session, but nevertheless, it remains the singular issue for this offense to become as dynamic as the best in the league.


Protect the QB and for crying out loud, open up a hole on a 3rd and 1 for once.  If this team had a legitimate running game, who knows how good the passing attack would be.  But, Romo has achieved his level of excellence without ever having a running game that could be counted upon.  


In 2010, the line was horrendous and was switched out for a new line in 2011.  That group collapsed in December (not to mention various other times like in Foxboro) and was switched out again.  Now, with four positions of the five likely to have new starters - and with the one holdover, Phil Costa, widely thought of as an underperformed staying put - the eye is on this group to improve.  


But, is it better or just different?  Nate Livings should not be confused for Carl Nicks.  Everyone wanted Nicks and would have cost a ton to bring in.  Tampa Bay now has the former Saints stud.  But, Livings was allowed to walk and signed without too much competition.  He will nail down left guard. Mackenzy Bernadeau left Carolina even though they needed a guard to replace their own free agent departure.  You would think if he is a player coming into his own, the Panthers would know.  But, they did not resist and now he is likely the right guard here.  Free and Smith have flopped sides and that should be better.  On paper, it should be better than 2011, and much of that is put into the capable hands of Bill Callahan.  


The depth is an issue again as David Arkin, Bill Nagy, Derrick Dockery and the gang all compete to be the reserves or possible options if Costa cannot hold up.


And speaking of Costa, he should be better because he will have larger guards surrounding him, but now that Kyle Kosier is gone, he will likely be asked to take over making the verbal line calls at the line of scrimmage. This added responsibility helps identify blitzes and to make sure everyone is on the same page and knows who their man is to pick up.  Kosier has handled it since the days of Andre Gurode and now it will be placed in Costa's hands, I believe.  Nobody is questioning his ability to know what he is seeing but that is one more thing for a center to have on his plate when he is trying to snap the ball accurately and pick his head up before Vince Wilfork blocks him into next week.


Needless to say, all eyes are on Costa and his new guards.  


There are many more questions that we will not cover in depth here, but know they are being looked at carefully and we will write about it more next week:  3rd Wide Receiver - which is covered everywhere by everyone.  Replacements Dan Conner and Bruce Carter in the middle.  And one source of optimism, the feeling that depth on the defensive line is as good as it has been in quite a while with Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore, and Tyrone Crawford all surrounding Jay Ratliff with some quality and youth.  


Beyond that, this is a good team. Claiborne is going to have some real growing pains, but so does every rookie corner every year. Get your starters out of the game early and stay healthy and get through August. Because, as we know, opening night is now just 26 days away.