Friday, September 01, 2006

Dallas Cowboys Preview


By John McMullen

America's Team is back on the national radar after Jerry Jones brought in the NFL's version of Barnum and Bailey. The circus has set up shop in North Texas in the form of Terrell Owens and all the baggage he brings. And, make no mistake about it -- Bill Parcells is not happy. After last year's 9-7, non-playoff finish, Jones gave Parcells a nice
raise but usurped the coach's authority by bringing in the league's worst teammate. Can it work? Maybe for a year -- but the early returns don't look promising. Owens has made himself a spectacle at camp and Parcells has already grown testy of the constant media attention.

QUARTERBACK

In Drew Bledsoe's first season in Dallas, the former Washington State star connected on over 60 percent of his passes for over 3,600 yards and 23 touchdowns. That's the good...The Bad? Only the wildly erratic Brett Favre threw more interceptions than Bledsoe and his mobility remains fodder for Dane Cook's act. Dallas' offensive line took the brunt of the blame for the 49 sacks Bledsoe suffered but his lack of movement skills along with a penchant for holding the ball far too long were larger culprits. If you don't think so, look at how many times Bledsoe hit the turf in Buffalo. Tony Romo is the backup and Parcells seems enamored with him but in NFL three seasons, Roma has never attempted a pass so any comfort level would have to be tenuous at best.

RUNNING BACK

Julius Jones seems to have the talent to be a top-tier back but the former Notre Dame star has played in just 21 games over two seasons. Parcells has never liked players who don't show up on Sunday and Jones, who has suffered through shoulder, rib and ankle injuries during his short career, must learn to play through pain or the coach will be looking elsewhere very quickly. Former fourth-round pick Marion Barber will backup Jones again. The former Minnesota stalwart ran for 538 yards as a rookie last season and provides a
solid, if not spectacular alternative to Jones. The Cowboys also like Tyson Thompson, who may be the fastest back on the team.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Don't look for enabling here Dallas fans -- Jones understated it when mentioning he was taking a gamble with "Leon", who burned his previous two employers and used a scorched-earth policy when discussing the Pro-Bowl quarterbacks he played with. Unlike most observers, I won't sugarcoat it. Owens is sick and his issues reach far beyond the football field. But, his talents on the field are like a seductress. Jones fell under the spell but Parcells had no desire to see Owens in Dallas. Terrell's training camp antics and disdain of practice (unless the national media is there and he can show off) is already wearing on the old-school Parcells. A blowup is imminent and could come at any time. When it does and Owens begins the destruction of his third organization, you can
bet all Jones' critics will be saying I T.O.ld you so. Interestingly, opposite Owens is a former diva that actually did grow up, Terry Glenn. Owens could learn a lot from Glenn but I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Glenn is still a big-play threat that must be accounted for. Patrick Crayton should be the third receiver and sports impressive speed but has struggled to stay on the field. At tight end Dallas has one of the league's elite receivers in Jason Witten. While not much of a blocker, Witten is a great security blanket for any quarterback. The Cowboys drafted Notre Dame's Anthony Fasano in the second round, in order to possess the threat of a two-tight end set this season.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The Cowboys really missed left tackle Flozell Adams after he went down against the Giants in mid-October. The drop-off from the two-time Pro Bowler to Torrin Tucker was great and the Dallas offense never really recovered. Adams will be back but the Cowboys offensive line must now overcome the loss of future Hall of Fame left guard Larry Allen, the last vestige of the team's '90s glory days. Kyle Kosier is penciled in to replace Allen and that doesn't look like a positive move. Even though Allen's career is winding down, Kosier has been nothing more than a journeyman utility guy to this point. The Cowboys also brought in veteran Jason Fabini to battle with Rob Petitti at right tackle. Petitti, a rookie last season, struggled badly and a healthy Fabini would be an upgrade. Andre Gurode and Al Johnson are on hand to man the pivot. Johnson has better movement skills, but Gurode is stronger and can move a powerful nose tackle with more ease. The wild card of the line is former Pro Bowl guard Marco Rivera. Rivera was one of the best interior lineman in the game before injuries robbed him of effectiveness last season. At 34, it remains to be seen if Rivera can get back to his prior form.

DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE LINE

With the impending switch to the 3-4 defensive alignment in 2005, Dallas inked nose tackle Jason Ferguson in free agency and drafted ends Chris Canty and Marcus Spears. While Ferguson struggled, Canty and Spears looked like future stars and perfect fits for the scheme. With a year under his belt in North Texas, the Cowboys hope Ferguson can bounce back and solidify things. Veteran Greg Ellis and highly regarded youngster Jason Hatcher will also be in the rotation outside.

LINEBACKERS

With the 3-4, you can never have enough talented linebackers and Dallas has brought in quite a few reinforcements. Former Jaguar Akin Ayodele and former Titan Rocky Boiman along with rookie Bobby Carpenter were the new faces brought in to join Al Singleton. Bradie James and DeMarcus Ware. James and Ayodele will handle the inside while the Cowboys would like Carpenter and Ware to man the outside slots. Ware looks like he will settle in and be a solid edge rusher for years while Carpenter really played better than the more heralded A.J. Hawk with the Buckeyes so things look set on the outside. Inside
is more of a problem as James and Ayodele look pedestrian.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

With Anthony Henry and Terence Newman, the Cowboys are as set as you can be at
the cornerback position. In this era, no corner can really standout, the rules just don't allow it but Henry and Newman both have the ball skills to make a play when the offense makes mistakes and that's all you look for in a corner these days. Veteran Aaron Glenn understands a zone concept and will be back to handle the nickel back slot. Safety Roy Williams is the prototypical Y2K strong safety, a load against the run but a liability in coverage. Keith Davis and Marcus Coleman will compete for the free safety spot but neither player will standout.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Dallas' signing of Mike Vanderjagt solidifies a long-time trouble spot. The Cowboys have never really respected the kicking position and have always went with inexperienced, less talented guys. After a season in which they went through three kickers, Dallas finally jumped and signed a reliable option. The one problem with Vanderjagt is that he can't kickoff and the Cowboys will have to waste a roster spot on a specialist. Punter Mat McBriar was spotty last year but Dallas has no intention of replacing him.

TRAINING CAMP BATTLES:

With a plethora of options at the skill positions, Dallas should have a high-powered offense if the offensive line holds up. Fabini needs to return from injury and take over at right tackle while a competent pivot man needs to step up. In what is a much larger story Parcells seems to be running out of patience with Bledsoe’s ability to get rid of the ball and may actually entertain the option of going with Romo.

2006 OUTLOOK

Parcells may have inked a two-year contract extension through 2007 but that was before Jones ignored him and hitched his wagon to Owens. The Future Hall of Famer is now 65 and has made it clear, even before Owens arrived that everything from this point forward is year by year. With T.O. in town, year by year just turned into one year. The coach is already fed up with Owens' immaturity and constant craving for the spotlight. Win, lose or draw, this will be the Tuna's swan song in Big D. Whether he goes out on a winning note
or not largely depends on how he handles the circus. So far it hasn't been good.

-You can reach John McMullen at jmcmullen1@comcast.net or john@phillysportsline.com

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