Now that Jerry Jones has delivered on his promise of major changes to the team during the offseason it is clear that there are going to be some major changes to the overall offensive strategy. You don’t remove a player as dynamic and physically talented as T.O. from the equation without impacting every facet of the offense. Let’s start with the most obvious change. The passing game no longer has a player with the ability to turn any pass into a touchdown. There are still some solid receivers remaining but none of them possess all of the physical skills that T.O. did. But the receivers who remain each possess one or two special abilities that will have to be utilized to allow the passing game to continue to operate with the efficiency that will be needed for success in 2009.
Roy Williams excels at catching the ball in traffic and will provide a red zone threat with his size and excellent hands. The biggest challenge here is that Tony Romo is accustomed to having his receivers running free on crossing routes. Roy Williams doesn’t always separate from his defender but he will make the catch even if he is blanketed in coverage. Hopefully Romo and Williams are developing the chemistry they will need in 2009 as we speak since they are already working together in advance of the official start of offseason workout at the end of the month.
Miles Austin has the size and blazing speed you want from a receiver. He seems to be slotted in the #2 receiver role based on the comments from Jerry Jones over the last few weeks. We all got a glimpse of his potential in the preseason last year and in several of the regular season games throughout the season. His game changing speed is going to have to serve as the threat to the defense that forces them to keep the safeties deep so the running game can work consistently throughout the year. The big question mark about Miles Austin is going to be his durability. You have to wonder if he will continue to be utilized in any way on special teams since his health is going to be a concern.
Patrick Crayton has skills that will best suit him to continue his role as the slot receiver. He can make the tough catches over the middle of the field and seems to have a knack for being on the same page with Romo when the play breaks down. His quickness hampers his effectiveness, but he is a solid player who should be expected to be a major contributor to the offense. I expect that he will put up better number than Miles Austin even if Austin ends up on the field more than Crayton.
Sam Hurd is the forgotten talent of the wide receiver group. He will never be a top tier receiver due to his lack of speed but he has shown the ability to make plays in the offense. He missed nearly the entire 2008 season, so many fans and members of the media have written him off. But he did show a lot of promise in 2007 and should be able to step up and contribute any time we go to a 4 wideout set. His skills would also fit if he had to step into the #2 role in the event of an injury to Miles Austin. An injury to Austin would expose the biggest weakness in the receiving corps which is a lack of speed in the depth chart. Maybe a draft pick or Isiah Stanback could step in but those are both big question marks at this point.
Jason Witten has size, hands, impeccable route running ability and the trust of his quarterback. I know there is an expectation that the defenses are now going to roll the double teams that went to T.O. last year over to Witten but I think that tactic would only last a game or two. Roy Williams and Miles Austin are going to have to show the ability to make the defense pay for leaving them isolated on the outside a few times before the Witten double teams will end. And don’t forget about the respect that a healthy Felix Jones will demand out of the backfield. I don’t expect 90+ catches from Witten again but somewhere in the 70-80 range seems very likely. I will be surprised if Jason doesn’t end up as the #1 option in the passing game in 2009.
Martellus Bennett is also a very capable receiver in the passing game. His size and speed from the tight end position can’t be taught. I expect Jason Garrett to utilize a 2 tight end set more often this season to get both of his tight ends involved in the passing game. Bennett has too much talent to keep off the field.
The running backs are going to be the key to making the defensive secondary susceptible to the big play. They all need to do a better job picking up the blitz next season. After the way the offensive line was exposed by the Eagles in the last game of 2008 you can bet that teams are going to keep using the same tactic until the Cowboys find a way to consistently beat it. Biltz pick up is the first priority but they will also need to make the defense pay when they focus too much attention on Witten, Williams and Austin. I like the sound of a swing pass to Felix Jones in the flat that isolates him with a linebacker. Who do you think is going to win that matchup 90% of the time?
The biggest problem that the offense had last season was poor offensive line play. Tony Romo was running for his life more than any NFL quarterback should ever be expected to. The injury to Kyle Kosier turned out to be a killer but he is expected to be back healthy in 2009. Hopefully some depth will be added so the line doesn’t fall apart if an injury occurs along the line again next season. Most defensive coordinators across the league seem to understand that you can’t let Romo sit back in the pocket for too long or he will beat you so they are going to be using exotic schemes every game against the Cowboys. The line has got to adjust on the fly better. If the line can give Romo time I have no doubt that the passing game will click.
You can argue that the Cowboys have a lack of proven talent at the wide receiver position but there are still a lot of options for Romo in the passing game. I am glad that Jerry made the move to go with the younger receivers even if it meant the release of the most dynamic playmaker the team had at receiver. Romo should benefit from getting back to running the offense and simply finding the open man. The passing offense may not be as explosive next season but it should be more consistent and reliable in big moments.