Thursday, February 24, 2011

In Depth: Quarterbacks

I have given a brief overview of both sides of the ball heading into the offseason but I want to go a little more in depth now position by position. It appears that free agency is probably going to be delayed so that gives a little more time to assess where the Cowboys stand heading into free agency and the draft.

Tony Romo - The Cowboys searched for nearly a decade before finally discovering a franchise quarterback. Despite what some people refuse to admit, they have a player who can put the offense on his back and win games. There are some who still doubt Romo's ability but he is one of the highest rated quarterbacks in NFL history. Now he needs to take his team deep into the playoffs and win a Super Bowl to convince his remaining doubters that he is a top tier quarterback. Obviously the Cowboys are set at starting quarterback for at least 3 or 4 more years and maybe more.

Jon Kitna - Kitna proved this season that he can be counted on to be an effective back up option. He took over for Romo during the second half of the season and did enough to allow the Cowboys to go 5-3 in the second half of the season. While he doesn't have the play making ability of Romo, Kitna still has plenty of game to allow the team to win if Romo goes down again. Kitna should be able to fill in as the back up for at least another season or two.

Stephen McGee - McGee finally got a chance to get some meaningful playing time in the last two games of the season. All he did was lead his team to two last minute touchdown drives. While that was impressive he struggled during the majority of his playing time. But his strong finishes in his two games showed enough that it looks like the Cowboys still might be able to develop McGee into a long term backup option.

Heading into free agency and the draft it appears that quarterback is the least of the Cowboys needs. I don't expect the Cowboys to make any moves at quarterback this offseason.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Potential Areas of Need - Defense

Last week I took a look at the needs on the offensive side of the ball heading into the offseason. Now I am going to take a look at the defense. Obviously the Cowboys will need help at safety but there are several other positions that will need help through free agency or the draft.

Defensive Tackle (Jay Ratliff, Josh Brent, Sean Lissemore) - Rob Ryan seems to be planning on keeping Ratliff as the starter in the middle rather than moving him out to defensive end. That means the Cowboys are pretty well set at this position. Ratliff is a pro bowler and Josh Brent showed promise last year in his limited time. Lissemore is a developmental project so it is too early to determine if he has any long term promise. I would still like to see the Cowboys find a big, sloppy, mean guy to man the middle and move Ratliff out to defensive end but it doesn't look like that will happen.

Defensive End (Stephen Bowen, Igor Olshanksky, Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher, Clifton Geathers) - The Cowboys need a lot of help at defensive end as it stands right now. Bowen, Spears and Hatcher are all set to be free agents this offseason. I would like to see Spears come back because he is so stout against the run. Hatcher and Bowen both had a chance to win the job after Spears went down and neither guy played lights out. Bowen seems to get the most praise from opposing coaches between the two. Olshansky was a Wade Phillips guy but he has been solid since he arrived in Dallas. I expect the Cowboys to draft a defensive end but I think Spears and/or Hatcher will be re-signed.

Outside Linebacker (Demarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Victor Butler, Brandon Williams) - The starters are set here. Demarcus is one of the best defensive players in the league but Spencer needs a bounce back season. Rob Ryan had a lot of praise for Spencer so I expect the new attacking defensive scheme to benefit Spencer. Depth is the problem at outside linebacker. Victor Butler is a good pass rusher but undersized against the run. Brandon Williams was a Wade Phillips guy and has battled knee problems so he is running short on time to prove himself. I expect the Cowboys to draft an outside linebacker for depth.

Middle Linebacker (Bradie James, Keith Brooking, Sean Lee, Leon Williams) - The Cowboys are old at middle linebacker. Keith Brooking will probably lose his job to Sean Lee next season. Bradie James is a solid player but is hitting the downside of his productive years. I hope the Cowboys can find a way to convince Brooking to come back next season in a reserve role. I'm hoping the Cowboys target a middle linebacker in the first half of the draft that can supplant Bradie James in the next few years.

Cornerback (Terence Newman, Orlando Scandrick, Mike Jenkins, Bryan McCann, Alan Ball?) - I know a lot of people want to run Newman off but I think he has 2-3 very good years left in him. He is a good player when he has help at safety. Jenkins got off to a bad start and then the officials seemed to be looking for a reason to throw a flag on him for the first 8 games this year. He settled down and played better in the second half of the season. I was ready to cut Scandrick early in the season he was so bad, but by the end of the season he was playing very good. McCann showed some flashes last season but he needs a lot of work. Alan Ball is now listed as a cornerback on the Cowboys roster on their website so hopefully the experiment is over and he can move back to his natural position. If Ball moves back to cornerback the Cowboys are in good position in terms of depth but still need to find a cornerback late in the draft to develop.

Safety (Gerald Sensabaugh, Alan Ball?, Barry Church, Danny McCray, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah) - The Cowboys are hurting at safety. Sensabaugh is a free agent but could come back if the price is right. But the free safety spot is probably the biggest hole on the roster. I'm hoping the Cowboys will target a proven free agent to step in a immediately improve the secondary. Alan Ball needs to be moved back to corner if he hasn't been already. Barry Church has promise down the road as a strong safety. AOA had so many injuries this season there is no way to know if he has any potential. The Cowboys need to hit safety in free agency and early in the draft. This position has been a problem for far too long.

When you go through position by position it doesn't feel quite so much like the sky is falling like it did during the season. There are players who regressed like Spencer and Jenkins, but they have shown they have the talent to play at a high level. I expect to see the defense bounce back in a big way next season...but only if free safety and depth concerns are addressed.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Interview with Jimmy Johnson

I was lucky enough to get a few minutes of Jimmy Johnson's time today in conjunction with the first annual Crown Royal Jimmy Bowl. I would have loved to ask him more questions but my time was limited. Here is what Jimmy had to say.

1. What victory in your time with the Cowboys stands out the most to you?
"Oh, obviously the win in the first Super Bowl that was the most exciting time to me. We had plenty of fun moments but that was the most exciting."

2. What about the first NFC championship game that you won in San Francisco?
"Obviously that was one of the highlights, it was one of the big ones, but winning ultimate prize, the Super Bowl, is the best."

3. What do you think was the biggest key to the dominance of your teams in the early 90's?
"We had an extremely talented team in all phases and that's why it was a great team. On offense we had some super stars, three of them are in the hall of fame now. And we led the league in total defense plus we were good on special teams."

4. How does the Cowboys team as it is constructed now compare to your team in the 90's?
"I never been good at comparing teams. The only way you can really gauge your team is look at the results. And obviously you can't compare their results right now to us winning Super Bowls. They have to win the Super Bowl before you can compare."

5. What do you think will make Jason Garrett successful as a head coach?
"Jason is very passionate about the game, he is very intelligent. I think he has prepared himself well."

6. Do you expect to see Jason Garrett succeed?
"Yes, I think Jason is going to do an outstanding job. He showed signs of that at the end of the season last year and I think he is just going to continue on with that."

7. Which was the bigger challenge, working as coach of the Dallas Cowboys or your time on Survivor?
"Well, they are completely different. Survivor was extremely difficult, especially at my age. But I think it was tough both ways. But I have to say the Cowboys because I won the ultimate prize with the Cowboys and I didn't in Survivor."

8. Where exactly did the line "How 'Bout Them Cowboys!" come from?
"I don't know. I just kind of all of a sudden thought that it would be appropriate."

9. Tell me about the Crown Royal Jimmy Bowl.
"I've been working with Crown Royal for a few years now and they have had promotions like this one and I think this one was extremely successful. The Jimmy Bowl was exciting for everyone and it was a good game."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Potential Areas of Need This Offseason - Offense

Now that the pain of watching yet another Super Bowl without the Cowboys is finally over it is time to focus on next season. The Cowboys have some obvious holes to fill in the roster at free safety and on the offensive line. Here is a quick rundown of the roster position by position along with players who are set to become free agents this offseason. I looking at the offense in this post and I'll focus on the defense in my next post. Obviously a lot of the offseason moves are going to depend on the CBA negotiations and timing, but I'm going under the assumption that things will get worked out sooner than later.

Quarterback (Tony Romo, Jon Kitna, Stephen McGee) - It think the Cowboys are set here. Romo is the franchise quarterback. Kitna proved his worth as a capable backup this season and McGee did enough in his time on the field at the end of the year to prove he deserves to stick around for more development.

Running Back (Felix Jones, Marion Barber, Tashard Choice) - All signs are seem to indicate that Barber will be sent packing this offseason. You get the feeling that Jason Garrett has run out of patience with Barber and is ready to roll with Felix Jones and Tashard Choice as his 1-2 punch. That makes running back a position of need heading into the draft. I don't see the Cowboys targeting a running back in free agency when it is easy to find a good running back deep into the draft.

Fullback (Chris Gronkowski) - I don't think Gronkowski did nearly enough this season to warrant a guaranteed spot on the team next season. He missed the block that ended Romo's season and he had a hand in the kick return that ended Dez Bryant's year. I think the Cowboys will upgrade at fullback if they can find the right guy at the right price or a good player in the draft.

Wide Receiver (Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Roy Williams, Sam Hurd, Kevin Ogletree, Jesse Holley, Manny Johnson, Teddy Williams) - The two guys at the top of the depth chart, Austin and Bryant, will obviously be back. Roy Williams is another story. I actually thought he was much better this season and I would like to see him back on the team next season. I just don't see Jerry Jones cutting him and admitting a monumental mistake in trading for Roy a few years ago. Sam Hurd will be a free agent and I think the Cowboys will let him test the free agent market. Ogletree still has potential but he regressed from his rookie year. The rest of the guys are special teamers at best so it is all a numbers game for them. There will probably be a battle in training camp for the 5th spot between Holley, Johnson and Williams. I just can't imagine the Cowboys seeing wide receiver as a position of need at this point.

Tight End (Jason Witten, Martellus Bennett, John Phillips) - Witten is an all time great. But Martellus might just lose his #2 spot to Phillips this season. Phillips was emerging as quite a player in the preseason before his season ended with a knee injury. What gives Martellus value is his exceptional blocking ability. It should be a good battle between Marty B. and Phillips this offseason for the #2 spot. Martellus did seem to welcome rumors of possibly being traded so maybe he wants out. Bennett's contract is up after the upcoming season so if the Cowboys want to get anything before he leaves they need to pull the trigger on a trade this offseason. If Martellus stays then tight end is set. If he goes then look for the Cowboys to target a tight end late in the draft or sign an inexpensive tight end in free agency.

Tackle (Doug Free, Marc Colombo, Alex Barron, Robert Brewster, Sam Young, Pat McQuistan) - Doug Free will become a free agent at the start of the new league year. You can bet he is one of the top priorities this offseason for the Cowboys. He'll be back. Barron will be a free agent and I'm sure the Cowboys will let him leave. Marc Colombo has a couple of years left on his contract but the Cowboys will think long and hard about whether they can count on him next season. I think they'll look around in free agency and the draft for a replacement but he might stick around one more season while Sam Young gets more time to develop. There is a lot of talk that Young may be the long term answer at right tackle. Brewster is in a put up or shut up season but he looks like a career backup at best. McQuistan is a free agent and I'm sure he'll be gone.

Guard (Leonard Davis, Kyle Kosier, Montrae Holland, Phil Costa) - Kosier will be a free agent and I'm sure the Cowboys will let him test the market. They'll bring him back but only at the right price. Leonard Davis regressed this season but he'll be back. Costa showed a lot of promise and can play guard and center so he'll be around for a few years at least. Holland has one more year left on his contract and has shown he is a good injury replacement at left guard. The Cowboys will look to upgrade at left guard in free agency or the draft but I think Davis sticks around at right guard.

Center (Andre Gurode, Phil Costa) - the Cowboys look set at center with Gurode. He managed to make the pro bowl although it seemed like it was based more on reputation than his play this season. The Cowboys need to start looking for a long term solution to replace Gurode since he is now 32 and will be 34 when his current contract expires. I expect the Cowboys to draft a center this year or next to groom behind Gurode unless they see Costa as a long term solution.