In mid-April, both football writers and football players are focused on the fall when the regular season kicks off. Football writers get caught up in the moment of who is "winning" free agency and crown division champs with days to go before the NFL draft. Football players keep their heads down and concentrate on stacking good days on top of each other to be the best versions of themselves come September.
On Friday night, the two worlds collided when Cowboys defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford took his blinders off to peek at Twitter.
Overcome with the tulipomania that commenced when Washington signed former Carolina cornerback Josh Norman to a five-year, $75 million deal, Caplan, a resident on ESPN's NFL Insiders, opined the franchise was poised to win the NFC East for the second straight year. Never mind that's a feat unmatched since 2003-04 when the Philadelphia Eagles were back-to-back division winners. And never mind Washington hasn't done it since 1983-84 when Joe Theismann had two intact tibias. Because Dan Snyder and general manager Scot McCloughlan doled out money to a corner who was a byproduct of a formidable front seven, New Era may as well print the "2016 NFC East Champions" ball caps in burgundy and gold.
Forget the draft for a moment. Why even have off-season workouts? Why even hold mini-camps and OTA's? Why go to this great toil in the spring if the standings are decided on salary cap spreadsheets?
The spring is a crucial time for players to develop chemistry, aside from who their respective front offices sign or draft. Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones, who is entering his second year with the team, was thankful for the voluntary off-season workouts starting up.
"I miss my guys," Jones told me at the 28th Annual Children's Cancer Fund Gala on Friday. "I miss being around the team. So, I'm happy to be back."
Jones and the defense finished 16th in points allowed and 17th in yards surrendered in 2015, but the defense gave up four game-winning drives, blew three fourth-quarter leads, and finished dead last in takeaways, the statistic defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli swears up and down is most consequential.
When watching the 2015 Cowboys defense, they always seemed to be an inch away from forcing a key turnover. Yet, something would happen either with a booth review or penalty to nullify the change of possession and keep the opposing offenses on the field. They were the exact opposite of the 2014 Cowboys defense, which despite being unable to generate a pass rush, somehow finished second in turnovers. The difference between the two defenses was chemistry forged during the spring.
As much as Jason Witten affirmed Greg Hardy was a good teammate and hard worker in May 2015, Hardy also proved susceptible to the "Uptown Flu," an illness to the Cowboy Politic that may have taken away from that intangible quality necessary to obtain that one, last stop or come up with key turnovers.
Make no mistake: Caplan is going to be wrong. The question is whether Dallas is to beat Philadelphia and New York to the punch. For the Cowboys to be the team, they are going to need leadership and production from their most veteran players, not supplement it with chancy free agents.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne gave me some insight into how off-season workouts are progressing for Dallas thus far. The fifth-year corner, who re-signed a one-year deal with the team, claims he feels great coming off a hamstring injury that scratched his final three games of 2015. For Claiborne, he has no off-season.
"Yeah, the [off-season workouts] are really cooking, but I never stop," Claiborne told me. "So, it's a continuous grind."
Jones echoes the same sentiments that off-season workouts have been beneficial so far for the defense.
Said Jones: "It's been great. Guys have been together training here right now even at voluntary workouts. So, it's nice to just have the whole group together."
The whole group will be together from now until the first four games in 2016 when defensive ends Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence could each serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Gregory is without a doubt a goner for the first quarter of the season, though Lawrence could have his suspension reduced or overturned, the Cowboys hope.
Dallas faced a similar pitfall in 2014 when veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick was suspended for the first two games of the season for the same snare that entrapped Gregory and Lawrence. Don't forget that not only was this in training camp, but also three months after linebacker Sean Lee blew out his ACL on the first day of OTA's. Already devoid of "leaders" with defensive linemen DeMarcus Ware in Denver and Jason Hatcher in Washington, the only veteran presence on the Cowboys defense for those first two games came from cornerback Brandon Carr and safety Barry Church. Dallas held forth with a 1-1 record through the first two games until Scandrick returned, and then Dallas finished the year 12-4 and their first division title since 2009.
The culture of family in Dallas is already taking hold of new defensive lineman Cedric Thornton, a six-year pro snagged from the Eagles. Thornton has already been so impressed with Marinelli and head coach Jason Garrett that he refers to them as his new "dads." Along with selecting Garrett's "right kind of guy," the Cowboys must fortify this culture so their 2016 draft class knows how to work and any new free agents understand what is required of them.
The Cowboys front office is equally working hard this spring in figuring out where to go with their fourth overall pick, especially since the Rams and Eagles swapped spots with the Titans and Browns to be number one and number two respectively. Sitting inside the top-5 is a place owner Jerry Jones and Chief Operating Officer Stephen Jones haven't been in since 2003 when they took cornerback Terence Newman with the fifth overall pick. In fact, this is just the fourth time since the Joneses took over in 1989 the club has picked inside the top-5, and the second time doing it the "hard way."
"We're looking for the best player to help us out," Stephen told our pals in The G-Bag Nation. "That's obviously what we'll be doing. We have that top-4 pick in the draft and sitting there at four. We earned the hard way which was through a lot of pain and agony. And, so, we've got to make the most of it. Hopefully, we're not back here again for quite some time."
"As a defensive guy, of course I want it on defense," cornerback Jones said of his team holding the fourth overall selection. "But I trust our front office. They're going to pick a great guy and a great teammate. So, I'm looking forward to the draft."
The draft - which you can watch with us this Thursday at The Maverick Bar ...
... is one of many milestones both players and writers must pass before truly getting a glimpse at who will be true favorites to win any division in 2016. Crawford and the defense need to let guys like Caplan exercise their First Amendment right to be wrong as he and Mo and Byron and the rest focus on returning to competitive form in September.null