The excitement building towards next season has already begun. It all started with the hiring of Bruce Coslet as the offensive coordinator in January, and continued through free agency as Jerry Jones acquired the services of LB Kevin Hardy, CB Bryant Westbrook, TE Tony McGee, and DT La'Roi Glover.
Now that the free agency bonanza has finally cooled down, and the draft day fury is now past us, it is time to focus on the good old fashion X's and O's, and our first look at next season starts in the offensive backfield.
Our projected depth chart at running back should look somewhat familiar to you. Emmitt Smith will once again lead the way, followed by Troy Hambrick, Michael Wiley, and Woodrow Dantzler.
This will certainly be one of the most anticipated seasons in recent memory as much of the focus in the running game will be surrounding Emmitt Smith, and his run at breaking Walter Payton's all-time NFL rushing record.
"It is important to me," he says of the breaking the record. "But is it as important to me as winning? I think not. I think I would rather see this team go to the Super Bowl - today, with the team we have today. It would be much more gratifying and rewarding if we go to the Super Bowl, today, with the guys that we have, than for me to break the record this year."
Emmitt has always been focused on winning, and after consecutive 5-11 years, you have to believe there is a fire that is burning deep inside him that could possibly lead to a breakout season.
After all, he does have a new offensive coordinator that wants his offense to thrive on running the football out of a dual tight end formation with a single back set. That should be music to the ears of a running back that has demanded to carry the football 25+ times a game over the last two seasons.
Make no mistake, Bruce Coslet will continue to keep the focus on the running game, however he'll also challenge a defense vertically with all the speed the Cowboys' possess at wide receiver. And what exactly does that mean?
Well, it means that whoever lines up in the backfield is going to have the opporunity to put some strong numbers next season.
Smith will likely get the bulk of those chances, and that should translate into about 20-25 carries a game for the future hall of famer.
"Emmitt is an excellent NFL back now," Dave Campo said. "He is still our guy but we're going to take care of him because, at 12 years in the league, he shouldn't be carrying the ball 30 times in the game."
Last year, for the first time since his rookie season, Smith averaged less than 4 yards a carry, and he ended up rushing 261 times for 1021 yards and just 3 touchdowns. While those numbers aren't necessarily bad, you tend to think that he could have easily exceeded those statistics had the offense displayed any sort of consistency.
While Emmitt was rushing for over 1,000 yards for his 11th straight season, the rest of the Cowboys' offense was going through some sort of identity crisis. You can blame part of that on inexperience at the quarterback position, as well as a general lack of quality production in the Cowboys' top two wide receivers.
Joey Galloway and Raghib Ismial each caught over 50 passes, but neither provided the type of quality play that was expected of them. The goal this year with Bruce Coslet will be to allow Galloway and Ismial to stretch the defense vertically with their speed, which should ultimately begin to open up more holes for the running game.
Dallas finished the year 29th in the NFL in total offense, averaging just 139 yards passing per game. On the flip side, the Cowboys ranked third in the NFL with 137 rushing yards per contest.
Coslet, at least initially, will likely want to keep his focus straight on the ground in 2002. He'll need to be patient with Quincy Carter and he'll have to ride his running backs to success through the first half of the season.
That could likely mean an increased role for Troy Hambrick. Last year, Hambrick was able to muster up almost 600 yards on the ground on only slightly more than 110 carries. Not bad numbers considering he was orginially thought of as the lead blocker for Emmitt Smith out of the I-formation.
Hambrick, who likes to use his straight ahead style between the tackles to pick up big chunks of yardage, has shown some flashes of outstanding awareness on the field, and he'll touch the ball probably 15 times a game next season.
Whether or not he is actually auditioning as a featured back remains to be seen, but he'll unquestionably be an integral part of this offense.
The Cowboys have former Ohio State great Michael Wiley backing up Smith and Hambrick. Wiley, who has had his share of fumble problems in the NFL, hasn't done much to increase his stock among some of the coaches in the Cowboys' organization.
Wiley averaged a little over 7 yards per carry last season, but he's only had the opportunity to carry the football 58 times during his two-year NFL career. Part of the reason is that he has trouble holding onto the football after absorbing the initial hit.
Wiley will likely not see significant action this season, that is unless Smith or Hambrick sustain a serious injury.
The story doesn't end with Michael Wiley though. Jerry Jones picked up two running backs via free agency last week in Enis Haywood (Iowa State) and Woody Dantzler (Clemson).
Dantzler impressed the Cowboys' orgranization in his initial look at running back this past weekend, and with his unique playmaking style, he could very well become a contributor to this team in the form of a running back, a quarterback, or as a kick returner.
Coach Dave Campo said he is looking at Dantzler at running back but might look at him later as a possible third quarterback. "He's very, very smart. He could be the third quarterback, you never know. If he's one of the best athletes (when the 53-man roster is set), then he has a chance to make it as a specialist."
Haywood is a more compact version of Hambrick, but quite frankly, he'll have his work cut out for him if he's going to make the team. The Cowboys already have a similar back, and he just lacks that second gear that you'd like to see in an NFL caliber player.
That being said, what can we expect in terms of productivity this season in the offensive backfield?
Emmitt will see the ball in his hands much more often this year, and I think that could translate into a 1,200 yard season. If he is able to stay injury free, he could go for even more yards than that.
I also think that Troy Hambrick will get about 30-40 more touches than he did last year, so we should see his numbers continue to rise as well.
In reality though, production from the running back position could very well lie in the hands of QB Quincy Carter. If he is able to hit his targets with any sort of consistency, and this team develops any kind of passing game, the holes that open up for Emmitt Smith and company will be a lot larger, simply because the opposing team won't be able to stack the line of scrimmage in preparation for a hand-off.
Regardless, it is safe to assume that this offense as a whole will be much improved in 2002, and it should be one heckuva ride to record books for Emmitt Smith.
2002 Preview: Running Back
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