How Vulnerable are the Cowboys?

What do Pamela Anderson, Tommy Lee, Ken Lay and Enron all have in common? Exposure. Lots of revealing details which were originally intended to remain private. Nothing like a little film and paperwork to bring down the house. While completely different venues, it's the same "pants down" embarrassment NFL coordinators fear most.

The bare-all blemishes on display for the entire world to see. It's at this very moment when the NFL brain trust employs its most strategic and covert of activities.

Exploitation.

Taking full advantage of an opponent's weaknesses. You've heard of film study? Hours upon hours of rolling film and video? Complete consummation by coaches and players alike. Those giving it their full attention always seem to possess the vaunted "upper hand." As projectors and VCRs cycle from play to rewind to play, an opponent's flaws seem to float to the surface. Everyone is scrutinizing tendencies looking for an advantage here or there which will propel him to successful exploitation.

As competitive as the NFC East has become, any little crack, crevice or chink in the armor can be the difference between division title and basement dweller. On paper and physical abilities alone, not much separates the four teams comprising the division. In theory, the Cowboys job is very simple. Find the flaws, exploit the deficiencies and capitalize on the weaknesses. Parcells demands film study from all personnel. When he verbalizes the importance of preparation, he's not referring solely to weight room work. One of his favorite descriptors of a player is "he knows what it takes to compete on this level. He's a professional."

Translation: He's disciplined enough to apply and combat the mental rigors of the game. Physical abilities, while important, will only take a player so far. Cognitive and deductive reasoning are as much of the pro game as are the elements of speed and power. The aspect of speed, and the impact it has on this level of play, cannot be overemphasized. The amount of time a player has to make a split decision can be timed in relation to the speed of light. Indeed, "Life Comes At You Fast." He that excels at all elements of the game tends to enjoy the most success.

Ever wonder why players and coaches can't sleep after losses? Why they burn out with regularity? These professionals are programmed not to fail, and when they do, vows are made to put more time and energy into safeguarding against another potential setback. The game is taxing, both mentally and physically. The body is bruised while the brain is drained. The regimen players and coaches endure is for the most part a foreign language to the casual fan. In the heat of a game, decisions are questioned constantly, but the faithful lose sight of the amount of preparation that was put in to simply compete.

So, to achieve 2006 success, how must the Cowboys approach their divisional opponents? Let's start picking them apart, and there's no better place to start than the squad residing in the Nation's capitol.

The one position where you want no questions or issues is the quarterback. Look no further than Mark Brunell to determine the fate of the Washington Redskins. Age and fatigue are starting to become major factors in Brunell's career. Joe Gibbs and staff will hold their collective breaths throughout the season. The offensive philosophy favors and protects Brunell and his longevity. They will ride Clinton Portis and use him repeatedly to set up the pass.

Washington has invested heavily in wide receiver talent with wheels. The speed will allow them to go deep (Roy Williams and Keith Davis, take note), but Brunell will need time to throw long.

Somewhere during the course of the season Brunell will blow a tire. The organizational question then becomes do they patch the worn tire and ride it out or do they remove the lug nuts and replace the rubber entirely? There will be a contingency supporting the baptism of Jason Campbell, but to do so would be throwing their season up for grabs. The timing and severity of the blown tire will weigh heavily in determining the Redskins' season. With Greg Williams still overseeing a stout Redskins' defense, the crosshairs are squarely on Brunell and his ability to remain healthy.

Quarterback questions also reside in the City of Brotherly Shove. How will Donovan McNabb return from his season-ending sports hernia surgery? All signs and reports have him on target to make a complete return. For Philly, this is a must.

The debates will rage on whether the player did himself and the team in, but make no mistake, the Dallas Cowboys saw fit to completely erase this weapon from the Philly arsenal. Say what you will about Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook and the Jim Johnson led defense, Terrell Owens was the one sure-fire threat on this team. His arrival was their ticket to the big dance, and his departure will once again have them admiring Super Bowl festivities from the stands. You just don't replace talent of this caliber, especially when the player can single-handedly take over a contest on his own. Regardless of good-bye or good riddance, his absence was felt last year, and it will continue in 2006.

When game planning the Eagles, you key Brian Westbrook and make McNabb beat you. Without Owens, the alternatives are, at best, marginal, and McNabb's safety net has been completely removed. Andy Reid knows this, and the Eagles can no longer survive relying so heavily on the pass. Their pass/run ratio last year was absurd. Luckily, it worked for a good part of last season, but lack of balance will eventually kill a team in the long run. The 2006 Draft appeared to fortify both lines, and the Eagles will come back to the rest of the division by attempting to establish the run and playing smash mouth football. McNabb's health and longevity mandate it. Like Washington under Greg Williams, Jim Johnson's play calling will be its usual, rock-steady self.

This leaves the divisional champs. The G-Men. If Parcells has a blue print of how to defend himself, he need look no further in implementing a New York Giants game plan. It has to be the closest thing to looking in the mirror as Tom Coughlin is as close to head coach cloning as you can get. He knows Parcells inside and out, and they both employ the same game philosophies. Establish the run, pound the ball, take what the defense gives, stop the run, apply pressure and never diminish the importance of special teams. Sound familiar?

This team possesses the best defensive end duo in the League. Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora flat-out get after it. The linebackers are workman-like, and the secondary was definitely the Achilles Heel last year. However, steps were taken via free agency and the Draft to shore up the deficiencies in the third level of prevention.

Eli Manning continues to walk down maturation road, and Tiki Barber remains the most underrated player in the entire League. Opponents cannot overlook the fact this guy is continually finishing in the top five of League MVP consideration year after year. As Tiki goes, so do the Giants. There aren't many holes when it comes time to assess the boys from the Big Apple. They will play things close to the vest, and they'll be contenders coming down the December stretch.

There you have it. In a division considered, top to bottom, one of the strongest, the margin of error is miniscule. With things so tightly contested, games will come down to homework, preparation and near flawless execution. This division has the potential of hosting epic battles, and only the strong, smart and persevering will live to play another day. Each club possesses the ability to win, and while all have weapons to employ, it will come down to the successful exploitation of flaws in determining who claims the NFC East divisional title.

Cowboys included, it's a title up for the taking, but it remains to be seen how effective the Parcells' expectations will be played out over the course of the season. Will it be enough to "de-pants" the divisional foes? Look no further than this year's Draft strategy and war room decisions to properly gauge the importance Big Bill is placing on this upcoming season. All assistant coaches were instructed to bypass the typical talent lobbying activities in the war room and instead turn their efforts to scrutinizing the upcoming schedule. In essence, they were instructed to unearth the flaws and expose the vulnerabilities of those standing in the way of a Cowboys run to a divisional title. An accomplishment and moniker far too elusive in years past. Time to right the ship.

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