Outlook: On Jan. 2, 2003, coach Bill Parcells took over the head coaching reigns of the Dallas Cowboys, joining one of the NFL's most visible and successful franchises with one of the most prominent coaching names in the history of the league. After finishing his first season 10-6 and taking the Cowboys to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, expectations were high the franchise could make a run to the Super Bowl. Dreams did not become reality as the team fell flat in 2005, posting a 6-10 record.
In light of their falloff from the previous season the Cowboys were one of the most active teams this offseason. Parcells and Owner Jerry Jones signed several free agents on both sides of the ball, including a new starting quarterback, a starter along the offensive line, a backup running back, two experienced cornerbacks to compete for playing time in a young secondary, and a defensive tackle to work into the rotation along the line.
After watching his defense get shredded last season, Parcells' Cowboys were also one of the most active teams during the draft, adding talent and depth to the stop unit. They ranked 16th in total defense (10th against the run, 21st against the pass), but the hope is with an improved pass rush they can improve on the 220.1 yards per game they allowed through the air.
Quarterbacks: At each one of his coaching stops (New England, New York Jets, Dallas) following his first head job with the New York Giants, Parcells has brought in players he has coached before. Chalk another one up on the board, as former New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills QB Drew Bledsoe inked a free agent deal with the Cowboys this off-season.
Since 1999 Bledsoe has only posted one quarterback rating above 80.0 – his rating in 2004 was 76.6 – and coaches in Buffalo grew weary of his poor decision-making and costly mistakes. Bledsoe has proven to be a durable passer over the years, starting every game (48 of 48) of his three seasons with the Bills.
In 2004, Bledsoe completed 56.9% of his passes for 2,953 yards, 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He's tough, durable, still has a strong arm and can make all the throws. To say he isn't mobile is an understatement, but his quick release usually allows him to avoid sacks. Never the most accurate passer, Bledsoe struggles when he tries to do too much when nothing is there.
Behind Bledsoe is second-year QB Drew Henson. Henson started one game in his rookie season, but was replaced at halftime of that game. Parcells tends not to trust young players, especially quarterbacks, and the signing of Bledsoe shows he doesn't think the team can win right now with Henson at the helm.
Henson has all of the physical tools, as well as the mental capacity, to be an excellent player in the league and another year of seasoning would probably do wonders for him. He's a mobile version of Bledsoe and his skills mirror the 12-year veteran's otherwise.
Tony Romo is the third quarterback, but during the offseason he signed a two-year contract extension that will pay him $1.88 million. His re-signing could mean a battle between himself and Henson during training camp for the number two spot.
Running Backs: Finally, the Cowboys seem to have found a replacement for future Hall-of-Famer Emmitt Smith at running back. In 2004, rookie RB Julius Jones started only 7 games, but compiled 819 yards, a 4.2 yard per carry average and seven touchdowns.
He is a tough runner who hits holes hard and is an underrated receiver out of the backfield. The Cowboys didn't use him much in the passing game as he only caught 17 passes for 109 yards, but he has worked on his hands and route running and those numbers should improve with a year of learning how to run routes under his belt. One area where he needs to improve is in his pass-blocking, but he got better at picking up the blitz as the season progressed.
As insurance for Jones, the Cowboys went out and signed former Chicago Bears RB Anthony Thomas during free agency. Thomas had an excellent rookie season, but has failed to live up to expectations since then. Thomas is a between the tackles runner who lacks breakaway speed, but he can fill in nicely when needed and he adds a nice veteran presence to the backfield.
Former Minnesota Golden Gopher Marion Barber III was selected early on day two of the draft and he is a combination of Jones and Thomas' abilities. He has good speed, is a tough inside runner and he has good hands. He will also contribute on special teams as a returner and on the coverage units.
Dallas rarely uses their fullback for anything other than as a run blocker and training camp will see a battle for the starting spot between Darian Barnes and Lousaka Polite – who had an excellent off-season – for playing time. Barnes holds the edge heading in to camp, but Polite is a bulldozer.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: This is an area that should be a strength for Dallas entering the season.
Nine-year veteran Terry Glenn returns from a foot injury he suffered during the first half of the season last year, but in six games he still managed to post 24 receptions for 400 yards and two touchdowns. He's never been known as the toughest player - Parcells once referred to Glenn as "she" during their mutual dissatisfaction in New England - but Glenn still has good deep speed and will compliment Keyshawn Johnson, who lines up on the other side.
Johnson, entering his 10th season, is still very physical and is the emotional leader of the offense. He plays with his heart on his sleeve and managed to put up excellent numbers with little to no help on the other side. He posted 70 receptions for 981 yards and six touchdowns while fighting coverages that were rolled to his side of the field. He lacks anything resembling breakaway speed, but his strength allows him to overpower defensive backs in traffic.
Quincy Morgan, who was acquired in a trade with Cleveland last season, is the third wideout. Morgan underperformed in his new role, catching only 22 passes for 260 yards in 11 games with Dallas.
Pushing Morgan for time will be second-year WR Patrick Crayton, who improved as the season progressed. He posted 12 catches in seven games, for 162 yards and one touchdown. He runs good routes and blocks better than Morgan, something that Parcells expects from his wideouts.
At tight end, the Cowboys have found a gem in Jason Witten. Witten was taken in the third round of the 2003 draft and all he has done in his two seasons with the Cowboys is haul in 122 receptions for 1,327 yards and seven touchdowns.
In 2004, Witten posted one of the best seasons for a tight end in league history. His 87 catches, for 980 yards and six touchdowns, garnered him a Pro Bowl selection and established him as one of the dominant tight ends in the NFC for years to come.
Witten has very good hands, runs precise routes and has the speed necessary to challenge teams down the middle-seam. As long as he stays healthy, Witten should enjoy a decade or more of Pro Bowl selections. He's an average blocker, but the team rarely asks him to do anything other than catch the football.
Bolstering the depth at tight end is the return of Dan Campbell who missed most of last season with a foot injury. Campbell isn't much of a receiver, but he is an outstanding blocker and his leadership was missed in 2004.
Offensive Line: Since the mid-90's, the Cowboys have been known for big, athletic lines that could dominate opponents by opening holes for the running game. Once again Dallas will field a solid line that saw a Pro Bowler signed during free agency to add to the talent already on hand.
The left side of the line will again be the strength of this unit. LG Larry Allen, who has been a mainstay in Hawaii since he entered the league in 1994, teams with LT Flozell Adams to form one of the best left sides in the league. Both were voted into the Pro Bowl in 2003 and 2004 and there is no reason to believe they won't be headed there again in 2005.
RG Marco Rivera, signed away from Green Bay during free agency, will prove to be an excellent addition to the line, adding leadership and a tenacious attitude to the right side. Shortly after inking his three-year deal with the Cowboys, Rivera suffered a back injury, but it is not expected to be a long-term injury and he should be ready to go full-speed by the middle of training camp.
The coaching staff seams happy with the progress of C Al Johnson over his first two seasons and expect him to be a mainstay in the pivot for years to come.
That leaves the right tackle position as the only trouble spot along the line and it will be a four player battle during camp. Torrin Tucker is penciled in as the starter but he will be challenged by Kurt Vollers, Jacob Rogers and rookie Rob Petitti. Of the four, Petitti is the most intriguing prospect. He is huge (6'6", 345) and has excellent feet for a man his size. Whoever starts at right tackle should be helped by the presence of Rivera next to him.
G/C Andre Gurode, who was replaced by Rivera in the lineup, adds experienced depth to all three interior positions. G Stephen Peterman was a promising draft choice last season, but missed the entire season with a knee injury. He provides an athletic presence on the depth chart and should any of the starters go down, he should be able to fill in adequately.
Defensive Line: The entire defense was the focus of the offseason moves made by the front office and the line was no exception. The Cowboys spent three of their eight selections on lineman during the NFL Draft and they also signed former New York Jets DT Jason Ferguson to further the facelift of this unit.
The Cowboys are switching from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 and that means a decreased role for both DT La'Roi Glover and DE Greg Ellis – the team's best two linemen in 2004. Ellis has led the Cowboys in sacks the last four seasons, including nine last season which was a career high, and Glover has been to four straight Pro Bowls, but both are considered too small to play on a consistent basis in the new scheme. Parcells and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer believe that limiting their snaps will actually increase their effectiveness.
Enter Ferguson, who will split time with Glover at nose tackle. Ferguson is super-strong, hustles non-stop and uses his excellent athletic skills to create problems in pass protection. With both Glover and Ferguson on the nose, the Cowboys will constantly have a fresh body in the middle throughout the game.
Ellis will rotate with first-round selection Marcus Spears, an ideal fit at end in the 3-4, at one end spot, while underrated Kenyon Coleman and fourth-rounder Chris Canty rotate on the other side.
The Cowboys were ecstatic when Spears fell to the 20th selection in the first round and jumped at the chance to get the playmaker from LSU. He has a big body and holds strong at the point of attack. He won't get to the passer much, but that isn't really what a defensive end in the 3-4 is asked to do.
If Canty can stay healthy he could be one of the steals of the draft. He has the ideal height to be a force against the pass, and he is strong enough to be a force against the run. Coleman didn't get a lot of time last season, but showed well when asked to spell one of the starters along the line.
Linebackers: The new base alignment will affect the linebacking corps the most. Undersized OLB Dexter Coakley was released and veteran MLB Al Singleton could be on the way out as well, meaning this group will look vastly different from 2004.
Demarcus Ware and Kevin Burnett were both brought in during the draft to inject some youth and talent into the unit and the expectation is that both will see plenty of time during their rookie seasons even if they don't start outright.
Ware, who Parcells has compared to Lawrence Taylor, was the fastest riser in the days leading up to the draft and his presence adds a dimension of relentless athleticism not seen in "Big D" since Charles Haley was wreaking havoc during the 90's.
Entering camp, Singleton will be the starter at the other outside spot as Burnett is recovering from offseason hip surgery. However, if Burnett shows he has fully recovered he has a chance to win the job in during the preseason.
Overachieving Dat Nguyen will man one of the middle spots. Nguyen led the team in tackles last season with 107. He also posted one sack, one forced fumble and three interceptions and five passes defensed. He is ultra-quick, but his size is a factor when trying to disengage from blockers. In the 4-3 scheme he was protected by two big tackles in front of him, but in the 3-4 scheme he will be asked to take on blockers on a regular basis. Depending on how the Cowboys use him will determine his effectiveness in the new defense.
At the other inside spot will be Bradie James who could be in a make or break season. In his second season he started two games and posted 31 tackles. He has the size and athletic ability to be a solid starter, but just hasn't been able to put it all together.
The Cowboys have some decent players at the backup spots with Kalen Thornton, Ryan Fowler and Scott Shanle vying for time and contributing on special teams, but right now none figure to challenge for a starting spot.
Defensive Backs: Heading into the offseason, the cornerback position was an area of concern for the coaching staff. Following the signings of veterans Aaron Glenn and Anthony Henry this is now an area of strength for the team.
The best returning corner is third-year pro Terence Newman. He's started every game of his two-year career and has registered 146 tackles, eight interceptions and 35 passes defensed in that time. Newman struggled last season, but the thought is he was trying too hard to make up for the troubles on the opposite side of the field. He's a solid tackler, coming up hard in run-support and he uses his excellent athleticism and speed to break on routes and make plays on the ball. He needs to improve his route-recognition skills and he can get caught peeking at the quarterback at times, but he is one of the more athletically gifted corners in the league.
Henry is expected to be the other starter at corner. Some scoffed at the huge deal the Cowboys offered him in free agency (five years, $25 million including a $10 million signing bonus), but while he may not have been one of the "big" names at corner, he is underrated and will be a huge upgrade from what the team had opposite Newman last season. He has a large frame (6'1", 205) and he matches up well with the bigger wideouts in the league. He's drawn criticism for his lack of playmaking ability while the ball is in the air, but he improved in this area last season recording 14 passes defensed and four interceptions in 14 starts.
Glenn spent the last two seasons with the Houston Texans and when he came available, the Cowboys were all too happy to bring him into the fold. Glenn is small (5'8, 175), but very savvy. He has a quick hip turn and he is a solid tackler for his size. He will battle it out for the third corner spot with Lance Frazier, Pete Hunter, Nathan Jones, Jacques Reeves and Bruce Thornton.
Frazier was the nickel corner last season and should be able to stick with the team. Reeves surprised some last season with his play and will need to continue to improve to have a spot on the final roster. Thornton is coming off of a season-ending knee injury that took away his entire rookie season. The Cowboys like his playmaking abilities and think he could be a good one if he is completely recovered. Hunter and Jones will need to have outstanding camps to stick with the club.
SS Roy Williams had a tough third season in 2004. He still managed to finish second on the team with 88 tackles, ten passes defensed and two interceptions. Never considered a coverage safety, Williams was asked to make up for the mistakes by the ineffective players around him and thus spent more time in coverage than he should have. Williams is an excellent tackler, sheds blocks very well and hits like a ton of bricks. With more experience and talent at the corners, he should be able to spend more time in the box, where he is a star.
At free safety, seven-year veteran Izell Reese, who spent the last two seasons in Buffalo, was signed to a one-year deal in June and he will compete with Lynn Scott, Keith Davis and rookie Justin Beriault for the starting spot. Woodrow Dantzler is also in the mix, but his main contributions are on special teams.
The Cowboys will also be in the hunt for a veteran safety who proves to be a better option than what they already have on the roster.
Special Teams: With improved depth all throughout the roster, the return and coverage units are expected to be much improved.
K Billy Cundiff was impressive inside the 40, hitting 11 of 11 from that range, but was erratic outside that range (9 of 15). Parcells expects his kickers to get the ball deeper than Cundiff does on kickoffs and most expect him to bring in candidates to challenge him during camp.
Last year, as a rookie, P Mat McBriar had a solid season by averaging 42.4 yards per attempt, had 22 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and got good hang-time on most of his punts. He is solid and reliable, which is what teams hope for from their punters.
Dantzler (punts) and Barber (kickoffs) will be counted on to handle the return duties, but if either one falters the Cowboys have plenty of options to turn to.
Final Prediction: Parcells had a tough time last season, becoming frustrated with the play of his defense and an offense that lacked explosiveness. With the big acquisitions during the offseason and the change to the 3-4 scheme on defense, this team should be able to play with anyone in the league.
Defensively, the Cowboys should be much better than they have been and with Bledsoe at the helm, the offense should be much more explosive than last season. Jones, entering his second season, could possibly challenge for the conference rushing title with an improved line in front of him.
Philadelphia is the class of the NFC East, but the Cowboys, on paper, are better than both the Washington Redskins and New York Giants. The Cowboys should get at least 10 wins and, if they get some breaks, could challenge the Eagles for the division crown. At the very least, Dallas should be a wild-card team with the chance to go deep in the postseason if they get hot at the end of the year.
Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com.
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