Erik Siegrist is an FSWA award-winning columnist who covers all four major North American sports (that means the NHL, not NASCAR) and whose beat extends back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos and the Thunder were the Sonics. He was the inaugural champion of Rotowire's Staff Keeper baseball league. His work has also appeared at Baseball Prospectus.
The Bill Parcells era in Dallas ended on a sour note, as the club lost four of its last
five games in 2006, including a nightmarish finish in Seattle to go one-and-done
in the playoffs. Parcells retired, again, and was replaced by Chargers defensive
coordinator Wade Phillips, who is now in his third stint as an NFL head coach.
Phillips has some interesting
tools to work with, on both
sides of the ball, but will have
to find a way to get the talent
on the roster to gel, a puzzle
Parcells was unable to solve
in four seasons.
One of Parcells' successes,
former undrafted free agent Tony Romo, returns as the
starting QB. After three years
on the bench learning the ropes
he stepped into the lineup and
played well enough to earn
a Pro Bowl berth, although
he faded along with the rest
of the team down the stretch.
Romo will have to prove he
can adjust to the defensive
schemes he faced once NFL
coordinators had some game
film with which to scout
him. He was also the goat in
the team's postseason loss to
Seattle, bobbling the snap on
the potential game-winning field goal then getting tackled at the one-yard line on the broken
play. He's demonstrated the ability to be a solid NFL quarterback, as 19 TDs with an
8.6 YPA are good numbers for a veteran much less a quarterback in his first 12 games and
10 starts. Given his pedigree and weak finish to '06, he can hardly be considered a sure
thing just yet. How Romo bounces back from that painful end to the season will be crucial
to his development, and to the Cowboys season.
While Romo has plenty of weapons available on offense with the mercurial Terrell
Owens, Terry Glenn, Jason Witten, Julius Jones and Marion Barber all returning, it was the
defense that Phillips was brought in to re-tool. Dallas' pass rush was barely mediocre last
season after Greg Ellis tore his Achilles', which put too much pressure on a secondary that
doesn't list coverage skills among its strongest suits. After using every first round pick the
Cowboys have had since 2002 on the defensive side of the ball, the pieces are in place for
a truly dominant unit, but Parcells had trouble getting the same group to play up to their
talent level. For this defense to function at its peak, and for the team to become a true threat
in the postseason, it needs to have a top-five pass rush. It's Phillips' job to get it there.
1. Al Singleton, LB (FA)
Veteran no longer had a role in the
2. Drew Bledsoe, QB (Retired)
Retired rather than try to catch on
somewhere else as a backup.
3. Jason Fabini, OT (Redskins)
Cowboys added younger O-line depth
in the draft.
1. CAN WADE PHILLIPS WORK HIS MAGIC ON THE DEFENSE?
Under his generalship, the Chargers led the NFL with 61 sacks in 2006, and Shawne
Merriman paced the league with 17. Phillips prefers the 3-4 alignment introduced by
Parcells last season, which should mean a shorter adjustment period for the Cowboys
defenders under the new regime, and given that they have at least as much talent (arguably,
more) than last year's San Diego unit, the Dallas pass rush should fare much better than
their 19th place, 34-sack performance from '06. One of the keys for Phillips and for the
Cowboys will be if he can turn around Roy Williams' slide. The Pro Bowl strong safety
matched his career high with five INTs last year, but failed to get a sack and recorded just
62 tackles after averaging 86.5 through his first four seasons, a reflection of his inability to
play close to the line where he is most effective.
2. THE Terrell Owens SOAP OPERA
Owens' first season in Dallas was up to his usual circus-like standards, as he missed
almost the entire preseason dealing with a hamstring injury and got fined for missing a
team meeting and rehab session. He then broke a finger, endured an attempted suicide
rumor after an accidental overdose with his pain medication, got publicly called out for
not knowing the playbook/falling asleep during team meetings and got fined again by the
league for a spitting incident with DeAngelo Hall. Still, he showed some good chemistry
with QB Tony Romo after the Cowboys switched QBs and managed to accumulate 85
catches, 1180 yards and 13 TDs, albeit while leading the league with 17 drops.
This offseason has been a quiet one for Owens, but that figures to change at any moment
as, simply put, he thrives amidst chaos. Of possible concern is that the wideout's balky
finger could bother him for the rest of his career and at 33, those hamstring pulls and other
'minor' injuries will likely become more numerous and more serious. His per game production
will likely be as good as ever this season, but it's becoming a bigger question whether
he's be able to suit up for another full 16 games.
3. WHO WILL GET THE CARRIES IN THE BACKFIELD?
Bill Parcells went with a fairly strict RB platoon in 2006, mainly using Julius Jones
between the 20s and Marion Barber on third downs and in the red zone. Both had career
years, but Barber's 16 touchdowns (all of which came in the red zone) attracted most of the
attention. Wade Phillips hasn't shown a preference in his coaching career when it comes to
RB usage, so don't expect him to shake things up too much. History suggests that Barber
is unlikely to repeat his TD totals unless he becomes the primary option, however.
Rising:Julius Jones broke 1,000 rushing yards,
and played 16 games, for the first time in 2006. Marion Barber's TD explosion overshadowed Jones'
development and will keep his perceived value down.
Falling: The production was great, but Terrell Owens is 33 and the injury bug keeps
biting. He's also had an ominously quiet offseason.
If he costs a top pick, buyer beware.
Sleeper: Both starting WRs are over 30 and
starting to show their age. Patrick Crayton,
a solid possession receiver, would benefit if
either broke down.
Supersleeper: Stuck behind Jason Witten, Anthony Fasano has a limited role in the
offense, but he's a talented pass-catcher who
could surprise if he gets a chance.
1. DeMarcus Ware, LB
Double-digit sack threat is still developing and
could find another level in Phillips' system.
2. Roy Williams, S
Williams needs a solid free safety to allow
him to regain his elite IDP status. Ken Hamlin
could be the answer.
3. Anthony Spencer, LB
With Ware attracting double teams, Spencer
could thrive on the other side of the pass rush.