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 Cowboys headed into 2008 as presumptive Super Bowl contenders, if not favorites. The team boasted a high-powered offense that featured Tony Romo, Terrell Owens, Marion Barber, Jason Witten, first-round pick Felix Jones and the play-calling wizardry of coordinator Jason Garrett, who was paid handsomely not to take a head coaching job elsewhere. Add to that a sack-happy Wade Phillips defense led by force of nature DeMarcus Ware, and America's Team seemed poised to shake off the postseason disappointments of the previous couple of years.
Instead of a title run, however, the Cowboys failed to even make the playoffs. Injuries to Jones, Barber and particularly Romo didn't help, but the offense seemed sluggish even when the team's key personnel was on the field, damaging Garrett's burgeoning reputation as an offensive genius. The midseason acquisition of WR Roy Williams looked good on paper, but did nothing to improve matters. And while Ware emerged as the premier pass-rushing threat in the NFL, poor play by the secondary (in particular the safeties) led to too many extended drives by the opposition (the Cowboys were sixth-worst in the NFL in red zone appearances allowed) and dragged down the rest of the defense.
Frustrated owner/GM Jerry Jones resorted to an addition by subtraction approach this offseason in an effort to prevent another year of underachieving. Despite his third straight 1000-plus yard, 10-plus TD season, Terrell Owens was cut loose, as was injured and increasingly ineffective strong safety Roy Williams, in the hope that an improved attitude in the locker room would allow the roster to play up to its talent level. Reinforcements were few and far between, however. Jon Kitna replaces Brad Johnson and gives the Cowboys a more useful backup option at QB if anything were to happen to Romo again, and aging Keith Brooking fills in for the even more aging Zach Thomas at ILB, but the team didn't make a pick until the third round of the draft and the incoming class of rookies will mostly be counted on to provide depth on defense and the special teams coverage units..
There are still plenty of Pro Bowlers on the roster, however, and expectations in Dallas never dwindle too low. There is already the usual absurd grumbling among the fan base and media that Romo isn't a real leader, and that he isn't mentally tough enough to take a team to the promised land (the brothers Manning can relate). If the team fails once again to show any real progress towards a championship, further changes will be coming, starting with Phillips as head coach. Owens may be in Buffalo now, but that doesn't mean he took all the drama surrounding this team with him.
Anthony Henry, CB (Lions)
Steady veteran had trouble staying healthy in Dallas.
WHO WILL ROMO THROW TO?
Perhaps the more accurate question would be, "Who other than Jason Witten will Romo throw to?" Romo drew criticism last season for keying in on his Pro Bowl tight end at the expense of his wideouts, and replacing Terrell Owens with Roy Williams as his No. 1 WR isn't likely to give him confidence in the abilities of his receiving corps. Even if Williams is able to step up and produce at Owens' level, the rest of the depth chart is still very thin. Patrick Crayton has proven to be little more than a possession receiver with a wandering focus, while the rest of the WRs are young and unproven. While the tight ends will benefit from that shallow WR talent pool, the offense may again struggle to put up points if opposing defenses can relax against the downfield threats and concentrate underneath.
CAN THE RUNNING BACKS STAY HEALTHY?
Last year's toe injuries to Felix Jones and Marion Barber gave Tashard Choice a chance to demonstrate that he is a more than capable NFL running back, but it was still disconcerting for the Cowboys to see Barber break down the first time he was given a starter's workload and for Jones (considered potentially fragile coming out of college) to break down under any workload at all. If it's healthy, the Dallas backfield is as talented as any team's, featuring the prototypical combination of a relentless physical runner (Barber) and a game-breaking speedster (Jones), but the pair will need to prove that they can handle a 16-game schedule if the Cowboys' offense is going to approach its 2007 level of production.
WILL THE SECONDARY STILL BE THE DEFENSE'S ACHILLES' HEEL?
The Cowboys' defense was expected to be a strength, and while DeMarcus Ware paced the NFL in sacks, Jay Ratliff emerged as a force from the NT spot in the 3-4 defense (an impressive feat all by itself) and Bradie James had a career year at ILB, the secondary was still too ineffective to take advantage of the league-leading pass rush, coming up with a miserable eight INTs and generally failing to make impact plays. The team will rely on the further development of second-year DBs Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick to shore up the back end, but the key will be getting better safety play than they received from Roy Williams (cut and now in Cincinnati), Ken Hamlin (the aging veteran who could shift to strong safety) and Keith Davis (the special teams captain who isn't capable of handling a starting role). The fact that the Cowboys didn't use anything higher than a fifth-round pick to address the situation doesn't offer much encouragement that it will improve, however.