Friday, June 05, 2009

Change in offseason philosophy has Cowboys pointed in right direction

By Pat Kirwan
Senior Analyst

Things haven't been this quiet at Valley Ranch in a long time.

Typically, the Dallas Cowboys would have been the offseason topic of conversation with big player acquisitions in free agency, slick moves during the draft, and, as always, a heavily debated reputation as the favorite for a trip to the Super Bowl. Things have changed in Big D and there is a quiet calm that makes it hard to recognize the franchise that always appeared to love the back page of the newspaper whether it was good or bad publicity.

Terrell Owens said that he would have lost a lot of money betting that the Cowboys would have never released him. Owens is the face of the changes taking place in Dallas, but the defensive moves may be even more dramatic than the highly visible receiver. Dallas has now parted ways with 10 defenders that helped the team finish 2008 as the eighth-ranked defense in the NFL in yards per game. Then again, that's the same defense that gave up more points than they scored. Maybe it was the 160 points they gave up in their six division games (26.6 per game) that drove the changes. Maybe it was the talent on the bench, financial considerations, or maybe, in the case of Pacman Jones, enough was enough.

Greg Ellis, Anthony Henry, Zach Thomas, Adam Jones and safety Roy Williams were all cut. Chris Canty, Kevin Burnett, Tank Johnson, Keith Davis and Carlos Polk never re-signed with the club. Those 10 defenders accounted for 95 starts, 355 tackles, 17 sacks, 25 passes defended, two interceptions and one safety. That production has to be replaced.

The Cowboys only signed three defenders in the offseason: S Gerald Sensabaugh, LB Keith Brookings and DE Igor Oshansky. They didn't have a first- or second-round draft pick and added Western Illinois OLB Jason Williams in the third round. The Cowboys are counting on former backups and players they have been developing to come through for them this year, which is more like the Pittsburgh Steelers' philosophy than a typical Dallas Cowboys plan.

With the new state of the art stadium opening on Sept. 20 when the New York Giants come to town, it might seem like a strange time to go conservative in the personnel business. But when you think about it, it might be just what the doctor ordered. Either way, it will be a very interesting year to watch the Cowboys.

There's no doubt Dallas has saved some significant dollars with the five defensive terminations and the release of Owens. The cap savings from Owens, Ellis, Williams, Henry, Jones and Thomas totaled $18.37 million. Throw in Brad Johnson and it is a $20.37 million cap savings, which some speculate was needed as money may be tight in Dallas with no naming rights deal for the new stadium.

The cash savings is closer to $30 million, which makes it seem like the Cowboys have realized that teams can't buy a championship, you just have to build it. Some of the savings will be used to extend the contract of DeMarcus Ware as well as a few other young players who will emerge this season.

Of course, taking on the contract of WR Roy Williams in the trade with Detroit was old-school Cowboys business; it is not the trademark of the new Dallas. There was no talk of going after free agent Albert Haynesworth, rumored trade bait Anquan Boldin or Julius Peppers, and there was no typical packaging of draft picks to get up in the first round for an elite player.

The 2009 Cowboys are a different football operation than in years past. Young players such as Patrick Crayton, Miles Austin, Anthony Spencer, Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick, Bobby Carpenter, and at least half of the 12 second-day draft picks are going to be asked to make bigger contributions and get this team to a Super Bowl.

A number of the new wave of starters and contributors in Dallas believe that there is a subtle confidence brewing on that roster that is not based on a 'star' system but on a more cohesive team system. Coach Wade Phillips has said that he really liked the direction this team was headed in at the time. Dallas will be a tight group that will not be featured on the back page of the tabloids. They may almost appear boring at times, but they are pointed in the right direction.

In years past, my daily radio show was inundated with Dallas callers usually boasting that the "'Boys were back." This spring, the fans have been as quiet as the team itself, which is not a sign they have lost hope, but rather that they have decided to let the play on the field do all the talking.