Thursday, June 18, 2009

DC.COM: Just Where This Team Stands In June

Progress Report
Spagnola: Just Where This Team Stands In June
Mickey Spagnola - Email Columnist

IRVING, Texas - OK, that's it for now, the Cowboys putting 3½ rookie mini-camp practices, 12 OTA's and this week's five mandatory mini-camp workouts over the past three days in the off-season books.

Training camp starts in 40 days, the season in 87 days, when only then can the Cowboys hope to begin distancing from 44-6, seemingly the only prevailing memory from the 2008 season - the one which clouds the image of the owner, the coach, the team and the quarterback, no matter what they might have done over the previous 15 games or their careers.

That's still a long time to continue bearing that burden.

Because as Bradie James repeatedly has said over the past couple of weeks, all this stuff that's been going on in these non-contact, shorts-and-jerseys drills has been "window dressing." The real stuff is yet to come.

So let's take a big picture look out that June window with summer and Father's Day fast approaching to see just where the Cowboys appear to be - what they have accomplished since leaving Philadelphia quite embarrassed - and just what still needs to be done if they are to break this troubling trend of finishing 9-7 in three of the past four seasons.

Here is my Top 5 for each, in no particular order.

Drum roll please.

Issues Solved

Backup Quarterback: There is no getting around the Cowboys losing two of three games with veteran Brad Johnson taking over for the injured Tony Romo last year, with one of the two one of the only two the St. Louis Rams won in 2008. The trade for Jon Kitna certainly appears to be an upgrade, even though at 36 he's no spring chicken. Kitna appears to be embracing his role as the veteran backup, and still has the arm to get it done . . . also the nerve to still fit throws into tight spaces or throw the ball down the field.

Safety Insurance: For the past couple of seasons the Cowboys have been taking cover at the safety position. Maybe no longer will the Cowboys be forced to camouflage their obvious deficiencies at the position. Gerald Sensabaugh looks like an upgrade to me in coverage, and does not appear to be an open invitation for teams to create mismatches with a tight end or running back lined up out wide. And on top of that, the move of Alan Ball to safety, along with the additions of DeAngelo Smith and Michael Hamlin to the likes of Pat Watkins and Courtney Brown seem to have sufficiently restocked the troubling position.

Something Special: The Cowboys special teams had difficulty consistently covering their shadows last year, and blocking on returns wasn't exactly top notch. At least there appears to be a change in atmosphere on these units, and that starts with Joe DeCamillis, the new special teams coach. This guy has been good everywhere he's been, and as has been witnessed since arriving here, the enthusiasm on these units is renewed. Plus, all this talk about drafting guys with special teams skills might not just be talk. The talent seems more athletic and willing.

Replacement Team: Much has been made about the defensive losses of Zach Thomas, Chris Canty, Anthony Henry and Kevin Burnett. But sure appears the Cowboys have done good job restocking their shelves. My predictions are as follows: Igor Olshansky will at least be a push for Canty at right defensive end, and his absence has created an opportunity for talented first-year end Marcus Dixon. Veteran Keith Brooking is younger, just as diligent and better suited for the weak inside backer spot than Thomas. So far, the Cowboys were right in their evaluations of Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick. At least one of those guys, if not both, is ready to take over for Henry. The jury still is somewhat out on Bobby Carpenter replacing Burnett on the nickel, but so far, so good, and he's embracing an opportunity he's never had.

Phillips' 3-4: There no longer is any gray area when it comes to who's running the Cowboys defense. Phillips is. He's in the meetings. He's actively coaching on the field. He's sending in the defensive calls. This is his show, and that's the way is should be and might have been even though Brian Stewart had the title of defensive coordinator. But with no go-between, or as James said, "He's more attentive, more hands-on," the players will hear it now right from the horse's mouth, with nothing potentially lost in translation.

Unresolved Issues

Out Wide: Looks good. Seems good. But who really knows on this one at wide receiver. Roy Williams continues to flash on offense, in a much better spot with quarterback Tony Romo than he was at any time last year. But at times he seems to fade into the background, too, which is OK as long as Patrick Crayton continues to be the solid No. 2 he was in 2007 and appears to have been in these off-season workouts. That's also OK since Jason Witten still is Jason Witten and since Felix Jones will have a bigger role in this offense by popular demand. While there are huge hopes for Miles Austin, Sam Hurd, Isaiah Stanback and Travis Wilson, all four missed at least half of the OTA's and all six mini-camp workouts with injuries or rehabbing surgeries. So again, who knows? At least two of those guys really need to step up this year, and we won't know anything about any of that until at least the preseason, if not the regular season. We'll see.

Pied Piper: Whose team is this? Tony Romo's? Bradie James'? DeMarcus Ware's? Jason Witten's? Tashard Choice's (and not as silly as that might sound)? With Greg Ellis gone and the specter of What's His Name's overbearing personality no longer in the way to create locker room factions, someone on this team must ascend into a leadership role. That's not easy. Not only do you need someone with a magnetic personality and Pro Bowl production, but also the want-to. Being a team leader takes an uncommon amount of time and emotional investment. You are never off, never can have a bad day, never unavailable. And . . . you have to produce on the field. These types are not appointed. They emerge naturally, and this team needs a leader to emerge.

Back-To-Back-To-Back: We still have no definitive answer to how the Cowboys will employ their running back rotation. Will it be the Marion Barber show again, with Felix Jones and Choice simply bit players? Will Barber return to the role which earned him Pro Bowl honors in 2007, the renowned closer and short-yardage and third-down back with Jones and Choice sharing the carry-to-carry duties? No one has said for sure. But there have been clues. Jones will be all over this offense since the Cowboys realize they are desperate to utilize his speed. Phillips continues to say how Barber is Barber, but must be fresh to bang away at the end. And Choice proved last year his talents should not be wasted, that the team needs his ability to open holes with his running ability. All still an issue, but for a change, a nice issue to have.

T-E-A-M: They are talking a good game. They seem to have good intentions. But who really knows if these guys will stick together, unlike last year when losses began carving earthquake-like fractures in this team. Too many fingers pointed, too little responsibility taken. A "not-me" approach doesn't work in team sports. Call it corny, but it's true. Maybe it will help that the root of the "me-first" mentality has been uprooted. But again, we'll see what happens after the first loss.

Burying The Past: No longer are the Cowboys Everybody's Favorites. No longer are they burdened with Super Bowl Or Bust. After getting knocked off their thrones last year, they are perceived to be just another team. That's good maybe, because last year they were haunted by their past, having gone an NFC best 13-3 in 2007 and then, even though they did not win a playoff game, were expected to do even better in '08. They ultimately did not handle what needed to be one game, one series, one play at a time thinking. Well this time, while remembering Philadelphia 44, Cowboys 6 in the season-ending win-or-else game should be motivating, they can't let the past produce suffocating pressure. New season. New team. New circumstances. Sometimes selective amnesia is healthy. So does winning.

But again, as with all of this stuff, we'll see.

So as Crayton said before he walked off on Wednesday, "See you in July."