NFL fans across the nation are gearing up for what has become a summer tradition for many. NFL training camps are just two weeks away from starting on college campuses and practice fields in a neighborhood near you.
While I, like many, can hardly contain myself with excitement that we are approaching a new NFL season, many NFL clubs have questions that still remain unanswered.
Will Brett Favre come out of retirement again? How will Tom Brady’s knee hold up throughout the season? Can Eli Manning survive without Plaxico Burress? Are the Dallas Cowboys better without Terrell Owens?
The 2008 Dallas Cowboys were nothing short of a disappointment. Injuries dashed hopes of any type of Super Bowl run early in the season when Tony Romo broke his pinky finger and Marion Barber bruised every possible body part.
Owens was made the scapegoat for an underachieving offense as his numbers struggled without Romo calling the signals.
Rookie sensation Felix Jones was amazing before injuring his hamstring, hampering a potent one-two punch anchored by Barber.
But this season will be different for the boys from Valley Ranch.
Owens was released to go roam in Buffalo, safety Roy Williams couldn’t cover the deep ball, so he was allowed to walk as well, and stalwart linebacker Zach Thomas proclaimed after the season that he wouldn’t be back.
Not only are the Cowboys a different team, but they have a different look as well.
This season Romo is the unquestioned leader of an offense that has the potential to rank first in every statistical category.
Romo no longer has the shadow of Owens—or Jessica Simpson, for that matter—hanging over his shoulder in the locker room or in the media.
Jason Witten and second-year man Martellus Bennett are poised to become a potent receiving tandem as the Cowboys look to feature more two-tight end sets than in past seasons.
So what should fans watch for and expect from the Cowboys in training camp and preseason?
1. Can Roy Williams replace the production of Terrell Owens?
The quick answer is no. If you look at the stats for both players, Williams has only logged one 1,000-yard season in his short six-year career, and his career high in touchdowns is eight.
Compare that with Terrell and, Williams cannot hold a candle to his production.
However, Terrell has always had the presence of a great or at least good quarterback behind center. In San Francisco, he had Steve Young and Jeff Garcia. In Philadelphia he had Donovan McNabb, and in Dallas he caught passes from Romo.
Williams ran down the field for Joey Harrington and Jon Kitna. I felt for you in Detroit, Roy, so there really is no comparison.
No excuses for Williams this season about splitting catches or not knowing the system. He has had an entire offseason to prepare himself and to get acclimated to Romo’s passing tendencies.
I’m expecting at least an 1,100-yard season with eight touchdowns and 75-plus catches from Williams. Owens was able to do it when he stalked Texas stadium, so why can’t you?
2. With the departure of Greg Ellis, Chris Canty, and Zach Thomas, will the Cowboys miss their production?
Greg Ellis could still be a Cowboy—well, at least in theory—if he had accepted his role as a 33-year-old defensive end. He didn’t, so now he’s off to Oakland.
Zach Thomas was great last season for the Cowboys, logging 94 tackles and one sack. He was paired with Bradie James in the middle, and they both enjoyed great statistical seasons.
Statistically, Chris Canty only had three sacks and 37 tackles, but he used that leverage and bolted for the Giants and more money, which I can’t blame him for
But he was vital on the line for the Cowboys last year and had his best games against the Cowboys' biggest foe in the beast.
The New York Giants.
So how does a team replace a combined 167 tackles and 12 sacks?
Youth is one answer. Anthony Spencer is finally getting his chance to start, as he will replace Ellis on the line and standing up. Spencer matched Ellis’ output in tackles with 34 but came up empty on sacks and interceptions.
Also, Spencer is only 25 years old and has three years of NFL service on his joints and muscles.
I don’t believe that the team will miss Ellis as much as Thomas or Canty. Ellis is on the downside of his career and only had maybe two good seasons left in him.
Thomas is just as seasoned as Ellis but seems to have more of an upside than Greg.
I’m sure team owner Jerry Jones and head coach Wade Phillips are not looking forward to seeing Canty twice a year now that he’s in New York.
He can be a monster on the line, as evidenced by his two-sack game against the Giants early last season.
Thomas is the type of player that you want and need in your locker room just because of the experience and leadership he brings. Maybe this season Thomas would have had a calming effect on a volatile locker room that has been tamed by Jerry’s son Stephen.
Stay tuned for Part II...
Did DC Rod Marinelli Have Increased Role in Cowboys Loss at Rams?
The Dallas Cowboys Divisional Round loss at the Los Angeles Rams is still fresh on the minds of their players, staff, and front office. So much so that the team had to fan the flames on a Jason Garrett comment expecting Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to return. Garrett himself walked back this "report" once Stephen Jones noted it's still too early for any coaching staff changes. The focus will remain on Linehan's post until it's removed or the Cowboys OC is retained, but one coordinator the Cowboys now expect to keep is Rod Marinelli on defense.
Marinelli himself disputed the season-long belief that this was likely his last as the Cowboys defensive coordinator. With Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard not taking any of the three HC positions he interviewed for, Marinelli doesn't have to worry about shuffling his title to accommodate Richard - who called the plays from week one this season anyway.
Rod's title does include his specialty as defensive line coach though, a unit that the Rams dominated with their offensive line to a historic degree. The Rams' season-high 273 rushing yards was provided by both Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson surpassing 100 yards on the ground, the first time in team history they've had two backs reach this mark in a single playoff game.
Rams HC Sean McVay hardly had to reach into his vaunted 'bag of tricks' to expose the Cowboys defense in a way they hadn't been all year, but there was still an element of brilliance in his offensive game plan. It came out after the game that the Rams picked up on the keys the Dallas defensive linemen used to signal stunts and twists before the snap. While this is nothing more than just great scouting yielding an unforeseen advantage, it's left the Cowboys with more than enough time to ponder what went wrong in the Coliseum.
The Rams offensive line knew what the Cowboys defensive line was going to do before the snap on Saturday. https://t.co/oGo6Eiz4av
The answer to this may be nothing other than the coaching questions the Cowboys are already considering. With Richard's interviews in Tampa Bay, Miami, and New York coming at the beginning of the week leading up to game day, it's possible Marinelli had a larger say in the Cowboys preparation on defense.
It was Marinelli's defense that conceded 412 yards to the Rams in 2017 in a loss at AT&T Stadium. Matching him up with McVay leaves a lot to be desired, while Richard helps bridge this gap - something he was seen desperately trying to do on the sideline with a battered Cowboys defense.
As each day of the offseason passes, a change at either coordinator position becomes less likely in Dallas. On offense, the play caller has more than a season's worth of evidence showing the deficiencies of the Cowboys attack. In a league fueled by recency bias however, Marinelli certainly didn't leave his best performance on the field in Los Angeles.
Somewhere in the middle of this is Jason Garrett, safely in place as the head coach that should be personally trying to upgrade his top two assistants however possible. Marinelli signing up for another year makes this hard on defense, though Richard should resume play calling duties next season.
Again, this leaves the onus of the Cowboys improvements for 2019 on the offensive side of the ball, something that'll be realized when the shock of their defense letting them down in the biggest game of the season is gone.
Cowboys Getting Over $30 Million Cap Space from Expiring Dead Money
You may have already heard that the Dallas Cowboys will be flush with salary cap space in 2019, and that's very accurate. A huge portion of it comes from over $30 million in expiring cap penalties, otherwise known as "dead money."
Quick explanation; dead money occurs when a player is released or retires prior to the expiration of their contract. Any guaranteed money, such as the original signing bonus or money converted in a restructuring, that has not yet been paid out according to the contract schedule is accelerated.
For example, when Tony Romo retired after 2016, he still had $19.6 million in guaranteed money owed to him. Dallas chose to split this dead money over two years, and thus had a $10.7 cap penalty in 2017 and $8.9 million last season.
But now Romo's dead money, along with Dez Bryant's and several other players, is coming off the Cowboys' books. The result is a roughly $30 million infusion of salary cap space for 2019.
Here were the major culprits for last year's dead money:
(All cap figures are taken from Spotrac.com)
- QB Tony Romo - $8.9 million
- WR Dez Bryant - $8 million
- DT Cedric Thornton - $2.5 million
- CB Orlando Scandrick - $2.3 million
- CB Nolan Carroll - $2 million
- WR Deonte Thompson - $1.8 million
- DE Benson Mayowa - $1.1 million
- K Dan Bailey - $800 thousand
- TE James Hanna - $750 thousand
Those players alone make up a little over $28 million. Another $4 million or so came from over 30 players with lesser penalties that still added up.
Right now, the Cowboys have only $1.76 million in dead money on their 2019 salary cap. Nearly all of that is the $1.6 million still owed to Orlando Scandrick.
That difference is where the cap space comes from, and it will be of tremendous help to Dallas as they have major financial moves coming. They need to re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence, deal with a major salary bump for Amari Cooper, and consider a contract extension for Dak Prescott.
The 2019 number will change, of course, as the offseason rolls on. If Dallas elects to release players like Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford, or others, some dead money will appear. But that will be offset by whatever cap savings motivated the move in the first place.
This is a good reminder of why the Cowboys' new era of fiscal conservatism is a good thing. After years of what felt like perpetual "salary cap hell," they are finally getting out from under those penalties and have complete flexibility this offseason. They may not even need to cut a guy like Crawford, who they almost would have been forced to in past seasons.
We'll be talking a lot more about individual players and their contracts in the weeks ahead, but this summary helps us see that Dallas isn't nearly up against the financial wall as they have been. We still miss guys like Romo and Dez, but we won't miss that awful dead money in 2019.
Cowboys Expect C Travis Frederick Back for Offseason Program
Lost in yesterday's hoopla over Scott Linehan's return was a positive report about Center Travis Frederick. In his comments to the media, Jason Garrett said that Frederick's recovery timetable should allow him to a full participant in the team's offseason program.
After never missing a start in his first five years, Travis missed all of 2018 dealing with the effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The disease attacked his neurological system and required immediate and intensive treatment.
Jason Garrett says the team anticipates Travis Frederick being involved in the offseason program right from the start this spring if he continues on the same positive track in recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome. #cowboyswire
While Joe Looney performed admirably in Frederick's absence, he's not an elite talent. Travis has been arguably the best center in the NFL since entering the league in 2013.
It's hard to qualify what effect not having Frederick had on the Cowboys offense in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in rushing, but short-yardage plays weren't as automatic as we've seen in past years. A 4th-and-1 stuff was part of what led to the Cowboys' loss this past Saturday.
Dak Prescott was the second-most sacked QB in the NFL in 2018. After being sacked just 25 and 32 times in his first two seasons, the number skyrocketed to 56 sacks.
That's not all on Frederick, of course. Tyron Smith had some health issues and there were was turnover at left guard.
But having your All-Pro veteran center out there to help with the pre-snap reads, and help the rookie guard on his left, might have helped avoid some of those issues.
Indeed, Travis Frederick's return is just one of many reasons for optimism with the 2019 season. One of the best players on the team, he was sorely missed this year and can only help as Dallas looks to build on their division title and playoff appearance.
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