Cinderella’s Second Date: A 2015 Cowboys Season Primer

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In the aftermath of the end of the Cowboys 2014 season, I gave you my ten observations from the ball game and, more importantly, the offseason in this post. Now, I thought we should revisit those observations and see where the team is as training camp gets going.

Cowboys Cinderella Season1) Where do we start? With the man whose vision has elevated this team to being on the doorstep of being a legitimate contender, the Cowboys head coach, Jason Garrett! Red Ball got his respect and his 5 year contract extension. His unwavering belief in his “Process” has paid off as has Jerry Jones’ stubborn belief that Jason Garrett would be his “Tom Landry”. In fact, mid way through the 2015 season only the great Tom Landry will have patrolled the sidelines for more games as the Dallas Cowboys head coach than Garrett.

Since the locker room speech after the Cowboys playoff loss to Green Bay, Garrett has had one message for his team. He has stressed to them that to get to where they want to go (Santa Clara and Super Bowl 50 come to mind), they have to be willing to start over from the very beginning. He was an assistant in that locker room in 2008 when the team seemed to act with a sense of entitlement following a 13-3 season. They seemed to think they would just get a pass right back to the playoffs and an opportunity to redeem their flame out against the rival New York Giants. Jason Garrett is adamant that his team will not fall into that trap of complacency. He has continued to hammer on building up each individual player just like in 2014 when everyone outside of the locker room was doubting them. Now they have to avoid falling for all the pats on the back and keep grinding to be their best. Garrett looks like the right man to make this happen as his message seems to have gotten through to both his players and assistant coaches. .

Cowboys Cinderella Season

2) Speaking of the assistants, the Cowboys had about as successful of an offseason as they could have expected. Despite the rumors that Rod Marinelli would be joining his BFF Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay, the Wizard of the One-Gap took a whole heap of Jerry’s money to keep working his magic in Jerry World. Last year, Marinelli took a group that was universally belittled and turned that pumpkin into a carriage. He made the men on that defense believe that together they could be more than anyone else thought they could. Now Jerry has rewarded him with some shiny new toys (Greg Hardy, Randy Gregory, Byron Jones) on top of his extension. Having Marinelli stay means a much better chance of building on the progress and integrating these additions effectively. Linebacker coach Matt Eberflus may be the happiest as he is expected to have both Sean Lee and Rolando McClain patrolling the second level of the defense for the majority of the 2015 season.

Defense isn’t the only place where the Cowboys had good fortune with coaches. Some NFL people thought Scott Linehan did such a fine job of play calling with the Cowboys offense that he might get a look or two for head coaching positions. Fortunately, that call didn’t come and Linehan rolled up his wheel barrel to take heap of Jerry’s money too. Linehan surprised most observers by sticking with the run-first mentality all season and he is committed to do the same in 2015.

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Cowboys Cinderella Season3) But it wasn’t all roses on the offensive side of the ball. Bill Callahan was the Offensive Coordinator last year in name only but he is universally respected as an outstanding Offensive Line coach.  He was rightfully unhappy during this past off-season when he was stripped of authority AND held captive in Dallas when he had opportunities to call plays elsewhere. He deservedly receives a great deal of the credit for the quick progression of the Cowboys’ young OL acquisitions over the past three years and he will undoubtedly be missed. But even here, the Cowboys have a silver lining. The Cowboys’ 2014 assistant OL Coach, Frank Pollack, learned under Callahan and even ran the O-Line meeting room in 2013 when Callahan was calling the plays. The team is confident that Pollack has learned enough from Callahan to be an adequate replacement

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Tony Romo 4) Tony Romo caused a huge stir in NFL circles at the beginning of last season by stating that his best football was ahead of him. With a strong commitment to running the ball, Romo was able to limit his exposure and protect his surgically repaired back over the vast majority of the season. While Romo showed his trademark escapability, there were also several times where he held the ball to the detriment of the team.  After a QB has taken as many damaging hits as Romo has, you can begin to worry that they are looking at the rush. That did not appear to be the case with the Cowboys signal caller. He hasn’t lost his courage. On the contrary, his faith in his OL has made him overconfident in the time he has to throw from play to play. He needs to remember what Parcells told him when he was a rookie free agent… That being, while sacks are better than interceptions, throwing away the ball on a dead play is better than both.

This offseason has allowed #9 the opportunity to build up the strength in his back and legs that required Wednesdays off last season to maintain. Hopefully, having more practice time will allow him to regain the balance of thought to better manage those 4-5 plays per game. I still believe the team needs an upgrade at the backup quarterback position. The coaches seem to think that improvement can come from the development of Brandon Weeden, but I am not so sure. It is hard to expect much improvement from a 31 year old quarterback that just hasn’t shown anything to indicate he can even be a solid back up. The way the coaches used Dustin Vaughn in the OTAs and Minicamp doesn’t show much faith in him being the answer either. This may come down to having a big bag of nothing behind Romo if neither pans out.

Stephen Jones5) The number of contributors that were free agents this past offseason was a bit staggering. The most difficult task for any front office is to figure out how to keep the talent you want when you’ve picked well. Everyone eventually wants to get paid, and the salary cap means they won’t all get paid in Dallas. Deciding correctly whom to pay will decide whether this season is more like 1991 (the beginning) or 1998 (the last hurrah). Stephen Jones worked his magic with the current roster while keeping a look out for ways to bring in new talent. The team navigated this by re-signing Doug Free as their Right Tackle and the leader of the O-Line room, letting Jacksonville overpay for Jeremy Parnell, Cole Beasley as their outstanding slot receiver and the gift that dropped into their lap at MLB, Rolando McClain. They also had to say goodbye to locker room favorite Justin Durant as well as Bruce Carter & Sterling Moore from a much improved defense. These losses were mitigated by signing Greg Hardy, Jaspar Brinkley and Corey White to deals that were conducive to solid salary cap management.

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cowboys vs seahawks6) Speaking of decisions, many NFL observers believed that the Cowboys were making a choice between bringing back Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray. The truth is: there was never any doubt that Dez would “Throw up the X” with a Star on the side of his helmet in 2015. The team used the franchise tag and fortunately, a deal was reached at the 11th hour to keep #88 a cowboy for the foreseeable future. My thoughts on the Cowboys future for the league’s leading rusher turned out to be dead on. DeMarco Murray was worth more on the open market than the Cowboys SHOULD pay for ANY running back ( and yes that includes the one in Minnesota). Murray is an elite RB talent that will boost the running game of the hated Eagles (and hopefully, he will drive them crazy with fumbles at inopportune times!). The Cowboys have the makings of an elite OL that will boost the running production of any number of RBs. This means, that while Murray was worth getting paid top dollar, the Cowboys didn’t need to do it. I believe the Cowboys made a great decision to balance not undervaluing Murray’s contributions with not over-valuing the running back position. As hard as it is for many to believe, the Cowboys weren’t saying the RB doesn’t matter because their O-Line is so good. What they are saying is that they believe in Joseph Randle and feel sure that he can “Get by with a little help from his friends” to quote a great Beatles song. It remains to be seen if that faith is warranted, but I for one, believe that it is.

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Cowboys Cinderella Season7) One thing is for sure over the  past 3 years. The player acquisition has been stellar for the Cowboys. It is no coincidence that the improvement in this area has mirrored the rise of Will McClay as a strong voice in the team’s front office. The Cowboys got their coaching staff stabilized, and then dodged a huge bullet when McClay was not offered a GM position with another team. His forward thinking led the team to draft Joseph Randle to prepare for not giving DeMarco Murray a big money second contract. The drafting of Anthony Hitchens eased the loss of Justin Durant and the drafting of Byron Jones allows the Cowboys to view anything they get from former 6th overall pick Morris Claiborne as a bonus.

McClay’s group has also been exemplary in their pro personnel work. Bringing in players like George Selvie, Laurent Robinson, Justin Durant and Rolando McClain to fill holes on the roster over the past few years has allowed the team to retool without having to totally blow up the team. I was a big proponent of spending the bulk of a team’s defensive resources on the defensive line as the Green Bay game showed a need for a far better pass rush. Fewer 5 second pockets will make a good corner like Orlando Scandrick even better and should reduce the coverage issues for the safeties and linebackers. In short, I thought the Cowboys needed to improve their DL via Free Agency AND the draft. Boy did they ever put their resources in that D-Line. They signed the controversial Greg Hardy despite him being hit with a 10-game suspension and had the most naturally gifted pass rusher in the draft fall into their lap. While both of these moves come with considerable character risk. McClay & Stephen Jones are confident that the environment that has been established by Jason Garrett will handle this risk effectively.

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Cowboys Cinderella

8) DEZ CAUGHT IT!!!!!!!

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2014 Dallas Cowboys9) Dan Bailey was uncharacteristically shaky over the two playoff games. This worries me greatly. We’ve seen kickers be brilliant & then get the yips. Billy Cundiff and Nick Folk come to mind in this century. Hopefully, we’ll see a return of Dan “Split ‘Em” Bailey (our friend KD’s brainchild) when the games count this fall and he will continue to be strong and accurate. If not, the security blanket provided by confidence in your kicker will be gone for Jason Garrett. Without that confidence, it becomes harder to stick with the run and play for a FG. If Bailey struggles early, it will have a tremendously negative impact on the offense from play calling to execution.

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Cowboys Motto10) Last year, Jason Garrett spoke to his charges and exhorted them to “FIGHT!”

His message to the 2015 Dallas Cowboys was a question. “Who determines our fate this season?”

His answer was an emphatic “WE DO!”

If you are a Cowboys fan, you can be very optimistic for what your team can accomplish in 2015. Progress and Process blended to give us a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2014 and under the leadership of Jerry & Stephen Jones, Jason Garrett and Will McClay, the team is set up to stay at that level for the next 2-3 years at least.

This is why when we are asked “Who thinks their team can win it all?”, we can sip a little Blue Kool-Aid and shout “WE DO!”

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  • Wow! Great article Harb. One of your best ever. Excellent analysis. Pure meat & potatoes. Right on point too.

    • Big Harb

      Thanks

  • Gabriel Carrasco

    I wouldn’t have paid Murray that money either. But still more upset that we didn’t draft a RB or at least require a better one. The pass protection among our RB really concerns me especially with an over the hill Darren McFadden who can’t stay healthy. Everything else was spot on. And to be honest I think that Damien Wilson our 4th round pick might have a bigger impact than any of our other draft picks his first year.

    • I talked to BB and he said the Cowboys will trade for a RB if need be. It concerns me too. Haven’t studied Wilson yet.

      • Gabriel Carrasco

        Wilson to me is a better player than Hitchens coming out, and Hitchens played better than I thought he was capable of. But Wilson is better.

        • You’re making me want to watch his tape now lol. I will still stand on the table for Cam. Bad idea cutting him when they just resigned him off of exclusive rights tag.

          • Gabriel Carrasco

            They waived him injured I believe.

          • Cam only got to play like half a game and had 7 or 8 tackles

        • Some decisions still make no sense to me. Cutting Williams for Gus Johnson was a huge mistake. I let the Landry Hat writer have it the way he hyped up Gus. Bad hips, can’t block or catch. SMDH NTM 4.7 40 lol

        • I want the boys to try and get Jonas Gray from the Pats for a late round pick. He can ball

    • Big Harb

      I like Wilson too. He is physically better than Hitchens. I just hope he is as mentally apt. Hitchens ability to learn on the run was really a revelation last year.