Dallas Cowboys: 2012 5 Wonders

5 Wonders: Roster, coach turnover in 2013?

January, 1, 2013
IRVING, Texas -- With the Cowboys’ season over, this will be the final weekly version of Five Wonders, but we’ll continue an occasional series throughout the offseason.

These Wonders are about the future:

** I wonder how much turnover this roster will see. Of the 16 unrestricted free agents, I don’t know if there is a lock to return. Anthony Spencer is not a lock, though the team wants him back badly. Then there will be salary-cap decisions that could be made on guys like Doug Free, Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears, Dan Connor, Lawrence Vickers and possibly even Miles Austin and/or Orlando Scandrick. That’s 23 guys right there. You figure on a lot of turnover every year, but this offseason figures to involve more regular contributors than just down-the-line guys. The Austin case could be interesting. He is scheduled to make $6.7 million in base and count $8.3 against the cap. I’m not advocating getting rid of him by any stretch, but there is frustration over at Valley Ranch. Austin finished with 66 catches for 943 yards and six touchdowns, but he was slowed again by hamstring injuries and was knocked out of both Washington games because of injuries. While it would not be cap prohibitive to cut Austin, the Cowboys do not have a receiver ready to replace him, and it would be hard to find a guy who can play outside and inside the way he does. Like everybody else on the roster, 2013 will be a key year for Austin.

** I wonder how the Cowboys can pay Spencer. As noted before the Cowboys wil,l be in a difficult salary-cap situation and will have to make a lot of decision related to money. I’m not sure they will have enough to keep Spencer before he hits the open market. And I would figure a team will be ready to give him more than what the Cowboys can afford. Spencer is coming off a career-high 11-sack season and he is one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the NFL. I do wonder if he can be a star for a defense, the way DeMarcus Ware is a star, or is more of a supporting actor. San Francisco’s Ahmad Brooks signed a six-year deal worth a max of $44.5 million last year ($37.5 million actual) with $17.5 million guaranteed. The Cowboys paid Spencer $8.8 million this season on the franchise tag. It would be $10.6 million if they tag him again and that’s a lot to budget for in a cap crunch. Signing him to deal with an average of $8 million-plus would be good, but another team flush in space in need of a strong-side outside linebacker who never comes off the field will probably pay more.

** I wonder if there is a chance Felix Jones returns in 2013. Stop laughing and hear me out. Jones is what he is: a backup. The Cowboys will need a backup running back in 2013 and one with the ability to start if needed, especially given the health issues DeMarco Murray has had his first two years. Is it worth it to keep Jones for two more years at low money? I’m not talking anything substantial at all. Jones is not going to get a chance to be a starter anywhere else on the free-agent market. He hasn’t shown he is that guy. But he’s not a bad option as a backup, and, yes, I realize health is an issue for him too. He’s proven to be tough, playing 2011 with a shoulder injury and this season with two bad knees. The Cowboys like Lance Dunbar but, to me, he’s more of a niche back. We can say the Cowboys can draft a runner late and find a guy, but there are so many needs that keeping Jones on a low-money, short-term deal might make more sense. OK, continue laughing.

** I just talked about player turnover. I wonder about coaching turnover. Jason Garrett would not get into whether the coaching staff would return in 2013, calling it premature. It makes you wonder if changes are coming. Is Rob Ryan safe? Garrett admired how Ryan worked through so many injuries in 2012 and kept things competitive, but he stopped short of a vote of confidence. Even after the loss to the Redskins, Ryan made it sound as if he might not be back when asked if he would like to coach this defense at full strength going forward. Let’s move on to special teams coach Joe DeCamillis. Last year, Oakland was denied permission to speak with him about a move to the Raiders, but that special teams’ job has opened again. DeCamillis and Oakland coach Dennis Allen are great friends. There could be a few new head coaches who would like to speak to DeCamillis. The special teams’ units had some poor moments with a blocked punt for a touchdown at Seattle and a kickoff return for a score at Baltimore. The kick return game didn’t provide much of a lift, but Dwayne Harris proved to be a tremendous punt returner and Dan Bailey was Dan Bailey. On offense, John Garrett, Skip Peete, Wade Wilson and Wes Phillips have been around since 2007. Just wonder if there has to be some moves to break up the band, so to speak.

** The last Wonder will focus on the draft. I wonder if the Cowboys will help the offensive and defensive lines come April. They need help. They also need to look at how they evaluate players in those spots, especially on the offensive line where they have missed on just about everybody not named Tyron Smith. Since Garrett has taken over they have done a better job of taking the “right kind of guys,” and have put together a growing young nucleus. They need interior line help on both sides of the ball. If Spencer leaves, then they need an outside linebacker. They will need cornerback help, too, with Mike Jenkins unlikely to return. If you want to add a safety to the list, OK, but to me, that’s not a top-end priority. They can use a tight end to pair with Jason Witten, even though they like James Hanna’s development. They can use wide receivers too. A running back, too. I haven’t mentioned a quarterback of the future yet, and I’m not sure they go that route with so many more pressing needs to fill. Because of the poor drafts in the Wade Phillips’ Era, the Cowboys do not have much depth (think the 2009 draft). Because of the upcoming cap limitations the Cowboys can’t miss on their picks.

5 Wonders: Jason Witten's quiet record

December, 25, 2012
IRVING, Texas -- Merry Christmas to everybody. On this day filled with wonder, we bring you the final regular-season installment of Five Wonders.

On Rudolph …

Coach Jason Garrett talks about the Cowboys' overtime loss to the Saints and Jason Witten's remarkable season.

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** I wonder if anybody has set a record as quietly as Jason Witten set Sunday. With his final catch he set an NFL record for catches by a tight end in a season with 103. Tony Gonzalez had 102 for Kansas City in 2004. Because it came in overtime and given the magnitude of the game, there was a brief mention on the digital board and an announcement. Counter that with Detroit’s Calvin Johnson breaking Jerry Rice’s record for receiving yards in a season in which he was able to hand the ball to his dad and the crowd was able to make a big acknowledgment of the feat. Witten simply flipped the ball to the official and went back to business. The mark deserved more acclaim in the days that followed, not that Witten cared for any of the attention. It is, however, interesting to note. For all of the attention the Cowboys get nationally, somehow Witten seems to fall between the big headlines. Just an observation.

** If you’re wondering when Matt Johnson can play again, it won’t be this week. Johnson was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return Nov. 18 because of a hamstring injury. He can return to practice Friday but he would not be eligible to play in a game until the divisional round of the playoffs. Johnson’s rookie year has been a wash because of the hamstring injuries. The offseason should do him some good to get bigger and stronger, but the Cowboys won’t know what they have until next summer. Given Barry Church’s recovery from an Achilles’ tear and Johnson’s inexperience, the Cowboys face something of a dilemma at safety. They clearly believe Johnson has some real potential or they would not have kept him around all year the way they have, but they won’t know what he is. So go get a safety in free agency or draft one of the best safeties in the draft? Not really. To me, they can get by at safety especially with the resources they have at linebacker and cornerback.

** The Cowboys’ pro scouting department has done a nice job in finding players throughout the season that have come in and played a role on a team ravaged by injuries. I wonder if some of the guys they have added are keepers going forward. Start with Eric Frampton, who will be a free agent after the season. He was signed to be a special teams’ guy and has worked his way into a starting role in part because of injury. He would be a guy to bring back in 2013. I wonder if they take one-year looks at guys like Michael Coe, Charlie Peprah and Brian Schaefering too. Now, these guys aren’t top-end starters by any means, but good role players. You would like to be able to develop younger guys in these roles, but they could be doing enough to at least get a deal for 2013.

** I wonder how the Cowboys believe David Arkin will be a player one day. They have done everything possible to not play the 2011 fourth-round pick this season and yet he remains on the roster. Arkin has had chances in his first two training camps that a lot of players do not get afforded and he was unable to show he can play. Yet the Cowboys keep him. If they end up cutting him next August in camp, then they wasted time. Teams loathe to give up on offensive lineman and I’m sure everybody thought Doug Free was a bust after his first two seasons when he played only a couple of times. Like Free, Arkin is from a small school and those guys tend to take time to develop, but the Cowboys cannot afford to draft projects anymore. They need to get guys who are close to being ready to play.

** I wonder if enough people are noticing what Dan Bailey has done in his first two years. He is having the second-best two-year run by a Cowboys kicker in team history. His coach, Chris Boniol made 59 of 64 field goal tries in 1995-96, good for a 92.2% percentage. Bailey has made 60 of 67 kicks the last two seasons, including 28 of 30 this season, for a 90% make rate. (Yes, we rounded up from 89.5%). He has made a field goal in every game but one this season (at Seattle), and has delivered winning kicks against Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh this year. The guy is automatic and that means a lot with how many games in the NFL come down to big kicks.

5 Wonders: Tony Romo's extension

December, 18, 2012
IRVING, Texas – It’s Tuesday so it’s on to Five Wonders and I’m wondering just how far the Cowboys can take this hot streak.

Sunday’s game against New Orleans will be the biggest test yet for this re-made defense. We’ll see.

Quarterback Tony Romo talks about the Cowboys' overtime win against the Steelers and three-game winning streak.

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On to the Wonders:

** So what do you think about the Cowboys willingness to give Tony Romo a contract extension now? I wonder Romo’s play the last seven weeks will do for the negotiations that will take place after the season. I’m on record as saying Romo will get a five-year extension worth somewhere in the $85 million range with $50 million or so guaranteed. Romo’s play of late has been elite. He has 13 touchdown passes and three picks and is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. The Cowboys are 3-0 in December and are in contention with two weeks to go. That did not seem possible not too long ago. When he was struggling earlier in the season, I wonder if there were some inside Valley Ranch that might have been willing to let Romo play out the final year of his deal in 2013 and have him count $16.8 million against the cap. I’m sure that changes now and the Cowboys will need to get Romo signed to an extension in the offseason to bring that cap number down so they can get under the projected cap limit and possibly add some big-time players in free agency.

** I wonder if people understand just how hard it is for Sterling Moore to do what he has done since coming to the Cowboys. He played a couple of snaps against Philadelphia two days after the Cowboys picked him up off New England’s practice squad. He has played outside cornerback in the nickel package and moved to a safety role in the dime package on Sunday against Pittsburgh. That is a lot to learn in a short amount of time. His time with the Patriots probably helped ease his transition to the Cowboys. Because of all the different looks Bill Belichick will throw out, Moore has had to learn multiple positions on the fly. Rob Ryan believes the Cowboys might have found a player here that can be a solid contributor in the future. He’s shown he is a quick study. Now he has to show he has staying power.


After Tony Romo, who's the Cowboys' most important offensive player?


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** From all appearances the Cowboys appear comfortable with James Hanna, the rookie tight end from Flower Mound. As the season has gone on he has seen more action and it is not just as a receiver, although that is where his most recent notice is coming. Hanna has speed most tight ends do not possess, but his blocking has been better than some in the organization believed it would be. It has me wondering if the Cowboys believe so much in Hanna that they will not pursue a veteran in the free agent market next offseason and perhaps draft one in the middle to late rounds. It is a projection, but the coaches have cut into the playing time of John Phillips, a favorite of the staff because of his versatility, to get Hanna on the field.

** I wonder how much the Cowboys miss Charlie Peprah. No, seriously. And that’s an indication of what kind of season it has been with the injuries. Peprah has missed the last three games with a foot injury and I wonder if he can provide more than Danny McCray in the base and sub packages. McCray appears to be running out of gas the more he has to play. The Steelers targeted him repeatedly in coverage. He saw Mike Wallace run by him for a deep catch. He was unable to stay with tight end Heath Miller. McCray is the new version of Keith Davis. A few years ago Davis made his name as a special teams threat and became a starter almost out of default. It was not the right role. He was a special teamer and that’s not meant as a slight. It’s not to slight McCray either. He is what he is. He plays hurt. He plays tough. He’s one of those “right kind of guys” Jason Garrett talks about. But Peprah’s experience as an every down player might be more of a help on the back end with two games left in the season and so much on the line.

**I wonder if there is something to continuity on the offensive line. Well, sort of, since the line has played better the last two weeks with Doug Free and Jermey Parnell rotating series at right tackle. But the play of guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings and center Ryan Cook has been better. Not great, mind you, but better. Since they had no offseason together and had to learn on the fly after the Cowboys acquired Cook the week before the season started, it has taken time. At tackle the job can be a little easier: you block the outside pass rusher. On the inside there is a lot of communication. Bernadeau, Livings and Cook did not know each other. Cook was new to the scheme and the scheme was only a few months old for Bernadeau and Livings, who arrived in March as free agents. Time helps players gain unspoken communication. There remain issues on the interior and nothing is solved, but the more they have played together the better they have become.

5 Wonders: Jason Garrett's leadership

December, 11, 2012
IRVING, Texas – There are a lot of things to wonder about as the Cowboys prepare for Pittsburgh on Sunday, but we’ll stick with our five.

Away we go:

** I wonder if those who believe Jason Garrett is too robotic and does not show enough emotion to be the leader of the Cowboys have changed their minds. Too often the public face a coach or player puts on is seen as the only face of the coach or a player. The supposition goes that if Garrett is that boring in front of the media, then he is that boring in front of the players. It’s just not true. Before this tragedy, players have spoken about Garrett’s stirring speeches to lead off a practice week or before a game as edge-of-your-seat amazing. In training camp, Garrett was more relaxed and forthcoming publicly. When the season started, he reverted back to his day to day mantras. His job is not to be glib with the media. It’s to win football games and lead players. Would he receive more public benefit if he showed more of the Garrett we’ve seen in the last three days? Absolutely. But he’s not in it to win public relations’ points. The leadership Garrett has shown since the death of Jerry Brown has revealed just what type of person he is, more than a coach. He cares about his players more than just what they can do on the field. He wants them to be successful in life, too.


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** I wonder why it took until Week 14 of the season for the Cowboys to start this right tackle rotation with Doug Free and Jermey Parnell. Well, not really. Until the Thanksgiving game against Washington, the Cowboys didn’t know what they had in Parnell. They still don’t have concrete answers, but Parnell played well enough at left tackle against the Redskins to warrant more consideration. Free has struggled for most of the season, but coaches will tend to lean to the devil they know than to the devil they don’t. Parnell played sparingly in three tight-end sets and truthfully did not do that well early in the season. He didn’t earn more playing time. But with Tyron Smith unable to play against the Redskins, the Cowboys had no choice. Parnell was OK against Cincinnati. Free was better than he was against Philadelphia. The Cowboys will continue the rotation, but they took too long to get to it.

** I wonder what’s in the water near where Jason Witten and Gerald Sensabaugh grew up in Tennessee. Seriously. There are not too tougher players on the team. They play through injuries. They do not complain. They show up on Sundays, as Bill Parcells would say. The common thread: they love football. We all know about Witten’s pain tolerance and ability to play through injuries. In back to back weeks he has taken big shots down the seam and came up a little gimpy but didn’t miss a snap. On Sunday, he took a shot to the thigh. Sensabaugh is the same way. He just doesn’t miss games. The latest sign for him was a hip injury that slowed him against the Bengals. It didn’t slow him enough to break up a touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham. He was slow to get up but stayed in the game. And he has this curious habit: he’s always the first defender to sprint on the field after change of possessions.

** I wonder how Rob Ryan can preach to his players to have poise when things get tough when he can’t keep his emotions in check. The penalty Ryan got on Sunday for unsportsmanlike conduct was embarrassing and unnecessary. So what if Bengals tackle Andre Smith was chirping at the bench after getting away with a holding call? Ryan’s actions were childish. You just can’t do those things. It got so discombobulated on the sideline that the defense became unglued. Two plays later they had a 12-men on the field penalty. That came after they had to call a timeout for having only 10 guys on the field in the first half. Ryan has said he wants to be a head coach one day, but that penalty is not going to help his resume.

** The Cowboys say they are not going to look at other punters despite Brian Moorman’s poor day in Cincinnati, and I wonder why. What would it hurt to check out some guys? Overall, Moorman has done a good job since signing with the team as Chris Jones’ replacement. But in his last six punts he has had one returned 98 yards for a score when he should have kicked it out of bounds late against Philadelphia, and had punts of 23, 39 (which was tipped), 27 and 27 yards against Cincinnati. Could he have been that freaked out by the possibility of Adam Jones returning one that he was trying to be too perfect? Maybe, but with a hurting defense field position in the final three games takes on a greater importance. I wonder if the Cowboys are taking a chance here.

5 Wonders: Will Jerry Jones be honest?

December, 4, 2012
IRVING, Texas – It’s on to the next one, and the next one being Cincinnati. Plenty of things to wonder about as we get ready to see old friends like Terence Newman, Mike Zimmer and Adam Jones this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

** Jerry Jones said he was hopeful but realistic when addressing the Cowboys’ playoff chances the rest of the way. I wonder if he will be realistic and honest about the composition of the roster at the end of the season. If the Cowboys fail to make the playoffs -- or even if they do qualify by a whisker -- he cannot look at a handful of plays and say, “We’re close.” He did that last offseason and has been convinced for far too long this team is close. Close to what? My belief is that every team is 8-8 at the start of the season and with good breaks you go 10-6 and bad breaks you go 6-10. Jones can’t live on the what ifs of Dan Bailey’s missed field goal at Baltimore and Dez Bryant’s fingertips hitting out of bounds as a reason for optimism. There are too many people inside the building at Valley Ranch willing to tell the truth about a roster that could be blown up to a large degree this offseason. Can Jones, who is now 70, bear himself to make difficult decisions on players he likes and believes can win?

** I asked defensive coordinator Rob Ryan last Friday about why he just doesn’t use cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne in press coverage almost on every snap. I saw Miami do that with corners Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison in the early 2000s and eat up receivers. Ryan mentioned the league rules favoring offensive players as a reason why they don’t do it more. OK, makes sense. But I wonder why the Cowboys invested $50 million in Carr and moved up to the No. 6 overall pick in Claiborne? The rules didn’t change in the offseason. The Cowboys should live with aggressive mistakes on the outside with illegal contact and holding penalties because the way it is going right now is not working. Maybe Carr is banged up, but he’s not on the injury report. Maybe the Cowboys worry about Claiborne’s confidence, but they say that’s not a problem for him. It’s not too late. By playing off and soft as much as they are, the Cowboys are not helping the pass rush. Force the receivers to make a move off the line and then the pass rush is better. The way Ryan is playing his corners is further proof that a pass rush makes a secondary and not the other way around.

** Kevin Ogletree is about to enter the final four games as a Cowboy. Barring something unforeseen, I can’t see the Cowboys signing him to a new deal as an unrestricted free agent, even if he remains a favorite of Jason Garrett and John Garrett, his college coach. I wonder why he remains the No. 3 receiver when there is no future. Ogletree returned Sunday from a concussion suffered against Cleveland and resumed his normal role with Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley mixing in. Ogletree has taken too much heat for the offense’s woes. As the No. 3 receiver, he is the fifth option at times in the passing game, but wouldn’t it serve the Cowboys more to develop Harris and Beasley or mix in newcomer Anthony Armstrong in the final month? Harris is showing he can be counted on as a playmaker. Beasley has a niche role in the slot. The Cowboys like Armstrong’s speed, which they could use to stretch things more outside in three-wide packages.

** While I’m wondering about the future, I wonder about Jay Ratliff’s with the team. He’s missed as many games as he has played this season because of ankle and groin injuries. He turns 32 in August and barring a major change in the final four games his sack total will go down for the fifth straight season. This is one of the difficult decisions potentially for Jones. Ratliff has been to four straight Pro Bowls but that streak will end this year. He has been one of the best late-round picks in team history. But this team has real cap issues and it is hard to justify a $7 million cap figure. The Cowboys would save $1 million against the cap with a straight release or $5 million with a June 1 release and carry over four million in dead money in 2014. With the way Josh Brent has played (at a much, much cheaper price) I wonder if the Cowboys head down this direction and look in the draft for a bigger nose tackle or go to a stop-gap measure in free agency.

** I wonder if the replacement refs will end up hurting the Cowboys by the time the season ends. The Hail Mary touchdown pass from Seattle’s Russell Wilson to Golden Tate against Green Bay looms large in the Cowboys’ wild-card hopes. That’s why the Seahawks’ win in Chicago on Sunday was hurtful to Dallas. They need Seattle to lose games, especially with the head-to-head loss in Week 2. In effect 7-5 Seattle has a two-game lead on the Cowboys with four to play. Had the replacement refs, which Jones showed much love to during their work, gotten the call right, then the Seahawks would not be in such a good postseason position in the final month. If cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner end up suspended, that will help the Cowboys as well. Of course, it’s all moot if the Cowboys don’t win their remaining games.

5 Wonders: A second tag for Anthony Spencer?

November, 27, 2012
IRVING, Texas – After the Thanksgiving break it’s time to bring back Five Wonders as the Cowboys welcome the equally disappointing Philadelphia Eagles to town this weekend.

On to the wonders:

** I’m beginning to wonder if Anthony Spencer is going to be too expensive for the Cowboys to keep. And if he does, I wonder if they use the franchise tag on him for a second straight offseason. He has been the Cowboys best defensive player since Lee was lost for the year. He has established a career high in sacks with five games to go. He plays the run terrifically. Teams have a difficult time setting the edge against him and only do so if he chooses to go under a block, which can be maddening. He can cover. He can close on quarterbacks, runners, receivers and tight ends. I keep thinking something with a $7 million average will keep Spencer around but it’s quite possible he could get more. If they tag him again, it would cost the Cowboys $10.6 million or so for 2013. They don’t want to do that, but they could be in a squeeze against the cap, especially with Tony Romo’s cap figure jumping to $16.8 million in 2013. Spencer has earned a long-term deal with his play, but circumstances might force the Cowboys to think about a second straight year with a franchise tag.

** Since last week was about piling on Doug Free for his poor performance against Cleveland, this week should be about praising his work against Washington. I wonder if anybody really noticed. Free was much firmer, to steal a Jason Garrett term, in his pass protection. He did a great job against Ryan Kerrigan for most of the game. In a terribly unscientific way of grading from me in which I just doled out pluses for good, minuses for bad or zeroes for neither, Free had 53 pluses, nine minuses and 10 zeroes. Kerrigan got him for a second-half sack but that could be viewed as a coverage sack. There was few times in which Free received any help, which is not a surprise when Jermey Parnell is making his first start at left tackle. Free did a good job passing off twists inside. It’s difficult to evaluate the run game since they didn’t run it much, but he was good there too. If the Cowboys get that kind of effort from Free for the rest of the year, then maybe he’s in the future plans.

** Here are a couple of things I just find ridiculous and wonder if you will too: It took Bruce Carter five games to surpass Sean Lee as the team’s tackle leader despite the fact that Lee has not played a snap. It just speaks to what type of season Lee was having before a toe injury forced him to have surgery. Lee had 77 tackles in the first six games. Carter had 40. In the five games needed to overtake Lee, Carter averaged eight a game. Here’s something more ridiculous: Lee remains tied for the team lead in interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 152 passes in the five full games Lee has missed and no defender has been able to pick off more than one pass? Here’s something I find most ridiculous: It took Felix Jones six games to become the Cowboys’ leading rusher over DeMarco Murray. At the time of his injury Murray had 330 yards on 75 carries. Jones now has 335 yards on 94 carries this season. How pitiful has the run game been?

** Mike Jenkins has a chance to add some value to his marketability in the offseason with five games to go. With Orlando Scandrick out for at least a few weeks and possibly the season, Jenkins will get a look inside playing the slot. He never did it before Thursday’s game against Washington at any level. He admitted the game was much faster inside than outside and looked for help from Gerald Sensabaugh in certain cases. If Jenkins can show he can play the slot, then that will help him in the offseason when he’s an unrestricted free agent. Teams want players with versatility. The more Jenkins can do, the more money he could command. As it is, he’s not going to get the deal he once envisioned. He has not played that much this year. He’s coming off shoulder surgery. He turns 28 in March. If he shows he can handle the slot, I wonder if there’s a chance to Cowboys attempt to keep him going forward. It’s a stretch, I admit, but you can’t just give up on talented corners and Jenkins has talent.

** L.P. Ladouceur will be a free agent after this season and I wonder if the Cowboys will bring him back for a ninth season. If they don’t, then I think they will be making a mistake. Ladouceur has been perfect since coming to the Cowboys in 2005. The cost, relatively speaking, will be minimal. Over the last few years the Cowboys have attempted to bring some competition for Ladouceur - in other words, cheap, undrafted rookies – and he has answered the challenge every time. He will turn 32 in March and has not been beaten up despite his work through the years. On a team in transition, which the Cowboys are even if they fail to publicly recognize it, having a fool-proof long snapper is a must. Think of what it means for kicker Dan Bailey or whoever has punted the ball here. He might be something of a luxury and you would like for the long snapper to play another position, but peace of mind matters more.

5 Wonders: More rest to help DeMarco Murray

November, 13, 2012
IRVING, Texas -- At 4-5, the Cowboys are not out of the hole they dug for themselves earlier in the season, but they at least have a chance to peak their head above ground with a win Sunday against Cleveland.

Randy says you don't have to cheer the Cowboys' Week 10 win, just don't jeer it.

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I wonder if that will spark a second-half run.

I’m also wondering these five things:

** As many wonder if this is the week DeMarco Murray returns from a sprained foot, I wonder if it makes sense to keep the running back out another week. Hear me out before you faint. The Cowboys have two games in five days coming up with Cleveland on Sunday and Washington on Thanksgiving. Murray has missed the last four games (really four and a half since he had only one third-quarter carry Oct. 14 at Baltimore) with a sprained foot. Asking him to play two games in such a short span might not be wise. Why not hold Murray out until the Thanksgiving game against the Redskins and give him 10 days of rest before he plays again? This is a serious injury he had and one that was close to a season-ender. There are no guarantees that he comes back as good as new, but the Cowboys can give him the best opportunity to play in the final six games. I understand you can look at that 10-day break in another way with that allowing him to rest significantly after the Browns and Redskins games. Cleveland has a poor run defense, so I just think the wisest thing to do would be to give Murray another week to get stronger.

** As some of the long-time readers here know, I’ve not been in the camp of moving Jay Ratliff from nose tackle to defensive end in the base defense. I just don’t believe that what makes Ratliff special at nose tackle would translate as well at end. And since Rob Ryan has called Ratliff the best nose tackle in football, I don’t think he wants to move him either. But this injury to Kenyon Coleman presents an intriguing opportunity. Would moving Ratliff to end help him and his sprained left ankle contend better than having to hold up at nose tackle? I wonder if the Cowboys thinking about using Josh Brent at nose tackle full time with Ratliff, whose left foot/ankle has been bothered by high and low sprains and a case of plantar fasciitis, moving outside. If the Cowboys want to get their best players on the field more, which is how they described the move of Brandon Carr to safety in sub packages earlier in the season, then is Brent a better option at nose than a Tyrone Craford, Sean Lissemore or Marcus Spears at defensive end with Coleman out? It might be.

** I wonder what kind of market there will be for Mike Jenkins in the offseason. He did not play against Philadelphia because of back spasms after sitting out of practice last Thursday and Friday. He played one snap at Carolina on Oct. 21. He missed the first game of the season as he continued to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. When Jenkins has played, he has done a good job in the team’s sub packages. His absence against the Eagles was felt even more because of Morris Claiborne’s struggles. Had Jenkins been around, the Cowboys could have used Jenkins to allow the rookie to clear his head in a five-penalty afternoon. They were forced to use Vince Agnew for a handful of plays when Orlando Scandrick went down with what looked like a calf injury. Jenkins’ marketability took a hit when the Cowboys signed Brandon Carr and drafted Claiborne, but he could have been in position to cash in with a solid season as a backup. It’s not that he hasn’t played well. It’s that he hasn’t played enough. He turns 28 in March and I wonder if he is looking at a one-year, make-good offer from a team rather than a larger deal he could have received.

** In the last two games Dwayne Harris has produced punt returns of 37 and 78 yards, with that 78-yarder going for a touchdown against the Eagles. He’s proof that you don’t need to be the fastest guy in the world to be a punt returner. Speed might be more important at kick returner, but I wonder if the Cowboys should give Harris a look there as well. He is not a perfect practice player, according to those around at Valley Ranch, but the game is not too big for him either. He has a feel for when things get real, which is a good trait, but also a frustrating one for coaches who want to see a player perform in practice too. Harris is strong enough to make the first tackler miss and he seems to fall forward all of the time. The kick return game has not been good whether Felix Jones or Lance Dunbar have been the returners. Maybe it’s time to give Harris a shot there, too. And I think he could get in the mix at wide receiver as well. From Jason Garrett’s post-game comments against the Eagles about Harris, you get the sense he wants to see more of the second-year wide receiver.

** I’m still wondering about this for some reason, but is it time to put David Arkin in the bin with other failed offensive line picks of recent years with Robert Brewster, James Marten and Jacob Rogers? Arkin, a fourth-round pick in 2011, has been active for four games this season but yet to see a snap. He was inactive for every game last year. For the first time this season on Sunday, the Cowboys chose to go with guard Mackenzy Bernadeau as the backup center even though he has yet to play a snap there in his career. Arkin was viewed as a project when picked but he struggled this year in camp with his confidence, especially having to play center when Phil Costa and Bill Nagy were lost to injuries. The ability to anchor is the key question. He’s just not strong enough yet. If last year was viewed as a redshirt season, then this season has to be viewed as a lost season because of how little faith the team has shown in him. With Kevin Kowalski practicing now but still on the physically unable to perform list, the Cowboys could use a roster spot. If there is a shred of good news it’s that Arkin is practice squad eligible if the team wants to continue to see his progress.

5 Wonders: Rob Ryan's head coaching future

October, 30, 2012
IRVING, Texas – The NFL moved the trade deadline back to Thursday because of Hurricane Sandy, but I don’t wonder if that will help the Cowboys make a move.

Here are some things I am wondering about in our weekly Five Wonders’ post:

** It’s no secret Rob Ryan wants to be a head coach. It’s part of the reason why he came to Dallas. He was on some lists last year until the Cowboys cratered in December and missed the playoffs. I wonder if he is getting back on some lists this year with the way the defense has performed. Of the opponents’ 162 points, 78 can be attributed to turnovers or mistakes by the offense and special teams. The defense has done a nice job in sudden-change situations, limiting the opponent to field goals. That’s the only way the Cowboys were actually able to come back Sunday against the New York Giants. In a passing league, the Cowboys are No. 3 against the pass and have done two great jobs vs. Eli Manning. They have a huge test this week in Matt Ryan. If the defense continues this way, then Ryan’s name will be mentioned when jobs open following the season. But here’s a bonus wonder: I wonder if how Rex Ryan’s New York Jets have fallen apart will impact Rob’s campaign.

** I wonder why the Cowboys run the ball. OK, I don’t think they should not run the ball at all, but it’s clear the only way they can run it is if they face a bad Baltimore run defense that does not move guys around so the runners can pick and choose their way. In the last two games they have picked up 104 yards on 48 carries. You have to admire the pluck, but if you’re averaging 2.2 yards a carry, why bang your head into the wall so much. I laughed when I heard people question why the Cowboys only had 15 run plays against New York. Well, the score was one thing and the 1.3 yard per carry average by Felix Jones and Phillip Tanner was another. Could the Cowboys have run the ball on second- or third-and-1 on their final drive? Sure. The Giants showed a six-man box. It was there to pick up a yard, but with how the game was going and how successful they were passing I didn’t think they were wrong. Where I think they were wrong was in the called pass play on third down. Jason Witten was doubled and taken out of it by New York, leaving Tony Romo to throw to Kevin Ogletree on a fade. It’s not a high percentage throw and it’s going to a receiver that even the coach has questioned his consistency. It was a half-field read on third down from what I was told. It goes to Witten or Ogletree. If that’s the case, then put Miles Austin or Dez Bryant next to Witten to make it more difficult for New York to double the tight end. But back to the main point on the running game: Felix Jones has a bruised knee and whatever flicker he had against Baltimore it’s not there now. Tanner has better contact balance. Lance Dunbar has more speed. If you’re going to run it, give it to those guys while DeMarco Murray is out.

** I wonder if this is the beginning of the Morris Claiborne the Cowboys wanted when they moved up to the No. 6 pick to get him in April. Claiborne had his best game of the season against the Giants. He was much more aggressive at the line than he had been. He was a surer tackler. He looked a lot more comfortable. Maybe that’s from seeing an offense for a second time. He also added a fumble recovery a week after having his first interception at Carolina. What’s funny is that the Panthers’ game might have been Claiborne’s worst even if he had the turnover. He was too laid back in that game. He was the opposite against the Giants. He’ll have to be that way again Sunday at Atlanta with Julio Jones and Roddy White on the other side of the field.

** I wonder how the punt return team can be so mediocre and the punt coverage team can be so great. Have you seen the numbers? The Cowboys are averaging 5.5 yards per punt return so far this year and that includes a 44-yard return by Dez Bryant against Tampa Bay that the Buccaneers gifted the Cowboys. Take away that return and the Cowboys are averaging 2.8 yards per return, which is about on par with their average rushing carry (3.6). The punt coverage has been outstanding, allowing only 3.2 yards per return with a long of 9 on the season. Chris Jones and Moorman have done a great job of angling their punts to the sidelines and 13 of their 23 punts have ended up inside the 20. The Cowboys would be wise to keep Bryant off the punt returns or just let him do it when the opponent is kicking out of their end zone. Let Dwayne Harris or Cole Beasley be punt catchers if not punt returners.

** At some point when Charlie Peprah plays, you should believe he will do something to help the Cowboys. That just seems to be what happens when the Cowboys sign a guy off the street here lately. Last year the Cowboys added Montrae Holland, Laurent Robinson, Tony Fiammetta, Frank Walker and Sammy Morris, who made plays to contribute to wins. So far this season the Cowboys have added Moorman, Eric Frampton and Ernie Sims off the street and they have made some big plays. Sims was a Cowboy for five days when he made his debut and had a pass breakup and a pressure. He also helped stop the Giants’ final play to set up the Cowboys’ final drive. Finding players to contribute at this time of year is extremely hard but the Cowboys’ pro department has been able to find some good pieces.

5 Wonders: Tony Romo's yards per attempt

October, 23, 2012
IRVING, Texas -- It’s Giants week, so let’s start Five Wonders with a quick one: Will the Cowboys ever beat New York at Cowboys Stadium?

They are a Josh Hamilton 0-for-3 so far.

OK, consider that a bonus, but now on to the rest of the Wonders:

** I wonder if the unsettling play on the offensive line is affecting Tony Romo’s ability to get the ball down the field. Romo is averaging 7.5 yards per attempt, which would be a career-low if he lasts a full season. He was at 7.5 yards per attempt in 2010 but played in only six games because of a broken collarbone. In the last two games, Romo’s average per attempt has been even lower. He averaged 7.1 yards per attempt vs. Chicago, 7.3 yards vs. Baltimore and 6.7 yards vs. Carolina. When you don’t trust the blocking in front of you, then you look for the shorter, safer throws. On Sunday, Romo appeared to miss Jason Witten down the field for an easy touchdown on the drive that ended with a go-ahead Dan Bailey field goal. Romo looked to a wide receiver on an out route before holding the ball and then scrambling 10 yards. He was under a little pressure, but it’s a throw we’ve seen Romo make a lot.

** I feel badly for safety Matt Johnson. He has suffered three hamstring injuries since June that have kept him out of the season so far. Just as he was about to make his season debut at Carolina, he suffered his second strain to his left hamstring. With the way the Cowboys have kept him around despite the injury, they clearly believe he could have helped. Jason Garrett does not gush much, but when asked about Johnson he continually mentioned the safety’s ability to show up in practice. Now I more than wonder if the Cowboys will put Johnson on injured reserve with the ability to be recalled later in the season once he gets healthy. To me, that would be pushing it and the Cowboys would be more wise to end Johnson’s year now and consider this a redshirt season. Making the jump from Eastern Washington to the NFL is big already. Now to do it without the benefit of an offseason, most of training camp and a handful of snaps in one preseason game it would seem near impossible make an effective jump.

** The Cowboys hoped they could have a center competition between Phil Costa, Kevin Kowalski and Bill Nagy in the offseason, but it never materialized. Kowalski had a bad case of tendinitis that required surgery eventually and has kept him on the physically unable to perform list. Nagy was hurt in training camp and released. Costa suffered a back injury but was never really pushed for the job. Now that Costa has suffered a partially dislocated ankle and will miss a good chunk of the season, I wonder if the Cowboys attempt to speed up Kowalski’s timetable. He could have been activated off PUP last week but the plan was to use the full three-week window before making a decision on calling him, which would begin a second three-week window before he could play. It’s clear the Cowboys do not want to use David Arkin at center, so looking to get Kowalski back sooner might be to their advantage. Either that or go look for another center currently on the street.

** I wonder what happened to Mike Jenkins’ playing time. He had just one snap against Carolina. He hurt his shoulder at Baltimore, but after the game Jenkins said he was healthy and good to go. His only snap came in the dime package in the first quarter. When the Cowboys did use that personnel group later, they went with safety Eric Frampton. I know Morris Claiborne had his first career pick Sunday and had a key fourth-down breakup (or interference depending on your perspective) but the rookie is going through growing pains. If Jenkins says he is healthy, then he should be playing more than one snap. With the Giants visiting Sunday and the multiple receiver looks they give, Jenkins should be a key player.

** I wonder if the Cowboys look at tying up backup nose tackle Josh Brent to an extension. Nothing huge, mind you, but something in the Sean Lissemore range of three years, $6 million. That seems to be the going rate the Cowboys want to pay their defensive linemen. In 2011, Jason Hatcher got that deal with $2.5 million guaranteed. Lissemore got $3.1 million guaranteed earlier this season. A seventh-round compensatory pick in 2010, Brent has developed nicely. What’s funny is that he was not a lock to make the roster after just a so-so offseason and early part of training camp. He wasn’t in good enough shape, but as Garrett pointed out, he worked hard on his body and the results have been obvious. He might have been the Cowboys’ best defensive linemen Sunday and he did a credible job filling in for Jay Ratliff, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the preseason after missing the offseason and most of training camp with plantar fasciitis. Brent is signed through 2013, but so was Lissemore.
IRVING, Texas – While I’m still wondering how the Cowboys can run one offensive play in the final 26 seconds of a game like they did Sunday at Baltimore, it’s time to move on to the weekly Five Wonders feature as Carolina awaits.

** I wondered at the time whether the Cowboys were making the smart move in improving their cornerback situation in the offseason instead of improving the pass rush. After five games, it seems pretty clear that in the long debate of whether a pass rush makes a secondary or vice versa, that the former is true. Five games into the season the Cowboys are waiting for their first interception by a defensive back. Last year, at least they had two in the first five games and those players, Terence Newman and Alan Ball, are gone. The defensive backs have only 13 pass deflections so far against 130 pass attempts. Blame the defensive backs if you want, but if a quarterback is not under duress, then he’s not going to throw a ball up for grabs.

** I wonder if those who thought Jason Witten had lost it with his poor start to the season are starting to feel a little bit queasy. In the last two games Witten has 19 catches for 200 yards on 21 targets from Tony Romo. He is on pace for 86 catches for 883 yards, which puts the first three games in which he dropped five passes into some different light. If he caught the passes against Seattle and Tampa Bay, especially those down the field, Witten would be on pace for more than 1,000 yards again. If Witten had lost it, then he would not have been as open as he was getting. It was simply a case of the drops. In the last two games, he has been nearly flawless. The lone time he and Romo did not hook up on a pass came on Lance Briggs’ interception return when Romo was hit as he attempted to flip the ball free. The only miss against Baltimore was on an overthrow on a waggle in which safety Ed Reed was lurking.

** Jason Garrett had a particularly strong comment about penalties on Monday and what he can do to rectify the issue. He finally mentioned playing time. “Certainly you have the option of saying, ‘OK, if you continue to get penalized like this you’re going to be out of the lineup or you’re going to be of the football team,” he said. Strong. But I wonder what action he can take. Yes, Doug Free had some penalties again, but do you want to see Jermey Parnell on a full-time basis? Parnell has played a handful of snaps this season in short-yardage situations and has a penalty and two missed assignments. Kevin Ogletree had some illegal shift troubles and his playing time might be in trouble going forward. But do you want to see more Dwayne Harris? If you’re asking me, I’m putting Cole Beasley on the field in the slot and keeping Miles Austin outside all the time.

** The Cowboys dodged a bullet of sorts with DeMarco Murray’s sprained foot. There was an initial fear that he had a Lisfranc injury that would have ended his season. He is not expected to play this week at Carolina and will be viewed as week to week after that. I wonder if the Cowboys look for a more experienced runner to help Felix Jones through however long this stretch is. The Cowboys signed Sammy Morris late last season after Murray was lost for the year and they were already without Phillip Tanner. On Sunday Tanner and Lance Dunbar did a nice job filling in when Jones needed to get an IV after Murray’s day ended. But there is a trickle-down effect on special teams because if Tanner has to run more, then they might have to cut back on his special teams’ snaps. Dunbar maybe as well. I don’t think they’ll go that route, but just something to think about.

**I wonder if we saw on Sunday a little bit of how the Cowboys would like to work their cornerbacks in the base defense. Morris Claiborne started and played the first two series. Mike Jenkins was in on the third series and I’d suspect he would have played the next series if he didn’t need to get his right shoulder examined. Injuries, I think wrecked the plan altogether. Claiborne twisted his knee on the Ravens’ last series of the first half and was called for a pass interference penalty that just defies logic. With Jenkins and Claiborne hurt to start the second half, Orlando Scandrick was in with the base defense. If Claiborne and Jenkins are healthy and the Cowboys are playing a team that does not use a lot of three wides, like Baltimore, I’m betting that rotation will return.

5 Wonders: Helping DeMarco Murray

October, 9, 2012
IRVING, Texas -- It’s a quick turnaround for Five Wonders after pushing the series back last week because of the bye, but now it’s back to original programming with its Tuesday spot.

So here we go, on to the Week 6 wonders:

** I wonder if the Cowboys watched some of the games over the bye and came away with different ideas in running the ball. Or at least looked at the statistics. When the Cowboys have three wide receivers on the field, they have picked up 100 yards on 23 carries. When they have two tight ends on the field, they have 68 yards on 35 carries. Try as people might to say DeMarco Murray was at his best with Tony Fiammetta as his lead blocker, he’s actually been better without a fullback and the field is spread. This year he has 70 yards on 16 carries in three-wide packages. Last year he had 224 yards on 22 carries, including the 91-yard touchdown vs. St. Louis with three wides on the field. Garrett wants to be known as a power running team, but it’s just not happening right now. I wonder if they would be better served to run more out of 11 personnel going forward.


What aspect of the Cowboys' offense has been most troubling?


Discuss (Total votes: 12,800)

** I wonder how much more patience Jason Garrett will have with the offensive line. Executive vice president Stephen Jones said on KRLD-FM on Monday that he felt the line was coming together and that it played OK against Chicago. I don’t think he was being polite, but the bar was so low at the start of that Bears’ game that it did not have to go that high. The Cowboys can’t view the possible return of Phil Costa as a game changer. He might know what to do, but can he do it? Coaches tell us the offseason matters and training camp matters. Well, Mackenzy Bernadeau had none of the former and a little of the latter because of injury. Does he get time to get comfortable or does Garrett look at Derrick Dockery sooner rather than later? At some point in his accountability preaching Garrett will have to take the game away from somebody and not just the threat of taking it away. He has not made lineup changes for reasons not related to injury. We’ll see if he does it soon.

** At some point Sunday I wonder if Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones will look at Baltimore safety Ed Reed and wonder, what if? In 2002, the Cowboys picked Roy Williams with the No. 8 overall pick. The Ravens took Reed with the No. 24 overall pick. Reed is still playing. Williams is enjoying his second year of retirement. This isn’t to rip the Cowboys for taking the wrong safety because they weren’t the only team to skip over Reed, who some might say is among the best safeties to ever play the game. For a few years, it looked like both teams hit on their picks with Williams making the Pro Bowl from 2003-07 and earning one All-Pro honor. But then it just fell apart for him for reasons that remain a mystery to some at Valley Ranch. But Reed has been made to the Pro Bowl eight times and is a five-time All-Pro. He has 59 career interceptions. What I like most is 1,506 return yards in those picks. He is a threat to score when the ball is in his hands. He might freelance some but he sure makes a ton of plays and the Cowboys have not seen that from the safety position in a long time.

** Brian Moorman is likely to be the Cowboys’ punter Sunday at Baltimore, but he’s on borrowed time once Chris Jones returns from a knee sprain. Let’s say this is his last game for argument’s sake. How do the Cowboys fill that roster spot? They need some safety help, as has been documented in the past. But finding help is difficult, which is what led the team to special teamer Eric Frampton a few weeks ago. Offensive line is another possibility. But I wonder if it’s not too early to start the poaching process and look at other teams’ practice squads for help. Usually teams do that later in the year with their eyes on the future but the Cowboys might want to kick start that process now.

** I wonder if there is another team in the league with two offensive players as their leading special teams’ tacklers like the Cowboys. Tight ends James Hanna and John Phillips lead the unit with four tackles apiece. Running back Phillip Tanner is tied for fourth with three. How teams record tackles is up to the coaches, but I wonder if the Cowboys can be happy that so many offensive players are at the top of that list considering, you know, they generally aren’t good tacklers because, you know, they play, umm, offense.

5 Wonders: Will Tony Romo's sacks increase?

October, 4, 2012
IRVING, Texas -- If you were wondering where Five Wonders was this week, we just pushed it back a little because of the bye.

With no further ado, we give you the wonders:

Tony Romo
Tim Heitman/US PresswireAfter a pair of flip flops under duress, don't be surprised to see Tony Romo take more sacks from this point on in the season.
** After Monday's debacle, Tony Romo pledged to "do his job" and not try to do too much in the future. I wonder why it takes games like Monday's (and last year's against Detroit) for Romo to come to realization, but I wonder more about what it means going forward. Here's what I think (or wonder): He will take more sacks. And that's a good thing, believe it or not. Too many of us want to just kill last year's offensive line by always bringing up the career-high 36 times Romo was sacked in 2011. In the first four games last year, he was sacked seven times. Quick math says he was sacked 29 in the final 12 games. He went from getting sacked 1.8 times per game to 2.4 times a game. And he had his best season. There's a health risk to taking sacks obviously, but there's something also about living to fight another day. Twice Romo has climbed the pocket in as many weeks and looked to flip the ball forward and twice he's fumbled. Both times, the Cowboys were in field goal range. Last year Romo showed he could still be Romo, meaning make plays when things break down, but he could do it in a somewhat controlled fashion. I wonder if he goes back to that way of thinking.

** Jason Garrett has been calling plays here since 2007. Generally I think the reaction to playcalling is completely overrated because all anyone says is, 'How can you call that play?' when it doesn't work. It's a second guesser's dream. I wonder if Garrett should allow offensive coordinator Bill Callahan to take a crack at it a few times in games. Garrett talks about the collaborative effort there is during the week in coming up with a plan and how that is factored into the playcalling. Well, when you've scored 65 points in four games, you can't just keep doing the same thing over and over, can you? It's not unheard of for playcallers to do this. Bill Parcells let Sean Payton and Tony Sparano take turns when they were with the Cowboys. Callahan has called plays before. I say this and should point out the Cowboys have had a ton of drops, too many penalties and missed throws. But sometimes, a fresh voice can just break things up.

** Jay Ratliff will make his return when the Cowboys play at Baltimore next week. I wonder how much of a difference he will make. The run defense has been decent if not spectacular, but that's not where Ratliff is at his best anyway. Where he needs to help most is in the pass game, although his sack totals have decreased in each of the last four seasons. DeMarcus Ware will get sacks if you and I are playing alongside him, but Ratliff's influence could help Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee. Ratliff is so active that he occupies the attention of multiple blockers more than a Sean Lissemore or a Hatcher. It doesn't mean he will get a ton of sacks, but his presence could help others get sacks. Just something else to note about Ratliff: He showed up at training camp last year weighing 285 pounds. A lot was made of it and he wasn't happy about it. His official playing weight this year is 303 pounds. Maybe it's a coincidence, maybe it's because he was not able to do any on-field work in the offseason. Or maybe they wanted him to be a little bigger.

**The Cowboys signed Brodney Pool early in the free-agency process. They gave him only $100,000 to sign and a $1 million base salary, and, yes, I realize we all should be so fortunate to get that kind of signing bonus when I say "only." Pool was viewed as a stopgap with the hopes the team would draft somebody as a longer-term answer. Unfortunately, Pool didn't seem so interested in playing football. I wonder if the team needs to stop listening to the coaches when it comes to them wanting guys they used to coach. Rob Ryan coached Pool in Cleveland and by the time the Cowboys cut Pool a week into training camp, Ryan said Pool wasn't the same guy he coached. But here's the problem with the Pool miss: It took them out of the running of keeping Abe Elam, who wasn't great but was certainly better than Pool and could have been the same stopgap guy while allowing Barry Church to be the starter, or another veteran-type safety more willing to want to play. Elam ended up in Kansas City. Church's Achilles injury, combined with Matt Johnson's hamstring issues, have left the Cowboys thin at safety for the rest of the season. And for a bonus wonder, no, I don't wonder if the Cowboys will look in the trade market for a veteran safety.

**The Cowboys are on pace for 12 takeaways this season. Chicago already has 14. Atlanta has 12. New England has 11. Arizona has 10. The Cowboys have a Lee interception and fumble recoveries from Church and Victor Butler. I wonder why the Cowboys just can't seem to take the ball away from the other team. They practice it over and over. The coaches emphasize it in drills. And it rarely happens. The generalization is that turnovers come in bunches. Once you get one, it becomes a feeding frenzy. In the first 10 games last year, the Cowboys had 23 takeaways, including four against New England and Buffalo each. In the last 10 games, the Cowboys have seven takeaways and have not had a multiple takeaway game during that span.

5 Wonders: Can Cowboys pro department hit again?

September, 25, 2012
IRVING, Texas -- Another Tuesday, another Five Wonders and we’ll leave the inter-touchdown-ception from last night’s Green Bay-Seattle game to some other folks. This is strictly about the Cowboys.

On to the Wonders:


If the Cowboys lost a game because of a bad call by the refs, would you stop watching NFL games?


Discuss (Total votes: 7,637)

**I wonder if the Cowboys’ pro scouting department will be as successful in finding players this year as it was last year. Maybe one of the five players they try out today -- Don Carey, Antwaun Molden, Tyrone Culver, Eric Frampton or Aaron Rouse -- signs and becomes a big contributor to the defense and/or special teams in 2012. The Cowboys did a pretty good job last year finding players, including from Laurent Robinson, Montrae Holland, Tony Fiammetta and Sammy Morris. None of the players available are perfect so you have to accept some flaws, but the players from last year all helped the Cowboys win games. They hope to be as lucky this year.

** After seeing what Seattle did to Green Bay on Monday night, sacking Aaron Rodgers eight times in the first half, I wonder if we need to re-assess the Cowboys offensive line a little. Or at least tip the cap to Seattle’s defense. Playing with that crowd noise certainly gives them an edge in rushing the passer. Ah, who am I kidding? I wonder just how much Chicago’s defense is licking its chops to get after Tony Romo. The Bears have a league-high 14 sacks in the first three games and have one of the most dangerous pass rushers in Julius Peppers and he doesn’t even lead the team in sacks. Last week marked only the fourth time Romo has been sacked at least four times and the Cowboys have won the game. I wrote this after the game, but the pass protection must improve in a hurry with teams like Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and the Giants on the docket.

ESPN NFL analyst Ed Werder weighs in on the Seattle-Green Bay game and the implications that it holds for NFL officiating.

Listen Listen
**I wonder if Jerry Jones will do a little “I told you so” to Mike Jenkins or the media and fans. While I’d hope Jones would back off his all-is-well notion regarding the replacement refs, I’ll give him a nod in the team’s thinking with Jenkins. Injuries happen and the Cowboys were without Gerald Sensabaugh, so the coaches came up with the idea of putting Brandon Carr at safety in the nickel defense. It worked out great. Now they have lost Barry Church for the season with an Achilles tear and there’s some thought that Carr might be able to play more safety. Why? Because the Cowboys have Jenkins. Jones kept saying the Cowboys would need Jenkins and they would not trade him, no matter how tempting or no matter how much Jenkins’ camp asked. Now the Cowboys need Jenkins and he played extremely well against Vincent Jackson. Jenkins’ style of play fits perfectly with what Rob Ryan wants to do and Jenkins knows he has to play well in order to get a big contract. It might be a perfect storm for the team and Jenkins. And I’ll add this wonder: Can the Cowboys keep Jenkins in 2013? I wouldn’t rule it out.

** I wonder what happened to Doug Free. In 2009, he showed he could play after taking over for Marc Colombo. In 2010, he moved to left tackle and was considered the best linemen on the team. After the lockout ended, the Cowboys signed him to a deal worth $8 million a year and if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have had a tackle and would’ve seen him go to Philadelphia to protect Michael Vick’s blindside. Something is not right with Free. His best asset has been his athleticism. He could overcome a poor step or set and recover. He’s never been the strongest offensive lineman but he would play low enough and could move enough to be solid. Jason Garrett said Free has to be “firmer.” Too often he’s getting pushed back in the pocket or not generating enough movement in the run game. Confidence can be a funny thing and I wonder if he’s lost confidence as he’s moved back to right tackle.

** I liked the aggressiveness the Cowboys showed in attempting an onside kick in the second quarter against Tampa Bay. They should have shown just as much aggressiveness and faith in the defense the previous week in Seattle late in the first half on a fourth-down play. But on Dan Bailey’s attempt, I wonder if the field surface played a part in the Cowboys not converting. During the week, Bailey is attempting those onside kicks in practice on grass. Cowboys Stadium has artificial turf, so maybe the ball slid more on the turf than it did during the week on grass. Or maybe Bailey was so excited for the play that he just hit it too far. Tampa Bay was aligned deep and the play was there if Bailey didn’t touch the ball so far.

5 Wonders: Keeping Tony Romo clean

September, 4, 2012

IRVING, Texas – The first regular-season game is upon us and the first regular-season offering of Five Wonders is here as well.

Just like you can’t wait for kickoff Wednesday, you can’t wait for the Wonders, so on to them:

** Clearly the Cowboys have to keep Tony Romo something close to clean to have a chance, and in big games that has not been easy. The Giants sacked Romo six times in last season’s winner-take-all contest. In the divisional round of the 2009 playoffs, Minnesota sacked Romo six times. In the winner-take-all 2008 season finale at Philadelphia, he was sacked only three times but was hurried into most of his throws, leading to just 183 passing yards. I wonder what kind of magic offensive coordinator Bill Callahan can work with an offensive line that will have had five practices together.

** As the Cowboys continue to ponder Jason Witten’s availability for Wednesday’s game because of a spleen injury, I wonder how much playing in Week 2 at Seattle will be a benefit. Clearly having more time to recover from this injury will help, but does the chance of him injuring his spleen go down to zero percent by waiting 11 days for the Seahawks game? Maybe it does. But I’d wait until the spleen is 100 percent recovered and not risk it and if it means holding Witten out of the first two games, so be it. Now that’s easy for me to say and not so easy for the Cowboys or Witten, but the long term has to be at the forefront of this decision and I’m not talking only about 2012 but Witten’s post-football life, whenever that might begin.

** I wonder just how effective Miles Austin can be after missing the four preseason games and all but a week of training camp because of a hamstring strain. He has had a handful of practices to get ready for the New York Giants and said he’ll be ready to go. What else would he say? But the Cowboys have put a pitch count of sorts on him in practice to make sure he doesn’t stress his legs before the game starts. I asked Romo if he is concerned about picking up where he has left off with Austin in the past because of the receiver’s lack of preseason work, and Romo pointed back to 2011. Against the New York Jets in the same stadium, Austin caught five passes for 90 yards in a touchdown in the season opener. So clearly Romo isn’t wondering about Austin’s productivity.

** I wonder how long it might take Ryan Cook to become the Cowboys' starting center. Phil Costa’s low back strain is something that might linger although he has returned to practice and is a tough guy. But Cook is three inches taller and 12 pounds heavier than Costa. The fact that the Cowboys added a year to Cook’s contract after the trade from Miami tells me that they want some protection for 2013 too. Costa is scheduled to be a restricted free agent, and to keep his rights the Cowboys will have to tender him a deal in the $1.5 million range. Cook is scheduled to make $1.1 million in 2013.

** I wonder just how much the Cowboys will miss Jay Ratliff against the Giants. In 2009, Ratliff had 11 tackles and three tackles for loss against the Giants. In the four games against the Giants since, he has had 11 tackles and just one tackle for loss. Like Witten, there’s no need to rush Ratliff back from his high ankle sprain and have it be an issue for the whole season. But as much as Ratliff has been named to the Pro Bowl, the last couple of seasons he just has not produced the same as he did a few years ago. Are the Cowboys a better defense with him? Absolutely. But they have played almost all of training camp and the preseason without him, so Sean Lissemore and Josh Brent should not be afraid of the spotlight.