Dallas Cowboys: Tony Fiammetta

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 2

June, 7, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:

** The ceiling of the defense
** The future of Brandon Carr
** The backup wide receivers
** The role for Dwayne Harris
** And if they keep a fullback.

If you want to see Part 1, click here.

Away we go:

 

In Will McClay, Cowboys will be covered

April, 15, 2014
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Will McClayAP Photo/James D SmithAssistant director of player personnel Will McClay, 47, will be an asset to the Cowboys in May's draft.
IRVING, Texas -- There is a Herm Edwards story that keeps coming back to Will McClay, especially now.

The story is from more than 10 years ago, when Edwards was coach of the New York Jets. As a boy, Edwards' father made him sweep the back patio of their house. When Edwards was done, his father went out back, saw the pile his son made and immediately went to the corners. They were untouched.

The message that stuck with McClay when he first heard the story was simple: Details matter.

In his current job as the Dallas Cowboys' assistant director of player personnel, McClay is sweeping the corners.

In this case, sweeping the corners is looking anywhere and everywhere for a player to help the Cowboys in next month's draft. This is McClay's first as the Cowboys' highest-ranked personnel chief not named Jones.

"He's there night and day," said McClay's former Arena Football League assistant and confidante Terry Gray. "He's got a relentless passion to provide Mr. [Jerry] Jones and Stephen [Jones] the very best product available within the means and the parameters of what he's able to work with. He's nonstop. Nonstop. He doesn't sleep a whole lot."

There will be time to sleep after the draft. Maybe McClay, 47, can sneak in a little bit in June after the minicamp ends but before training camp in Oxnard, Calif., begins in late July.

For now, sleep can wait. McClay, whom the Cowboys declined to make available for this story, is in charge of putting the Cowboys' draft room together. It is a painstaking process that takes months to go through but picks up its pace in the final few weeks before the Cowboys pick No. 16 overall in the first round on May 8.

This week, nearly 30 players from across the country will visit Valley Ranch, wrapping up on Wednesday. On Thursday, the club will host its Dallas Day workouts for the local draft prospects. When it is all over, McClay and the scouting department will be back in the office grinding away, sweeping the corners.

McClay's rise to this current position has taken him through the Arena Football League as a player and coach, the defunct XFL and the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he was the assistant director of pro scouting. He joined the Cowboys organization in 2002 as defensive coordinator of the AFL's Dallas Desperados and became the head coach in 2004. He also served as a pro scout for the Cowboys, and in 2012 he was named the director of football research. Last spring he was promoted to his current title.

"Everything equates in looking at talent," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "He found some really unique guys in the arena league and then of course when he was back in scouting. He has had a passion for it, and it just seems like every step of the way he's done a good job for us. I commend him on the job he did finding guys like [George] Selvie and [Nick] Hayden, people like that. People that everybody had a shot at, but he brought them in."

Over the past few years, the Cowboys have found several prizes in street free agency in Laurent Robinson, Tony Fiammetta, Eric Frampton, Ernie Sims and Selvie, who had seven sacks last season. The Cowboys dressed 20 different defensive linemen in 2013.

McClay spent most of the season sweeping the corners for defensive linemen. And he was doing it long before he ever heard Edwards' tale. He did it at Houston Marian Christian, playing wide receiver as a freshman and quarterback as a senior to win Class 3A state titles in the Texas Christian Interscholastic League in 1981 and ‘84.

His high school coach, Mike Treybig, remembers walking into his office only to see McClay feeding the 16-millimeter film into the projector.

"

He found some really unique guys in the arena league and then of course when he was back in scouting. He has had a passion for it, and it just seems like every step of the way he's done a good job for us.

" -- Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones on assistant director of player personnel William McClay
"William liked watching tape," Treybig said. "I would imagine he would've loved it if we let him call his own plays. I know there were times we allowed him to do that. He was definitely a student of the game. We didn't have to worry about a lot of stuff when it came to William. We knew he did his homework and would take care of things to give us the best chance to win on that Friday."

McClay could have gone to Nebraska, but he chose Rice instead to stay close to home and played defensive back. He was recruited there by Mike Nolan, the current defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. Tyrone Willingham, the former head coach at Notre Dame and Stanford, was the receivers coach at the time.

He remembers questions from McClay about what receivers looked for, searching for ways to get better as a defender even if the wins did not come as much as the Owls would have liked. Willingham and McClay remain close to this day.

"I'm personally excited for the individual, but I'm more excited for the organization because they did not let talent, for one reason or another, slip through the cracks," Willingham said. "That, to me, is so important because when you have talent you want to let it rise to the top to better everyone else in the organization."

Clint Dolezel played two years at East Texas State, throwing for 3,152 yards and 22 touchdown passes. McClay was defensive coordinator with a hand in personnel for the Milwaukee Mustangs in 1995 when Dolezel was recommended and eventually signed.

By the time Dolezel retired in 2008 with the Desperados with McClay as his head coach, he threw for 44,563 yards and 931 touchdowns.

"So many scouts get caught up in the fact, ‘Well, we want him because he went to this big school,'" said Dolezel, now the head coach of the AFL's Philadelphia Soul. "And a lot of times they're right, but those are the no-brainers that no one is pointing a finger at if he doesn't pan out. Hey, he had the pedigree because he went to Texas or Oklahoma or Florida State or Alabama. The good ones find the ones at East Texas State and schools like that."

In his interview with the Jaguars, Tom Coughlin had McClay research a particular free-agent cornerback the team was high on and wanted to sign. McClay watched the tape and concluded that the player would not be worth the money or fit in the system. Coughlin briefly objected, but McClay held firm. He got the job, and the Jaguars did not sign the player.

"There is not a magic formula," Gray said. "It's just good, old-fashioned bust-your-ass hard work and lots and lots of tape. Lots of calls. Lots of research. Just looking at thousands of players until you find one you think fits for you. He's just got a very unique way knowing a football player when he sees one. That's commonly described by a lot of people, but he just knows it at a different level. It's more than just everybody saying, ‘He can't play.' It's Will finding guys that can play that no one considered.

"Will McClay is a machine. He's a film-watching, evaluating, researching machine. He just never stops and he will never stop."

There always will be corners to sweep.

Why a fullback doesn't make sense for Cowboys

December, 4, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys seemed to make a lot of fans happy on Tuesday when they signed a fullback. It wasn’t Lawrence Vickers, which still had some upset, but at least Tyler Clutts actually has played fullback in an NFL game.

To me, however, the signing does not make a lot of sense.

The Cowboys’ pro personnel department deserves a lot of credit for finding guys. George Selvie, Nick Hayden and Jarius Wynn have all helped this year. You can go back to last year for guys like Ernie Sims, Sterling Moore and Eric Frampton. And who can forget the Laurent Robinson signing?

This is not a knock on Clutts, who was described by a personnel chief as a “workmanlike lead blocker.” He might be another solid find. I just don’t see how he fits in what the Cowboys do well in their running game.

The weather will be cold in Chicago on Monday. It could be cold when the Cowboys play the Washington Redskins. And Jason Garrett keeps saying you want to be a physical team in December. I get all of that, but what the Cowboys do best when they run the ball is spread the field with three wide receivers.

Maybe it’s the curse of Tony Fiammetta, another pro department find who helped DeMarco Murray bust out in 2011. The fullback is a revered spot around here, going back to Walt Garrison and leading us to Daryl Johnston.

But it is also a dying position with offenses designed to pass the ball more or run out of “11 personnel,” like the Cowboys.

The Cowboys offensive line is not the ‘90s version of the Cowboys’ line. They do not overpower people. The scheme is not really a power scheme. They look to create creases, not gaping holes. Nate Newton and Larry Allen are not walking through that door to do that.

Murray is averaging 5.5 yards per carry for his career when he runs out of three-wide receiver looks. This year the Cowboys have gained 531 yards on 114 carries and scored five touchdowns out of 11 personnel. Against the Raiders they had 92 yards on 11 carries in 11 personnel. Lance Dunbar’s 45-yard run came out of 11 personnel. Even without that run the Cowboys averaged 4.7 yards a pop when they ran out of three-wides.

So this brings me to Clutts. Will he play five snaps a game? Is it worth it? Was using a tight end or linebacker Kyle Bosworth at fullback that bad? Not really.

The Cowboys could have gone a number of different ways in replacing Dunbar, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a knee injury. They worked out Clutts and a handful of other runners that have barely made their mark in the NFL. Would any of those guys helped? If you’re going to look for a runner, find a tested runner -- even one that has not played this year -- who might have six weeks left in him.

The better move would have been to poach from a practice squad. They did it late last year with tackle Darrion Weems. Maybe he develops into a backup. Maybe he never develops. But they at least had the chance to develop a player. They could look at any position really. In my Five Wonders post, I wondered why they don’t add a No. 3 quarterback for the stretch run. He’d be inactive for the final four games anyway, so at least get a guy in here to learn how they do things as they head into the offseason.

Maybe Clutts will help the running game, but statistics suggest otherwise.

Cowboys moving toward more diversity

June, 16, 2013
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The offseason was a bad one for NFL owners in terms of diversity with their head coaches.

Of the eight vacancies, none were filled with minority candidates.

Of the seven general manager positions that were empty, only one -- Doug Whaley to the Buffalo Bills -- went to a minority.

Which brings us to the Dallas Cowboys.

Late last week, the Cowboys promoted Will McClay to assistant director of player personnel to work alongside Tom Ciskowski, who changed his title to director of scouting.

McClay is a key person in the Cowboys front office, along with Ciskowski and Judd Garrett in terms of finding players, college and pro.

But what McClay represents is diversity. He moves towards the top at a very important position in the Cowboys front office, and he's African-American. McClay has a voice with Jerry and Stephen Jones, which is very important in terms of finding players.

There are few African-American head coaches, just three in 2013, and the GM roles are held by few: Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore, Martin Mayhew in Detroit, Jerry Reese with the New York Giants, Reggie McKenzie in Oakland and Rick Smith in Houston are some of the names.

Diversity is important in sports, especially in the front office, and the Cowboys should be commended for what they did for McClay. They didn't move him up because of the color of his skin, but rather for what he's done for the team.

He helped find such players as Eric Frampton, Tony Fiammetta, Ernie Sims and Laurent Robinson. There was another player McClay found for the Cowboys, Jerry Brown, who passed away last December in a car crash.

The Cowboys have always promoted diversity in a number of ways, and by pushing McClay to this role, he could one day become a general manager for another team in a league that needs more diversity.

Sources: Cowboys shuffle scouting staff

June, 14, 2013
6/14/13
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IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys are shuffling their scouting department and will promote Will McClay to assistant director of player personnel to work alongside Tom Ciskowski, who will be named the director of scouting, according to sources.

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McClay has worked in the Cowboys’ pro personnel department for the last 11 years and added the director of football research title in 2012. He was the head coach of the Dallas Desperados of the AFL from 2004-08.

Ciskowski was named the Cowboys’ director of pro and college scouting in 2008 and had the title change to assistant director of player personnel in 2011.

Over the last two seasons, McClay played a part in the Cowboys finding veteran players off the street that helped win games, such as Tony Fiammetta, Ernie Sims, Eric Frampton and Laurent Robinson. As the director of football research, McClay used advanced statistical and analytics in helping with scouting of players and other teams.

Stephen Jones carries the chief executive officer, executive vice president and director of player personnel titles.

According to sources, the Cowboys denied Cleveland and Kansas City permission to speak with McClay about front-office jobs in those organizations this offseason. McClay was Jacksonville’s assistant director of pro scouting in 2001.

Ciskowski joined the Cowboys as a scout in 1992 and from 2001-07 was the assistant director of college scouting. When Jeff Ireland left for Miami after the 2007 season, Ciskowski was promoted.

Poor run game reason for Skip Peete's exit

January, 7, 2013
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The Cowboys relieved running back coach Skip Peete of his duties Monday.

You could say the reason for the move is that somebody had to take the fall for one of the worst running attacks in the NFL in 2012. When you finish 31st overall, it might be time to evaluate the run game. You can't blame Peete for all the problems. Running back DeMarco Murray missed six games with a sprained foot. Then there were the inconsistencies of Felix Jones, who played with two bad knees, and the offensive line.

But when Jerry Jones said changes need to happen, then somebody has to go. Peete had a year remaining on a two-year contract extension he signed in 2011.

One of the biggest problems facing Peete, whether or not it was his fault, was the lack of development with two young running backs, Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner. Both struggled to back up Jones during the six games Murray missed. The pair got limited snaps on special teams and were ghosts on offense the last few weeks of the regular season.

Tanner didn't have a carry since Nov. 4 at Atlanta and finished with 61 yards on 25 carries. He was also inactive for two of the last three weeks of the season. Dunbar didn't have one since Thanksgiving and finished the season with 75 yards on 21 carries.

The Cowboys expected more from the young running backs. Dunbar had some speed and Tanner was a physical presence, but neither seemed to impressed the offensive coaches.

Fullback Lawrence Vickers was signed in free agency as an upgrade over Tony Fiammetta, but he was uneven at times.

Roster moves forthcoming for Cowboys

November, 24, 2012
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When the Cowboys front office gathers together Monday at Valley Ranch and tries to salvage something from this season, roster moves will be at the forefront of the discussions.

The team needs to do something at inside linebacker.

Sean Lee is already out for the season after undergoing toe surgery, and it appears Bruce Carter will be lost due to elbow surgery.

If that's the case, and there are strong indications it will be, the Cowboys might have to sign a linebacker. Alex Albright can play inside linebacker behind Dan Connor and Ernie Sims, but adding a veteran linebacker at that spot should be considered.

Anthony Armstrong worked out with the Cowboys earlier this week at wide receiver because of Kevin Ogletree's concussion. Now with Miles Austin having a strained hip, suffered in the Redskins game, it increases the chances Armstrong might get signed.

Cornerback Orlando Scandrick underwent surgery Friday to repair a broken left hand. Do the Cowboys find another corner? Mike Jenkins is more than capable of playing slot corner if Scandrick misses any games, but you might need another defensive back for special teams or to play on certain passing downs.

Cornerback Sterling Moore, who is on the New England Patriots practice squad, might be someone Dallas looks into.

Moore played college football at SMU.

In the last two seasons, the Cowboys pro personnel department has done a nice job of making in-season signings from the free agent market. Tony Fiammetta, Frank Walker, Charlie Peprah, Laurent Robinson and Sammy Morris made contributions to the team last season.

With five games remaining in the season, injuries have forced the Cowboys to juggle their roster again. It's life in the NFL, as coach Jason Garrett likes to say, but something has to happen now for this team to make a playoff push.

5 Wonders: Rob Ryan's head coaching future

October, 30, 2012
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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: Helping DeMarco Murray

October, 9, 2012
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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.

SportsNation

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

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    29%
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    24%
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    27%
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    9%
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    11%

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: Can Cowboys pro department hit again?

September, 25, 2012
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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:

SportsNation

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

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    23%
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    77%

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.

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**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.

The Vickers-DeMarco Murray connection

August, 8, 2012
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OXNARD, Calif. -- Much was made last year of the performance of Dallas Cowboys fullback Tony Fiammetta in connection with the breakout performance of running back DeMarco Murray. But the Cowboys let Fiammetta go this offseason and replaced him with veteran fullback Lawrence Vickers, who blocked for Arian Foster and Ben Tate last year in Houston and for Peyton Hillis the year before that in Cleveland. Vickers is a remarkably fun guy to talk to -- enthusiastic and engaging -- and here's what he told me about Murray when I spoke with him after Cowboys practice Monday:

[+] EnlargeLawrence Vickers
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliFullback Lawrence Vickers will be paving the way for DeMarco Murray this season.
"First of all, he's ambitious. And he's coming in to work. He's got that hard-nosed mentality, but he loves the game. And when you want to be great and you have ambition and goals and dreams and all those things, there's only one way to get there -- work, work, work. And that's what he wants to do. When it's his time to go, he wants to get in there. Everything he's doing, he's trying to do it to the best of his ability."

Vickers said his most important jobs as the fullback in the Cowboys' offense are "to lead by example and to be the eyes of the running back." Then he tried to demonstrate by standing in front of me with his back turned and asking if I could see anything. I could not. I am 5-foot-9, 190 pounds. Vickers is 6-0, 250. More relevantly. Murray is 6-0, 215 and likely cannot see around Vickers, either.

"He has to trust in me in order to go where I'm going," Vickers said. "You have to trust in me that I'm going to go to the right place, because you're following me. We have to be able to trust each other, and that just comes from repetition."

Murray obviously trusted Fiammetta with a great deal of success, so it's not as though running behind a fullback is some kind of new concept for him. But to those who have asked me whether there's anything to fear about Murray switching from Fiammetta to Vickers my answer is: If you met Lawrence Vickers, you wouldn't have to ask.

"I've got no complaints there," Murray told me. "He's a great guy, a great blocker, a smart guy and he gets after it."

Talking to Vickers fired me up. I wanted to go try to run through a defensive line. Fortunately for me, the opportunity did not readily present itself. If it had, I'd have asked Vickers to block for me. He'd probably have done it. He's a different sort of guy. I mentioned to him that the fullback position wasn't really a glory position in the NFL, and he agreed. He just doesn't care.

"I love it," Vickers said. "Because it's a job everybody can't do. So when you're doing something everybody can't do, and you're making it look good, that says a lot about you as a person. I don't need the glory, because at the end of the day, when those guys get in that end zone, when those guys go over to Hawaii, when those guys get in that Hall of Fame ... Emmitt Smith said it best: 'Couldn't do nothing without my fullback.' Not that my guys have to say that about me, but knowing that I was a part of that is enough for me."

Position series: Cowboys running backs

June, 19, 2012
6/19/12
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Another slow offseason day calls for another edition of the NFC East position series -- our position-by-position look at each of the teams in our division. There's no pre-planned order to any of these, so it means little that I've chosen to look at running backs today and to start with the Dallas Cowboys.

Projected starters: RB DeMarco Murray, FB Lawrence Vickers

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Tim Heitman/US PresswireDeMarco Murray racked up 897 yards in his shortened rookie season.
Reserves: RB Felix Jones, RB Phillip Tanner, RB Lance Dunbar, RB Darrell Scott, FB Shaun Chapas

Potential strength: Murray performed like an elite-level workhorse in the seven games he played as a starter before the Giants game in which he broke his ankle. He averaged 114.1 yards per game and 5.96 yards per carry during that seven-game stretch. And Jones, the fifth-year former starter, had two 100-yard games after Murray went down. So they have a high-level starter and an experienced, capable backup, and they believe Vickers will play even better than Tony Fiammetta did for them as the lead blocker last season. And Tanner is a good third running back who's shown encouraging flashes and should stick around due to his contributions on special teams. Assuming everyone's healthy, this is a unit capable of big things.

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Cowboys FB Lawrence Vickers explains why he's so excited to be a Dallas Cowboy, how long it took Jerry Jones to sign him, the expectations for the upcoming season and more.

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Potential weakness: Even while he was rolling up all of those yards, Murray scored just two touchdowns last year. And Jones only scored one. The Cowboys had just five rushing touchdowns as a team in 2011. Only the Cleveland Browns scored fewer. As good as Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten can be in the red zone, it would help if the running backs posed more of a realistic threat to score at the goal line. Red-zone production is an area in which the Cowboys' running game must be better than it was last year.

Keep an eye on: The on-field relationship between Murray and Vickers. Murray and Fiammetta made a very productive team last year. The Cowboys believe that had more to do with Murray than it did with the fullback, and they think they've upgraded at fullback. But Murray had an innate sense of where Fiammetta was going to go and what would result in terms of opportunity for him thereafter. Murray said during minicamp that he's getting to know Vickers, and it's unlikely to be a problem. But that chemistry he had with the fullback last year was part of his success, so it's at least worth watching to make sure he finds something similar with the new guy.

DeMarco Murray learning Lawrence Vickers

June, 13, 2012
6/13/12
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IRVING, Texas --Fullback Tony Fiammetta was a joy for running back DeMarco Murray last season. But Fiammetta is gone, having signed with New England, and the Dallas Cowboys replaced him with Lawrence Vickers, who was released by Houston.

Vickers blocked for Arian Foster last season and we all know how good he is. Foster rushed for 1,224 yards last season, fifth in the NFL.

Vickers said he was shocked to be released by the Texans, but it was more about the salary cap than performance. The Cowboys value the fullback position and were of the belief Vickers was a better option than Fiammetta.

"So far so good," Murray said of his work with Vickers. "I'm loving him and the enthusiasm he brings to the running back group and what he brings to the practice field and what he brings to his team. So I'm excited to see what he's going to do in training camp."

Last season, Murray rushed for 897 yards, 22nd in the league, with Fiammetta as the primary blocker. Each player has to learn the tendencies of the other. Though Vickers has said he has to be a comfort level for Murray more than anything else.

Murray said he will watch film with Vickers on a daily basis and point out plays he likes and what he's looking for after he gets the handoff.

"His eyes are my eyes, and my eyes are his eyes," Murray said. "We're going to continue to work on that and continue to work on the chemistry. It's still early. We've been practicing for only three weeks and we have a lot of time to work."

Health not an issue for Tony Fiammetta

March, 14, 2012
3/14/12
4:20
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The Cowboys praised the play of fullback Tony Fiammetta last season. But a three-game absence, which led to some tense moments at Valley Ranch, might have sealed his future leading the team to sign fullback Lawrence Vickers on Wednesday.

Fiammetta missed those games with an undisclosed illness. The team didn't know what was wrong with Fiammetta. At one point, after a news conference, coach Jason Garrett addressed reporters by saying Fiammetta didn't have a concussion.

The team didn't know what was really wrong.

Fiammetta was a ghost at Valley Ranch for three weeks. He couldn't even work out.

Then finally he reappeared. Normally when approached by reporters, he chats, but one day he declined to comment as two reporters walked with him toward the parking lot.

Fiammetta was later diagnosed with an inner-ear infection which caused balance issues. He did return for the last four games of the season.

He wasn't the same player. He was a good blocker but he didn't move defenders out of the way as fast as he did early in the season. The Cowboys still valued him, and there was a thought he might get a new contract after he wasn't given a exclusive rights deal Tuesday.

But enter Vickers, whom ProFootballFocus.com ranked as the 15th best fullback in the league in 2011. Fiammetta was ranked 27th while playing in 227 snaps. Vickers played 235.

A source said Fiammetta didn't have any new health issues come up when the season ended. So this move is more about Vickers being better than Fiammetta.

So give the Cowboys credit for upgrading their roster.

Todd Archer provides more analysis regarding Vickers here.

Analysis: Durability a factor at fullback

March, 14, 2012
3/14/12
3:58
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IRVING, Texas – Tony Fiammetta quickly became something of a legend last year as the Cowboys’ lead blocker for DeMarco Murray.

It seemed the move to a more traditional fullback helped open up avenues for the running game that the Cowboys did not have with their tight ends serving as blockers. And the stats backed up the thought.

But Fiammetta could not stay healthy. He missed five games last year. He missed eight games in his first two seasons with Carolina.

As much as the Cowboys wanted to keep him, they did not want to pay him $1.26 million as a restricted free agent. They had talks with his agent about a multi-year contract that would have been more cap friendly but when one did not materialize they decided not to tender him a contract.

That made Fiammetta free to sign elsewhere but it also made the Cowboys free to shop elsewhere.

They signed Lawrence Vickers to a two-year deal Wednesday, leaving him unemployed for not long after Houston cut him. Vickers is older (he turns 29 in May) but he’s bigger and he has shown to be more durable. He has missed just two games in the last three years in opening holes for Peyton Hillis in Cleveland and Arian Foster last year.

The decision to sign Vickers shows that Jason Garrett believes there is something to having a true fullback on the game-day roster.

But it also comes at a cost and the Cowboys did not want to overpay for a guy that would play 15 or so snaps a game.

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