Dallas Cowboys: Robert Griffin III

Best case/worst case: Henry Melton

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
IRVING, Texas -- In order to break out of their 8-8 doldrums, the Dallas Cowboys will need a lot to go right in 2014.

This week we take a best-case, worst-case look at five offensive and defensive players who will go a long way in shaping the Cowboys' season.

Henry Melton

Best-case: The reunion works

When Melton had Rod Marinelli as his defensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears, he was in Pro Bowl form. The Cowboys are banking on it happening, literally. They signed Melton to a one-year deal with a three-year option as a free agent. If Melton performs the way he did in his final two years -- 13 sacks in a two-year run as a starter -- then the Cowboys will gladly pick up the option, which would guarantee Melton $9 million in 2015. Melton is coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and went through individual drills in the offseason program as he continued his rehab. The Cowboys know how important he is to their defensive line. He has the best resume but played in only three games last year before getting hurt and did not have a sack. He could draw the double teams that would free up other pass rushers. Marinelli has a way of speaking a defensive lineman's language. He makes sure they are relentless and attack up the field. Marinelli helped make Jason Hatcher a Pro Bowl player last year. He never had more than 4.5 sacks in a season but put up 11 in 2012 under Marinelli. Similar production from Melton would go a long way in helping a defense with low expectations.

Worst-case: He needs more time

Adrian Peterson ruined it for everybody coming back from a torn ACL by being otherworldly in 2012 when he ran for 2,097 yards. He raised the expectations that everybody can come back that fast and that well. Robert Griffin III offered up the other side of the recovery. He was OK last year but not as dynamic as he was a rookie. The general thought is that a player is better the second year after the torn ACL. Players have to make physical and mental recoveries from the injury. Sometimes the mental recovery can be erased quickly with the first few hits. Other times, it takes a while for instincts to return. For the Cowboys, that would not be good because Melton is looked at as one of the kingpins of a re-made defensive line. He cannot be a question up front if the Cowboys want to be better in 2014 than they were in 2013. The Cowboys don't need him to be Warren Sapp, but he can't be average either. For Melton, that would not be good because if he needs another year, he will not cash in on that $9 million guarantee and would be a free agent in 2015 coming off two potentially so-so seasons.

A guess at the Cowboys' schedule

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
IRVING, Texas – Last week the St. Louis Rams offered up at $100,000 prize if somebody can correctly predict their 2014 schedule, complete with day and time.

We will offer up no such prize if you can correctly predict the Dallas Cowboys’ schedule, but feel free to post yours in the comments section. I’m giving you my best guess as the NFL comes close to finalizing the schedule this week.

Sept. 7 at New York Giants -- I pondered them opening the year at the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks on Thursday night, but thought better of it.

Sept. 15 vs. Houston Texans -- The Rangers are home on Sept. 14, so to avoid congestion, let’s make this a "Monday Night Football" matchup for ESPN.

Sept. 21 at Seattle Seahawks -- With the trip to London later, the Cowboys are able to have their long travel games spread out.

Sept. 28 vs. Arizona -- Seems about the right time to bring in the Cardinals, but could they be a Thanksgiving Day possibility?

Oct. 5 at Tennessee Titans -- First trip to Nashville since Albert Haynesworth stomped on Andre Gurode’s head.

Oct. 12 vs. Philadelphia Eagles -- The Cowboys get their first crack at the Eagles to avenge last year’s Week 17 loss.

Oct. 19 vs. Washington Redskins -- Jason Hatcher’s return to AT&T Stadium, though I think this game will be more about Robert Griffin III.

Oct. 26 at Chicago Bears -- The Cowboys’ trip to Soldier Field last year would have been the most pathetic road game of year if not for their trip to New Orleans.

Nov. 2 vs. Indianapolis Colts -- It was supposed to be the return of Phil Costa, but he has retired, so instead Andrew Luck makes his first trip to Arlington.

Nov. 9 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars at London -- The one game I know I will get right as the Cowboys make their regular-season debut across the pond.

Nov. 16 – Bye -- I’m on a roll.

Nov. 23 at St. Louis Rams -- I’ve long felt the Cowboys need to play a road game the week before Thanksgiving. This gives them a short flight.

Nov. 27 vs. New Orleans Saints -- They played on Thanksgiving in 2010 and I don’t like putting a key game on a day everybody is watching anyway, but call it a hunch.

Dec. 7 at Philadelphia Eagles -- Here comes the final month grind. Will the Cowboys be in the chase?

Dec. 14 vs. San Francisco 49ers -- The Cowboys better be ready for their most physical game of the season.

Dec. 21 at Washington Redskins -- In Week 16 last year Tony Romo pulled off some late-game magic despite a back injury that required surgery five days later.

Dec. 28 vs. New York Giants -- Open with New York, close with New York. Will the NFC East title come down to Week 17 for the fourth year in a row?

Chat recap: When will Cowboys go after QB?

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
IRVING, Texas -- We had another solid chat on Wednesday with a lot of draft questions.

We talked about trading up (I don’t see it happening), selecting Anthony Barr or Kony Ealy if both are available at No. 16 (Barr), taking a chance on Dominique Easley, the extra time leading up to the draft (hate it) and my all-time favorite Cowboy.

If you want to read the whole chat, click here.

I was also asked about drafting a quarterback.

R Lank, Md.: With romo 1 bad hit, and he's finished along with the uncertainty of orton why not draft a decent qb. at romo's age along with his injuries would u say that a high risk paying him that kind of money. I mean like u and (Jacques) said why pay age?

Todd Archer: When it comes to quarterbacks and left tackles, paying age doesn't seem as problematic for a lot of teams. I understand what you're saying about drafting a quarterback, but I don't see them going after a guy in the first two rounds. Maybe the third but more likely fourth or fifth. When you're picking a guy there, it's a projection more than a known commodity. Honestly, I think when Romo is done, whenever that is, the Cowboys will draft his replacement the following year and go with the guy.

Let me go a little deeper. For the last three or four years this has been a common question either because fans want the Cowboys to move on from Tony Romo or start the process of finding his replacement before it’s too late.

I’ve been a fan of selecting a quarterback every year, similar to the way Ron Wolf worked the draft with the Green Bay Packers. Clearly the Cowboys don’t share that belief, and I’ve just now come to the realization that when Romo’s career is over, then they will go ahead and find their next starter.

They don’t believe it makes sense to draft a quarterback, give him time to develop and then hand him the keys, say, the way the Packers did with Aaron Rodgers when they decided to move on from Brett Favre. It’s a risky strategy, but it’s what the Cowboys did after Troy Aikman retired.

They drafted Quincy Carter in the second round, surprisingly, and he won the job. They cut Tony Banks in camp so as there was no doubt Carter would be the guy. It didn’t work, although Carter did help the Cowboys to the playoffs in 2003.

Finding the next franchise quarterback took time for the Cowboys, and they got lucky in Romo. They looked to baseball and got Carter, Chad Hutchinson and Drew Henson. They looked at vets like Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe.

If you look at quarterbacks now, teams draft them and play them. Andy Dalton was a Day 1 starter with the Cincinnati Bengals after he was picked in the second round. Russell Wilson won the starting job with the Seattle Seahawks as a third round pick. Cam Newton, Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck were No. 1 picks and starters from the beginning.

Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins), Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins), E.J. Manuel (Buffalo Bills), Geno Smith (New York Jets) and Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons) have been walk-in starters.

So whenever Romo is done – two, three or four years from now – that’s when I think the Cowboys go all in for a quarterback in the draft. And if (remember it’s still an if) that is the case, then there is a strong argument to take another offensive lineman at No. 16 next month.

With Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Offensive Lineman X, the Cowboys would have three first-round picks to protect an early-round quarterback. That would be a good way to break in a young quarterback. He would not be under siege behind a bad line.

Will this happen? Who knows, but it’s what I think could be the case.

Cowboys face toughest offseason

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
IRVING, Texas – More than a few times we have talked about all of the difficult decisions the Dallas Cowboys face this offseason.

ESPN Insider Mike Sando believes the Cowboys have the most challenging offseason of any team in the NFL. Insider

The other four teams Sando listed are the Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers. The Raiders have a ton of cap space but not a lot of talent. The Dolphins have to deal with the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin mess but have pieces in place to compete. The Redskins have a new coaching staff in place but the hope of Robert Griffin III regaining form. The Panthers have free-agent decisions to make but have the look of a team that can continue as playoff contenders.

The Cowboys?

Here’s what Sando wrote:

“The Cowboys are a mess from a salary-cap standpoint, and it will affect their team-building again this offseason. For years, the organization has relieved short-term cap pains by pushing charges into the future, all in the name of a win-now philosophy. That probably will be Dallas' approach again this offseason as the team tries to clear more than $20 million just to comply with the 2014 cap as required by March 11.

Teams seeking quick cap relief sometimes release players to clear room. Dallas cannot do that in most cases because so many of the Cowboys' contracts would produce even greater charges in 2014 if the players were released. Top pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware is on a short list of Cowboys whose releases would produce immediate cap relief. Ware has struggled with injuries recently and turns 32 in July. The team would be worse without him, however.

None of the cap-related moves available to the Cowboys, from reworking deals for veterans to releasing Ware, would improve the team. Even with those measures, Dallas could very well lose two of its best defensive linemen, Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer, in free agency. The Cowboys will have to prop up their defense through the draft while banking on Tony Romo to make a strong return from back surgery. It's a formula for treading water and sinking eventually.”

The last sentence is a good one. The Cowboys have been treading water for a few years now, unable to capitalize on their playoff win in 2009. Since then the Cowboys are four games under .500.

But how do the Cowboys get out of this spot? Would you be willing to go through a complete rebuilding job that could take more than a few years? Would you have confidence in the people in place to put together the rebuilding process?

Cowboys miss chances to add extra picks

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
IRVING, Texas -- It’s clear the Dallas Cowboys do not have a philosophy when it comes to drafting a quarterback.

The sounds coming from the Senior Bowl two weeks ago were that whenever the Cowboys decide to move on from Tony Romo, they will draft a quarterback in the early rounds and play him right way, like the Seattle Seahawks did with Russell Wilson and the Cincinnati Bengals did with Andy Dalton, among others.

Since selecting Troy Aikman with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1989 draft, owner and general manager Jerry Jones has drafted three quarterbacks: Bill Musgrave, Quincy Carter and Stephen McGee. He also took Steve Walsh with first-round pick in the 1989 supplemental draft.

Carter was a second-round reach in 2001 but he did help the Cowboys to the playoffs in 2003 under Bill Parcells. McGee was a fourth-round hope in 2009 but he just did not develop.

Two years ago the Washington Redskins traded up to take Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick. They took Kirk Cousins in the fourth round.

Two years later, Cousins is open to a trade, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

How does this relate to the Cowboys?

By drafting Cousins and having him play just a little -- four starts, eight appearances -- the Redskins have an opportunity to acquire a pick or picks from a team interested in Cousins. What can they get for Cousins? It only takes one team to believe, but even if they are not high picks they are still picks.

A team can never go wrong in having extra picks, unless you want to look at the Cowboys’ draft of 2009 when they had 11 picks and the best pick was either Victor Butler (fourth) or John Phillips (sixth).

Under Ron Wolf, the Green Bay Packers were able turn Ty Detmer (1992), Mark Brunell (1993), Matt Hasselbeck (1998) and Aaron Brooks (1999) into six draft picks.

Jones has seen the benefit of drafting a quarterback and then later trading him with Walsh. In 1990, he sent Walsh to the New Orleans Saints for first-, third- and second-round picks.

Considering how much Jones likes to wheel and deal it's strange that he has not seen the benefit of drafting a quarterback in order to do some wheeling and dealing down the road if his starting quarterback spot is as secure as it has been since Romo took over in 2006.

Cowboys vs. new coaches in 2014

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
IRVING, Texas -- With the NFL's game of musical chairs involving head coaches just about over -- except for the uber-patient Cleveland Browns -- let's look at the effect the new names in new spots will have on the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys will face three teams with new head coaches in 2014: Jay Gruden with the Washington Redskins, Bill O'Brien with the Houston Texans and Ken Whisenhunt with the Tennessee Titans.

In 2013, the Cowboys went 1-4 against teams with new coaches. The lone win was the October meeting against Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles, but they returned the favor in the more-important Week 17 rematch that won the NFC East.

The Cowboys also lost to Kansas City's Andy Reid, San Diego's Mike McCoy and Chicago's Marc Trestman.

Gruden and O'Brien will be head coaches for the first time in the NFL. Whisenhunt had a six-year run with the Arizona Cardinals.

The Cowboys went 0-3 against Whisenhunt. Two of the losses came in overtime and the third was by a point. And they were three of the strangest losses. In 2008, they lost on a blocked punt for a touchdown in overtime. In 2010 they lost in part because David Buehler missed an extra point. In 2011 they lost in overtime in a game in which many believe Jason Garrett iced Dan Bailey at the end of regulation.

(Personal aside: I don't believe that was the case. The play clock was running down and Garrett called the timeout at the request of special-teams coaches Joe DeCamillis and Chris Boniol. Bailey's first miss of that season at San Francisco came with the operation rushed because of the play clock. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.)

O'Brien was the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator in 2011 when Tom Brady beat the Cowboys on a final-minute touchdown pass 20-16. The Texans have the top pick in the draft and a team that could be in line for a quick turnaround.

Gruden was the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive coordinator when Bailey won the game on a last-second field goal after Andy Dalton was limited to 206 yards passing. The Redskins folded under Mike Shanahan and have a ton of needs, but the return of a healthy and motivated Robert Griffin III could change their fortunes quickly.

The Cowboys could have six more games against teams that will lose assistant coaches in 2014.

As of Thursday, the only assistant the Cowboys have lost is Boniol, who oversaw one of the best kickers in the NFL. Maybe that will change too. Maybe.

Cowboys playing catch-up with Cousins

December, 20, 2013
IRVING, Texas – With only one start under his belt this season, the Dallas Cowboys have done more research than normal in studying Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins.

They mostly studied the Redskins’ scheme even when Robert Griffin III was the quarterback, but spent time on Cousins' work last week against the Atlanta Falcons as well as some of his backup work this year and last year and some preseason work, too.

“You just get a feel for how he plays and how he fits within the scheme,” coach Jason Garrett said.

Cousins threw for 381 yards on 29-of-45 passing with three touchdowns and two interceptions in the loss to the Falcons. He also lost a fumble.

He will be the fourth straight backup quarterback the Cowboys have seen, joining Matt McGloin of the Oakland Raiders, Josh McCown of the Chicago Bears and Matt Flynn of the Green Bay Packers. McCown and Flynn had four touchdown passes apiece against the Cowboys.

While not immobile, Cousins is not the runner that Griffin is.

“We’ve watched enough film to know that there is a difference,” safety Barry Church said. “With RG III, the running attack is a lot more opened up than it is with Cousins, but the passing attack, there’s no limitations on him. They go through the whole playbook. We’re definitely leaning more to the pass this week than in the past when RG3 was running all over people. This week there’s more emphasis on the pass, but we’ve also got to be aware of Alfred Morris because he’s a dog out there.”

Double Coverage: Cowboys at Redskins

December, 20, 2013

The Washington Redskins' season can't end soon enough, with the future of the organization to be decided shortly thereafter. The Dallas Cowboys might have their own decisions to make around that time, depending on how the next two games unfold.

It's not exactly a throwback to the old Redskins-Cowboys rivalry storylines. Or even what it was like a year ago in the regular-season finale when the NFC East title was on the line. Dallas still has a shot at the playoffs, but, as usual, the Cowboys are a .500 team that can never seem to get it together late in the season.

But they look like a model of consistency next to the dysfunctional Redskins, who have lost six straight, have numerous stories citing anonymous sources and benched their franchise quarterback a week ago (ostensibly for health reasons).

ESPN.com Cowboys reporter Todd Archer and Redskins reporter John Keim break down the game.

John Keim: Is Jason Garrett finally on the hot seat? If not, why aren't the Cowboys ever more than mediocre under him?

Todd Archer: Jerry Jones has said Garrett is safe, but I just have a hard time believing that would be the case if they miss the playoffs for the third straight season with him as the coach. But I don't know that Garrett would be paying for only his sins. He'd be paying for Jones' sins, too. Garrett has had some missteps as the coach, but Jones is the one responsible for the players, and, frankly, there have not been enough players for years here. The drafting has been poor. The free-agent decisions have been mixed. That's on Jones. And Jones was the one who hired Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator and made sure Garrett gave up the play calling this year. But as we know, Jones will not fire the general manager, so Garrett would be the one to pay with his job.

Meanwhile, Mike Shanahan sure seems to be acting like a coach looking to get out. I know he's saying he wants to stay. Is there any possibility he could be back in 2014?

Keim: There's a possibility, but it still feels far-fetched. There's so much nonsense going on here these days that, regardless of who's at fault, it's hard to justify continuing this regime. But owner Dan Snyder might not want to pay him $7 million -- in addition to the money he'd have to pay the coaching staff. That's a lot of cash. Still, it appears the only way that Shanahan could return is if he brings in new coordinators. Of course that means his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, would have found a job elsewhere. But if you're Snyder, why would you think it would be any different if Shanahan gets a chance to hire another staff? This is the one he thought would work. And I'm not blaming the staff, but, rather, do you trust the guy in charge to somehow hire one that is much better? How many proven guys would want to work here knowing it could be a one-year deal? Also, there would have to be a major repair job between the coach and quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the players support Shanahan and I've heard that Snyder still likes him. So, crazy as it sounds, there's a chance.

How did the players respond to the Green Bay loss -- after the game and later this week?

Archer: They are saying the right things. They say they believe, but there does feel as if there is some desperation this week. Same with frustration. I don't know how they could not be frustrated with the way they lost to the Packers. It was there for them to win, and they let it get away. But to be clear, the coaches let it go just as much as the players. I'll say this for Garrett, he has been able to keep this team on track. He does not stray from message, and, as a result, the players stay in the moment. This is a huge game for a lot of the core players who have been here. If the Cowboys can't win this one or can't make the playoffs, there could (some would say should) be big changes. They know what's on the line.

Because Griffin is a Texas native, a lot of folks here want to know what's going on with him. How has he handled the “benching,” and is there a worry he might not get teammates back on his side?

Keim: No, I don't think that he can't get teammates back. I know many are tired of the drama surrounding Griffin, but I don't think they're tired of him. All he needs to do to maintain his teammates' confidence in him is work hard, lie low and win. Griffin has handled the benching well. He was into the game against Atlanta; he has worked hard in practice; he said all the right things the day he was benched. He's definitely upset about what happened, but it hasn't caused him to feel sorry for himself.

Staying on quarterbacks, how would you rate Tony Romo this season, and is he fairly or unfairly criticized?

Archer: Romo's been solid. I know that will drive some people crazy who only look at his fourth-quarter interceptions against the Packers or his decision late against Denver. I'd make the argument the Cowboys would not be sniffing a playoff spot the past three years if not for Romo. But the season has not been all candy and ice cream for him. His completion percentage is still pretty good (64 percent), but he has missed some easy throws or made his receivers have to work too hard. He's not moving as well as he did in earlier years. Maybe that has something to do with the offseason back surgery. Maybe it's because he's 33. But Romo has largely been able to stay away from the bad plays. With 29 touchdown passes and nine picks, he has done that, but everybody will remember the Green Bay game.

The Redskins gave away a lot to get Griffin. Now they're playing Kirk Cousins. Is it a deal where they're trying to drive trade value for a guy late in a season to help them in April?

Keim: They say that's a potential benefit if Cousins does well, but they'd never say publicly that was the real reason. Also, the coaches really like Cousins, so I'm not convinced they're in a rush to trade him. If, for some reason, the staff returns, the Redskins could hang on to both quarterbacks to give them another year to see how Griffin responds to a full offseason. What if, at the end of next season, Griffin is no different than he is now? Or, if he improves the way you hope, then you can peddle Cousins. I also can't imagine anyone offering the Redskins a first-round pick (which is what they think he might fetch). A second-rounder? Perhaps, depending on how the final two games unfold.

The Redskins faced a bad defense at Atlanta. Now they get another one. Is the Dallas defense bad because of injuries or other factors? Where are the Cowboys most vulnerable?

Archer: Well, they haven't been good even when they were relatively healthy. The injuries haven't helped, but they had injuries last year with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and weren't this bad. The four best players remaining -- Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher -- have struggled the past couple of games, if not longer. That can't happen. Their best defensive players against Green Bay were George Selvie, Barry Church and Sterling Moore. That just can't happen. The scheme is fine. Other teams have succeeded with it. But Monte Kiffin has not changed enough to combat the injuries. He has not played to the strengths of the guys who are left. At least, he hasn't done it enough. The Cowboys just don't have any answers. They are as bad against the run as the pass, and now they can't get any takeaways.

Any differences with how the offense runs with Cousins and Griffin?

Keim: Cousins runs plays mostly from under center compared with Griffin, who lined up in the pistol formation. They're obviously different in terms of style. The Redskins have not run the zone-read with Cousins (although I do believe he can run it; he's as fast as Philadelphia's Nick Foles, who runs the zone-read on occasion). The real difference is that Cousins is more comfortable in the pocket and has better footwork right now than Griffin, caused in large part by the lack of work the latter received in the offseason while rehabbing his knee. Cousins will run a lot of bootlegs, although Washington also ran those with Griffin. Cousins has been more decisive, but part of that is because he knows he can't run from pressure like Griffin.

Do you think Dallas will ever be a strong contender again under Jerry Jones?

Archer: That's the big question. I'll say yes only because things are cyclical in the NFL. Jones has plenty of great qualities as an owner. He wants to win. He will do everything he can to win. He is willing to do what it takes. But Jones the general manager often gets in the way. The Cowboys seem to change philosophies from year to year. One year they like this kind of player only to move on to a new player the next year. Jones said something this week on his radio show about how he does not worry about fan apathy because of the “show” the fans got in Sunday's game against Green Bay. He seemed oblivious that his team lost. He was happy it was a good show. How can he think that way? But Jones won't change. He will be the ultimate decision-maker. I think they will be a strong contender again, but it could take some time.

Obviously, the season has been a washout for the Redskins. How much joy would they take in killing the Cowboys' season?

Keim: After six straight losses, I think they'd feel good beating anyone right now, but, yeah, beating a team in the playoff hunt would make them feel better. And if it's Dallas? All the better, although I don't sense any real hatred toward them. But for the fans, if they can watch Dallas' playoff hopes take a dive because of the Redskins, that would cause them to temporarily forget the craziness of the past couple of weeks. But the word "joy" is not the one I'd use to describe much of anything around here. There are a number of Redskins who will be playing their final home game, including likely retiring linebacker London Fletcher, so that will provide a little motivation, as well.

Upon Further Review: Cowboys Week 13

November, 29, 2013
ARLINGTON, Texas -- A review of four hot issues from the Dallas Cowboys' 31-24 win against the Oakland Raiders at AT&T Stadium.

Where's the pressure?: For just the second time this season, the Cowboys did not record a quarterback sack. The only other time it happened came against Denver Broncos signal-caller Peyton Manning. Matt McGloin isn't Manning, but he was getting rid of the ball quickly, and that made it difficult for DeMarcus Ware or Jason Hatcher to get to him. With Jay Cutler (possibly), Aaron Rodgers (possibly), Robert Griffin III and Nick Foles left on the schedule, the Cowboys have to hope this is not the start of a trend.

Missing Dwayne Harris: Things started poorly when Terrance Williams fumbled the opening kickoff and Oakland returned it for a touchdown. The punt return game was only OK with Cole Beasley handling the job. Harris, who did not play because of a hamstring strain, is among the best returners in the NFL and has had a knack for big returns at big times. Beasley has the quickness necessary, but he does not possess Harris' strength to break through tackles. Williams has the speed, but he did not show Harris' vision on kick returns. The Cowboys also missed Harris' coverage skills as a gunner.

Good coaching: DeMarco Murray is the Cowboys' lead runner. That should not be in doubt, but offensive coordinator Bill Callahan should be credited for sticking with Lance Dunbar in the third quarter. The Cowboys found something that was working and kept hitting it. With the field spread with the Cowboys using three wide receivers, Dunbar's quickness kept the Raiders off guard. Dunbar's longest run -- a 45-yarder -- came out of 11 personnel. If Dunbar can stay healthy, he will give the Cowboys a good change-of-pace back down the stretch to complement Murray.

Protect the ball: Dez Bryant could not blame his second-quarter fumble on cold weather like he did his fumble last week against the New York Giants. The Cowboys have had conversations with Bryant about being more willing to go down instead of fighting for extra yards, because he has not always secured the ball. That wasn't the case Thursday, but Bryant has to be careful, and the Cowboys have to be careful it doesn't take some of his aggression away. Facing second-and-15 in the fourth quarter, Bryant fought off three tacklers and gained 14 yards to make a third-down conversion much easier.

Welcome to AT&T Stadium

November, 28, 2013
ARLINGTON, Texas – Welcome to AT&T Stadium where the Dallas Cowboys hope to take sole possession of first place in the NFC East with a win against the Oakland Raiders.

At 6-5 off Sunday’s win against the New York Giants, the Cowboys share the top spot with the Philadelphia Eagles but own the tiebreaking edge thanks to their October win against the Eagles.

Quick turnaround: The Cowboys spent about three hours on the practice field leading into kickoff -- without helmets -- in getting ready for the Raiders.

The challenge this week is more mental than physical. Adrenaline can carry the players through the short week, but knowing exactly what Oakland does on both sides of the ball is a little different.

“They do a lot of stuff,” quarterback Tony Romo said. “They send a lot of different pressures, a lot of exotic looks and it will be a great challenge for us. We’ve got to have great communication. We’ve got to do some things to combat that.”

The unknown QB: Rookie Matt McGloin will be making just the third start of his career. The Raiders are 1-1 with McGloin as the quarterback and he has four touchdown passes and on interception.

Oakland is mostly a running team but lose some juice with McGloin at quarterback over Terrell Pryor. Rashad Jennings is the leading rusher, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and Darren McFadden could make his first appearance in three weeks.

“He’s a young guy who has command,” coach Jason Garrett said. “For a guy who hasn’t played that many snaps and is in his first year playing, he plays with confidence. He seems to understand what they’re trying to do. He throws the ball and makes some positive plays for them both underneath, down the field. They want to run the football but he does a good job in a complimentary role but also when the burden is on him he’s done a nice job.”

According to Elias, the Cowboys are 3-1 against rookie quarterbacks on Thanksgiving, beating Tampa Bay’s Bruce Gradkowski in 2006, Chicago’s Craig Krenzel in 2004 and Kent Graham of the New York Giants in 1992. The only loss came last year to Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins.

Cowboys see another Texas QB in Brees

November, 10, 2013
NEW ORLEANS -- The Dallas Cowboys are about to end a run against Texas high school quarterbacks when they see the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees Sunday night.

On Oct. 13 they saw Copperas Cove’s Robert Griffin III with the Washington Redskins. Then saw Austin Westlake’s Nick Foles in Philadelphia. Highland Park’s Matthew Stafford lit them up with the Detroit Lions. Last week they beat Colleyville Heritage’s Christian Ponder and the Minnesota Vikings.

Brees played at Austin Westlake.

“Obviously Texas has a very strong football tradition with a number of players going on to play college football and certainly the NFL,” Brees said. “Obviously there’s a ton of quarterbacks, which is pretty unbelievable when you look at it. A lot of them went on and played all over the place, it’s just not guys that stayed in the state of Texas.

“In most cases, guys went and played in other places across the country and different conferences, different division levels and that kind of thing. I think it’s something we take a lot of pride in. I think it makes you proud considering we have that Texas state pride, having played in the state, and knowing the level of competition within the state when it comes to football, so it’s pretty cool that we’re able to have that many guys playing quarterback in the league.”

The Cowboys are 3-1 against Texas quarterbacks so far.

Depending on the health of Jay Cutler, they could see Josh McCown (Jacksonville, Texas) on Dec. 9 against the Chicago Bears. If Matt Flynn (Tyler) ends up signing with the Packers, they could see him Dec. 15 against the Green Bay Packers.

They’ll also have rematches against Foles and Griffin.

Double Coverage: Vikings at Cowboys

October, 31, 2013
Jared Allen and Tony RomoAP PhotoJared Allen's Vikings and Tony Romo's Cowboys match up on Sunday in a game where neither team looks like much of a playoff threat.

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys kick off the second half of their season at AT&T Stadium on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, who are still looking for their first win in the United States this season.

A playoff team a year ago, the Vikings have been one of the biggest disappointments in the NFL. At 4-4, the Cowboys are looking at their third straight 8-8 season under Jason Garrett.

ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN.com Cowboys reporter Todd Archer debate the game in this week’s Double Coverage.

Archer: I think a lot of people assumed the Vikings would be a serious playoff threat, but obviously that’s not the case. How is it sitting with the veterans on the team like Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, Chad Greenway and guys who have experienced success?

Goessling: A lot of those players have been disappointed, but they all seem to be sticking behind coach Leslie Frazier, at least for now. There have been a few hints of discontent from players with the defensive scheme, but nobody seems to be quitting on the season. A lot of the problems are out of the Vikings’ control, at least in the sense that they can do only so much with the roster they have. It’s hard to win and have an open competition at quarterback at the same time. And the Vikings’ moves in the secondary have backfired terribly. This hasn’t been the same team without Antoine Winfield, and now that Harrison Smith is hurt, the Vikings have few playmakers on the back end of their defense.

Speaking of quarterbacks, it looks like Tony Romo is playing some of his best football this year. I suppose with him, we never really know what to think until the playoffs, but does it seem to you like he’s turned any type of a corner?

Archer: I think he’s played at a higher level than most people want to say for the past few years, but he’s been stuck with this tag that he can’t shake until (if) the Cowboys make the playoffs and win a couple of games. This year, he has more say in the offense in terms of the game plan, so I think that has him feeling more weight to make the correct play and not be so much of a gunslinger. He’s struggled the past three games with his accuracy, but he’s made big plays and mostly stayed away from the bad ones. He remains creative when things break down, but he’s also willing to take a sack or throw the ball away.

Peterson is coming home, so to speak. How have things been different for him this season after 2,000 yards last season?

Goessling: He has been dealing with a minor hamstring injury for the past few weeks, but I think the biggest problem for Peterson has been the play of his offensive line. The group hasn’t been anywhere near as good as it was last season at opening holes for Peterson, and fullback Jerome Felton has struggled to get into a rhythm after missing the first three games because of a suspension. At times, Peterson has looked impatient, wanting to make that one extra cut for a 60-yard run and winding up with a 2- or 3-yarder when the hole closes. He’s also seeing more eight-man fronts than any other back in the league, and without a line that’s able to handle the extra attention, Peterson isn’t going to beat those defenses all the time. Even he isn’t that good.

But maybe this is the week the Vikings can resurrect their passing game, playing against the worst pass defense in the league. Are the Cowboys so bad that they’ll have trouble even with the Vikings’ ensemble cast at quarterback?

Archer: Unless Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman or Matt Cassel morph into Peyton or Eli Manning, Philip Rivers or Matthew Stafford, I can’t see it happening, even as bad as the pass defense has been. When it has played against middling quarterbacks -- Alex Smith (yes, I know he’s 8-0, but he’s not a great passer), Sam Bradford, a returning-to-health Robert Griffin III and Nick Foles -- the defense has looked good. When it has faced top passers, it has allowed the most 400-yard games in NFL history for a season -- in just eight games. Monte Kiffin’s scheme is very basic and designed to not give up big plays, yet the Cowboys have given up a ton of big plays. They have missed DeMarcus Ware the past two games and will have a banged-up secondary Sunday. If Ware returns, that should help, but I think the biggest aid for the defense will be whomever Frazier picks to play quarterback.

For years, the strength of the Vikings D, to me anyway, has been the pass rush. Statistically, it’s not very good, but is that a product of the secondary issues you talked about?

Goessling: I’d say it’s the other way around. The Vikings were certainly better in the secondary last year than they are this year, but they were helped out by the fact the front four was getting to the quarterback enough to keep teams from exploiting them in the passing game. This year, the Vikings have been done in by teams that can get the ball out quickly (the Lions and Packers, especially), and they just haven’t gotten much push up the middle. Allen and Brian Robison are hustling, but they can do only so much when they’re getting the bulk of opposing teams’ attention. The Vikings still aren’t a blitz-heavy team, but they have had to bring extra guys a little more often than usual this year and Aaron Rodgers burned them on a blitz Sunday. If Romo gets the ball out quickly, he should have plenty of openings. The good news for the Cowboys is A) the Vikings could have three defensive backs out with injury, and B) Josh Robinson will be on the field.

The week after the Vikings lost in the final seconds against the Bears, they got beat by the Browns at home. Do you expect any kind of shell shock from the Cowboys after that Matthew Stafford touchdown last week?

Archer: I really don’t. The Cowboys have had so many of these types of losses that they know how to bounce back. The bad thing is they have had to do this too often. We came up with 21 losses since 2005 that can be described as “crazy” with late-game shenanigans. The Lions loss was just another one to add to the list. The Cowboys lost a game in 2010 because they missed an extra point. They lost a game in 2008 in overtime on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. And those both came at Arizona.

So the Cowboys somehow do a good job of compartmentalizing things and putting a bad week behind them. Garrett deserves some credit for that, I guess.


Top QBs shredding Cowboys' D

October, 28, 2013
DETROIT -- Another top-flight quarterback, another shredding of the Dallas Cowboys' defense.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford did to the Cowboys what Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning did to the Cowboys, completing 33 of 48 passes for 488 yards. He only had one touchdown and was intercepted twice, but 329 of those yards went to Calvin Johnson.

The Cowboys are the first team to allow four 400-yard passers in a season and eight games remain. And they still have to say hello New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Chicago’s Jay Cutler, who should be healthy by the Dec. 9 meeting. There’s also the rematch with the New York Giants and Eli Manning. And Robert Griffin III should be in better form for the Washington Redskins than he was in the first meeting of the season.

Stafford, the Manning brothers and Rivers have thrown for 1,753 yards against the Cowboys, completed 73.5 percent of their passes and averaged 438.3 yards per game.

The good news for the Cowboys is that they will see Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman or maybe even Matt Cassel Sunday at AT&T Stadium when the Minnesota Vikings visit.

Five Wonders: D with plenty left to prove

October, 22, 2013
IRVING, Texas -- For the first time this season Five Wonders comes with the Dallas Cowboys on a winning streak.

I wonder if they can make it three in a row Sunday against the Detroit Lions. They have not won three in a row since Weeks 13-15 last season.

On to the Wonders:

[+] EnlargeBarry Church and Morris Claiborne
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsThe Cowboys had three picks off of backup quarterback Matt Barkley.
• The Cowboys defense deserves a ton of credit for limiting Philadelphia to just 278 yards, but I wonder how much Nick Foles and Matt Barkley played into the result. When the Cowboys have faced upper echelon throwers, they have struggled. Philip Rivers lit them up. So did Peyton Manning. And Eli Manning threw for 450 yards against them in the opener. Sam Bradford was bad. Alex Smith was economical but hardly impressive. Robert Griffin III was erratic. And this week the Cowboys get Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. He can spin it as well as any quarterback in the NFL and has some guy named Calvin Johnson to throw it to. The change in the Dallas defense the last two games -- at least against the pass -- has been more man coverage. It’s time for the Cowboys defense to show they can handle a top-flight passer and not just the average quarterbacks. There are more top-flight quarterbacks on the schedule the rest of the way in Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler (provided he’s healthy). And there are also the rematches with Eli Manning and Griffin. The defense has performed better, but it’s not like it has arrived yet either.

• Right guard Brian Waters has helped cement the interior of the offensive line this season. It has not always been perfect, but it’s been solid and that’s not always been the case for the Cowboys the last few seasons. Waters is 36. I wonder if he wants to play again as a 37 year old. The Cowboys signed Waters to a one-year deal before the season started and allowed him to work in slowly before taking over the starting spot. If Waters wants to play again -- and it’s a question I’ll try to ask him this week -- I would bet the Cowboys would want him. There will have to be some assurances that he will take part in the offseason or training camp for sure. The proximity to his home should make a difference if he wants to play. I don’t know how big that “if” is, but the younger players have learned a lot from Waters and so have the more veteran guys. He helps with the shotgun snap by tapping rookie Travis Frederick. He has the strength to hold up at the point of attack. He doesn’t move as well as he once did, but he’s not just a phone booth guy either.

• Entering the game against the Philadelphia Eagles, DeMarco Murray had the highest percentage of rushing yards of a team in the league with 428 of the Cowboys’ 509 rushing yards. That percentage went down since he missed the Eagles’ game, and I wonder if the Cowboys will continue to use Joseph Randle in a role once Murray comes back from the knee injury. Murray has had a good 2013 season, but if Randle can lessen the burden, then the fresher Murray will be. We don’t know how Murray will handle a large amount of carries. He has never had more than 164 in a season because of injuries. Randle showed some decent vision against the Eagles and he was secure with the ball. He has more make-you-miss than Murray as well. Murray will still be the Cowboys’ bell cow in the running game, but if Randle can offer more than just a change of pace it makes sense to keep him involved in the game plan.

• I wonder if Dwayne Harris' punt return opportunities will be limited for the rest of the season. It would be the ultimate sign of respect from the opposition. Philadelphia’s Donnie Jones made sure Harris would not be a factor. His punts were high and outside the numbers, limiting where Harris could go if he chose to return a punt. As a result Harris averaged just 4.6 yards per punt return and had to use a fair catch signal twice. If this continues -- and if teams are smart it will -- then Harris will have to remain patient. Jason Garrett loves Harris’ decision making, but he knows there could come a time where Harris might try to make something out of nothing. That can only lead to trouble. Harris is a major weapon and the Eagles made sure he would not beat them the way he beat the Washington Redskins the previous week.

• I wonder if Edgar Jones knows just how much people will be paying attention to his recovery from sports hernia surgery. The Cowboys put him on the short-term injured reserve list, meaning he is out for eight weeks and can return Dec. 15 against the Green Bay Packers. Last December, the Cowboys chose not to place Jay Ratliff on injured reserve after he had sports hernia surgery because they hoped he would be able to return for a possible playoff run. Ratliff’s agent contended the surgery was more severe than the typical sports hernia, but I contend that if the Cowboys believed it would be a 12-month recovery they would have put him on injured reserve immediately last year. All surgeries are different. All rehab times are different. Terence Newman was back in five weeks from a sports hernia surgery a few years ago. Jones’ surgery was performed by the same doctor as Ratliff as well. If you’re wondering why the Cowboys used the one-time IR designation on Jones, then remember that the team was running out of time to use it and hope a player can be back in the regular season.

Cameron Lawrence fined for big hit

October, 17, 2013
IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys linebacker Cameron Lawrence was fined $21,000 for a blindside block on Dwayne Harris' 90-yard kickoff return last week against the Washington Redskins.

Lawrence, who was playing in his first regular-season game, was not penalized for his hit on David Amerson during the game. Because he is being paid the rookie minimum $405,000, Lawrence will be able to pay the fine in installments. Before taxes, Lawrence makes roughly $23,823 per week.

He will appeal the fine.

While Lawrence was informed of his fine, safety Barry Church had not heard from the league regarding possible fines for his hits on Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III that drew unnecessary roughness penalties.

"I definitely thought it was a gray area," Church said. “I felt like he was still in bounds on one, but they made the call and I've just got to live with it. ... From now on I'll probably just try to assist the quarterback out of bounds, just usher him out of bounds instead of putting my hands on him."

Church said the penalties could take away his aggressiveness.

“Coach (Jason Garrett) told me to keep doing what I'm doing and keep coming downhill, and sooner or later you'll catch one in bounds," Church said.