Dallas Cowboys: Scott Linehan

Three thoughts on the Cowboys

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
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IRVING -- Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys, who open the season Sunday against San Francisco.

1) Tony Romo played one half and 14 plays in the preseason.

Yes, he took a pretty good beating against Miami, but that was only a half.

Romo
He will get the full game against San Francisco’s defense, which remains a physical group even though it’s missing several starters because of injury or suspension. He will get hit and hit hard on a regular basis.

This is the truest test for Romo’s back that we will see. If he survives and has no issues getting ready for Tennessee next week, then you should be able to take a deep breath and relax, because it means Romo is really ready to go.

2) We will get a good feel this week for the Cowboys' alleged commitment to the run.

San Francisco did not allow a 100-yard rusher last season and finished fourth in the NFL in run defense (95.9 yards per game).

"The one thing you notice about San Francisco’s defense is that everyone does his job," Dallas center Travis Frederick said. "There’s no hero ball. If they’re supposed to be in a gap, they’re in it.

"This is a week where it’s going to be ugly. They don’t give up big plays in the running game. A four-yard run is a good play this week."

When the running game isn’t dominant, the Cowboys have a tendency to give up regardless of the score. We will see if play-caller Scott Linehan takes a new approach.

3) Middle linebacker Rolando McClain will get a strong test this week.

San Francisco is a physical running team without a lot of frills. Running back Frank Gore won’t be hard to find. He will be between the tackles, which is where McClain does his best work.

The Cowboys need McClain to be a dominant presence against San Francisco’s running game or the 49ers’ offense will score 35 points.

Key number: 48

Since Jason Garrett took over the Cowboys’ offense, they have usually been among the leaders in completions of 20 yards or more.

Last season, the Cowboys had 48 completions of 20 yards or more, tied for only 17th in the NFL. In 2012, they were 9th with 55.

You could certainly argue that last season's play-caller Bill Callahan, brought up in the West Coast offense, and his dink-and-dunk approach contributed to the lack of big plays in the passing game

Linehan likes going deep. He will challenge San Francisco’s secondary.

Player to Watch: Morris Claiborne

The No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 draft is only starting at cornerback because Orlando Scandrick has been suspended for the first four games after violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

Claiborne missed the entire preseason with knee and shoulder injuries, so he will make his debut in the opener.

Claiborne doesn’t have to be great, but the Cowboys need him to be a solid player against a really good group of receivers. Otherwise, the defense is really going to struggle.

Escobar ready to make impact

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
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Tight end Gavin Escobar said a phone call this offseason with Detroit tight end Joseph Fauria let him know he’d love play-caller Scott Linehan.

Escobar
 Fauria, who’s 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, is built similarly to the 6-6, 251-poound Escobar, and he caught 18 passes for 207 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Fauria, an undrafted free agent, finished with a higher average per catch (11.5) and more touchdowns than Detroit starter Brandon Pettigrew.

Escobar, a second-round pick last season, caught only nine passes but three gained more than 20 yards. He also scored two touchdowns.

“Fauria said I’m going to love Linehan because he’s going to give me a chance to make plays,” Escobar said. “He told me he does a good job of creating mismatches.”

Look for the Cowboys to use formations that get Escobar, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant on the field together. Most teams will give Escobar single coverage in those situation.

“That would make sense to me,” Escobar said with a smile. “When I get opportunities, I have to take advantage of them. Then I might get some more.”

Miami batters Romo, beats Cowboys

August, 23, 2014
Aug 23
11:20
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Tony RomoAP Photo/Lynne SladkyCowboys starter Tony Romo finished Saturday's game with a quarterback rating of just 68.5.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The Dallas Cowboys' offense we saw against the Miami Dolphins on Saturday night isn’t going to be nearly good enough during the regular season to offset their raggedy defense.

The offensive line, fortified with three first-round picks in the past four seasons, struggled against Miami’s defensive line.

In the process, the unit allowed Miami to hit quarterback Tony Romo way too often. The Dolphins sacked him three times -- and he played only a half.

Oh my.

Miami beat the Cowboys 25-20 at Sun Life Stadium, but Romo absorbed the beating Miami put on him. Even though the 34-year-old needed a trip to the cold tub immediately after the game, overall it remained a successful evening.

At least we found out Romo can take such a beating. Hey, that’s important when you consider that Romo has had two back surgeries in the past year, and that the club has been extremely cautious with him during training camp.

The Cowboys have consistently given Romo days off during training camp to ensure he has no issues with his back. Romo didn’t play in the first preseason game, and he played just 14 snaps in the second.

And it’s unlikely that he’ll play in Thursday's final preseason game against Denver. Baltimore jostled him a bit last weekend, but the Ravens didn’t pound him the way Miami did.

“It was good to see Tony out there playing,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “He got knocked around a little bit, and that could be good and bad.

"You want the protection to be clean, but at the same time for him, in his preparation for [the Sept. 7 opener versus] San Francisco, it's good to have him feel the physical part of the game.”

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images"It's good to have him feel the physical part of the game," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of quarterback Tony Romo, sacked three times Saturday.
The consistent pressure on Romo is the biggest reason the Cowboys couldn’t sustain drives Saturday, which is troubling since most of their offensive starters played the first half.

The Cowboys ran 32 plays in five series but managed only a pair of long field goals -- 52 and 50 yards -- from Dan Bailey. The Cowboys gained just 110 yards, an average of 3.4 per play.

Romo completed just 10 of 18 passes for 87 yards, with a long of 17. He finished with a passer rating of 68.5.

Yuck.

The Cowboys were 2-of-8 on third down under Romo. Twice, Miami sacked Romo on third down, ending a drive. Another time, Romo was hit hard as he delivered the ball, leading to an incompletion.

“I’ll be very candid with you, their defensive front was doing a pretty good job, and that concerned me,” owner Jerry Jones said. “He took those three sacks, and that concerned me. Not that we couldn’t correct what it takes to block them, but it concerned me that he was taking those sacks.”

At the end of the first half, the Cowboys had moved from their 20 to the Miami 24. On first-and-15, defensive end Cameron Wake sacked Romo for an 8-yard loss, thwarting the drive and setting up Bailey’s second field goal.

"We wanted to put more points on the board, but we hurt ourselves with penalties,” Romo said. “The game is always going to be hard if you keep putting yourself behind."

Here’s the deal: This team has no chance if its offense doesn’t play well. What you saw from the Cowboys’ defense against Miami is what you’re going to see all season. The unit is going to give up a ton of yards and hope it forces turnovers and makes teams kick field goals.

Any thoughts the Cowboys have of making the playoffs depends on them fielding a dynamic offense. And when you consider the plethora of playmakers Romo and playcaller Scott Linehan have at their disposal, there’s no reason Dallas shouldn’t have one of the league’s top offenses.

The best way for the Cowboys to win games is to use their offense to grab leads, then use the running game, led by DeMarco Murray and the offensive line, to protect the defense and close out games in the fourth quarter.

To do that, however, the offensive line can’t get manhandled the way it was by the Dolphins. This is the preseason, so there’s zero reason to overreact, although this is the last time we’ll see most of the team’s key starters before the season begins.

Romo would tell you that a tad better execution on a couple of plays and the offense would’ve looked just fine Saturday. Romo would also tell you he didn’t feel as though Miami overwhelmed the Cowboys’ offense, otherwise he’d be concerned.

Still, it’s clear the Cowboys have much work to do to get ready for San Francisco.

Garrett has spent all offseason talking about having an offensive line that will enable the Cowboys to play a more physical style. He’s said the line will make Romo better and the defense more efficient.

We didn’t see that against Miami. We'd better against San Francisco in two weeks.
IRVING, Texas -- When coach Jason Garrett initially broached the idea of hiring Scott Linehan to call plays for the Dallas Cowboys, Tony Romo needed to do some research.

So he spent a few hours studying Linehan's approach during the five seasons he called plays for the Detroit Lions, after a three-year stint as the St. Louis Rams coach.

Romo liked Linehan’s approach because he saw an opportunity for Linehan to influence and impact the Cowboys offense without overhauling it.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/James D SmithScott Linehan aims to bring more play-action to the Cowboys' passing game. Of his time with Linehan, Tony Romo says, "He sees the game from a different perspective … I think he is a big part of us trying to be successful this year."
That's because Linehan's timing-based passing offense is similar to the scheme Garrett implemented with the Cowboys when he arrived in 2007. It's the same scheme Troy Aikman ran in the glory days of the 1990s.

Linehan didn't need to alter the playbook much, though he has changed some of the language to make it simpler.

More importantly, Romo figured the variety of screens and play-action passes Linehan used, along with his innate ability to consistently get the ball to his best players, would give the Cowboys offense a boost.

Plus, Linehan likes to throw the ball, and we know how much Romo likes that.

Detroit finished among the NFL’s top six in yards gained each of the past three seasons. The Lions ranked among the top six in pass attempts in each of his five seasons.

You can't tell based on what we’ve seen in the first two preseason games.

He's run the ball -- DeMarco Murray had eight carries in 14 plays on Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens -- and he's used it to set up play-action passes.

Linehan's biggest impact will be on screens and play-action passes, which will give the Cowboys offense a new look because they seldom ran either play the past two seasons.

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The Cowboys have thrown a total of just 57 screen passes in the past two seasons. Only three teams attempted fewer, and they averaged just 5.02 yards per attempt for one of the NFL's lowest totals.

Under Linehan, the Lions ranked ninth in the NFL with 111 screens attempted the past two seasons. Their average of 7.05 yards per attempt was tied for fourth in the league.

A perfectly executed 21-yard screen to Murray set up the Cowboys' first touchdown against Baltimore.

"We're working on them a lot, and Scott is calling them," Murray said. "We've had periods where we worked on screens before, but these are more intense. This is part of what he does. He emphasizes them, and he wants us to get it right. Plus, we have linemen who can get out in front of them now."

Teams that are serious about running successful screens usually devote daily practice time to them because of the high degree of synchronized teamwork required.

Linehan called five against Baltimore, including two bubble screens. Romo, Brandon Weeden and Caleb Hanie each threw at least one screen -- an indication Linehan wanted to see how each would execute it.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsDeMarco Murray will be the primary recipient of a revamped screen game under Scott Linehan. Murray says Linehan's screens are "more intense" than those of former Dallas playcallers'.
There's also been an emphasis on play-action passes this season.

Romo does such a nice job carrying out the ball fakes on play-action passes that it's almost impossible for the linebackers not to be fooled and take a couple of steps toward the line of scrimmage.

He had a 109.1 passer rating on play-action passes in 2013 and a 111.2 rating in 2012.

For some reason, whether Garrett or offensive coordinator Bill Callahan was doing the play calling, the Cowboys rarely took advantage of this aspect of Romo's skill set.

Just so you know, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford threw 141 play-action passes the past season. That's the same amount Romo has amassed in two seasons.

"Scott has been great. He has a mind for football," Romo said. "I think our interaction has been outstanding. He sees the game from a different perspective, and it makes it easy to communicate daily about what we're trying to accomplish. I think he is a big part of us trying to be successful this year."

It’s no secret -- the offense must carry the Cowboys this season. Linehan's philosophical approach makes them more equipped to do that.
IRVING -- Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys’ 37-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens:

1. Play-caller Scott Linehan’s mission during the preseason is to show San Francisco as little as possible of the offense he plans to unveil in Week 1.

But you should like the little we've seen during the first two preseason games.

Linehan is making a concerted effort to run the ball -- the Cowboys starters ran on eight of 14 plays -- and he’s mixed in a liberal dose of play-action passes. He’s using screen passes to slow down the opponent’s pass rush, and it all looks good.

Obviously, you can’t get too carried away because there’s a difference between calling plays in the preseason and calling plays in games that count, but the philosophical approach Linehan is taking bodes well for the regular season.

2. Zach Minter has been with the Cowboys for only a few days, but he made quite an impact against Baltimore with two sacks, two tackles for loss and quarterback hit.

Yes, he did it against Baltimore’s second- and third-team, but that’s still a ton of production.

What it probably means for Minter, who played two games with the Bears last season, is he’ll get a chance against Miami’s starters next week to see if he can make the same type of impact. Whether he does or not, he showed every youngster on the roster how to get the coaching staff’s attention.

3. One of the intriguing questions in training camp revolves around the Cowboys’ long-term view of quarterback Dustin Vaughan.

Do they see the 6-5, 235-pounder as a career backup? A marginal starter? A frontline starter?

The Cowboys haven't kept a third quarterback on the active roster in years because each roster spot is too important to keep a developmental player who’s unlikely to play.

Vaughan, an undrafted free agent from West Texas A&M, turned in his second consecutive good performance during the fourth quarter. The Cowboys would love to add him to their practice squad, but they must first expose him to waivers to do so.

That means every club would have an opportunity to sign him. Based on what we’ve seen from him, thus far, some team would claim him because quarterbacks are hard to find.

Tony Romo, 34, has had two back surgeries in the past year. No one really knows whether his back will hold up for a year, two years or five years. If the Cowboys view Vaughan as a player with a long-term future, even if it’s as a quality backup, they should keep him.

Key number: 141

Detroit quarterback Matt Stafford threw 141 play-action passes last season. Tony Romo threw 73.

Romo was good at it -- he had a passer rating of 111.2 with six touchdowns and no interceptions on those passes. The Cowboys just didn’t give him enough opportunities.

That will change this year.

Player to Watch: Ahmad Dixon

Dixon, a seventh-round draft pick, turned in a terrific performance against San Diego in the Cowboys’ first preseason game with 12 tackles.

He didn’t record any tackles Saturday night because he didn’t play after being benched for missing a walk-through practice.

The first game created a margin of error for Dixon. Well, he’s used it. Now, Dixon needs a good week of practice and a strong game against Miami to sustain the momentum he created against San Diego.

Romo preseason debut is success

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
10:45
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video

ARLINGTON, Texas -- You wanted to see Tony Romo move around Saturday night in his preseason debut against the Baltimore Ravens.

You wanted to see him get jostled, and you wanted to see him throw the deep ball. And deep down, you probably wanted to see him lead the first-team offense on a scoring drive too.

He did all of that in just 14 plays and emerged unscathed.

So the evening must be considered a rousing success, despite Baltimore's 37-30 win at AT&T Stadium.

This season is all about the Dallas Cowboys' offense because we know the defense is going to stink. For the Cowboys to end their string of three consecutive 8-8 seasons, Romo must stay healthy and the offense must be prolific.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesTony Romo's 4-for-5 night and long TD pass suggest the 34-year-old QB will be ready for Week 1.
Obviously, we won't know whether Romo's back is going to hold up until the regular season begins, but the starting offense has looked dynamic throughout training camp and has been good in each of the first two preseason games.

The Cowboys have taken a cautious approach with Romo throughout training camp, given that the 34-year-old quarterback has had two back surgeries in the past year and the alternative is Brandon Weeden.

So far, so good.

Romo completed four of five passes for 80 yards and a touchdown in his preseason debut. He led the starting offense to a touchdown but also botched a handoff that resulted in a Ravens touchdown.

Considering he's missed so much practice time during training camp, we shouldn't really be surprised he was involved in a mishap such as that. Actually, the real surprise is probably that more mistakes didn't occur.

Romo has become one of the NFL's best quarterbacks because of his ability to move in the pocket and create extra time that often results in big plays. He provided a glimpse of his ability to still do that on the Cowboys' third play.

Facing pressure, Romo stepped up into the pocket. Then, he moved right and delivered a perfect pass to Dez Bryant, who was running across the field. The catch and run netted 22 yards.

"I thought he looked like himself and moved around in the pocket," coach Jason Garrett said. "He made some good throws that looked like he saw the field well. He felt the pocket really well and looked comfortable moving the team."

(Read full post)

OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts on Day 16 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:

1. You can’t get fooled by anything you see in a preseason football game, especially the first one.

Randle
Several starters, including Tony Romo, didn’t play against San Diego, and the Cowboys did little game-planning for this game. Still, you should be pleased with play-caller Scott Linehan’s first game calling plays for the Cowboys.

San Diego stopped Joseph Randle for no gain on the game’s first carry. Normally, the Cowboys would throw the ball on second down. Instead, Randle carried again. This time he gained 10 yards and a first down. He gained six yards on his third straight carry.

Then Brandon Weeden faked a handoff and thew a deep post to Dwayne Harris, who dropped a pass that was a tad high. Harris had created so much separation that he might have scored had he caught the ball. The Cowboys finished the first half with 17 passes and 15 runs, and that’s with Weeden throwing seven straight times to end the half.

No one expects the Cowboys to have a 50-50 run pass ratio, but anything over 62 percent passes is not a winning number for the majority of NFL teams. Only New Orleans made the playoffs throwing the ball that much -- and they have to be considered an outlier because their team is built to play that way.

2. A defense playing the Tampa 2 scheme isn’t supposed to give up big plays.

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The entire defense is predicated on making the offense drive the ball methodically down the field until it makes a mistake or the defense makes a play. The Cowboys gave up a league-high 252 plays of 10+ yards last season, and the preseason game didn’t reveal much improvement.

Few starters played Thursday, but conceptually it’s still a tad surprising to see the defense allow so many big plays. Dallas allowed 14 plays of 10 yards or more, including five of more than 20 yards. Those 14 plays accounted for 297 yards; the Chargers gained just 98 yards on their other 44 plays.

The defense will obviously improve as the starters begin to play next week, but the big plays will continue to be concerning until they stop happening so frequently.

3. The starting offensive line did a nice job creating running lanes, and the pass protection was nearly flawless.

The one time Brandon Weeden did get pressured, he stepped up into the pocket and scrambled for positive yards. The strength of this team will be the offensive line, and they showed quite a few positives in one series.

Key number: 27

The Cowboys had 27 players who didn’t play against San Diego, including 13 starters or key contributors. Most weren’t hurt, and the Cowboys didn’t want to take a chance anyone would get hurt. Even a key role player such as Lance Dunbar spent the game on the sideline.

Player to Watch: Uche Nwaneri

Nwaneri has started 91 of 95 games the past six seasons for Jacksonville. He will be fortunate to make the roster, an indication the one thing head coach Jason Garrett has done right is re-build the offensive line.

Mackenzey Bernadeau, who plays center and guard, is the sixth offensive lineman and Jermey Parnell will probably be the third tackle and seventh lineman, though he needs to play better.

If the Cowboys keep an eighth offensive lineman, Nwaneri is probably competing against a player such as John Wetzel, a 23-year-old with a year of experience, who can play guard and tackle. Nwaneri is the better player now, but will he be at the end of the season? And do the Cowboys want to pay him $855,000 instead of the $495,000 Wetzel would earn?

Nwaneri is a solid veteran and the Cowboys wouldn’t have any issue using him in a game, but he must be considerably better than a youngster to earn a roster spot. Especially because the Cowboys usually only dress seven lineman on game day, and he would be inactive most weeks because Bernadeau can play two positions.
Whenever you see a player from a small school such as West Texas A&M get an opportunity, you always wonder whether the game is too big for him.

Would Dustin Vaughan be overwhelmed by the atmosphere? The paid attendance of 57,228 in San Diego was easily among the biggest crowds that had ever seen the Corpus Christi, Texas, native play.

Then you wonder if the competition would overwhelm him. Vaughan, who had a record-setting college career, is no longer just a YouTube sensation known for the funny scouting combine spoof he made. He's an undrafted free agent with a legitimate opportunity to make an NFL roster.

[+] EnlargeDustin Vaughan
AP Photo/Jae C. HongDustin Vaughan showed good pocket presence in his preseason debut.
Vaughan, who played the fourth quarter of the Dallas Cowboys' 27-7 preseason loss to the San Diego Chargers on Thursday, completed 7 of 14 passes for 80 yards against San Diego. The 6-foot-5, 233-pound Vaughan moved well in the pocket and led the third string on a nice fourth-quarter drive that ended when he was sacked on fourth down at the San Diego 15.

"I should've thrown the ball up and given one of my guys a chance to catch it," he said. "I talked to Tony (Romo) and coach (Scott) Linehan about it after I came out of the game.

"You're trying to go through your progression, but you don't have a lot of time. You think you know what's going to be there and when it's not, you try to create more time. It's something I'll learn with experience."

Vaughan will create a dilemma for Cowboys, who would love to stash him on the practice squad. To do so, they must release him and expose him to other teams.

Quarterbacks are so hard to find that if he has a good preseason, he'll get snapped up. This might be the year the Cowboys keep three quarterbacks on the roster.

"For his first action, I was impressed by how he moved around," Garrett said. "Sometimes as a big guy with a strong arm, you're concerned about his ability to move his feet and be spontaneous when something breaks down.

"But we saw evidence of him climbing up in the pocket and getting out of the pocket. I thought he made some good, quick decisions out in space."
OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts on Day 13 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:

1) Before you get yourself all worked up over the possibility of Josh Brent rejoining the Cowboys, understand their desperation level.

This defense gave up 415.3 yards and 27 points a game last season, and there’s no guarantee it will be better. And that’s with a quality defensive staff headed by Rod Marinelli.

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Adding Brent to the roster would really be no different than adding Rolando McClain. They’re taking a chance on a player they might otherwise pass on because the defense needs a talent infusion.

Study the players on the Cowboys’ defensive line, and making the decision to add Brent to the mix isn’t that difficult.

Plus, there’s no guarantee he makes the team. He hasn’t played in more than a year and he wasn’t working out much, if at all, while he was in jail.

Actually, the most interesting aspect of Brent’s potential return is whether Roger Goodell suspends him or counts the year he sat out in retirement as a suspension year.

With all of the criticism Goodell received for the two-game suspension of Baltimore running back Ray Rice, it’s hard to tell whether that will make him issue a tougher penalty than he ordinarily would in the Brent case.

McClain
2) Rolando McClain has some minor hamstring and quadriceps issues, but it’s clear the Cowboys want him on the field.

They say the minor injuries are the result of McClain not participating in the offseason workout program combined with the hard work he has put in since he arrived.

The combination has put his body under some stress. Still, the club is beyond pleased with his work right now.

Don’t be shocked if the starting linebackers against San Francisco are Kyle Wilber, McClain and Justin Durant.

Bruce Carter has work to do.

3) The screen pass looks like it’s going to be a bigger part of the Cowboys’ offense than it has been, which would make sense.

Play-caller Scott Linehan used them frequently with running back Reggie Bush last season, All of the lineman except Ron Leary would be considered quality blockers in space, and DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar have good hands.

Screen plays don’t work without the coaching staff committed to the practice time it takes to get good at executing them.

Key number: 37

The Cowboys problem last season wasn’t moving the ball. They had just 37 three-and-outs in 183 possessions.

Only six teams had a higher percentage and five made the playoffs. Now, the Cowboys need to score touchdowns instead of kick field goals.

Do so, and they might be able to protect their defense and win some games.

Player to Watch: Devin Street


The fifth-round pick from Pittsburgh is a smooth receiver who has the size the Cowboys these days at 6-3 and 200 pounds, but his task right now is to get stronger.

He’ll have to get bigger, so he can be physical enough to get off the line of scrimmage against press coverage and to create separation with all of the hand-fighting that goes on between receivers and defensive backs.

He scored a couple of touchdowns in the Cowboys Blue & White scrimmage, but if he wants playing time this season he’ll have to do it on special teams unless there’s an injury.

The Cowboys like their group at receiver, so they don’t need to rush Street into the lineup. They can develop him slowly and let receivers coach Derek Dooley help him improve.
OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts on Day 9 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:

1. The general thought about the Cowboys’ defense seems to be that it can’t be any worse than it was last year.

Well, it can.

The first few practices have provided no indication this defense will be better than last year’s version that allowed 415.3 yards and 27 points per game. It’s not about a lack of effort, it’s about a lack of talent.

What players worry opposing offensive coordinators? Henry Melton? Brandon Carr? Orlando Scandrick?

Melton has the best pedigree, but he’s fighting through the mental hurdles of the knee injury that cost him 13 games last season. He's still too worried about his knee to play with reckless regard for his body, which is what it takes to succeed at defensive tackle.

And when he did play his best football in Chicago, he had Julius Peppers at defensive end and Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher at linebacker. No one remotely resembling those players starts for the Cowboys.

Talk to enough coaches and staff members at training camp and they’ll tell you the scheme has been tweaked and there’s even more emphasis on teaching than usual because the Cowboys don’t have enough talent to overcome poor technique or mental mistakes.

None of that guarantees a better performance.

2. For the Cowboys to end this wretched four-year streak of not making the playoffs, they must play better in the fourth quarter.

Jason Garrett emphasizes it to the players regularly -- and he’s right.

Last year, the Cowboys led San Diego, Denver, Detroit and Green Bay in the fourth quarter and lost. They had double-digit leads over Detroit and Green Bay.

In the last three years, the Cowboys have been within seven points of their opponent -- ahead or behind -- in 38 of 48 games. Their record in those 38 games is 20-18.

The Cowboys won the fourth quarter seven times last season. They were 6-1 in those games with the only loss coming against Denver.

Their margin for error this season will be slim again, in part, because of the defense. They’ll need to win a lot of fourth quarters to make the playoffs.

3. Garrett and playcaller Scott Linehan insist the Cowboys will run the ball this season.

Before you roll your eyes, understand this season they’re equipped to run it because of an offensive line that has been fortified with three No.1 picks in the last four years.

Teams had no respect for the Cowboys’ running game so they often used seven defenders in coverage and still managed to contain DeMarco Murray. Play coverage this season and the Cowboys should be more than happy to punish teams with their running game -- at least that's what Garrett and Linehan want you to believe.

More importantly, a better running game will make the passing game more efficient because the Cowboys can use play-action passes to generate big plays. Tony Romo attempted just 74 play-action passes last season, one of the league’s lowest totals.

Key number: 1

The Cowboys blitzed 132 times last season, one of the lowest totals in the league, and produced just one interception and nine sacks.

Pathetic.

Blitzes are supposed to disrupt the quarterback and force mistakes because the quarterback is making decisions under duress. Opposing quarterbacks had a 117.5 passer rating when the Cowboys blitzed last season.

Look at the personnel and there’s no reason to think the Cowboys will be any more effective blitzing this season. Their defensive line doesn’t have a proven pass-rusher.

The coaching staff has no idea how it's going to create pressure on the quarterback

Player to Watch: Justin Durant

With Sean Lee out for the season with a knee injury, recently signed Rolando McClain trying to earn trust and rookie Anthony Hitchens not ready for a starting role, Durant is making the most of his opportunity.

Durant, who had 24 tackles for the Cowboys last season, has impressed the coaching staff with his grasp of the system and his play so far in training camp.

He’s not going to be a difference-maker, but he’s been a solid player at various times in Jacksonville and Detroit. If he can duplicate that performance here, it would be a big help for the defense
OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts from the Cowboys’ first news conference of training camp:
  • I’m not obsessing over the conditioning test the players took by themselves after coach Jason Garrett called it off, but it still doesn’t make sense. Garrett said Wednesday that he told the players at the end of their last minicamp that their attendance and performance had been so good that he decided to cancel the conditioning best. Besides, Garrett said he wasn’t sure it served a useful purpose anymore and it put the players at more risk because the conditioning test doesn’t require many football movements, per se. All of that is fine. But if that’s the case, then he should’ve been fuming that Jason Witten apparently encouraged the players to do it themselves. That’s not a knock on Witten, but if the coach is adamant about not doing something then the players shouldn't ignore his request and do it anyway.
  • You have to wonder if the Cowboys’ offensive coaching staff is set up to succeed with all of the changes. Obviously, owner Jerry Jones and Garrett think it’ll work fine, but neither of them was demoted. Garrett was sending the plays into Tony Romo at the end of last season instead of Bill Callahan. Now, Callahan is out of the mix entirely having been replaced by Scott Linehan. Then you have assistant offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who did a nice job last year. Now, he’ll probably have less responsibility because Callahan has more time to work with the line since he’s not putting the game plan together. A lot of people must subjugate their egos to make this staff work. It’ll be interesting to see if they can do it.
  • Anthony Spencer still isn’t ready to practice, so he’s been put on the physically unable to perform list. He’s been limited all offseason as he recovers from micro fracture surgery. It’s OK to wonder if he’ll ever play again.
44.3: The 12 playoff teams from last season ran the ball 44.3 percent of the time. The Cowboys ran it 35.1 percent of the time.

Garrett can use any stat or rationalization he wants, but that’s not a winning number. Only one team ranked among the bottom 10 in percent of rushing attempts made the playoffs -- and that was New Orleans.

Nine playoff teams ranked among the top 16 in percentage of rushing attempts. This is a passing league and you have to make big plays in the passing game to score points, but the best teams can still run it when they need to run and when they want to run.

Player to Watch: Brandon Weeden

It’s not normal to pay that much attention to the backup quarterback, especially when a team has a quality starter. But Tony Romo has had two back surgeries in the past year and backup Brandon Weeden is here because he was a first-round bust in Cleveland

He has talent and with a better supporting cast, he could be a solid backup. The key, as usual for a quarterback, will be limiting his mistakes. He had nine games with multiple interceptions with Cleveland and the Browns were 1-8. He had nine games with no interceptions and the Browns were 4-5.

Garrett enters his biggest season -- again

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
10:00
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Jason GarrettAP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherJason Garrett enters his fourth full season as Dallas' coach searching for his first playoff appearance.
IRVING, Texas -- This is the biggest year of Jason Garrett's coaching career with the Dallas Cowboys.

That's after 2013 was the biggest. And 2012. And probably 2011, even if it was his first full year as a head coach and the offseason was shortened because of a lockout. This is Dallas, after all, where winning is a birthright, even if those fans born after Jan. 28, 1996, have never seen their team make a conference title game.

But now we mean it. This year -- 2014 -- is the biggest in Garrett’s coaching career.

Basically we mean it because there are no more options for Garrett. He is not under contract for 2015 with the Cowboys. He is in a contract year the way Dez Bryant, Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray are.

The good news for Garrett is that the outside expectations have never been lower in his run as the Cowboys’ head coach. The offseason predictions, which are often ludicrous anyway, have the Cowboys tumbling from 8-8 to 5-11 or worse.

The bad news is that he has a defense that has a ton of questions at every level. Pick a defensive lineman and there is a question. Pick a linebacker and there is a question. Pick a defensive back not named Barry Church or Orlando Scandrick and there is a question.

On offense things look much better, provided quarterback Tony Romo is able to come back from back surgery to play at a high level. To some that might be a huge "if" considering Romo’s age (34), but the general feeling is that everything will be fine with the quarterback, who had 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 15 starts in 2013. Add Bryant, Jason Witten, Murray and an offensive line that should be this franchise’s best since 2007 and you can see the offense putting up yards and points this season.

That is where Garrett has to hang his hat if he wants to be the Cowboys’ head coach or another team’s head coach in 2015. And he can’t really hang his hat in the room, because he won’t be in the room as much as he has been.

One of Garrett's themes of 2013 was that he was entering what was the biggest year of his coaching career and unable to do what he does best -- run the offense -- because Jerry Jones gave those duties to Bill Callahan. Garrett won’t be running the offense in 2014 either, but neither will Callahan. Garrett at least has his guy, Scott Linehan, running it this season. So that is a slight bonus for Garrett.

The better news for Garrett is that if he makes the playoffs, he can control his future.

Looking objectively at what he has done since taking over as the full-time coach, there have been positive signs and mistakes that have cost the Cowboys games. The general direction of the team is better than it was when he took over. Troy Aikman said this offseason that if Garrett is not back in 2015, then the next coach will benefit from the foundation Garrett put down.

There aren’t many people outside of Valley Ranch giving the Cowboys a chance to compete in the NFC East in 2014. The Cowboys went 5-1 in the division last season and had the worst defense in the league. If they are a tick better on defense this season, can’t they contend? When did the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Washington Redskins become such juggernauts?

If the Cowboys made the playoffs, would Garrett become a hot commodity again? Would teams look at the big picture of the mess he inherited, how he kept the team competitive in a retooling if not rebuilding mode and how he worked with owner and general manager Jerry Jones, and view Garrett differently than he is viewed now?

Perhaps, and that would put him in a position of leverage.

Garrett will not address his future no matter how many times he is asked. He gives the same answer about keeping his focus on being the best coach he can be each and every day. Jones has been patient with Garrett and he doesn’t mind that the coach is in a lame-duck status. Jones wants to see the Cowboys reap the rewards of working through some of Garrett’s missteps made because of inexperience in his first three seasons.

This week Jones will be sitting next to Garrett and will be asked about the coach’s long-term status. He will profess faith in Garrett, extoll what he has done in his first three seasons and talk about the potential payoff coming in 2014.

If it doesn’t come this season, then all bets are off.

That is why this year -- 2014 -- is the biggest year of Garrett’s coaching career.

Camp preview: Dallas Cowboys

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
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NFL Nation's Todd Archer examines the three biggest issues facing the Dallas Cowboys heading into training camp:

The health of Romo: Ever since he became the starter in 2006, how Tony Romo goes is how the Cowboys go. He is coming off his second back surgery in less than a year, but he was able to do much more this offseason than he did in 2013, when he had a cyst removed. The Cowboys kept Romo out of any competitive drills in the spring in order for him to be fully healthy by the time they got to training camp. Using last year's camp as a guide, Romo did not miss a day of work, and the Cowboys don't believe he will need to be eased into the full practice load this summer either. Because a big part of Romo's game is his ability to move and create in open space, however, they will be cautious if there even hints of more soreness than just the aches and pains of training camp. All offseason, the Cowboys have not expressed any worry about Romo, who turned 34 in April, being able to return to form. He will get his first chance to show it on the practice fields in Oxnard, California. If he can play at a high level -- he had 32 touchdown passes and 10 picks in 15 games last season -- then the Cowboys should be able to contend for a playoff spot in a division that is not as strong as it has been in the past.

Marinelli to the rescue: The Cowboys' defense was historically bad in 2013, and they enter this season without their all-time leader in sacks (DeMarcus Ware), last year's leader in sacks (Jason Hatcher) and their best playmaker (Sean Lee). Rod Marinelli takes over for Monte Kiffin as the defensive coordinator and will bring subtle changes in coverages, fronts and blitzes, but the core of the 4-3 scheme will remain the same as when that coaching duo was together at Tampa Bay. The Cowboys did not make any splash signings in free agency, but their most important was Henry Melton. If he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and play the way he did under Marinelli in Chicago, the Cowboys have a chance. Marinelli also plans to lean more on cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne in man coverage, but Carr and Claiborne have to play much better in 2014 than they did in 2013. There could be as many as seven new opening day starters on defense this season than in 2013, and it is up to Marinelli to make it work. He had more talent with the Bears when he was running their defense, but the players believe in what he is selling.

Plan of attack: From 2007 through 2012, Jason Garrett called every offensive play. In 2013, Bill Callahan was the playcaller, but he was forced to run Garrett's offense, and there were hiccups. Scott Linehan will be Romo's third playcaller in as many years, and he will have the autonomy Callahan did not have. The Cowboys are not changing schemes, but Linehan has brought on alterations to an offense that struggled on third down in 2013. Linehan leaned toward the pass in his time with the Detroit Lions, but he did have a 1,000-yard rusher in Reggie Bush last season. With the Cowboys, he has a better offensive line, better tight end (Jason Witten) and better running back (DeMarco Murray). The Cowboys aren't about to become a run-first team under Linehan, but they need to run more, especially when they have a lead in order to help end games, protect a defense filled with questions and protect Romo, who is coming off two back surgeries. Because Romo did not take any team or seven-on-seven snaps in the spring, they will need to play a little bit of catch-up in what each other likes and, perhaps more importantly, doesn't like in situational football. The Romo-Linehan relationship might be the most important the Cowboys have. They have to make it work.

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 2

July, 12, 2014
Jul 12
12:00
PM ET
IRVING, Texas – Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:
If you want to check out Part 1, click here.

Away we go:

@toddarcher: I believe Gavin Escobar will play a lot more in 2014 than he did as a rookie but it won't come at the expense of Jason Witten. Witten will still play 98 percent of the snaps unless there is an injury or a blowout or three. Escobar's ascension isn't about Witten's descent. It's about using his skills to the fullest and trying to find a role for him. I've said this before here but I don't think Escobar will be a true on-the-line tight end. That doesn't mean he won't play there. It just means he is more Jimmy Graham in style (not ability) than Witten. That's OK. There's nothing wrong with that. Whenever Witten moves on, the Cowboys will need to find more than one guy to replace him. @toddarcher: Sure you can. I know everybody loves the "defense wins championships," adage, but if you're defining winning as only taking home a Super Bowl then I think that's a little narrow view. The New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers are carried by their offenses. They've won. Would you take that kind of winning around here with the Cowboys? Sure. The Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009. The Packers won it in 2010. The Patriots last won one in 2004 but have gotten to the big game. The Broncos lost in it in 2013. Since the Cowboys have won one playoff game in 475 years (has it been that long?), I think fans would take the winning those teams have had with offensive-oriented teams. @toddarcher: Lance Dunbar didn't miss a snap in the offseason so that tells me he is fully recovered from the knee injury that ended his season last year on Thanksgiving. He'll have the third-down back role. We saw Scott Linehan use Dunbar in a number of different ways in the spring. He can be good in the screen game because he's a space player. He has the ability to be a change of pace runner for DeMarco Murray. But does this mean he will see a huge role? Not necessarily because I think Murray will still be on the field for the bulk of the game. And if something happens to Murray, I think they would keep Dunbar in the third down role, expand it a little, but use Joseph Randle or Ryan Williams, whoever wins the third back job, as the every-down back. @toddarcher: Great question. I think Dwayne Harris' role will stay the same. He will be used when they go to 11 personnel at times and when they go empty. He plays a vital role and he's dependable. The quarterback likes to throw to him. I think part of the reason why you didn't hear much about him in the offseason is because he didn't do any team drills in the spring because of a shoulder surgery. We weren't able to see him do anything with Linehan on offense, so it was put on the backburner. I believe you'll see him have a role in the slot. He's a really good blocker in there. He is also one of the more dangerous punt and kick return guys in the league. 

Best case/worst case: DeMarco Murray

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
1:00
PM ET
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.

DeMarco Murray

Best-case: He's a closer

Murray
Murray ran for 1,121 yards last season and scored nine touchdowns on the ground. He was added to the Pro Bowl. When he plays well, the Cowboys play well. It’s as simple as that. The Cowboys have to use him more. Health will be an issue. He has yet to play a full season. But the Cowboys must use Murray more in the second halves of games and in the fourth quarter. In the fourth quarter of games last season, he carried just 43 times for 207 yards. In the second halves of games last season, he carried just 89 times for 391 yards. In the first halves, he carried 128 times for 730 yards and eight touchdowns. For his career, he has 104 carries in the fourth quarter for 505 yards. With a defense that will need a lot of help, the Cowboys will have to finish off games by pounding the ball to kill the clock. They don’t need to alter their approach early in games. They still need to score points to get two-score leads that make running the ball make a lot more sense. The Cowboys drafted Zack Martin, in part, to be better running the ball late in games. Think back to the Green Bay game last season or the Detroit game in 2011. The Cowboys had big second-half leads and didn’t run it. Maybe it was Jason Garrett’s hubris. Maybe it was the lack of faith in the running game. There are no excuses now, even if Scott Linehan has leaned to the pass as a playcaller. If Murray is a closer, then the Cowboys can contend in the NFC East.

Worst-case: He can’t stay healthy

This was the same worst-case scenario discussed with Tony Romo. Sean Lee gets criticized for his inability to stay healthy. Murray has yet to play a full season either. Murray missed three games as a rookie. He missed six in 2012. He missed two games last season. The Cowboys are 4-6 without Murray. He is a difference-maker, but he can only be a difference-maker if he is on the field. The best running backs are durable. That was Emmitt Smith's best trait. He was there every week and he produced. If Murray goes down, the Cowboys are looking at Lance Dunbar, Joseph Randle or Ryan Williams as their top back. Dunbar is not built to be an every-down back. Randle took over in Murray’s absence last season and averaged 3 yards per carry. In late-game situations, the Cowboys couldn’t kill the game, especially at Detroit. Williams has a pedigree, but he has played in five games in his career because of injury. If Murray can’t stay healthy, the look of the Cowboys’ offense changes drastically and that is not something they can afford.

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