I won't personally be at Dallas Cowboys training camp until Thursday, so until then I am relying on the reports of those who are there -- specifically my friend Calvin Watkins and the army of reporters ESPNDallas.com is sending to training camp on a regular basis. One thing that has come through so far is that outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, whose rebound to 2009 form is thought to be a key to the Cowboys' season, has not been impressive so far in camp. Some have even begun to wonder whether third-year man Victor Butler is poised to take Spencer's starting job away from him and be the bookend pass rusher the Cowboys need opposite superstar DeMarcus Ware. This issue came up Tuesday in Cowboys coach Jason Garrett's daily news conference.
"Spence has been a strong contributor opposite DeMarcus Ware," Garrett said. "I think that if you ask teams around the league, they have an issue every week with our outside linebackers. When you have two guys who can make it difficult for either offensive tackles or tight ends or backs to block them, it really becomes a problem. At different times, Spence has been more productive than at other times."
Spencer burst onto the scene in late 2009, when he had four sacks in the Cowboys' final three regular-season games as the Cowboys surged to a division title. He then picked up another sack in each of their playoff games. But he had just two sacks in the final nine games of 2010, both coming in the finale against Eagles backups. The disappointing foll0w-up has left questions as to whether Spencer can truly be considered an "elite" pass rusher.
"It's not really for me to decide about elite pass rushers," Garrett said Tuesday. "We need to live in the world of Spence needs to get better today in practice. He's certainly a guy that teams know can be a very good pass rusher, has been that in the past, has been a guy, when he's not making sacks, is pushing the pocket and pressuring quarterbacks. He, like our whole football team, needs to do that on a more consistent basis."
And if he does, a defense that gave up the second-most points in the league in 2010 could look a lot more like the defense that was pitching shutouts against playoff teams at the end of the 2009 season. If he doesn't, sure, there's a chance someone like Butler, who has a total of five sacks over the past two seasons in a backup role, could take his place.
"Victor Butler's had a very good start to training game; had a very good game the other night," Garrett said. "He's a guy who's showing up on a more consistent basis. Again, we're looking for guys to do that, and we're looking to somehow find opportunities for them."
If Butler keeps doing it and Spencer keeps not doing it, don't be surprised to see a change. This isn't a Cowboys team that's re-tooling and looking toward the future. If Butler as a pass-rusher can help them win now better than Spencer can, I imagine he's going to play.