NFC East: Brian Urlacher

IRVING, Texas -- Rod Marinelli likes what he saw from his Dallas Cowboys defense in the spring.

The defensive coordinator liked that he has more players along the defensive line. He likes the linebackers’ “movement skills.” He likes how cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne can play man-to-man. He likes the growth J.J. Wilcox made at safety opposite Barry Church.

[+] EnlargeBarry Church and Morris Claiborne
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsDallas defensive backs Barry Church and Morris Claiborne didn't have much to celebrate during 2013.
But there’s something else Marinelli likes about the group.

“I think there’s something to prove a little bit,” Marinelli said. “Not something to prove from last year, but there are some guys coming here off the street with something to prove. There are some guys in contract years with something to prove. There are some guys coming out saying, ‘I want to be a better player,’ who have something prove.

“You get that many guys wanting to prove something, then you can become better. Right now what I like is how hard they’re going after their craft.”

Last season was a mess for the Cowboys' defense. It has been referenced so many times this offseason that “32nd-ranked defense” has been tattooed on everybody. The Cowboys gave up 6,279 yards in 2013 a year after giving up a franchise-record 5,687 yards. Five quarterbacks had four-touchdown games against the Cowboys. Two times in a three-week span, they allowed more than 620 yards. The New Orleans Saints had 40 first downs.

“It definitely bothers us,” Church said. “I’m speaking for myself, but it definitely bothers me. But there’s nothing we can really say or prove different. We were 32nd in the league and we weren’t that good on the defensive side of the ball. This year, the only way we can counter that is by playing good and becoming one of the better teams in the league at taking the ball away and against the run and the pass.”

It’s not just the players. The tag falls on the coaches, too.

“Nobody wants to look at last year and take ownership of that, but we have to,” secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. “And we’ve got to get better from there, and we cannot let that happen again.”

Oh, and now the Cowboys have to show they can be better in 2014 without the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware, who was cut, last year’s leader in sacks, Jason Hatcher, who signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins, and their best playmaker, Sean Lee, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in organized team activities.

But the sense is that Marinelli likes it this way. He had ubertalented defenses with the Chicago Bears with guys like Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. He won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with guys like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice, John Lynch and Ronde Barber.

He doesn’t have an Urlacher, Sapp, Brooks, Briggs, Rice or Lynch with this group.

He has Henry Melton, whom he coached to the Pro Bowl with the Bears, trying to prove he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He has Bruce Carter trying to prove he is a big-time player in a contract year. He has Claiborne, a former sixth overall pick in the draft, trying to prove he is not a bust. He has Carr trying to prove he is worth the five-year, $50 million contract he received in 2012. He has George Selvie trying to prove he was not a one-year wonder after putting up seven sacks last season. He has Tyrone Crawford trying to prove he can come back from a torn Achilles.

He has low-cost free agents such as Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey and Amobi Okoye trying to prove they can be prime-time players. He has Justin Durant trying to prove he can be a middle linebacker and Kyle Wilber trying to prove he can be a strongside linebacker. He has Rolando McClain trying to prove that a player who has retired twice in the past year has the desire to keep playing. He has DeMarcus Lawrence trying to prove that a second-rounder can make an impact as a rookie. He has Wilcox trying to prove he can play strong safety.

He has guys like Church and Scandrick trying to prove that they can put up solid seasons in back-to-back years.

So much to prove. So much to forget.

“The first thing you do is you take it as coaches and players and you take accountability for it,” Marinelli said. “And no excuses. Now we look forward. Now it’s about the expectations of this group and with expectations you have to execute. It’s that simple. That simple, yet that hard.”
GRAPEVINE, Texas -- You can most likely scratch free agent linebacker Brian Urlacher off the Cowboys’ list of potential players to replace Sean Lee.

“No,” was Jerry Jones’ response Tuesday afternoon when asked if the Cowboys are working on a deal for Urlacher.

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Lee is out for the season with a torn ACL and team officials are still determining when surgery will occur.

“We’re working through it,” said Stephen Jones, the Cowboys’ executive vice president. “I mean obviously we’re not playing football games tomorrow and we’re not going to training camp tomorrow. We’re just taking a long hard look at anything.”

Replacing Lee will be difficult.

Fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens, DeVonte Holloman (a 2013 sixth-round pick), and eight-year veteran Justin Durant are the in-house candidates to replace Lee.

The Cowboys are working with their current roster first to see if a starter can emerge for the 2014 season. If not, then signing a free agent is a possibility.

Linebacker Ernie Sims, who played with the Cowboys last season and is another possible replacement, signed with the Arizona Cardinals on Tuesday.

“Until we decide one way or the other what we’re going to do with players that are on our team we really hate to comment on things like that,” Stephen Jones said.

Urlacher, a 13-year veteran with the Chicago Bears, didn’t play last season but is open to returning for the right opportunity. Urlacher knows the 4-3 scheme because he played under it in Chicago with Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

“Someone actually tweeted me something about it,” defensive tackle Henry Melton said when asked about his former teammate with the Bears. “I haven’t heard any truth behind (Urlacher playing) it but 'Lach' knows the defense and he would be a good replacement, I feel like he would fit in.”
IRVING, Texas -- Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:

If you want to read Part 1 of the mailbag, click here.

Away we go:

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IRVING, Texas -- While the Dallas Cowboys have not officially said so, Sean Lee tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Tuesday, according to sources, and the defense will be without its best player.

The Cowboys have yet to use the bat signal to call all unemployed middle linebackers.

The current plan is to go with what is on the roster.

They have DeVonte Holloman, who started the final two games of last season at middle linebacker after Lee suffered a neck injury. They have Justin Durant, who started one game in Lee's absence last season. They have rookie Anthony Hitchens, their fourth-round pick.

With eight more organized team activities, followed by six practices during a three-day minicamp next month, the Cowboys will soon have a better idea about where they stand regarding a replacement for Lee.

After that, perhaps they will look off campus for help.

Veterans like Jonathan Vilma, Erin Henderson and Pat Angerer have been mentioned. Even Brian Urlacher's name has come up.

Urlacher's connection to Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli makes it interesting, but would it be appetizing? Urlacher did not play last year. He turned 36 this week. His knee gave him issues in his final seasons with the Bears.

Last year the Cowboys signed guard Brian Waters before the season started. He did not play in 2012 but managed to play in seven games and start five before a torn biceps ended his season. He was 36 then.

Often, past success outweighs present ability when fans yearn for a player to be signed. Urlacher is not the same player who dominated the NFL for years, just as Waters was not the same player last year that he was earlier in his career. He was solid and he helped Dallas, but he was not the same Pro Bowl player.

Vilma and Angerer have health issues. The Minnesota Vikings released Henderson in January after a DUI arrest.

At the end of May, there are no magic solutions to replace Lee.

The Cowboys will see if they can get by with Holloman, Hitchens or Durant, who did not take part in Tuesday’s practice because of an undisclosed injury. They will study the rosters of the other teams hard over the course of the summer to see if they can find (or need) an upgrade.

The players mentioned today -- Urlacher, Angerer, Henderson and Vilma -- are likely to be available when training camp begins or even later.

If the Cowboys need them in July or August or September, they can make the call.

Cowboys offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
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» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple months away, we assess the Dallas Cowboys' offseason moves.

Best move: The Cowboys could not make big splashes in free agency and their 8-8 record kept them in the middle of the pack in the draft as well, so the best move was not one regarding personnel. It was coaching. Elevating Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator after the Cowboys finished last in the league in 2013 was their best move. With the Chicago Bears, Marinelli had a difference-making defense that could create turnovers at will. He also had Pro Bowl-quality players such as Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. He does not have that in bountiful supply in Dallas, unless Sean Lee can stay healthy or Henry Melton returns to form from injury.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellWill the Dallas Cowboys regret not re-signing DeMarcus Ware?
Riskiest move: DeMarcus Ware put up 119 sacks with the Cowboys from 2005-13, but the club believed it was time to move on after Ware had just six in 2013. A quadriceps injury forced Ware to miss the first three games of his career in 2013 and he was slowed by other maladies. The Cowboys did not make an attempt to offer Ware a reduced contract and simply cut him. Within 24 hours he was signed to a three-year deal by the Denver Broncos with $20 million guaranteed. For this 4-3 scheme to work, there must be an accomplished right defensive end. The Cowboys believed Ware’s time as a dominant pass-rusher was over but did not pick up his replacement until the second round of the draft, selecting DeMarcus Lawrence.

Most surprising move: With the 16th pick in the first round, the Cowboys had a chance to select Johnny Manziel to be Tony Romo’s eventual successor. It seemed to be a perfect marriage of the attention Jerry Jones seeks and the spotlight Johnny Football enjoys. Jones passed on Manziel, recommitting his faith in Romo, who signed a six-year, $108 million extension last season, and making a smart move in picking up Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin. He will be a Day 1 starter and give the Cowboys three first-round picks on their offensive line, which will help Romo and potentially help a defense if the Cowboys can control the clock.

Numbers game: The emphasis of the Cowboys’ offseason has been about the defense, but they have taken a quantity-over-quality look. They had some interest in Peppers and Jared Allen after releasing Ware, but only at a reduced rate. The Cowboys signed Melton, who is coming off an ACL injury, to a one-year deal with an option for three more years if he plays at a high level. They signed Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain to low-risk deals. They kept Anthony Spencer, who is coming back from microfracture surgery, on a one-year deal. They even signed Amobi Okoye, who did not play last season due to personal medical issues, in hopes a reunion with Marinelli will rejuvenate him. The flashiest addition might be Lawrence, and it is difficult to expect rookies to hit the league running.

A look at Rod Marinelli's scheme

February, 11, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- Since Rod Marinelli was named the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator, I've been asked more than a few times if the defense will look different in 2014.

Since Marinelli worked with Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay for so long, the easy answer is no, it won't.

From 2010-12, Marinelli served as coordinator for the Chicago Bears after his stint as the head coach of the Detroit Lions. He had incredibly successful defenses. They forced a ton of turnovers (59 fumbles, 65 interceptions), scored 13 touchdowns and, most importantly, allowed the fourth-fewest points (904).

In 2012, the Bears had four Pro Bowl players in cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Henry Melton. They had a league-high 44 takeaways and finished in the top 10 in rush defense, pass defense and points allowed.

I wanted to get a feel for a Marinelli defense versus a Kiffin defense, so I watched two Bears games from 2012 against the Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. The Bears intercepted Tony Romo five times and forced a sixth turnover in their 34-18 win at AT&T Stadium in Week 4. The Packers game came in Week 15 and Chicago did not have Brian Urlacher. The Packers won, 21-13.

[+] EnlargeRod Marinelli
AP Photo/James D. SmithThe Cowboys' defense under Rod Marinelli shouldn't differ much schematically from the one the Cowboys ran under Monte Kiffin.
Like Kiffin, Marinelli did not employ a dime defense (six defensive backs) in either game. He played a nickel defense when faced with three-wide-receiver sets or empty packages. He brought five or more on a pass rush just 17 times in 98 pass plays.

Here's the breakdown:

Green Bay

Three-man pressure: None.
Four-man pressure: 34
Five-man or more pressure: 9

Dallas

Three-man pressure: 1
Four-man pressure: 44
Five-man or more pressure: 8

The Bears sacked Aaron Rodgers three times. They got Tony Romo once. While the Bears showed A-gap pressures with Urlacher and Lance Briggs against the Cowboys, they never brought both of them up the middle. Twice they brought the cornerback off the slot for a blitz. Most of the time Briggs was the extra rusher. The only time the Bears brought six rushers in the game came on Tillman's pick-six of Romo after a miscommunication with Dez Bryant.

Against the Packers, Marinelli used some zone blitzes, dropping Peppers into coverage with the slot corner and Briggs or Nick Roach bringing the pressure. He was more willing to bring both linebackers on blitzes up the middle against the Packers. Most of the pressure packages came on third-and-long, however the one time he brought seven rushers against Rodgers came on third-and-5 and the Bears got a stop.

Chicago played mostly zone in the two games I watched, which might not make guys like Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne happy. Kiffin was reluctant to play man coverage at times and Carr and Claiborne never really earned trust to play it more.

Against the Cowboys, Marinelli allowed his cornerbacks to press more (12 times, including eight in the first half). He did not want Bryant and/or Miles Austin to get a head of steam going off the line of scrimmage, which helped put pressure on Romo almost from the outset.

Against the Packers, the Bears played only four snaps of press coverage, two in each half.

The key to the defense was the line play. That's nothing new. That's what helped the Seattle Seahawks win a Super Bowl. That's what helped the Bears lead the league in takeaways in 2012. For this defense to work, the front four must get pressure, as witnessed by the low total of blitzes.

The Bears could get pressure with or without playing games up front with twists and stunts. It wasn't necessarily sacks. Remember, Romo was sacked just once in the game, but the Bears took it to the Cowboys' offensive line by just being active. Rodgers also felt pressure, although not as much.

So I'll go back to the original question: Will the Cowboys' defense look different in 2014? Schematically, I'd say not so much. And that's OK. The key, as it always is, will be the players playing it better.

“There's a certain philosophy, a certain defense they believe in,” linebacker Sean Lee said, “but we obviously have to get great at that base [defense] if we want to be able to build off that. I think Coach Marinelli has had a ton of success in the past. He's a great coordinator and we're going to have to find a way to improve individually if we want to play well within this defense.”
IRVING, Texas -- When the Dallas Cowboys made the switch to the 4-3 scheme last year, they thought they had the pieces in place to make a smooth transition.

Nobody could have seen what happened to the defense in 2013, finishing last in the NFL.

Carr
Revis
But when Monte Kiffin was hired last January, we all tried to make the pieces fit, comparing the Cowboys players to what Kiffin had during his run with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or what Rod Marinelli had with the Chicago Bears. DeMarcus Ware would be Simeon Rice. Jay Ratliff would be Warren Sapp. Bruce Carter would be Derrick Brooks. Sean Lee would be Brian Urlacher.

The secondary was an issue. The Cowboys had man-to-man corners in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, and they didn’t really have a John Lynch at safety, but they liked Barry Church.

Kiffin told his guys to study up on what the Seattle Seahawks did defensively as a sign that they would not be a traditional Tampa 2 team.

Now that Lovie Smith has taken over the Buccaneers, the same comparisons are being made. Gerald McCoy will be Sapp. Lavonte David will be Brooks.

So who’s Darrelle Revis?

“We're a 4-3 team,” Smith said in his introductory news conference. “There's a reason why we have Tampa-2 associated to one of our coverages, but I just want you to know, especially [in reference to cornerback] Darrelle Revis, we don't play Cover-2 every snap. We have a place for a great cover corner that's physical and can do all things.”

Now Revis is better than Carr and Claiborne. I’m not making the player-for-player comparison. If he’s not the NFL's best corner, he is at least in the conversation, and he was coming off a knee injury. I’m making the style of play comparison.

But there was a frustration from Carr and Claiborne about the lack of man coverage the Cowboys were playing, especially early in the season. Players want to do what they do best, and too often they felt like they had to play off and soft in zone coverage.

So Smith might be able to promise Revis that he will be able to man his own island, but the proof will be when the games count, because coaches want to do what they know best.

That was part of the Cowboys’ growing pains in 2013.

Welcome to Soldier Field

December, 9, 2013
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CHICAGO -- Welcome to Soldier Field where the Dallas Cowboys have a chance to maintain pace with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East with a win against the Chicago Bears.

On Sunday, the Eagles beat the Detroit Lions in a snowstorm, forcing the Cowboys to beat the Bears to maintain first place -- albeit via tiebreaker -- in the NFC East with three games to play.

Attacking on offense: The conditions could play a factor in Monday night's game with the cold, wind and field conditions. Does that mean the Cowboys will run the ball more?

“I think you go in saying you want to do both,” quarterback Tony Romo said. “You always want to run the ball, be balanced and attack when you can. We'll take that approach.”

The Cowboys have run the ball better in the past three games, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. DeMarco Murray has an outside shot at 1,000 yards despite missing two games, but the Cowboys will miss Lance Dunbar. He suffered a season-ending knee injury on Thanksgiving after finally showing the change of pace the Cowboys thought they would have all season.

Now the running game will be Murray's. Can he handle the load?

The return of the quarterback: No, not Romo. We're talking defense and the return of Sean Lee.

The middle linebacker missed two games with a hamstring injury and the Cowboys were able to win both games. But Lee is their best play maker. He is the team leader in tackles and interceptions. He is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss.

Against a team where middle linebackers have dominated for years -- Bill George, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher -- Lee will get his chance to show his worth to the Cowboys.

He will be a three-down linebacker and he said the hamstring feels fine. The cold weather will force him to do some extra warming up, but he does not expect it to be an issue.

“I thought we did a great job adapting, guys coming in and playing unbelievably,” Lee said. “Hopefully we can build on the success and continue to go forward.”

Former teammate, now enemy: Say hello to Jay Ratliff. Oop. Jeremiah Ratliff.

Released by the Cowboys in October, Ratliff signed a one-year deal with the Bears in November and will play in his second game of the season. This has not gone over well with owner and general manager Jerry Jones.

The Cowboys did not believe Ratliff would play this year based on what Ratliff told them. And here he is on the field against the Cowboys in a pivotal December game. Ratliff was a declining player with the Cowboys and was barely a factor last week against the Minnesota Vikings.

But you know he will want to be a difference maker tonight.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC East team?

DALLAS COWBOYS

Offense: Running game
Dallas averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per rush in 2012. In turn, the Cowboys too often got away from their run game and became too reliant on Tony Romo and this very good passing attack. The offensive line was mostly to blame for the ground struggles, but at least Dallas did use a first-round pick on Travis Frederick to improve the interior of the line. But DeMarco Murray is increasingly difficult to count on, having missed nine of 32 games in his two NFL seasons. Murray’s yards per attempt also dropped from 5.5 to 4.1 in his second season.

Defense: Scheme change
New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is a smart man and surely will not rely on his usual Tampa 2 scheme as some might speculate. Still, after investing so heavily in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne as man-to-man corners, Dallas now -- just one year later -- will ask these two to operate much more out of their comfort zone. It will be interesting to see what percentage of man coverage Dallas plays this season.

Wild card: The linebackers
If Dallas does move to a predominant Tampa 2 scheme, two players who should benefit a great deal are Sean Lee in the middle and Bruce Carter at the Will linebacker spot. Both have outstanding range and playmaking skills. Lee could flourish much like Brian Urlacher did in his prime as an outstanding coverage linebacker, while Carter could have a Derrick Brooks-type impact as a run-and-hit defender.

NEW YORK GIANTS

Offense: Plenty to like
Few seem to be talking about it, but I expect the Giants’ offense to produce an awful lot of points this season. With the addition of Justin Pugh, the offensive line should be upgraded. My only slight concern is at tight end, where Martellus Bennett's blocking will be missed. New starter Brandon Myers really isn't even comparable in that department. I am expecting a breakout season from running back David Wilson, with Andre Brown acting as a superb complement. Wide receiver Rueben Randle also should take monumental steps forward in his second season, and I have little doubt that Eli Manning is still an exceptional quarterback. What’s not to like?

Defense: Back seven
While I am extremely high on the Giants’ offense and think the defensive line will be improved, the back seven of this defense is worrisome. This just might be the worst group of linebackers in the NFL, and I expect Kenny Phillips to be missed at safety. Certainly the Giants have been successful defensively by dedicating resources to the defensive line, but this is a bit ridiculous.

Wild card: Defensive line
Can this deep and talented front make up for all the concerns behind it? I have my doubts, but that isn’t a knock on this front four. Potentially, the Giants should go four deep at end and six deep at tackle with high-end talent. That is pretty amazing and should allow this group to constantly have fresh, hungry players on the field. Also, Jason Pierre-Paul should be healthier than he was a year ago, which is frightening.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Offense: Jason Peters
Before his Achilles injury, I thought Peters was the best offensive lineman in the NFL. He missed the entire 2012 season, a year in which the Eagles’ offensive line was simply horrible. Other injuries certainly factored into that ineptitude, but getting Peters back in the form we saw pre-injury would go a long way to making this a potentially excellent unit, especially with the addition of Lane Johnson. But therein lies the question: What kind of movement skills will we see from the 31-year-old Peters, a tight end in college who once possessed exceptional quickness, balance and agility?

Defense: Cole, Graham and Curry
By all accounts, the Eagles are going to be a predominant 3-4 defense under Chip Kelly. But Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are prototypical 4-3 defensive ends. Cole and Graham, who somewhat quietly played exceptional football during the second half of the 2012 season, are listed as outside linebackers in this 3-4, and Curry is listed at defensive end. It will be a shame if these three players are misused, and it will be interesting to see their role when camp opens.

Wild card: All new secondary
The Eagles' starting cornerbacks greatly underachieved last year, and the safety play was just terrible. The new Philadelphia regime completely revamped the back end of the defense, and it looks as though the Eagles will have four new starters in the secondary. Philadelphia had an inordinate number of mental errors last season; while it might take some time for this group to jell, it should be improved in that capacity as well as in its overall play.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Offense: Right tackle woes
Robert Griffin III’s immense abilities and Mike Shanahan’s scheme masked a major deficiency at right tackle in 2012. The scheme won’t change and Griffin will have even better on-the-field awareness in his second season -- even if he isn’t as mobile while recovering from injury -- but Washington certainly realized this area of concern and brought in Tony Pashos and Jeremy Trueblood to compete with Tyler Polumbus. My fear is that none of the three is the answer.

Defense: O-Sack-Po?
Much like Peters for the Eagles, Brian Orakpo will be under a microscope when camp opens, as all eyes will be watching to see if he still has his same explosive movement skills post-injury. Far and away Washington’s best pass-rusher, Orakpo and his edge presence were missed in a big way last season, and the Redskins were forced to blitz, exposing their weak secondary, much more than what would have been ideal.

Wild card: New DBs
Again much like in Philadelphia, the Redskins put many of their limited offseason resources into improving a poor secondary. A healthy Orakpo’s pass rush certainly will help, but the Redskins could see as many as three rookies -- David Amerson, Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo -- playing prominent roles in their secondary early in the season. Rookie cover men rarely enter the league without their share of growing pains.
Man, this is a smart, sober take from Jean-Jacques Taylor on Jason Garrett's role in the Dallas Cowboys' current management structure and decision-making process. Jacques' premise is that past Cowboys teams would have rushed to sign big-name veteran free agents like Charles Woodson, Brian Urlacher and Tyson Clabo, where this year's Cowboys passed on all of them in favor of a continuation of the program they're working to build. And his conclusion is that Garrett, and his philosophy about how to build a team, is the difference:
Say what you will about Garrett -- much of the criticism he receives is warranted -- but he gives this franchise direction. Maybe you don't like the road he's driving down, but at least he's not driving in circles.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
AP Photo/James D SmithIf you look closely, there are signs the Cowboys have changed philosophy and are making progress under Jason Garrett.
Just so you know, these particular decisions don't have anything to do with the Cowboys being tight against the salary cap. They can always find money and salary-cap space when they need it. Nope, this is a definite philosophical change.

...

The Cowboys, like most teams, finally understand that it's far better for a team's salary cap and long-term development to give draft picks and young players every opportunity to make the team. They provide a cost-effective talent base and help create the salary-cap space for a team to sign a big-money free agent who is in his prime and worth the money.

Garrett is a smart guy. He gets it.

The Cowboys benefit.

This is why I don't rush to join the crowd that assumes Garrett is coaching for his job in 2013. Could a bad season cost him his job? Sure. But it's no sure thing that another 8-8 disappointment or a first-round playoff exit or something like that gets Garrett fired. Firing Garrett at this point would represent a dramatic shift in the plan for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. While it's easy for everyone to characterize Jones as impulsive and rash, I think there's real evidence that he's tired of changing the plan every couple of years to little result.

Jones likes and admires Garrett. He respects his intelligence. He recently referred to him as the team's "premier asset," and I don't think that was just a phrase he threw out there. The sense you get when you spend time around the Cowboys these days is that they're striving to build a sustainable, long-term, successful program, and that they believe they're making progress. Last season's ending stunk for them, again, and the 8-8 records two years in a row are an easy reason for people to point and say there's no progress. But if you followed Dallas' 2012 season, the positives were unmistakable. Their comeback from where they were in early November, with half their defense on IR, to get themselves into a division title game for the second year in a row was a half-season's worth of evidence of the kind of heart they're so often accused of lacking.

Garrett coached the team through on-field adversity and off-field tragedy with no hint of locker room discord, and while his in-game decision-making is often a worthy target of criticism, the fact that you never near anything about player discontentment with him says a lot. Tony Romo led fourth-quarter comebacks without a running game to lean on, and the fact that he threw three interceptions in a Week 17 road loss to a scorching hot Redskins team shouldn't obscure that completely. Dez Bryant, Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer emerged as star-caliber players. The Cowboys, up until that Week 17 loss, had plenty on which to build hopes for the future, and that's what Garrett & Co. will sell to their players this offseason.

This is why I think Garrett is more to Dallas right now than just a coach-on-the-hot-seat. I think Jones views him as a key part of the long-range plan. And I'm not as convinced as a lot of people seem to be that Jones is ready to ditch the current plan for a new one -- no matter what happens this season.
Unable to find an acceptable situation under which to continue his Hall of Fame career, former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher announced his retirement earlier this week. Thanks to Kevin Seifert of the NFC North blog for pointing out this Chicago Tribune story, in which Urlacher says he liked the idea of possibly signing with the Dallas Cowboys, who were not interested:
Although the Bears seemed to leave open the possibility of an Urlacher return months after sending out a parting news release, such a scenario never materialized. Some speculated Urlacher would end up with the rival Vikings based on that team’s need for a middle linebacker. Only one team outside of the Bears truly intrigued Urlacher.

“If I could have picked a spot, it would have been Dallas,” Urlacher said. “(The Cowboys) run our defense. They took our d-coordinator (Rod Marinelli). That would have been ideal. But they have two really good young linebackers.”

Yes, a few of us asked Stephen Jones about Urlacher at the owners meetings in Phoenix a couple of months ago, and he worked hard to respectfully say the Cowboys weren't interested. Urlacher would have played the same middle linebacker position for them that Sean Lee is set to play, and Lee is a younger (and, at this point in history, better) player. Bruce Carter is the other "really good" young linebacker to which Urlacher referred, and as with Lee, the Cowboys want Carter on the field as much as possible. The did not have a need for Urlacher.

I would suggest to Cowboys fans that they enjoy this endorsement of Marinelli and the Cowboys' new defense by an all-time great who thinks he'd have enjoyed playing in it.
Getting a lot of Brian Urlacher questions, which is what happens whenever a really famous player gets cut. Fans want to know if he makes sense for their teams. I think there's only one NFC East team for which he makes sense, and I think it's the New York Giants.

You can cross off the Eagles and Redskins right away. Urlacher's value is as a 4-3, leader-of-the-defense middle linebacker. The Redskins run a 3-4, have plenty of linebackers and no cap room with which to sign him anyway. And while nobody knows exactly what the Eagles are going to do, it seems safe to say they won't be using a traditional 4-3 alignment. And even if they did, they have DeMeco Ryans for the middle.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireThe only NFC East team that seems a good fit for Brian Urlacher is the Giants, and they have yet to show interest in the ex-Bears linebacker.
Now, a lot of Dallas Cowboys fans are asking about Urlacher, and their name has come up. But I think this is largely because the agent seems to want to keep the Cowboys alive as a possibility (as agents very often do) and because Jerry Jones is unpredictable. But Stephen Jones was asked directly about Urlacher the other day at the owners meetings in Arizona, and here's what he said:

"You're talking about a Hall of Fame player here, and you don't ever dismiss Hall of Famers in my book. But obviously it'd be difficult. He plays what Sean [Lee] plays, and to move everything around for a year doesn't really make a lot of sense. But at the same time you don't ever rule it out."

That's a pretty polite way of saying, "No, thanks." Sean Lee is a fantastic young player likely to thrive as a playmaking middle linebacker in Dallas' new 4-3 scheme. And even if your concern about Lee is that he gets hurt too much, it's hard to see how a late-career Urlacher who missed four games himself last year due to injury is the insurance policy the Cowboys need for that. The only factor that keeps this possibility alive is that Jerry Jones might have a different (and less reasonable) perspective on it than Stephen Jones does. And that could always carry the day.

But in terms of actual sense, Urlacher's only NFC East fit is the Giants. He'd provide a presence in the middle of their mediocre linebacking corps -- certainly offering more than recently signed Dan Connor would. He's a veteran for a veteran locker room. He surely would like to go to a contender, and the Giants always are that. The Giants are the one place in this division where he'd fit. The only question is whether they're interested, and to this point they do not appear to be. So I'd be surprised to see Urlacher in the NFC East, in answer to many of your questions. But I have of course been surprised before.

Cowboys think they're built for a 4-3

February, 28, 2013
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This scouting combine story from Todd Archer tells us that the Dallas Cowboys were planning a switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense even before the 2012 season ended. According to coach Jason Garrett, they believe they have the right kind of personnel to make the switch:
"You just go through all those scenarios and at the end of it we felt good about, 'Hey, we can do this and it won't take us three years to do this,'" coach Jason Garrett said. "And we certainly want to continue to add pieces to it and make that defense better, but we felt good about the flexibility and versatility of the guys we already have."

Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli agreed with Garrett's analysis after they joined the staff. They used players such as Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher as frames of reference for DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter.

Well, yeah. I mean, if all of those guys at the end of that sentence play like all of the guys at the beginning of that sentence, then yeah, the Cowboys will really have something. But there are some "ifs," and most of them are tied to health. For instance, I think Lee can be a brilliant playmaking middle linebacker in a 4-3. But he has to stay on the field, and he's had trouble doing that. And then there's this later in the story from former Cowboys exec Jeff Ireland, comparing Ware to Cameron Wake, who moved from a 3-4 outside linebacker to a 4-3 end last year for Ireland's Dolphins:
"We felt like when Wake was in a three-point stance he probably was a better rusher than he was in a two-point stance," Ireland said. "I don't know that about DeMarcus. I'd have to study that, but I'm sure he's equally efficient in a three-point or two-point stance, so I don't think it will be that tough."

Ware is a very interesting part of all of this. Again, I don't think it's a question of his ability to perform effectively in a 4-3 but rather his ability to hold up physically while playing closer to the ball and mixing it up more directly with bigger offensive line bodies. Ware has shown some signs the past couple of years that his body could be beginning to break down, and if that is a trend and not an aberration, then a move like this isn't going to help with it.

This transition to the 4-3 is one of the very interesting stories of the Cowboys' offseason, so we'll continue to examine it as it goes along. I think they have the right kinds of players to pull it off, but a lot depends on who goes, who stays and who shows up to play it once the salary cap is straight and free agency and the draft have settled.

Fletcher, Orakpo headed to Hawaii

January, 24, 2011
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Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher's making up for lost time as he nears the end of his career. He's been added to the NFC Pro Bowl roster for the second consecutive season after being overlooked for so many years. Fletcher and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo will both head to Hawaii because of an injury to Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and the fact that Clay Matthews is preparing for the Super Bowl.

Orakpo only had 8.5 sacks, but he did draw several holding penalties, including one that sealed the season-opener against the Dallas Cowboys. Fletcher and Orakpo join Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall on the roster.

What's in Mosley's Mailbag?

December, 12, 2009
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Let's answer four questions on four teams. You guys have been as prolific as ever. Keep up the good work.

Omar from Oakland, Calif., has some concerns with my recent column suggesting the Cowboys should have hired Norv Turner instead of Wade Phillips: Listen, the Cowboys did not make the wrong decision with Phillips over Turner. Record comparison is comparable with Turner 28-16 and Phillips 30-14. Of course, Turner has won three playoff games to Wade's zero. But here's the thing. Tony Romo is a good quarterback and not a great one. Philips Rivers is the best quarterback in the leauge this side of Manning and Brees. Believe me, the Chargers are winning in spite of Turner. He is a great offensive coordinator and Wade is great defensive coordinator. Neither are great head coaches and never will be, although because of Rivers, Turner may get to a Super Bowl this year while the Cowboys are the fourth or fifth best team at best in the NFC. Bottom line, Turner has Rivers and Wade has Romo. Simply put, no comparison.

Mosley: Could we at least give Turner a little credit for his work with making Rivers one of the top quarterbacks in the league? Turner's recognized as one of the best quarterback gurus (Troy Aikman anyone?) in the game and I think he would've done an unbelievable job with Romo. When you simply talk about skill level, I don't think Rivers is far ahead of Romo -- if at all. But yes, Rivers has three more playoff wins than Romo. Turner has taken quarterbacks such as Brad Johnson and Alex Smith and led them to excellent seasons. Let's not act like he just lucked into a good quarterback. I think Turner's a huge part of Rivers' success and I can't help but think that he would've already helped Romo get at least one playoff win.


Yatin from Los Angeles has a question about Kevin Kolb: Hey Matt, I've tried asking this several times in the chats, but no luck. So I'm giving your mailbag a shot. What do you think Eagles management should do with Kevin Kolb? It's not too different from Favre-Rodgers in that there's a veteran quarterback in Donovan McNabb who is still playing at a high level, but a young talent in Kolb who is not going to be happy sitting forever. While I love Donovan and don't think we should release him, I'm worried we're going to lose our potential quarterback of the future in Kolb.

Mosley: The good thing for the Eagles is that they've now seen that Kolb can perform well in a regular-season game. It wasn't fair to judge the guy on the second half against the Ravens last year. In two games this season, Kolb put up solid numbers and proved that he's a capable backup. My thought is that McNabb will be the starter in 2010 for sure. After that, who knows what will happen? If there's a team out there that thinks of Kolb like the Texans thought of Matt Schaub when he played for the Falcons, then the Eagles will be all ears. But for now, I think Andy Reid still believes that Kolb is the heir apparent to McNabb.


Amari H. from Richmond, Va., doesn't think London Fletcher deserves your Pro Bowl vote: I'm sorry but I couldn't disagree with you more. Although London Fletcher is a really good player, he obviously hasn't stood out enough to be considered a Pro Bowl player. There is no way you can compare his numbers to Ray Lewis'. He may get a similar number of tackles, but if you want to go to the Pro Bowl then you have to be a dynamic linebacker. Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher and Patrick Willis not only make tackles but they make interceptions, cause fumbles, get sacks, and score touchdowns. They make dynamic plays for their football team. Only two of these guys can get on the Pro Bowl squad and clearly Fletcher hasn't seperated from the pack enough to warrant consideration. This story comes up literally every year and yet still no results. Are you really asking for a handout on behalf of London Fletcher? Right now I got Willis, A.J. Hawk and Keith Brooking ahead of him. And if you can give me any reason to put him ahead of those guys, I am all ears. But can this please be the last time this story comes up. I know he won Super Bowl, I know he's started so many games and I know that he always makes a lot of tackles. But these Redskins players are whining about the Pro Bowl too much.

Mosley: I don't think Peter King would've placed London Fletcher on his all-decade team if he didn't have a little something. No one's looking for handouts, but it is a tremendous slap in the face that Fletcher's never made a Pro Bowl. You brought up forced fumbles and sacks. Well, he's right up there with Lewis in those categories over the past decade. He's also the ultimate leader. I've watched him completely take over football games, so I don't know how you can argue that he's not a dynamic player. He's having another brilliant season at linebacker. This is not some lifetime achievement award we're talking about. He's earned a Pro Bowl trip this season, just like he has for the past six or seven.


Jonathan from Boulder, Colo. has a question about the Giants' O-line: You keep saying in chats and columns that you expect the Giants to change up their O-line in the offseason. After all the success they had last year, what is the difference this year? Who's the weak link and who do you expect to be gone?

Mosley: Last year the offensive line did a nice job of protecting Eli Manning the first 12 or 13 games of the season. This year, the line has given up too many sacks and hasn't done a good job opening up holes in the running game. There are still good players up front -- right guard Chris Snee is one of the best in the league -- but I do think there are changes on the way. For starters, I think David Diehl's days at left tackle are numbered. I think he'd be more effective at left guard. I could also see third-round draft pick Will Beatty pushing Kareem McKenzie at right tackle. It would not surprise me at all to see some of those changes take place this offseason. The Giants' offensive line has had remarkable continuity dating back to the Super Bowl season, but I think changes are on the way.

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