Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
SAN ANTONIO -- If you can believe it, the Cowboys have actually lost their swagger heading into the 2009 season. And owner Jerry Jones thinks that's a good thing.
Last year in Oxnard, Calif., the Cowboys spent time mugging for the "Hard Knocks" cameras and basking in the glow of 13 returning Pro Bowlers. The regular season seemed like an afterthought as everyone talked about fast-forwarding to the playoffs. We all know what happened next.
The Cowboys once again imploded in December and missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record. Based on the team's high expectations, it may have been the biggest flop in franchise history. Jones has talked about the "embarrassment" of last season several times in this camp, and he thinks his team can use that as motivation in '09.
One of the biggest sideshows in professional sports, Terrell Owens, was banished in the offseason. And Adam "Pacman" Jones and Tank Johnson were also sent packing. Jerry Jones has provided numerous reasons for T.O.'s departure, but his son, Stephen, probably came up with No. 1: Quarterback Tony Romo couldn't be the leader he needed to be with a divisive force such as T.O. in the locker room.
This offseason and this training camp have been all about making the Cowboys a "Romo friendly" team. The quarterback has played that concept down, but the elder Jones says it involves several facets, including a stronger all-around defense and a running game the team can lean on throughout the season.
Romo, who once again made TMZ headlines by breaking up with Jessica Simpson, has relished the fact that this camp is all about football. The team's only held 14 practice sessions to this point, but it's apparent that Romo's having fun again. On Wednesday, he kept the ball on a naked bootleg and raced down the sideline with a huge grin on his face before accidentally hitting the field judge in the head with the football. More than 8,000 fans inside the Alamodome roared with approval.
Most people (including me) think the Cowboys are the third-best team in the NFC East -- and it's a role they seem to relish. At least for now, the sense of entitlement that derailed the '08 season seems to be missing.
"In the last few years, this is probably the first time that we feel, not that we're being overlooked, but some of you guys have decided to take other teams in the division or in the conference and things of that nature," said Romo. "That's a different role, playing that kind of role -- not that that serves you good or bad. It's just a little different in that regard. That might be the only thing I see as a little different."
Despite his humble beginnings, Romo pretty much relinquished his underdog status when he received a $30 million signing bonus during the '07 season and showed up on the celebrity dating scene. But perhaps he can channel his Eastern Illinois roots and imagine that he's sneaking up on teams.
With the additions of safety Gerald Sensabaugh, defensive end Igor Olshansky and linebacker Keith Brooking, the defense could be the strength of the team. The Cowboys need to cause more turnovers and help give the offense short fields. I don't know if DeMarcus Ware, perhaps the game's best defensive player, will have another 20-sack season, but he will be a force at outside linebacker. The next step for him is to elevate everyone else along the line. And I think you'll see that with linebacker Anthony Spencer and nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who's on his way to becoming one of the team's best Day 2 picks in the last 20 years. Now let's take a closer look at what's going on inside the Alamodome:
How will the Cowboys replace T.O.'s production in the passing game?
No matter where you stand when it comes to T.O., it's impossible to ignore the gaudy stats he put up during his three seasons with the Cowboys. You keep hearing all this talk about addition by subtraction, but what does that actually look like? For starters, Jason Garrett has spent a lot of time coming up with ways to use his talented tight ends, Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett.
In his second year, Bennett seems to be taking a much more mature approach -- at least on the practice field. I wouldn't be surprised if the Cowboys line up in a two tight end formation 50 percent of the time. Obviously, teams are going to worry about Witten the most, which should open things up for Bennett, a former basketball player who has superb athleticism to go along with above-average blocking skills. There's a chance that Bennett's the third-leading receiver on this team.
Garrett could also help himself by striving for more balance in the offense. He has three talented backs, including an all-out burner in Felix Jones. Before he went down with an injury last season against the Cardinals, Jones had displayed his explosiveness. He needs to have at least 12 to 15 touches per game, and it's Garrett's job to make sure that happens. Marion Barber is about five pounds lighter in this camp and he's actually shown some nice acceleration. Tashard Choice has been one of the most impressive players in camp. He slipped into the fourth round of the '08 draft because of his lack of speed. But he ripped off several long plays last season, and he has left defenders in his wake throughout camp.
What happens if the Cowboys have an injury on the offensive line?
The Cowboys may have one of the most overrated offensive lines in the league. They go to a lot of Pro Bowls, but you saw what happened when they had to protect an immobile quarterback such as Brad Johnson. That's when they needed to elevate their games. Romo's ability to keep plays alive helped the line's image for a couple of years. Pro Bowl right guard Leonard Davis weighs less (352 pounds) than at any time in his NFL career. He's moving around better than ever, and I think he'll improve as a run-blocker this season.
But the scary part is the Cowboys' lack of depth along the line. They've done a poor job drafting and developing offensive linemen over the years, which has caused them to sign players such as Marc Colombo, Kyle Kosier and Davis via free agency. I guess Doug Free would have to step in and play left tackle if Flozell Adams were injured, and that's a dicey proposition. Maybe that's why the Cowboys have been giving Davis some reps at left tackle in some drills.
It's not like other teams have great players at backup spots along the offensive line, but the Cowboys appear to be particularly vulnerable. If you see Pat McQuistan or Free on the field for an extended amount of time, it will be a really bad sign.
Can Wade Phillips handle his new role as head coach/defensive coordinator?
I've spent a little time with Phillips during camp and I think he's truly enjoying his new role. He's spending more time in meetings, and several players have bragged about how much all the communication is helping them. Phillips' biggest strength is that he's able to put players in the best positions to have success. This could be the year that Anthony Spencer breaks through with a nine- or 10-sack season. And I think Phillips' familiarity with inside linebacker Keith Brooking from his Atlanta days will pay dividends. Brooking has been a passionate defender of Phillips, and he totally buys into the Phillips 3-4 scheme. You can already tell that Brooking and Bradie James have excellent chemistry as the inside 'backers. Last year, it took Zach Thomas at least five or six games to find a place Brooking has already reached.
Reserve wide receivers Miles Austin and Sam Hurd are having an excellent camp. Austin's a burner who's learning how to be more patient in his routes, according to Phillips. In the past, Austin's simply raced down the field trying to use his elite speed. Now, he's slowing down and finding soft spots in the secondary. He's just a really smooth-looking player right now. Nothing seems rushed. With Hurd and Austin, you have to watch for injuries. They have a tendency to break down, but maybe they can get away from that this season.
Hurd's a San Antonio native who has thrilled the hometown fans with a series of acrobatic catches. He's sort of flying under the radar, but at this rate, he'll be impossible to keep off the field. Patrick Crayton's had a very steady camp. Nothing spectacular, but according to receivers coach Ray Sherman, he's still a starter. We'll see if that stands up when Coach Jones weighs in later in camp.
Newcomer to watch
As I flip through my steno pad, No. 57 keeps appearing. That's the number of rookie outside linebacker Victor Butler out of Oregon State. He's been incredibly active in this camp, and I love the fact that you rarely see any hesitation from him. He and fellow outside linebacker Brandon Williams have had productive camps. Williams, the former Texas Tech Red Raider, is a very instinctive pass-rusher who simply needs to add more bulk to his frame. The team's top overall pick, inside linebacker Jason Williams, is really struggling. He's nowhere close to being able to help this defense right now. Does former first-round pick Bobby Carpenter count as a newcomer? He's actually having a pretty strong camp.
I still think former fifth-round pick Orlando Scandrick is a better player than former first-round pick Mike Jenkins at cornerback -- at this point in their careers. But Scandrick will probably begin the season as the nickel corner. He's a fearless player and the Cowboys need more like that ... Ratliff has dropped down to 296 pounds after playing at 302 last season. But it looks like he's been able to retain his power while becoming even quicker. At this point, Ratliff's hands down the second-best defensive player behind DeMarcus Ware ... Speaking of Ware, he's still waiting on a contract. He told me Thursday that it's not something he's worried about -- and I believe him. I'm thinking somewhere in the $40 million guaranteed range ... There's a free-agent rookie named Kevin Ogletree who might make the team as a fifth receiver. He's made some difficult catches in traffic and has good speed ... For fans of "4th and Long," I regret to tell you that Jesse Holley's not going to make this team. But he could sneak on the practice squad. Good hands, but not enough speed ... Rookie quarterback Stephen McGee's really struggling right now. Maybe he can shine in the preseason, but right now he's thinking way too much. Just release the ball already ... Romo made some nice throws on the move in red zone drills Thursday. And Jon Kitna still has a strong arm. He's been deadly accurate at times ... Reserve guard/center Montrae Holland is always on the ground. Not good. Cory Procter is better as a reserve lineman ... Rookie kicker David Buehler is putting everything in the end zone on kickoffs. He obviously has a monster leg. And the Cowboys are also working him in on kickoff returns and punt coverage ... Rookie safety Michael Hamlin has excellent ball skills. He's a former high school receiver who has worked to improve his hands. I've watched him on low throws and he has the hands of a shortstop. He doesn't lunge at anything. He just scoops up the ball. Of all the rookies, I think he'll be the first to make an impact on defense...On Wednesday and Thursday, the Romo-to-Roy Williams connection finally clicked.