NFC East: Jay Ratliff

Dallas Cowboys starting left guard Ronald Leary will not be suspended by the NFL regarding a two-year old DWI charge, according to a source.

According to court documents, Leary was arrested in Irving, Texas, on Sept. 7, 2012, two days after the Cowboys' season opener at the New York Giants.

There has been numerous court dates postponed since the original arrest. Leary, who was a rookie practice squad player at the time of the arrest, didn't get promoted to the active roster until that December.

When an NFL player is charged with a DWI offense, he's placed into the league's substance abuse program. Once that player completes the program, the league considers the legal matter over based on the facts of any particular case.

Adisa Bakari, Leary's agent, and Cowboys' officials declined comment.

The Cowboys had three players arrested for DWI charges within a five-month period two years ago.

Following Leary's arrest, defensive lineman Josh Brent was charged with intoxication manslaughter in Irving, Texas, on Dec. 8, which resulted in the death of practice-squad teammate Jerry Brown.

On Jan. 22, 2013, defensive lineman Jeremiah Ratliff was charged with DWI in Grapevine, Texas, after hitting a tractor trailer.
Former Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent was moved from jail to a treatment facility Sunday.

This is a positive step in Brent's recovery from his conviction on intoxication manslaughter charges following the car crash that resulted in the death of his best friend and teammate, Jerry Brown.

In January, Brent was sentenced to 180 days in jail and given 10 years' probation. He's scheduled to be released in late July. Cowboys officials have monitored Brent's recovery from afar and team executive Stephen Jones said the team is open to Brent returning to the field.


Does Josh Brent deserve another chance to play in the NFL?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,719)

The Cowboys have adopted this obligation to Brown's mother, Stacey Jackson, that they would support Brent because he needs football and wants to make amends for what he's done.

Brent is about to pay his debts from a legal standpoint to the state of Texas when he's released. Brent is determined to take care of Brown's toddler-aged daughter from a financial standpoint, and he sees football as the quickest way to do that.

All of that is understandable. In fact, it's admirable that the Cowboys don't seem concerned about possible public perception and believe they would be doing the right thing for everyone involved. They are standing by their man.

But looking at this from a football perspective, Brent is an average player who has five career starts. He was scheduled to start the Cincinnati Bengals game in 2012 because of an injury to Jeremiah Ratliff when he was involved in the car crash that killed his friend.

Brent showed a lack of judgment that night when he went out drinking 48 hours before a big game late in the season.

Life is about second chances and Brent deserves one. He should be given an opportunity to provide for Brown's daughter and for himself.

Brent is a good guy, but he made a terrible mistake.

But everybody needs a true fresh start here. Brent, the Brown family, the Cowboys. Let another team give him a chance to play along the defensive line and if Brent excels, great.

After Dallas beat the Bengals that afternoon in Cincinnati, the locker room was silent. There was no loud talking or slapping fives. In the postgame interview, coach Jason Garrett spoke to reporters in an emotional tone.

The emotion it took to win that game -- on top of losing Brown and Brent, who was in jail during the game, was a daunting task.

The Cowboys can't go back here and do it again.
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys entered 2014 knowing they had to drastically improve their defensive line.

A better defensive line means a better Cowboys defense.

"This defensive scheme has been at its best when they’ve had good defensive lines," coach Jason Garrett said. "Last year we felt the effects of the injuries we had. We were decimated up there, and it affected how we played defense all the way back through the linebackers and the secondary, and felt like we had to address it and get it right.”

The Cowboys played 20 different defensive linemen in 2013. Some of them practiced for the first time on a Wednesday and played on a Sunday. The defense never received a down from Tyrone Crawford and Jeremiah "Jay" Ratliff. They received 34 snaps from Anthony Spencer. DeMarcus Ware missed the first three games of his career and had just six sacks. Jason Hatcher, who led the Cowboys with 11 sacks, missed one game.

Ware was cut and has signed with the Denver Broncos. The Cowboys made no real effort to keep Hatcher, who joined the Washington Redskins.

After the draft and college free agency, the Cowboys have 17 defensive linemen on the roster, and they might cut that number down soon. Last year, they did not draft a defensive lineman or add one as an undrafted free agent. Call this a market correction, if you want.

They signed Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Henry Melton in free agency. They re-signed Spencer to a one-year deal. They gave up their third-round pick to draft Demarcus Lawrence in the second round. In the seventh round, they added Ben Gardner and Ken Bishop.

“The obvious is the obvious,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “We were trying to emphasize defense in terms of numbers. We think that one of the ways to mitigate some of the big challenge that we have in our defensive front is numbers. Actual numbers on the field.”

The Cowboys love what George Selvie, a training camp pickup last summer, did in 2013 (seven sacks). They think he’ll be better if he plays fewer snaps. They love what Nick Hayden did as a starter in 2013, but they think he’ll be better if he plays fewer snaps.

While the Cowboys have thrown numbers at the D-line, they have not thrown cost. Melton carries the biggest cap number at $1.734 million.

But are the Cowboys better on the line? Spencer and Melton are not guaranteed to be ready for the start of training camp; both are recovering from knee injuries. McClain and Mincey have been complementary players. Selvie has to prove he is more than a one-year wonder. Crawford is coming off a torn Achilles. Lawrence will be making a big adjustment to the NFL.

A year ago at this time, on paper, Jones believed the Cowboys were stocked to make the switch to the 4-3. Then the season happened and the Cowboys were “a team that just flat was bankrupt in the defensive line last year,” Jones said. "We’re much better than what we played with."

Now, at least the Cowboys have given defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli options.

“We certainly know that is Rod’s goal, having those players biting at each other’s heels, fighting and competing," Jones said. "Our plan is to get numbers on the field.”
IRVING, Texas -- Before people get carried away with Kyle Orton's absence from the Dallas Cowboys' offseason program, two factors need to be put out there: the workouts are voluntary and he missed just one day.

But the Cowboys should not look at Orton's absence as a one-day deal. They should take a worst-case scenario look at it. They need to determine whether Orton really wants to play football in 2014, despite what they heard from the player's agent and the fact Orton would be walking away from $3.25 million.

[+] EnlargeKyle Orton
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsGiven some of the current uncertainty surrounding backup Kyle Orton, should the Cowboys look to select a quarterback in next month's draft?
It could be as simple as him not wanting to play anymore. He is the second-highest paid backup quarterback in the NFL behind Matt Moore ($4 million) of the Miami Dolphins, so money wouldn't seem to be an issue. He has been content in his role as a backup to Tony Romo, so opportunity wouldn't seem to be an issue.

Undoubtedly the Cowboys have spoken directly to Orton this offseason with the whispers of him thinking about retirement. What was discussed is not known. Did he tell them he would play or not play?

Orton holds the cards here because he does not have to show up until the mandatory June minicamp. If he does not report for that, then he would face fines up to close to $70,000. If he does report, what kind of condition is he in?

The Cowboys can trade him or release him. What kind of return would they get for a player who may or may not report to a new team? If they release him, then they would forfeit the right to pick up $3 million of the $5 million signing bonus he received in 2011. After the Jeremiah Ratliff fiasco, you would think the Cowboys would be more vigilant in these kinds of cases.

They could keep him and hope he arrives at the June minicamp in good shape and is ready to go when the team reports to Oxnard, Calif., for training camp. Hope, however, should not be their strategy.

Yet there is a more immediate question raised from Orton's absence. Does it push quarterback up the ladder when it comes to the draft?

The Cowboys signed Brandon Weeden to a two-year deal in the offseason with no signing bonus. They liked him coming into the 2012 draft, but not as much as the Cleveland Browns liked him. He had more interceptions than touchdown passes, but the Cowboys have taken a no-risk look at him.

What can they learn about Weeden before the draft? Not much. Coaches are not allowed on the field with the players until Phase 2 of the offseason program, which comes the week of the draft.

The Cowboys attended Aaron Murray's workout at Georgia last week. They talked with Jimmy Garoppolo and David Fales at the NFL scouting combine. They had a number of quarterbacks at their Dallas Day workouts last week in Garrett Gilbert, Casey Pachall and James Franklin, but they did not have a quarterback among their national visitors.

The Cowboys aren't exactly being held hostage by Orton, but his decision (or indecision) could go a long way in how they plan to attack the draft.
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have put a lot of thought and time into the grievance they have filed against Jeremiah "Jay" Ratliff, but their chances of receiving salary-cap credit are not the best.

The Cowboys would have had a much better case against Ratliff if they had suspended him when he got into owner/general manager Jerry Jones’ face in the locker room after a win during the 2012 season.

It was the ultimate showing of conduct detrimental to the team.

Instead, Jones thought the relationship with Ratliff could be salvaged, even if it had soured with many people behind the scenes who had to deal with him on a day-to-day basis. There were hard feelings with the team’s athletic training staff for months. He was surly and hardly the kind of guy some portrayed him to be.

The Cowboys made it worse last offseason when they restructured his contract to gain salary-cap space. The move guaranteed Ratliff more money -- after he played in only six games in 2012 because of sports-hernia surgery -- and put the Cowboys in the hole against the salary cap in the future. He was supposed to be a fixture in the move from the 3-4 to the 4-3 as the vaunted 3-technique Rod Marinelli craved.

Except he never played a game in 2013. He did not pass the conditioning test at the start of training camp, and the Cowboys placed him on the physically unable to perform list. Ratliff was not pleased with the designation. Off to the side, he went through some pretty rigorous workouts with assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett, but the closest Ratliff would get to the field was in a walk-through.

At the final cuts, the Cowboys kept him on PUP, which knocked him out of the first six games. They hoped the extra time would help his rehab and get him back on the field. He did most of his rehab away from Valley Ranch, which was not the team’s standard operating procedure. When he showed up shortly before he was eligible to come off the PUP list, he wasn’t close to being ready to play.

The Cowboys decided then to part ways with Ratliff. He counts $6.9 million against the Cowboys’ salary cap on 2014. For now.

At the time of his release, Ratliff’s agent, Mark Slough, said his client would not play in 2013 but would focus on 2014 because the injury Ratliff suffered was much more severe than the typical sports hernia. A day later, Slough said Ratliff would be open to playing in 2013.

Eyebrows were raised, and the thoughts of a grievance were put in motion but were announced by Jones only on Monday.

Will the Cowboys get their money -- both in cap credit and cash? Maybe, but Jones acknowledged it will be a difficult road.

He missed a better chance to get it back in 2012.
IRVING, Texas -- Earlier today my guy, Calvin Watkins, brought you a post that says the Dallas Cowboys are rebuilding.

I don’t want to say Calvin is wrong, but, well, um, well, I don’t agree with that premise.

It’s not a rebuild the Cowboys are going through. And if you want to call it a rebuilding job, what exactly are they rebuilding from? They have won one playoff game since 1996. Teams that rebuild at least go to conference title games or Super Bowls -- and win Super Bowls.

I just don’t think you rebuild when you have a franchise quarterback that will turn 34 in April and is only in the second year of a six-year extension.

What the Cowboys have done the last few years -- and I wrote about it -- is re-tool. The departures of DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin and Jason Hatcher are more evidence that the Cowboys are re-tooling. With Tony Romo, the Cowboys still need to win now. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said as much at the NFL scouting combine.


Should the Cowboys be in rebuilding mode?


Discuss (Total votes: 7,665)

He doesn’t have time to wait three or four years to rebuild with Romo as his quarterback.

What the Cowboys are doing is changing their core. While Romo and Jason Witten are still the focal points of the team because of their play, status and production, the core of the team has moved on from guys like Ware, Jeremiah Ratliff, Austin, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, Bradie James and Terence Newman in recent years to newer players.

The core now is Sean Lee, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Orlando Scandrick, Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams and Barry Church. They would love guys like Morris Claiborne, Tyrone Crawford and Gavin Escobar to join this list but they have not proven they can play yet.

The Cowboys have to maximize what they have left with Romo and Witten but not to the point where they are left in salary-cap shambles for when the “new guard” is in their prime.

Rebuilding, to me, is starting over. The Cowboys aren’t going to start over with Romo and Witten and they’re not exactly moving back to ground zero either.

What they are doing does not guarantee success or even something better than 8-8, but they are in the process of passing the torch, so to speak.

Cowboys are getting younger

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
IRVING, Texas -- These are not your father's Dallas Cowboys, so to speak.

Once a team stocked with enough players to field a softball team in an over-30 league, the Cowboys are getting young.

With the releases of DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin, the Cowboys have three starters over 30 years old in Tony Romo, who turns 34 next month, Jason Witten, who turns 32 in May and Doug Free, who turned 30 in January.

The only other thirty-somethings on the roster are backup quarterback Kyle Orton, who is 31, and long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur, who turns 33 on Thursday.

Not included on the list are free agents Anthony Spencer (30) and Jason Hatcher (31).

Ware turns 32 in July and Austin turns 30 in June.

The Cowboys have refused to use the word "rebuild" over the last three seasons but they have re-tooled their roster moving away from Leonard Davis, Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode and Marc Colombo on the offensive line and Ware, Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman on the defensive line.

They have made the decision to not restructure the contracts of Witten and Brandon Carr, who turns 28 in May, unless absolutely necessary so they do not push more money into the salary cap in future years.

For years people have called the NFL a young man's game. The Cowboys are moving to a younger man's team.
IRVING, Texas -- Two weeks ago, Cowboys team doctors cleared Sean Lee for full offseason football activities following the neck injury that knocked him out of most of the final four games in 2013.

That’s a good thing, because with the release of DeMarcus Ware on Tuesday, Lee will have to bear the weight of being the face of the Cowboys' defense.

From just about the day Ware arrived in 2005 as a first-round pick through 2012, he was the Cowboys' best player on offense or defense. He could do -- and probably will show people this year he still can do -- anything he wanted.

[+] EnlargeSean Lee
Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty ImagesSean Lee has proven to be a playmaker, but staying healthy has been a challenge.
His 117 career sacks are a franchise record. He came up a half-sack short in 2011 of becoming the first player in NFL history with two 20-sack seasons. If anything, the Cowboys are choosing to cut ties with a player a year too early as opposed to a year too late with Ware.

It is their right, and their salary-cap woes made the decision even easier.

But now Lee will be the face of the defense.

The Cowboys signed him to a six-year extension worth $42 million last summer that could accelerate to $51 million if he can stay healthy.

Those last five words shadow Lee the way Ware shadowed quarterbacks. He missed five games in 2013 with hamstring and neck injuries. He missed 10 games in 2012 with a serious toe injury. He missed one game in 2011 with a dislocated wrist but played the bulk of the season with it wrapped up like a club. He missed two games as a rookie in 2010.

Lee is everything that coach Jason Garrett wants in a player. He is tough, accountable, unselfish and talented. He knows the score. He knows he has to stay on the field for the Cowboys to have a chance to make the playoffs.

He can change games like Ware can, just in different ways. He has 11 interceptions in his career, two returned for touchdowns. He is a tackling machine. He is the brains of a defense. He can make sure other defenders are lined up in the correct spot. He can cover up their mistakes, too.

Ware could (can?) change games with his burst off the line of scrimmage and by pressuring the quarterback. He could (can?) do things athletically that men his size should not be able to do. He was (is?) the perfect combination of speed and power.

For nine seasons with the Cowboys, nobody did it better than Ware. He helped Greg Ellis, Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher reach the Pro Bowl because he drew so much attention from offenses.

Tuesday marked the end of an era with the release of Ware and the beginning of another in a way with Lee.
IRVING, Texas -- As Jerry Jones spoke on his bus from the NFL scouting combine recently, you could hear the Dallas Cowboys' owner and general manager go through a checklist when talking about draft needs.

He said drafting a corner “could be stacking it up,” too much with Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne. He said tight end would not be a position of need with Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar. He said “not necessarily” wide receiver, either. The Cowboys like DeMarco Murray a lot, but “that doesn’t mean we won’t bring in another potentially very competitive running back in at all.” He said a strongside linebacker would not be much of a need because of its lack of importance in the 4-3. He mentioned liking what they have at safety but would not rule out a draft pick.

What does it all mean in early March? Not much.

The question was about drafting solely defensive players considering how much help the Cowboys need on that side of the ball.

“We’ve got to be careful foregoing a really top offensive lineman,” Jones said. “I’d head scratch about that, all things equal, same quality.”

The follow-up question was specifically about defensive line help.

“It’s certainly where we were almost bankrupt last year in terms of what we had personnel wise,” Jones said. “As you’ve noted and I’ve mentioned, I thought that was our strength going into the season. And by the way, I was up here talking to Monte Kiffin earlier and Monte was talking about how [Anthony] Spencer, how we were doing with [Jay] Ratliff not out there, but how well we were playing at Oxnard in that defensive front. That was without Tyrone Crawford, who got hurt the first day. Still we were creating some havoc out there and we, of course, really lost that. But that is certainly an area of need. I’m not being evasive, but don’t discount a good offensive lineman that is high on your board.”

That was twice Jones mentioned an offensive lineman. The Cowboys have hit on their past two first-round picks on the offensive line in Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick after not previously drafting one in the first round in the Jones era.

Just something to note.
INDIANAPOLIS – Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones knows 8-8 is not good enough.

But as he looks back at the Cowboys’ 8-8 finish in 2013, the view is slightly different.

When asked what the Cowboys have to do to get out of their .500 ways when they are pressed up against the salary cap, Jones first mentioned the team’s health.

“We had a lot of money sitting on the sideline,” Jones said. “To be candid with you, when our season started if you told me that we were going to get the production we got out of [DeMarcus] Ware because of some injury issues, and we were not going to get [Anthony] Spencer at all and not going to get [Jay] Ratliff at all, then I might’ve been concerned and said, ‘We might have a hard time getting to 8-8.’ Now is that our issue because of Spencer’s age or Ware’s age or Ratliff’s age? How much of that is on us? I don’t know, but first of all when you have that kind of money sitting on the sideline of a salary cap and you’ve got a $20 million quarterback (in Tony Romo) then if you might’ve told me if we would go 8-8, I might say, ‘Well, we did all right to survive that,’ because that’s a lot of cap money on the sideline that never played. Wasn’t efficient, I can tell you that.”

Spencer played in 34 snaps and counted $10.6 million against the cap with the franchise tag. Ware counted $8.092 million against the cap after he had his contract restructured and missed three games and played 55 percent of the snaps on the season. Ratliff counted $4.072 million against the cap after his contract was restructured and did not play a down before he was released.

Romo had an $11.8 million cap figure but took home $26.5 million in cash with a $25 million signing bonus and $1.5 million base salary in the first year of his six-year extension. And he did not play in the winner-take-all season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles because of a back injury that required surgery.
IRVING, Texas -- Is it too soon or too late to remind Dallas Cowboys fans that Akwasi Owusu-Ansah was drafted 13 spots before the Seattle Seahawks chose Kam Chancellor in the fifth round of the 2010 draft?

Or is too soon or too late remind them that Josh Thomas was picked 11 spots before the Seahawks took Richard Sherman in the fifth round of the 2011 draft?

Today, Chancellor and Sherman are celebrating a Super Bowl victory. Thomas at least made it to the playoffs with the Carolina Panthers as a reserve. Owusu-Ansah was on the Detroit Lions' practice squad last year. Maybe we can ask new Cowboys playcaller (and former Lions offensive coordinator) Scott Linehan how Owusu-Ansah looked.

When a team wins a Super Bowl, we all look for the differences as to why Team X played in the Super Bowl and Team Y didn’t, and we say, "Copy those guys. That’s the way to get it done."

It doesn't work that way. Well, it shouldn't work that way. A team has to have its own philosophy and make it work. Stick with it and hope it pays off. That’s what Jason Garrett has referred to as building a program. It’s maddening to hear, especially after three 8-8 seasons, but there is truth in what Garrett is saying.

The biggest difference between the Seahawks and Cowboys is the draft. Well, that and the Seattle defense. But for this post we’ll stick with the draft.

Since 2010, the Seahawks picked 12 players from the third round and later -- or who were undrafted -- who have crucial roles in the team's success. The Cowboys have DeMarco Murray, a third-rounder in 2011, and three undrafted free agents. I could have counted Dwayne Harris, but the Cowboys actually cut him and needed him to pass through waivers before putting him on the practice squad in 2011.

If the Cowboys had not traded Sean Lissemore before the 2013 season, I would have counted their seventh-round pick in 2010 on the list.

As for undrafted picks, I’ll go with Barry Church (2010), Dan Bailey (2011) and Ronald Leary (undrafted, 2012). I wasn’t ready to say that Kyle Wilber (fourth round, 2012) and/or James Hanna (sixth round, 2012) are crucial to the Cowboys’ success.

In order to win a draft, teams have to be successful in the middle rounds. The Cowboys have not been successful in the middle rounds in years. As a result, they lack depth. When they lose starters, they have to scour the street for help. When the Seahawks lose a player, they plug in a mid- to late-round pick as if nothing ever happened.

If we want to eliminate the third round, which is where Seattle drafted quarterback Russell Wilson in 2012, the Cowboys have to go back to the 2008 draft to find a real hit for the Cowboys in Rounds 4-7: cornerback Orlando Scandrick (fifth). Doug Free (2007) turned into a good fourth-round pick only after the Cowboys were forced to play him in 2009. The golden year was 2005 when the Cowboys got Marion Barber (fourth), Chris Canty (fourth) and Jeremiah Ratliff (seventh) in what was then the second day of the draft.

The Seahawks can point to guys like Sherman, Chancellor, Walter Thurmond (fourth, 2011), Byron Maxwell (sixth, 2011), Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith (seventh, 2011), K.J. Wright (fourth, 2011), Robert Turbin (fourth, 2012), J.R. Sweezy (seventh, 2012), Doug Baldwin (undrafted, 2011) and Jermaine Kearse (undrafted, 2012).

They aren’t merely contributors. They are difference-makers.

If the Cowboys want to alter their "secret sauce" recipe, they can look at the Seahawks' cookbook.
Let’s start with the disclaimer that the Dallas Cowboys need talent across the board after failing to make the playoffs for four straight seasons.

If there is a guy on the board who is clearly the best available player, they need to pick him, regardless of position. If they stuck to that simple theory, NFL rushing leader LeSean McCoy would have a star on his helmet and the Cowboys’ 2009 draft class wouldn’t be considered one of the biggest disasters of Jerry Jones’ GM tenure.

That being said, defensive line is obviously the Cowboys’ top position priority in this draft.

That’s not an opinion. It’s a fact. Director of player personnel Stephen Jones is on record saying that rebuilding the defensive line ranks at the top of the Cowboys’ offseason to-do list.

The Cowboys were foolish not to address the defensive line at all in last year’s draft, when Jerry infamously described the unit as one of the team’s strengths. Dallas ended up practically picking up day laborers to join the defensive line rotation on a weekly basis, using a total of 20 defensive tackles and ends during the season.

The front office couldn’t possibly foresee all the injuries that hit the defensive line, but a quick glance at the age of the projected starting front four should have been a red flag.

There is a decent chance that all four of those guys will be gone next season. Jay Ratliff already had an acrimonious departure. The Cowboys will have a difficult decision to make with DeMarcus Ware, who is coming off the least productive season of his career, unless he agrees to a significant pay cut. Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer are free agents, the former coming off a career year that will probably put him out of the Cowboys’ price range, and the latter recovering from microfracture surgery after playing in only one game last season.

No matter what happens with Ware and the free agents, the Cowboys must start building a defensive line for the future, much like what they’ve done with the offensive line over the past few years. They’re confident Tyrone Crawford, who spent his second NFL season on injured reserve after tearing his Achilles tendon during this summer’s training camp, can be a key cog at end or tackle. George Selvie is a bargain-priced piece, but has only one season remaining on his contract.

The Carolina Panthers reaped the benefits of drafting defensive linemen in the first two rounds last year. It’s not sexy, but that wouldn’t be a bad strategy at all for the Cowboys, depending on the value of the players available.
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.

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.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher's career year ended on a personal high note.

Now, he's preparing to go to the highest bidder.

Hatcher, an eight-year veteran, was a dominant force in what could have been his final game for the Dallas Cowboys. He padded his career-high sack total with a pair in the 24-22 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, giving him 11 this season. He added a forced fumble. It's the kind of film that will make Hatcher appealing for teams searching for a disruptive defensive lineman in free agency this offseason.

"I'm going to get what I deserve and get what I'm worth," the 31-year-old Hatcher said, making it crystal clear that the Cowboys will not get any hometown discounts. "Age don't matter. Whatever. If you ain't talking what I want, I don't want to talk to ‘em."

Hatcher shared his teammates' disappointment that the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, but this season was a tremendous personal success.

A 3-4 defensive end for his entire career, Hatcher excelled as the three-technique tackle in a 4-3 scheme. He more than doubled his previous career-best sacks total despite fading toward the end of the season before his strong finish against Philadelphia. He was the biggest bright spot on the worst defense in franchise history.

Hatcher, who just finished a three-year, $6 million deal that executive vice president Stephen Jones has publicly admitted was a bargain for the Cowboys, has set himself up for the first -- and likely only -- big contract of his career.

"I left my mark here, man," Hatcher said. "I did some great things. If I'm not here, I just want to thank Jerry [Jones] and the organization. The eight years of my career, it was awesome, man. They gave me an opportunity to redeem myself and rebirth my career. It's been awesome."

If there is a strong market for Hatcher, he'll likely be playing for another team next season.

The Cowboys are a projected $31 million over the salary cap entering the offseason, so they have major work to do just to be in position to make a competitive bid to keep Hatcher.

The Cowboys could also be especially hesitant to pay big money to an aging defensive lineman after the disastrous extension signed by defensive tackle Jay Ratliff a couple of years ago. That extension, which included $18 million in guaranteed money, technically just kicked in this season, when Ratliff didn't play a down before his acrimonious release. He'll count against the Cowboys' salary cap for almost $7 million in dead money next season.

"I wouldn't dare visit about any of our players, their contract or the negotiation of their contract," Jerry Jones said. "I wish Jason the very best. I thought Jason had an outstanding year for us."

Hatcher sounded like a man preparing to move for the first time in his NFL career.

"I'm numb right now and whatever happens, happens," Hatcher said. "If I have to move my family out of here, I'm good with that. It's up in the air and I really don't care whether I go or whether I stay.

"It would be awesome to stay here and finish my career here, but if not I can move on. It's a business. You know how it goes. You can't get any emotions involved or else you'll find yourself in a bad situation."

Five Wonders: Looking to the future

December, 17, 2013
IRVING, Texas -- So many things to wonder, so little time.

It’s Five Wonders and we’re hitting big topics right off the top.

Away we go:

** I wonder if the Cowboys have a decision to make on DeMarcus Ware in the offseason. Ware is set to count $16.003 million against the salary cap in 2014. He has a base salary of $12.25 million. The Cowboys have reworked his contract numerous times over the years, even adding voidable years to it to help with the prorated amounts. They will need to restructure more contracts in the offseason to get under the projected $126.3 million salary cap in 2014. They will also have to cut some high-priced veterans. Perhaps even Ware, which seems shocking in a way. Ware has only six sacks with two games to go. He missed three games because of a quadriceps injury and has not been effective for much of the past month. He was so good in training camp. He made Tyron Smith look bad on an almost daily basis. Is it just health? Ware says he is healthy. Is it age? Ware turns 32 next July. The Cowboys have made mistakes with age before. Jay Ratliff comes immediately to mind. Ware is far from Ratliff. He is the right kind of guy. He works hard. He is a good teammate. He plays hurt. Ware has not only missed three games but he is playing only 67.2 percent of the snaps when he does play. It is one thing to commit $16 million to a guy on the cap when he is getting you anywhere from 12 to 18 sacks a season. It’s another thing to do it when he is struggling. If the Cowboys released Ware, their all-time leader in sacks, they would save $7.43 million against the cap. Jerry Jones has a hard time with these types of decisions. Could he ask Ware to take a cut in pay? Would Ware accept one?

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesIs Jason Garrett's future in Dallas secure?
** Mike Shanahan won’t be the Washington Redskins' coach in 2014. Could he join the Dallas Cowboys' coach? If Jones decides to part ways with Jason Garrett, then Shanahan’s name will be linked to the Cowboys just because he’s a name. Same with Jon Gruden. But let’s stick with Shanahan here for a moment. Now it’s difficult to take Albert Haynesworth’s word for much. After all he did stomp on Andre Gurode’s head in 2006. But Haynesworth said last week in Washington, D.C., that it is in Shanahan’s contract that Daniel Snyder has to limit contact with the players. I can understand why Shanahan would want that in there. It helps him control things more. But I wonder if Shanahan would ever come here because you know Jones would never EVER have that in coach’s contract. Jones moved to the background when Bill Parcells was coach but he did not disappear.

** Let’s stick with the head coaching theme and the possibility of Garrett’s demise. Forget “who” Jerry Jones targets. I wonder “what” kind of coach he targets. Shanahan and Gruden have Super Bowl rings on their résumé, but Jones has said before he does not necessarily want a coach with a championship because he does not believe the coach has the same fire. (Yes, I realize Parcells is an exception.) I wonder if Jones goes for a defensive coach. The offensive personnel figures to be mostly the same in 2014: Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Smith, Travis Frederick, DeMarco Murray, Terrance Williams and Gavin Escobar. The defense needs the re-tooling. Does Jones go after a defensive coach? There’s a lot of work to do there obviously and not as many parts. Who is a building block? Sean Lee. The rest you hope can rebound from poor seasons. If Jones goes defense, I wonder if he would go with a first-time coach or a veteran head coach. Would Mike Zimmer be in the mix? Lovie Smith? None of this matters if the Cowboys win their final two games.

** I wonder if Murray’s performance over the past month or so is making those at Valley Ranch rethink their thoughts about his long-term future. Murray is 23 yards away from reaching 1,000 yards for the season. He probably should have hit that number against the Green Bay Packers if they just ran the ball more. He will get it this week against the Redskins barring something unforeseen and he will do it in just his 13th game of the season having missed two games with a knee injury. That’s pretty impressive. He has run harder as the season has gone on but has left yards on the field as well. The prevailing wisdom is that running backs can be found here, there and everywhere and you only commit long term to the Adrian Peterson types. Murray is not that kind of back but he has had his best season. He is signed through 2014.

** If the Cowboys lose Sunday and the Philadelphia Eagles win, I wonder how the Cowboys approach the season finale against the Eagles. The Cowboys will be out of the playoff chase. In 2005 the Cowboys were eliminated before their finale against the St. Louis Rams but Parcells chose to go with his starters and lost 20-10. Many inside the organization wanted to see him start Tony Romo in that finale, but the coach stuck with Drew Bledsoe. Not to go all Herm Edwards on you here, but you play to win the game. If you can take a look at a player, then fine. The problem the Cowboys have is they don’t have much in the pipeline you would want to see. Maybe Jermey Parnell gets a shot at right tackle, but Doug Free hasn’t done anything to be benched and should be back in 2014. Maybe Escobar takes the bulk of the backup tight end snaps over James Hanna. Would that change any perceptions of Escobar as he heads into his second season? Could Williams get the work over Miles Austin? Yeah, but that has happened for most of the season.