NFL Nation: Igor Olshansky

IRVING, Texas -- The free-agent shopping starts today at 3 p.m. CT.

If the Dallas Cowboys have learned anything, it’s that they should use coupons.

From 2006-11, the Cowboys signed 12 players in unrestricted free agency. Only two players who signed multi-year deals reached the end of their contracts: Kyle Kosier signed a five-year, $15 million deal with the Cowboys in 2006 and was with the team through 2011. Keith Brooking signed a three-year, $6 million deal in 2009 and was a contributor through 2011.

Igor Olshansky (2009), Leonard Davis (2007) and Akin Ayodele (2006) are the only other players who made it more than one season on their original deals, and Olshansky and Ayodele made it only two seasons.

The Cowboys signed seven unrestricted free agents in 2012 and three lasted one season (Dan Connor, Nate Livings and Lawrence Vickers) on multi-year deals. Brodney Pool signed a one-year deal and barely made it to training camp.

Three members of the 2012 free-agent class remain: Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million), Mackenzy Bernadeau (four years, $11.5 million) and Kyle Orton (three years, $10.5 million). Carr is coming off a disappointing 2013 season, Bernadeau took a pay cut last week and Orton is not sure he wants to play.

Spending money in free agency is hardly ever the answer. The Cowboys will not have a ton of money available to them when the market opens until the DeMarcus Ware situation is resolved, and even then they will have to be wise with how they spend it and who they spend it on.

The needs are obvious: defense, defense and more defense. That’s what happens when a unit finishes last in the NFL in 2013. But the Cowboys could use a veteran presence at wide receiver (Robert Meachem, Jason Avant) and a backup quarterback if Orton walks away (Shaun Hill).

Finding defensive line help is a must, but the Cowboys will have to be budget conscious. They have had on and off talks with Jordan Woy, who represents free agents Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer, for most of the offseason. Both players could find better financial opportunities elsewhere.

Hatcher turns 32 in July and is coming off a career-high 11 sacks. He was added to the Pro Bowl. Spencer played in only one game in 2013 because of a knee injury that will not be healed enough for him to be 100 percent ready for training camp.

How much of a commitment can the Cowboys make and feel like they will get their money’s worth?

Ties to new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli could help in the pursuit of Henry Melton, but he is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Value is often the most overlooked part of free agency. The big-money signings lead to the biggest headlines, but do not correspond enough to wins and losses.

The Cowboys found value in Kosier, Brooking, Gerald Sensabaugh and Bernadeau but did not or have not received enough bang for the buck in Carr ($26.5 million guarantee) and Davis ($18.75 million guaranteed).

As the Cowboys look to clear this 8-8 bump that has turned into Mt. Everest, they need to spend wisely, but more importantly they need to choose wisely.

Washington Redskins cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
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Click here for a complete list of the Washington Redskins' roster moves.

Biggest surprise: The decision to keep Chris Neild as a backup nose tackle and release Anthony Bryant. There was some chatter in the offseason about Bryant's possibly being promoted to starting nose tackle if the Redskins focused their offseason energies on defensive end. But once they signed Barry Cofield, they didn't need two backups, and they liked what they saw from Neild, especially on special teams.

Running backs Evan Royster and Keiland Williams have apparently been released, victims of overcrowding in a Redskins running-back field now headed by Tim Hightower. Ryan Torain will remain on the roster, along with Roy Helu, as a top option if Hightower should falter. And it's a bit surprising to see them keep eight receivers, including Brandon Banks, Leonard Hankerson, Niles Paul and Donte' Stallworth.

No-brainers: They're only keeping two quarterbacks, John Beck and Rex Grossman, while cutting Kellen Clemens and Matt Gutierrez, but I don't think that's surprising. Those last two were only there to help take up preseason snaps when they needed to rest guys who might be their starters at any point this season. Rookie receiver Aldrick Robinson didn't do anything to help himself. And Artis Hicks has been squeezed out of the offensive line mix. They looked into trading Hicks on Saturday but ultimately had to put him on waivers.

What's next: They could hit the market for a third quarterback, obviously, though that's not a major concern. I wonder if they'll still look for help at defensive end with Jarvis Jenkins out for the year. The Cowboys just cut Igor Olshansky, who's a name that will surely catch someone's attention.

Dallas Cowboys cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
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Click here for a complete list of the Dallas Cowboys' roster moves.

Biggest surprise: I guess that they released four fullbacks, including Chris Gronkowski, meaning they kept none. They're obviously deep at tailback with Felix Jones, Tashard Choice, DeMarco Murray and Phillip Tanner and at tight end as well, so they either didn't see the need to use a fullback this season or are content with the idea of picking one off the scrap heap within the next couple of weeks. Other than that, I didn't find any of the cuts especially surprising. Igor Olshansky started 28 of their 32 games the past two seasons, so he's the biggest name among the cuts. But we'd seen this one coming for a while. It was clear that new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan preferred Kenyon Coleman at defensive end, and that the Cowboys weren't going to be afraid to cut ties with established veterans.

No-brainers: Kickers Shayne Graham and Dave Rayner had their chances to win jobs but couldn't, so they're gone and the Cowboys will go with David Buehler for kickoffs and Dan Bailey for field goals. Lonyae Miller showed promise early but was passed by Tanner for the lone spot in the crowded running back field. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah clearly wasn't panning out at safety in spite of being the team's fourth-round draft pick in 2010.

What's next: With only five wide receivers on the roster, the Cowboys could theoretically hunt around for veteran help there. But they believe the receiving ability of their tight ends and running backs minimizes the importance of adding there. They will surely continue looking for a kicker, because
they're obviously not satisfied with what they have, and they may be on the lookout for added depth in the secondary. They kept 10 offensive linemen, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to see them bringing someone in from the outside if they can find a reliable veteran backup for some of their young starters.

Camp Confidential: Dallas Cowboys

August, 21, 2011
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' coaches don't just announce drills during training camp practices, hollering out "9-on-7s!" as the horn blows and players shift from one field to the other. They're calling out situations. Two minutes to go, one timeout left, second-and-6 on your own 35. The players either huddle or hustle between plays, depending on what the called-out situation calls for. While these are drills only, they're intended to simulate game conditions as closely as they possibly can.

"Will we ever be able to completely re-create a game situation? No," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "But we're going to try our best in practice, and I think all these situational periods had been really good for us. Not only have we created initial situations, but stuff comes up that isn't scripted, and I think our team has handled those well also."

What strikes you when you spend a few days in Cowboys camp is how normal things seem, how businesslike. Sure, they were in San Antonio for a while and now are splitting practice time between the steamy outdoor fields at Valley Ranch and the air-conditioned luxury of Cowboys Stadium. But it's nothing like last year, when they spent August bouncing between those places as well as Canton and California, brimming with the highest possible expectations, proclaiming with confidence the goal of being the first team ever to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.

A 6-10 record and a new coach can humble you, for sure, after a summer like that, and there's no doubt these Cowboys are humbled by the way things went in 2010. But if the end result is the atmosphere Garrett has created in his first training camp as head coach, there are worse things.

"We certainly want an atmosphere where guys like to coach and play football, but we absolutely want to be organized and prepared," Garrett said after Friday morning's workout at the stadium. "We want it to be businesslike when we're out there doing our work, out there on the field and also in the meeting rooms. We want to create a nice, professional atmosphere where we feel like we can function the best."

Garrett exudes both confidence and competence. He has waited his whole life for this chance, but he doesn't seem over-eager or phony about the way he's putting his long-held ideas about how to be a head coach into practice. He is smart, knowledgeable and self-assured, and it's emanating throughout the building. Around a team that often, throughout its history, has been known for something of a circus atmosphere, the mentality this August is straight lunch pail.

"Everybody here knows, whatever we get, we're going to have to work for it," right guard Kyle Kosier said. "Whether it's your spot on the roster or in the starting lineup or a Week 1 win or a playoff spot, it's about putting in this time right here and working. And that's all that's on anybody's mind right now."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireRob Ryan will be expected to improve a defense that was one of the worst in the league last season.
1. Can the defense learn Rob Ryan's scheme in time? The Cowboys brought in Ryan to be their new defensive coordinator. And while they signed free-agent safety Abram Elam and free-agent defensive end Kenyon Coleman -- both played under Ryan in Cleveland the past two seasons -- the group they're bringing back on defense is otherwise the same as the one that allowed the second-most points in the league last season. Ryan is charged with fixing that, but of course the lockout denied him the opportunity to use spring minicamps and organized team activities as part of his installation process. The defense is trying to cram a whole offseason's worth of learning into one month, and there's a lot to learn. Ryan's defense is based on multiple and ever-changing looks, and a complexity designed to make things as confusing as possible for opposing offenses. But Garrett said he has faith in the quality of his defensive personnel and the ability of his flamboyant new coordinator to teach.

"It's difficult. There are a lot of looks," Garrett admitted. "But the other part to that, too, is that I think he grew up in very fundamentally sound system in the NFL -- linebacker coach for New England for four years during their Super Bowl era in the early 2000s. So he has a very good feel for base defensive football, and then he has an ability to evolve in different situations and make it more difficult for opposing offenses. So we feel excited about that, and we're excited to see our players play within this system."

2. Can they put together an offensive line? There are some new and inexperienced pieces here. Rookie Tyron Smith, the ninth overall pick in this past draft, will start at right tackle. Every day Smith gets an extra tutoring session with offensive line coach Hudson Houck and a series of rotating instructors that has included Kosier, linebacker DeMarcus Ware, left tackle Doug Free and others. Smith is ultra-talented but needs work on his footwork and learning the schemes. And as with the players learning the new defense, he has to cram. The Cowboys moved Kosier from left guard to right so he could work more closely with the rookie, but now they need a left guard. And while that still has a good chance to be Montrae Holland or Phil Costa, later-round rookies David Arkin and Bill Nagy have been getting first-team reps lately and one of them could end up starting Week 1.

3. Who is the No. 3 wide receiver? One of the first things the Cowboys did when the lockout ended and free agency began was cut receiver Roy Williams to help create cap room. That also created a vacancy at the No. 3 wide receiver spot behind Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Kevin Ogletree appears first in line to grab the opportunity, though Raymond Radway and Dwayne Harris have shown flashes. Some have suggested the Cowboys need to go out and get a veteran to fill the spot, but with tight end Jason Witten a near-lock for 90-plus catches, running backs Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray potential factors in the passing game and depth at both of those positions, the Cowboys feel as though the No. 3 wide receiver might be the No. 5 target for Tony Romo for most of the season.

THE BUTLER CAN DO IT

Third-year linebacker Victor Butler has been an eye-opener in camp, and some have suggested he might be a threat to Anthony Spencer's starting spot on the side opposite Ware. More likely, he's a guy to add to the pass-rush mix and give them depth and the ability to vary those looks even more. If anything, the camp Butler is having could serve to motivate Spencer to return to his 2009 form after a disappointing 2010.

"You can never have too many pass-rushers on one team," Ware said. "When the Giants won against the Patriots, they had several really great pass-rushers. Pressure is what gets things going. So to be able to develop another third-down guy will really help us out a lot."

TURNING UP A CORNER

[+] EnlargeOrlando Scandrick
John Albright/Icon SMIOrlando Scandrick has been a surprise in training camp and could provide much-needed depth in the Cowboys' secondary.
The Cowboys did not sign free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, though they tried, and they'll go with Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman as starting cornerbacks again. The problem is, injuries have kept both Jenkins and Newman sidelined so far in camp, and Newman is out until at least the regular-season opener. This is a spot where the Cowboys struggled mightily in 2010, and they're not going to have their defense the way they want it until they get Jenkins and Newman back on the field. The one positive to come out of this is that backup corner Orlando Scandrick has looked very good in a starter's role so far in camp, so maybe they have some quality depth there that they didn't know they had.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Cowboys might have more at defensive end than we thought immediately post-free agency. Coleman looks as if he's poised to steal Igor Olshansky's starting spot from him, and Jason Hatcher has looked rejuvenated and been an asset in the pass rush. Letting Stephen Bowen go to the Redskins felt like a loss at first, but re-signing Marcus Spears and Hatcher and bringing in Coleman might have made them deeper than they'd have been if they'd stayed pat.
  • The kicking competition looks miserable, with neither David Buehler nor Dan Bailey having seized the opportunity and Kai Forbath unable to get on the field because of injury. Don't rule out the possibility that the kicker the Cowboys go with this season isn't on the roster yet.
  • Jones and Romo aren't new or exciting names around here, but they look as good as anyone in camp on offense. When I watched them practice against the Chargers on Thursday, the Cowboys were using Jones around end a lot, and he looks like he has great burst. The offensive linemen I spoke with all hope he gets a chance at full-time carries, because they believe he and Bryant can be "spark plug" guys.
  • Elam was a critical signing, as he'll be responsible for the secondary calls and has been vitally important in helping the holdover players understand the language Ryan is speaking. I'm interested to see if the secondary looks more organized Sunday night having had an additional week-plus practicing with Elam.
  • The Cowboys are serious about Nagy, who was a seventh-round pick after not playing much in his senior season at Wisconsin. He was seriously hurt in a moped accident as a junior and then was passed on the depth chart by a few other guys, so much of the action he saw as a senior was actually at tight end. But the Cowboys love his athleticism and maturity. They could start him at guard early in the season, and there are some who think he could eventually start at center for them down the road.

Olshansky critiques Cowboys' offense

November, 5, 2010
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Dallas Cowboys starting defensive end Igor Olshansky took to the radio earlier this week and basically called out offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. And of all the critics Garrett's heard from this season, I'm pretty sure he thought he was safe from Olshansky.

"Don't give the ball away," Olshansky said during linebacker Bradie James' weekly show Monday on ESPN 103.3 FM per Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com. "I mean, there's a lot of things that can go wrong when you pass the ball. You can get sacked, the ball can get tipped, you can get an interception. If you run the ball, you can get tackled and get a forced fumble. See, there's a lot more things [that can go wrong on pass plays]. ... You've got to run the ball."

Garrett hasn't taken his cues from the Cowboys' Russian defensive end in the past, but the man has a point. If your wide receivers aren't going to catch balls that hit them in the hands, maybe it's time to mix in a running play or two.

"You've got to be stubborn about it," said Olshansky. "You've got to be stubborn about who you are. If you're a running team, run the ball in OTAs, minicamp, training camp and all that."

And since head coach Wade Phillips refuses to make any lineup changes, perhaps it's time that someone such as Olshansky takes charge of this team. Something tells me, though, the coaches might ask Bradie James to pick a different guest next week.

Closing time for Cowboys' 2010 season

October, 17, 2010
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Tony RomoAP Photo/Andy KingTony Romo's interception early in the fourth quarter led to Minnesota's game-winning field goal.
MINNEAPOLIS -- This is where Cowboys seasons come to die. But unlike last year's trip to the unsightly Metrodome, which resulted in a 34-3 playoff loss, fans will be forced to endure 11 more games.

The Cowboys followed their normal 2010 script in Sunday's 24-21 loss to the Vikings. They won the battle of the stat sheets, but undermined themselves with 11 penalties and two key interceptions. This team is not good enough to overcome its ineptitude, and the Vikings had the good sense to patiently wait for the implosion.

Owner Jerry Jones, who was conspicuously absent from last week's postgame locker room scene, commanded a large audience in the cramped visiting locker room Sunday. Knowing what was coming, Jones made it clear that he wouldn't be making any coaching changes, which begged the subtle follow-up question, "Why the hell not?"

"I would never consider doing that during the season," said Jones, alluding to the fact that it's not something he's done since buying the team in 1989.

His explanation was that even if the team started winning under a new coach, we wouldn't know if the change was the reason for the success. For the record, this was when he completely lost me with his thought process. But honestly, it's not like the Cowboys' sideline is a who's who of head-coaching candidates. The fiery special teams coach Joe DeCamillis is an impressive man in person, as long as you don't have to watch his unit play.

Just a week removed from giving up a 73-yard kickoff return to the Titans in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys opened the second half by allowing Percy Harvin to sprint 95 yards for a touchdown that tied the score. That erased all the good things the defense had done to make Vikings quarterback Brett Favre look like a 41-year-old man with a penchant for needless pump fakes and shaky handoffs.

The Cowboys let the Vikings off the hook because that's what bad teams do. Coach Wade Phillips probably will soothe his players' immense egos with tales of how they were actually the better team Sunday (please see our chart), but some of us know better. Barring an epic turnaround, Jones will eventually get around to firing Phillips at the end of the season. And he'll absolutely hate doing it because he loves an arrangement in which a head coach defers to him on pretty much every important decision and isn't jealous of his Papa John's commercials.

If you had told the Cowboys they would hold Adrian Peterson to three yards per carry on 24 attempts and Randy Moss to five catches for 55 yards, it might sound like a recipe for success. But then some of us missed the genius of the Moss trade, which apparently was designed to open things up for Jim Kleinsasser and Greg Camarillo. Both of those players made catches that figured heavily in Sunday's outcome.

Favre, a man who has more on his mind than football these days, was crushed by Cowboys defensive end Igor Olshansky in the third quarter. He had to literally crawl for several yards before staggering to the huddle.

"When I hit quarterbacks, they get hurt," Olshansky told me in a Russian accent that brought back images of Drago in the classic film, "Rocky IV." "It normally leaves a mark."

Favre recovered in time to make his best play of the game when he sidestepped Anthony Spencer and found Kleinsasser for a 20-yard gain to set up the go-ahead touchdown.

"If you have ever gotten the wind knocked out of you, you think you're pretty close to death," Favre said. "I'm not going to sit here and say I'll be John Wayne, but I'm hoping that we didn't call a pass the next play."

The Cowboys also were victimized by a middle linebacker who has trouble getting through airport security because of a metal rod in his leg. E.J. Henderson broke his femur last season, but that didn't prevent the eighth-year player from doubling his career interception total in one afternoon.

He caught a jump ball in the first quarter when Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had the ball deflected as soon as it left his hand, in part because All-Pro Jared Allen was allowed a free run at the quarterback. Henderson later deked Romo into throwing an interception when he showed blitz and then retreated at the last second. He snagged Romo's pass intended for Jason Witten, which set up the game-winning field goal for the Vikings in the fourth quarter.

"The second one, they sent a dog with the backer," said Romo. "It’s a hot play to Jason [Witten], so I’ve got to get the ball there. I think 56 [Henderson] did a good job. He must have rushed and come back out from the line. He did a good job and made a good play. I didn’t see him. I thought he was rushing. In the process, he did a good job coming back out. That was obviously a big play in the game. It’s tough."

Asked if he was concerned that his veteran quarterback would make such a crucial mistake, Jones showed his support in his own unique way.

"We don't have a replacement for Tony," he said.

Final Word: NFC East

October, 8, 2010
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 5:

The Giants' sad march through the AFC South continues. The New York Giants were hammered on the road in Indianapolis and then self-destructed at home against the Tennessee Titans. On Sunday, they'll have a chance to match up against the Houston Texans. The Dallas Cowboys exposed some flaws in the Texans' high-powered offense. Those flaws have a lot to do with an offensive line that is missing its starting left tackle. I think the Giants will try to repackage what worked for them against Jay Cutler last Sunday night. Matt Schaub doesn't hold the ball as long as Cutler, but Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware showed that he can be had. The Bears didn't have a running game, which helped the Giants make them one-dimensional from the start. The Texans love to run the ball, so the first priority will be eliminating the cutback lanes for Arian Foster. This is a game where Clint Sintim and Jonathan Goff need to come up big. If you overpursue Foster, he'll put a 60-yard touchdown on you in a hurry.

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb
Howard Smith/US PresswireKevin Kolb will get his second chance at starting for the Eagles Sunday against the 49ers.
Mike Shanahan will unveil the Ryan Torain show against the Packers: The Redskins must keep Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers off the field Sunday as much as possible. If they can feed the ball to Torain in the power running game at least 20 times, it will lead to good things. Torain has durability issues, but you had to love how he planted Quintin Mikell on his back last Sunday (unless you're an Eagles fan). Torain will have to be patient against a Packers defense that likely will try to run blitz him early in the game. Having Trent Williams back should help the Skins run to the left side. I've really enjoyed watching him deliver some of those roll blocks on the backside that Shanahan loves. Trent Williams and Doug Free are playing like the two best left tackles in the division right now.

Kevin Kolb can't win this game in one series. I know Kolb was excited about the opportunity to get a full week of practice reps as the starter this week. He performed well under similar circumstances against the Saints and Chiefs while filling in for an injured Donovan McNabb in 2009. This is a different feeling for him, though, because he began the season as the starter. Kolb must guard against trying to do too much early in this game. He'll certainly need to throw the ball downfield more than he did against the Redskins, but he'll have to pick his spots. Reid needs to trust in his quarterback and try to put him in good situations. Kolb's biggest strength is his accuracy, so it will be important to connect with LeSean McCoy (he practiced some today) and tight end Brent Celek early in the game to gain some confidence and rhythm.

Cowboys must gang tackle Chris Johnson. You'll see the Cowboys leave defensive ends Marcus Spears and Igor Olshansky on the field a lot more than usual to guard against the run. Johnson's one of the most explosive runners in the game, but he's having a down season by his standards. (Check out AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky's breakdown of Johnson.) The Cowboys must play under control against him and not let him bounce outside. The play of safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Alan Ball will be really important. They can't afford to arm tackle Johnson. You must tackle him low or hold him up so that help can arrive. The Cowboys will likely have a spy assigned to Vince Young because he's capable of taking off on long runs. There will be a ton of Texas Longhorn fans at Cowboys Stadium, so he'll want to put on a show.

Welcome back to the division, Shawn Andrews. Former Eagles Pro Bowl guard Andrews likely will get his first start since the 2008 season. He has played well for the Giants in brief stints this season, but now he'll have a chance to line up at left tackle. I visited with Andrews after the Titans game and he seems to have an excellent mindset. Even some of the Eagles players who were frustrated by his perceived lack of desire in Philly still talk about his remarkable talent. Andrews still wants to be one of the best linemen in the game, and he's young enough to give it a go. It all starts Sunday against the Texans.

Cowboys' defense had no answers for Martz

September, 19, 2010
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Wade PhillipsAP Photo/Tim SharpWade Phillips and the Cowboys are 0-2 with unexpected issues on defense.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- A week after Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett fought over who should take the blame for a bone-headed play call, they made it easier for all of us Sunday. Both coaches flopped in the Cowboys' 27-20 loss to the Chicago Bears, but it was Phillips' vaunted defense that took the biggest fall.

This defense hadn't allowed a touchdown in three consecutive regular-season games, but Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz seems to have the Cowboys' number. He was the architect of a game plan that baffled the Cowboys late in the 2006 season and nudged Bill Parcells toward another retirement. Lions quarterback Jon Kitna, now the Cowboys' backup, would famously say that linebacker Bradie James appeared completely lost in that game.

Early in Sunday's game, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was running for his life as outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer raced past offensive tackles. To make matters worse, the Bears lost starting left tackle Chris Williams in the first quarter. After the third consecutive three-and-out series, Cutler shouted, "Can't we block anybody?" as he arrived on the sideline.

Cowboys first-round pick Dez Bryant returned the ensuing punt 62 yards for a touchdown and there were no signs of what was about to happen. Martz changed the game plan on the fly and told Cutler to stop worrying about seven-step drops and just get the ball out immediately. When Phillips sent inside linebackers James and Keith Brooking on a blitz up the middle, Cutler hit tight end Greg Olsen in stride for a 39-yard touchdown. Everyone with the Cowboys agreed it was a blown coverage, although Phillips did offer safety Alan Ball an alibi.

When a reporter timidly suggested the Cowboys might have shown blitz too early on the play, Phillips deadpanned, "Really?"

The Bears don't make their assistant coaches available after games, but Cutler (and several Cowboys defenders) gave Martz his props. The Bears don't have a true No. 1 receiver, but Cutler thinks that can be a positive.

"I think it's almost even a bigger advantage to have what we have and have a lot of weapons," the Bears' quarterback said. "It keeps teams off balance. They don't know where we are going or what we are doing in some of these formations or where we are headed, so it is working out to our advantage, and we have a guy like Mike Martz who knows how to take advantage of all that."

Phillips couldn't get over the fact the Bears were 1-of-11 on third downs but still managed to make some huge plays against his defense. The one conversion came on third-and-15 with the Bears trailing 14-10. Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox raced past Pro Bowl cornerback Mike Jenkins and Cutler delivered a gorgeous ball for a 59-yard completion. Jenkins jumped up looking for a teammate to blame, but Phillips indicated to me after the game that the Cowboys were in man-to-man coverage.

Cowboys history buffs/apologists will point to the 1993 team beginning the season with two losses before winning the Super Bowl. But a young player named Emmitt Smith ended his holdout in Week 3 of that season, and he's not walking through that door.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Sharon EllmanAnthony Spencer (left), DeMarcus Ware and the Dallas defense couldn't solve Mike Martz's schemes.
In the postgame locker room, Cowboys defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni gathered Marcus Spears, Igor Olshansky, Jay Ratliff and Stephen Bowen for a brief session. All of them still looked shell-shocked by what had happened and could offer little explanation for why the Bears were able to expose them with so many big plays. Across the room, cornerback Terence Newman offered the strongest comments of the afternoon, indicating there had been failures in practice leading up to Sunday's game.

"I think that things kind of got let go in practice. It’s things that … it’s not our coaches. They don’t really know some of the things that were going on," said Newman. "But as players, we have to crack down and make sure that some of the stuff that has been going on, doesn’t go on. We have to make it a game situation in practice. That’s just what it is. We go hard in practice, but maybe our intensity needs to go up a little bit. We got to do that as players and not worry about the coaches."

It was Newman's missed tackle in the fourth quarter that allowed Devin Hester to race down the sideline for 38 yards and set up the Bears' game-sealing touchdown. Newman said the defensive backs talked on Saturday night about establishing an identity, but the search will continue as the Cowboys prepare for a trip to Houston to play an explosive Texans team.

With two strong AFC South opponents looming, the Cowboys are staring at an 0-4 start. It's too early to declare the season over, but get back to me next Sunday afternoon.

Cowboys-Texans: What did we learn?

August, 29, 2010
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If this was truly a dress rehearsal for the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday evening, Redskins fans have to be licking their chops for Sept. 12. The Cowboys' first-team offense was once again whipped by an AFC defense. And the defense wasn't much better. The Colts don't get worried about pitiful preseason performances because of their winning pedigree. I'm afraid Cowboys fans won't take the same laidback approach. Now let's assess the damage:
  • About the best thing you can say about the first half is that fourth-round pick Akwasi Owusu-Ansah opened the game with a 41-yard return. He showed a nice burst and Joe DeCamillis's unit did a good job creating a lane along the right side of the field.
  • It looked like the Cowboys' offensive line hadn't seen a stunt all preseason. On the first sack of Tony Romo, Texans defensive end Mario Williams came racing up the middle and Andre Gurode appeared to be shocked by his arrival.
  • Both Bradie James and Mike Jenkins did a nice job diagnosing plays early in the game, but Jenkins has to do a better job wrapping up. That's what Darren Woodson was really worried about with this group. Would they be able to tackle? Jenkins looked bad early in the game. Then Alan Ball started missing tackles.
  • The Cowboys are praying Dez Bryant will someday be like Andre Johnson. Matt Schaub has the luxury of being able to deliver the ball even when Johnson is closely covered. Johnson caught one ball on the first drive with Terence Newman all over him and then dragged him another 5 yards.
  • Jason Witten had no chance against defensive end Antonio Smith. Witten was overwhelmed by Smith when the Cowboys tried to run the ball to the left side. The Cowboys' running game has been bad throughout the preseason. I did like the draw play to Felix Jones on the second drive of the game. Right tackle Alex Barron did a really nice job sealing his man on that play. On the next play, Miles Austin had a bad drop in the left flat.
  • Gurode may have jump-started Amobi Okoye's dormant career in the first quarter. The Texans' former first-round pick raced around Gurode to sack Tony Romo. It looked like Gurode was in decent position and then he just watched Okoye run past him. Romo doesn't have any time to survey the field.
  • Missed the memo on former Tennessee Volunteer Arian Foster being such a wonderful running back. In the first quarter, DeMarcus Ware got pancaked by a tight end when Foster took off on an 18-yard run. Cowboys free safety Alan Ball whiffed on Foster in the open field. On the same drive, the Cowboys were completely fooled in coverage when Matt Schaub rolled right and then threw back across the field to Jacoby Jones. It looked like Ball was the player who was fooled on the touchdown.
  • Hey, at least Roy Williams came to play Saturday night. He made a nice catch off his shoetops late in the first quarter and then he overpowered Kareem Jackson on a 29-yard catch. Later in the drive, Williams drew a holding penalty on cornerback Glover Quin. The Cowboys then botched a toss to Felix Jones, who raced back and failed to recover the fumble. CBS' Gus Johnson was in midseason form on that call.
  • The Cowboys have to do a better job of knowing down and distance on defense. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick was giving Jacoby Jones way too much cushion on a third-and-6 play. There was no mystery where Jones was going with that route. On the next route, the Cowboys did the same thing on third-and-7. You think it might be a good idea to cover Andre Johnson on a crossing route? Johnson was the best player on the field Saturday.
  • Did anyone else see defensive end Igor Olshansky getting blown off the ball in the first half? That's supposed to be the strength of Olshansky's game, but he was on his heels every time I watched.
  • Scandrick simply has no chance against Andre Johnson. The Texans receiver is too physical for Scandrick. Former Texans offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has promised Santana Moss that he'll be able to do a lot of the same things as Johnson in the Skins' offense.
  • It's impressive to watch Tashard Choice on one of those slip screens. And it's remarkable to see Leonard Davis racing downfield in front of Choice. Doug Free told me recently that Davis might be the fastest player on the offensive line.
  • Wade Phillips finally lost his temper after a Foster run early in the second half. Looked like he was especially upset with Jason Williams and safety Michael Hamlin on the play. Both players took poor angles to Foster and ended up chasing him from behind.
  • With 11:47 left in the third quarter, Phil Simms says the Cowboys don't appear to be motivated for this game. You think? What a weak little attempt at a tackle by safety Pat Watkins on Jeremiah Johnson's long run.
  • On Foster's touchdown run early in the second half, Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler was driven into the end zone and never came close to making a play. Dallas had no interest in playing this game. How much should that concern Cowboys fans?
  • The Texans were double-teaming Jay Ratliff and Bradie James was overpursuing against the run. Foster just burned them all night. Simms makes a statement with 5 minutes left in the third quarter that the Cowboys are playing a lot of reserves. I looked up and saw DeMarcus Ware, Ratliff, Anthony Spencer and James all in the game. Second consecutive disgraceful performance for the Cowboys. We'll see if they can flip the switch against the Redskins.

Tony D. sounds off on Tony Romo

September, 23, 2009
9/23/09
10:49
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley


When you ask the most famous Tony in Cowboys history to comment on Tony the quarterback, you never know what might happen. Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett had some interesting thoughts on Tony Romo when he joined Fox Sports Radio on Monday. He thinks Romo is a media-created superstar and that he was anointed too quickly in 2006. Here's some of what Dorsett had to say, via sportsradiointerviews.com:

"Well, for one thing, I don’t know why on God’s earth Tony Romo has been anointed a superstar in the National Football League," Dorsett said. "Tony is very young in his career. Not to say you can’t be young in your career and be a superstar because you’ve got one up there in Minnesota in Adrian Peterson. But the thing is this: You have a guy who hasn’t done much and quarterbacks in the National Football League, most of them go through this growing curve. He hasn’t gone through that growing curve, but he was anointed this great player all of a sudden. Now he’s having to live up to that. And obviously Tony has some deficiencies. I mean, he’s a young quarterback, that’s going to happen.

"He’s not going to be on top of his game every game, week in and week out, because this game is a very fast moving game and he makes some decisions sometimes -- he’s like a gambler man, he takes chances and sometimes those things, he gets bit in the butt by that. But, he’s a good player who’s still learning how to play in the National Football League and I think the media has given him too much credit for doing nothing. He hasn’t done anything really in the National Football League to deserve all the recognition and visibility that he’s gotten so far. And now he’s going to have to live with how they treat the quarterback in the National Football League whether you’re a young quarterback or you’re a superstar or you’re not. When you win, you get a lot of the credit. When you lose, you get most of the blame. And so he’s having to live through that and I’m hoping he pulls through it because they do have a pretty talented team offensively."

First, it was Emmitt Smith saying the Cowboys would go 7-9 this season. Now, Dorsett's saying that Romo's an overhyped quarterback. Perhaps Jethro Pugh will emerge soon to complain about Igor Olshansky's work at the line of scrimmage. But honestly, Dorsett's correct on some of his points. I can't help but wonder whether Romo would be a different quarterback had a quarterback guru such as Norv Turner been hired. It almost happened.

Has anyone checked Philip Rivers' numbers lately?

I said this on the radio in Dallas on Tuesday and I'll say it again. The Cowboys thought Jason Garrett was a younger version of Turner. They thought he'd basically be able to accomplish with Romo what Turner could've accomplished. Now in Year 3 of the Phillips era, that hasn't come to fruition.

 
  AP Photo/Eric Gay
  The Cowboys rid themselves of players who had been distractions in the past and built a more "Romo friendly" team this offseason.

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.

Camp Confidential: NFC East
Cowboys: Fri., Aug. 7
Eagles: Tues., Aug. 11
Giants: Mon., Aug. 17
Redskins: Fri., Aug. 21
Training camp index

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.

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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:

Key Questions

 
  AP Photo/Eric Gay
  Jason Witten will be key in filling the void left by Terrell Owens' departure.

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.

Market watch

 Austin
 Hurd

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.

 
  James D. Smith/Icon SMI
  Rookie outside linebacker Victor Butler has looked sharp 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.

Observation deck

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.

 
  Robert Benson/US Presswire
  The return of linebacker Shawne Merriman should bolster the San Diego defense.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

SAN DIEGO -- Philip Rivers admits the San Diego Chargers may have embraced Super Bowl talk in recent years.

The Chargers have been sexy preseason Super Bowl picks the past few years. While they have won three straight AFC West crowns, they haven't been able to get past the AFC Championship Game. Last season, San Diego's year ended in the divisional playoffs after a gallant effort in Pittsburgh.

Camp Confidential: AFC West
• Raiders: Fri., July 31
• Chargers: Tues., Aug. 4
• Broncos: Wed., Aug. 12
• Chiefs:
Thurs., Aug. 20

This year, the Chargers are not really interested in participating in any Super Bowl talk.

"There's nothing to talk about," said Rivers. "We've done all that talking. Now, it's just time to go out week to week and prove it."

This is how linebacker Shawne Merriman puts it: "Nobody is going through their lockers looking for the Super Bowl rings they are going to give us. We're not worried about it. All we are really looking at [is] Week 1. And then, we'll go from there. It's a new attitude. We're just going week to week."

San Diego coach Norv Turner says the attitude is a byproduct of the team knowing that it is good and in its prime. Still, after having to scramble late in the season the past two years to make the postseason, Turner said many on the team are trying not to look ahead.

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"We can play with anybody, they all know that," Turner said. "This year it's just about taking it one step at a time and not getting ahead of ourselves."

Key questions

1. Will Merriman be healthy?

The Chargers were lost on defense much of last season without Merriman. His worth to the defense was dramatically on display when Merriman missed all but one game because of a knee injury.

 
  Stan Liu/US Presswire
  Injuries have slowed LaDainian Tomlinson the past two seasons.

Merriman, who led the NFL with 39.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons, is also good in coverage and is an enforcer who sets the tone for the defense. In defensive coordinator Ron Rivera's system, Merriman should be a terror.

By all accounts, Merriman is ready to play. He will be brought along slowly in camp and in the preseason, but he's expected to be at full-go for the Chargers' opening game Sept. 14 at Oakland. If Merriman can stay healthy, San Diego's defense should be much improved.

2. Does LaDainian Tomlinson have anything left?

Tomlinson nearly didn't return this season but the two sides agreed on a restructured contract.

Tomlinson has some things going against him. He just turned 30, which, frankly, is quite old for an NFL running back. He has dealt with injuries toward the end of the past two seasons and he had his least productive season of his eight-year NFL career in 2008.

Can he still produce at a high level? The Chargers believe if Tomlinson can stay healthy he should be fine. The San Diego offensive line is healthy going into this season, which wasn't the case last season, and there's reserve Darren Sproles to ease Tomlinson's load.

3. Can San Diego start fast?

This was a big question last season and the Chargers couldn't figure it out, so it remains. Look, San Diego is significantly better than its competition in the AFC West. If it can start fast, it can run away from the rest of the division.

Rivers admitted that fighting back from a bad start has worn out the Chargers the past two years. In 2007, San Diego was 5-5 before finishing 11-5. Last season, San Diego became the only team in NFL history to start 4-8 and make the playoffs. The Chargers hope their late-season heroics will be supplemented by better early-season play.

Market watch

This is an interesting time in San Diego. The Chargers have a veteran roster, but they are also mixing in some youngsters. The Chargers feel good about their rookie class. There are several rookies who are expected to make immediate contributions.

 
  Jody Gomez/US Presswire
  Larry English is expected to play a large role in the Chargers' defense.

San Diego came to this realization after the rookies performed so well in the offseason. If they continue to make progress during the rest of camp, San Diego could have as many as three rookie starters.

Top pick Larry English will essentially be a starter, although he may not be in every base package. Yet, the pass-rusher from Northern Illinois will be a major part of the defense. Third-round pick Louis Vasquez, is in a fight for a starting job at guard, and sixth-round pick Kevin Ellison has a chance to start at safety as well. Defensive lineman Vaughn Martin (fourth round) and power running back Gartrell Johnson (fourth round) also have a chance to make an impact as the Chargers slowly infuse their roster with younger talent.

Newcomer to watch

The Chargers have rarely been big players in free agency under general manager A.J. Smith. He'd prefer to build through the draft and he has done a fine job of it. But there is a free agent of note this season: linebacker Kevin Burnett.

The former Dallas role player has a chance to start at one of the Chargers' two inside linebacker spots in the 3-4 defense. Burnett is very strong in pass coverage and the Chargers believe he will improve a pass defense that was susceptible last season. Burnett has to beat out veteran Tim Dobbins, but the Chargers believe Burnett will be an impact player.

Observation deck

Veteran defensive tackle Jamal Williams is performing well in camp and is healthy. The Chargers expect him to be dominant this season. ... The Chargers are expecting good things from cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer. Jammer was good last season, but Cromartie struggled. He was dealing with a hip injury. He has been strong so far. ... San Diego is very comfortable with having defensive end  Jacques Cesaire start in place of Igor Olshansky, who signed with Dallas in the offseason. Cesaire is experienced and Olshansky didn't have a good season last year, so San Diego doesn't think there is a downgrade. ... San Diego is excited about using outside linebacker Shaun Phillips as a roamer in packages where both Merriman and English are on the field. ... Second-year fullback Jacob Hester got stronger in the offseason and looks primed to make strides.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Dallas Cowboys
Training camp site: San Antonio

Campfires: The one legitimate camp battle that will take place features second-year cornerbacks Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins. Terence Newman's the obvious starter, but Scandrick, a fifth-round choice, will challenge Jenkins, a first-round pick. Scandrick was the more complete player his rookie season, but Jenkins has vowed to win the job -- via his blog.

 
  Al Bello/Getty Images
  Dallas needs Roy Williams to improve upon his first season with the Cowboys.

It might be interesting to keep your eye on the situation at left guard, where Kyle Kosier will try to hold off Montrae Holland and last year's fill-in, Cory Procter. Kosier has more experience, but Holland might have more athletic ability.

The running back rotation also will be intriguing to watch. The Cowboys have hinted about starting Felix Jones and returning Marion Barber to his cleanup role. I'm not sure it's the right way to go, but the Cowboys will certainly take a long look at it. Also take a look at the competition for the No. 2 receiver spot. Miles Austin appears to have the inside track, but Patrick Crayton's not ready to concede.

Camp will be a downer if ... Tony Romo and Roy Williams can't get on the same page. They had their moments during offseason workouts, but they didn't wow anyone. Perhaps Williams' dedication to weightlifting and conditioning will pay off.

I think the Cowboys also need Anthony Spencer to make a strong move at outside linebacker. If he doesn't take the next step or he ends up with another injury, it would certainly be a downer.

Camp will be a success if ... Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett's able to implement a more balanced offense that utilizes the Cowboys' depth at running back. Garrett's under a lot of pressure to live up to his immense paycheck.

Division Camp Previews
• Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
• Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
• Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
• Friday: NFC West | AFC West

MORE
Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

Success also means strong performances from free-agent additions Igor Olshansky and Keith Brooking. The Cowboys need Brooking to be an upgrade over Zach Thomas, who never looked totally comfortable at his inside linebacker spot in the vaunted Wade Phillips 3-4. One more thing: The Cowboys need to agree to an extension with DeMarcus Ware. That would help alleviate any potential tension with the team's best player.

Surprise, surprise: I think Sam Hurd will have an outstanding camp and could actually challenge for the No. 2 receiver role. He really impressed me during OTAs -- when he wasn't working with the trainers.


New York Giants
Training camp site: Albany, N.Y. (University at Albany)

Campfires: I'll have my eye on the running back competition from the start. Danny Ware wants to battle Ahmad Bradshaw for the right to replace Derrick Ward. But he has a long way to go to win the trust of the Giants' coaches. Rookie Andre Brown could emerge during camp as a key contributor. The rookie running back has won universal praise early in his time in the Meadowlands.

 
  William Perlman/US Presswire
  Defensive lineman Chris Canty is one of the new faces the Giants are counting on.

At linebacker, free agent Michael Boley was supposed to shore up some of the deficiencies in coverage. Now he's banged up and will serve a one-game suspension. The Giants will have some strong competition at linebacker with players such as Chase Blackburn, Bryan Kehl, Danny Clark and the talented but oft-injured Gerris Wilkinson.

Of course, we'll all be watching the competition at receiver. Can Hakeem Nicks break into the starting lineup in training camp? We're about to find out.

Camp will be a downer if ... The Giants don't see some of their young receivers take the next step. Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith should be serviceable as the starting duo. But the team would love for either Sinorice Moss or Mario Manningham (or both) to emerge as a viable threat. That would free up Nicks and Ramses Barden to sort of ease their way into the regular season.

Oh, and we can't forget Super Bowl hero David Tyree. He's looking for another book deal.

Camp will be a success if ... All of the new additions on defense (Rocky Bernard, Chris Canty, Boley, etc.) mesh early. I think Canty will flourish from the defensive tackle spot and he'll still be able to slip outside and rush in some situations. Those players should make Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora even more effective.

I also think it's time for Kenny Phillips to have a breakthrough season. If he has a strong camp, I think he'll be headed for Pro Bowl consideration.

Surprise, surprise: Give me Brown at running back. The Giants were thrilled to land him in the fourth round and Jerry Reese thinks he'll be in the mix for the No. 2 role behind Brandon Jacobs.


(Read full post)

 
  Darren Hauck/Getty Images
  GM Ted Thompson's passive offseason approach will be strongly questioned if the Packers produce another losing season in 2009.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

They tricked us. Or, at least, they fooled me.

When Green Bay acknowledged this winter it was shifting to a 3-4 defense, my thoughts moved immediately to free agency. Finally! Packers general manager Ted Thompson would be forced to dabble in a market he has historically disdained. After all, the Packers were built as a 4-3 team and it's unreasonable to expect every player can make the transition. You figured the Packers would need at least one or two new veteran starters to smooth out the makeover.

Green Bay's Mild Winter
Date Transaction
March 9 Signed S Anthony Smith
March 16 Re-signed CB Jarrett Bush
March 16 Re-signed DE Jason Hunter
March 23 Re-signed DE Michael Montgomery
March 30 Signed OL Duke Preston

Tuesday, however, marks the 33rd day of free agency -- and Thompson has changed nothing about his offseason approach. The Packers have signed two veterans, but safety Anthony Smith and offensive lineman Duke Preston project as backups and play positions that don't impact the schematic transition.

So what gives? How could Thompson justify such a passive offseason approach following a 6-10 season that spurred the defensive overhaul?

I missed Thompson at last week's NFL owners' meeting, but he told Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he is satisfied with the personnel makeup of the team. "We're pretty solid in our starting lineup," was the way Thompson put it. Later, he added: "I think our team is built as such we don't, in my opinion, have some glaring needs."

In essence, Thompson stood pat. In poker terms, he checked. Many fans and observers are bewildered by the paradox between changing schemes and sitting tight on personnel; in the end it represents a staunch and perhaps stubborn display of confidence in past drafts and the prospects for this year's affair. But let's be clear: The approach has left the Packers with no room for error in the April 25-26 draft and little doubt about how to judge the 2009 season.

That final clause is the part that intrigues me the most. The Packers aren't the only team that stood on the sidelines of free agency this year. You don't have to look further than the NFC North to notice that Minnesota has done nothing more than trade for a career backup quarterback and sign a nickelback. Chicago has quietly revamped its offensive line but hasn't addressed its defense in a meaningful way.

The Vikings, however, will return a team that won 10 games last season. The Bears went 9-7 and lost three games after leading late in the fourth quarter. The Packers, on the other hand, dropped seven of their final nine games and produced the ninth-worst record in the NFL. To stand pat after a 6-10 season is to stake your career on the idea that it was an aberration rather than a sign of long-term trouble.

Sure, the Packers hired a new defensive staff led by coordinator Dom Capers to revamp the scheme. But those changes are tied to the flexibility of the personnel on hand. Speaking earlier this month at the Packers' FanFest, Capers said the transition will be a "process" and added: "I wish I had a comfort level where I could stand here and say we've got everything we need, but you probably couldn't get a coach in the league to say that."

 
  Evan Pinkus/Getty Images
  New D-coordinator Dom Capers has the unenviable task of implementing a 3-4 scheme mostly with players brought in for a 4-3.

Before free agency began, we noted the change would be a step-by-step process. But a little more than a month later, the Packers don't seem to have made any progress from a personnel standpoint. They haven't taken any steps. We're not any closer to naming their four-man group of linebackers. We don't know who would replace nose tackle Ryan Pickett if he were injured. We have to wonder whether Johnny Jolly can handle left end -- and, even if he can, whether he will face NFL discipline as a result of an arrest in Houston last summer. That's a totality of uncertainty you don't want to be facing a year after finishing 6-10.

If nothing else, free agency could have provided alternatives worth embracing with more enthusiasm than Thompson has. That doesn't mean the Packers should have paid $41 million in guaranteed money to defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. It doesn't necessarily mean they should be pursuing a trade for Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers.

But even if it meant overpaying a bi
t, wouldn't you feel a bit better if the Packers knew they could turn to, say, Kevin Burnett at linebacker or Igor Olshansky at defensive end? Even from a standpoint of pure principle, it would demonstrate the Packers were pursuing every option available to improve their team and, consequently, transfer one less position of pressure to the draft.

What I'm building to is this: Thompson should face serious questions and be exposed to high accountability should the personnel group he is endorsing not generate a significant improvement from last season. If the Packers produce another losing season, Thompson's failure to address the 2008 performance more aggressively will prove to be a grave mistake.

This tack ultimately will validate or revoke the philosophy of setting a base, as Thompson did in his first season, and then building almost exclusively through the draft.

I did catch up last week to the man who ultimately will evaluate Thompson's performance. Team president/CEO Mark Murphy expressed no regret about the approach to free agency but made clear it was an option if Thompson wanted to use it.

Here's the exchange Murphy had with Silverstein and me:

What's been your assessment of the offseason?

Mark Murphy: Well, to me the biggest change was following the season, [coach Mike McCarthy] changing the coaching staff. I'm very encouraged. I've been very impressed with Dom Capers and the staff he and Mike have put together. I think you'll see a difference on the field. We haven't been big players in free agency, obviously, to this point.

Did you know that going in?

MM: We're always looking for opportunities, but we want to make sure it makes sense and fits into our long-term plans.

  Ted Thompson presser
  NFL.com Video
  Packers GM Ted Thompson discusses the team's transition to a 3-4 defense.

Did you expect more out of free agency?

MM: Free agency isn't over yet. It's not a one-week event. It goes on for quite a while. I still think you look historically and the better teams are built through the draft. And then filling needs in free agency.

Were there any financial restrictions on Thompson?

MM: No.

Did the football budget remain the same?

MM: Yeah, we haven't dropped off.

I didn't sense any impatience or exasperation from Murphy, but he has a long history in the NFL and knows how successful teams are built. He understands the risks and rewards of Thompson's offseason gambit and no doubt will judge him accordingly.

Thompson prefers to focus on the draft, and the Packers have a chance to grab an immediate starter with the No. 9 overall pick. But a great draft would produce two or three starters across the board. Is it reasonable to expect immediate defensive dividends from one draft? Consider that last year's draft produced two immediate starters in the entire NFC North. Both were tailbacks: Chicago's Matt Forte and Detroit's Kevin Smith. Otherwise, it's a crapshoot.

Thompson isn't the only NFL general manager who shies away from free agency. But the combination of last year's 6-10 record and the defensive changes has put his approach into critical focus moving forward.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

DANA POINT, Calif. -- San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner addressed the media at the NFL owners' meeting on Tuesday.

Here is a sampling of some of the highlights of his session:

On if the roles of running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles will change in 2009:

"I don't think so. Everyone wants to figure out what the plan is. You play it by ear. LT is our lead back. There are some games he's going to carry the ball almost exclusively. There are games Darren is going to be a great changeup. As we go through the season, I think Darren is going to get his touches."


On Tomlinson's 2008 season:

"He rushed for 1,100 yards and caught 50 balls. By most backs' standards, that's a heck of a year. People look and say that's not LT-like. We had some difficulty running the ball early. I think that will give him more opportunities.


On the health statius of star linebacker Shawne Merriman who missed 15 games in 2008 with a knee issue:

"Shawne is doing great. He's been outside running. He looks great."


On what the Chargers missed playing without Merriman:

"The best teams -- and when you play your best -- you make game-changing plays. You look at the best teams, they have a lot of guys who make game-changing plays. He's one of those guys. When you lose a guy like that ... Those sacks, the pressures, it's not the number, it's when they come.

On what the Chargers might do in the draft:

"We're going to take the best player. It could be a defensive back, linebacker, defensive end, offensive lineman. We have the 16th pick, and we should get an outstanding player there.


On the continued development of quarterback Philip Rivers:

"Philip loves the game and he wants to be the best. That combination of things is all you could ask for. He's the first guy back in. He's done a great job improving himself physically over the last couple years.
It's a combination of weight room and work he does in the offseason program with his movement. I think he's gotten a lot stronger with his arm. He studies the game. He's going to keep getting better."


On the expectations of new linebacker Kevin Burnett, who was signed as a free agent from Dallas:

"We love his athletic ability, love his coverage ability. He's been a productive player. We're obviously excited about his ability to help us in the pass side of it."


On who may replace defensive end Igor Olshansky at defensive end. Olshansky signed with Dallas as a free agent:

"We play a lot of guys on the defensive line. We have Jacques Cesaire and Ryon Bingham that will compete for that spot, and that's an area we will look for a young player."

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