Cowboys enjoy benefits of decisions

MOBILE, Ala. -- The last time the Dallas Cowboys attended Senior Bowl practices, their organization was in trouble.

The Cowboys were coming off a 44-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles that closed the 2008 regular season, and team owner/general manager Jerry Jones had to defend his decision to keep coach Wade Phillips for another season.

There was dissension in the locker room, mainly between quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Terrell Owens.

What's more, Jones was in the final stages of building a $1.2 billion stadium.

But Jones and Phillips made difficult decisions in the last offseason, and they paid off.

"The decisions we made were not quite as apparent because we had a disappointing year," Jones said Tuesday. "We were really hell-bent to make changes for the better. Anytime you're involved in that type of activity, it makes it hard. I don't want to understate the fact we aren't standing pat going forward."

The Cowboys come into this offseason as the defending NFC East champs. Their staff is coaching the NFC in the Pro Bowl. Phillips received a two-year contract extension last week.

There is little dissension among the ranks this time around.

Jones' biggest issue is trying to decide whom to draft in the first round -- he doesn't expect to trade down -- and how much to pay rising wide receiver Miles Austin.

"There are some significant things we're going to do in personnel," Jones said. "In which areas, I don't know right now. If we don't [make moves], we're standing still."

One of the keys to the Cowboys' turnaround was Jones' decision to cut Owens. Inside linebacker Bradie James said toward the end of the 2009 season that it served as a wake-up call to the rest of the team. Jones said he wanted to make the Cowboys "Romo-friendly."

He wasn't specific as to what that meant. Romo claimed he didn't know either, but the reality is the Cowboys wanted their quarterback to throw passes without worrying about who got them and why.

Phillips changed his style somewhat regarding discipline. Instead of fining players $100 for infractions, he would charge a game check from a player.

Special teams became a priority. Bruce Read, and his quiet style coaching the unit, was out. In was the loud, cursing voice of Joe DeCamillis. Brian Stewart was fired as defensive coordinator, and Phillips took over the play-calling duties.

Under DeCamillis, the Cowboys' special teams unit improved. DeCamillis said the team needed to draft a kicker just for kickoffs, and it did in David Buehler, who led the NFL in touchbacks and set a franchise record in the category for a single season.

Phillips' defense thrived with him in charge. Anthony Spencer became the force the team was hoping for when he was drafted in 2007. He compiled six sacks, third on the team, and 36 quarterback pressures, second on the squad.

Cornerback Mike Jenkins earned his first Pro Bowl berth in his second season, thanks to a team-leading five interceptions and 23 passes defended.

"I'm pleased that it is working," Jones said. "The plan, when [Phillips] was hired, was for him to be the head coach and run the defense, just like you would expect Norv Turner to run the offense. But what I'm pleased about, our team is getting the benefit [of] not only Wade as defensive coordinator -- it's enhanced everything about him as a head coach."

Yes, things are going good for the Cowboys these days. Last year's draft class was deemed a disappointment because of injuries to several players, including linebacker Jason Williams, a third-round pick. But their lack of playing time isn't necessarily deemed as a negative going forward.

Romo is headed to his third Pro Bowl appearance, and the new stadium is the talk of the league.

"I think this year, we're riding in here with half a draft class already in place, and those are the guys that didn't play last year," Jones said. "I like the direction Romo is going in. I like the fact we added five new faces to the defense last year, and we got in place those five new faces for the most part [again for 2010]. For me, it makes it easier to focus in on the draft."

Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.