Commentary

Cowboys change for the better

Club's offseason renovation project appears to have them headed in right direction

Updated: October 9, 2011, 1:19 AM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

There hadn't been such a striking offseason renovation at Valley Ranch since Jerry Jones visited a plastic surgeon a decade ago.

Six starters from an offense that ranked seventh in the NFL last season in scoring and total yardage were handed their pink slips this summer. Finances factored into most of the decisions, but coach Jason Garrett and Jones insisted that the primary motivation for the personnel moves was to put the best possible team on the field this season.

So far this season, the Cowboys have improved slightly in the two main offensive categories. They are averaging 24.8 points per game, up two-tenths of a point from last season. They are averaging 417.8 yards, an improvement of more than half a football field per game.

Of course, it's misleading to judge these moves simply by comparing numbers, considering that quarterback Tony Romo missed most of last season. Let's delve a little deeper than that by comparing each of the new starters with their predecessors in four-game progress reports.

Released: Marion Barber; Replacement: Felix Jones

This move would have made sense even without the money. The fact that Barber was due $4.75 million -- none of which was guaranteed -- made it an absolute no-brainer.

Jones, who took over as the lead horse in the latter half of last season, has been better than Barber. But that's pretty faint praise.

Barber's bruising running style seemed to take its toll on him as soon as he signed a seven-year, $45 million contract extension after his 2007 Pro Bowl campaign, when he rushed for a career-high 975 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns. He looked done in 2010, when he averaged 3.3 yards per carry and rushed for a career-low four touchdowns. He's been active for only one of four games after signing with the Chicago Bears.

[+] EnlargeBarber & Jones
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesFelix Jones hasn't exactly lit up the stat sheet, but releasing Marion Barber was a no-brainer for the Cowboys.

There remain questions, however, about whether Jones is cut out to be a featured back. His stats this season (56 carries for 241 yards and a touchdown) are decent, but he's had one great performance against the Redskins and three games when he was held in check. And the Cowboys' running game has sputtered, ranking 25th in the league (86.8 yards per game).

Ideally, third-round pick DeMarco Murray will prove capable of carrying a sizeable share of the workload. He's been a bit player so far after missing all of training camp with a strained hamstring.

Regardless of the production by the running backs who remain on the roster, it was a good decision to move on from Barber.

Released: Roy Williams; Replacement: Dez Bryant.

Williams was the biggest trade bust in franchise history. This was addition by subtraction, and it was a bonus that the Cowboys were able to create $5 million in salary cap space by designating him as a June 1 cut.

Bryant has too much talent to be below an unproductive starter on the depth chart. The numbers Bryant posted during an injury-shortened rookie season as a third receiver were on par with Williams' stats from his best season with the Cowboys, when he was supposed to be the No. 1 receiver.

If Bryant can get healthy and continue to grow up, he has the potential to live up to the No. 88 previously worn by Ring of Honor receivers Drew Pearson and Michael Irvin.

The Cowboys are counting on Bryant to do much more than replace Williams' production (37 catches for 530 yards and five TDs last season). Laurent Robinson, who was signed off the street in September, will probably put up those kinds of numbers.

Released: Chris Gronkowski; Replacement: Tony Fiammetta.

It could be argued that a fullback doesn't belong on this list, because it's a position the Cowboys rarely use for more than 15 snaps per game.

Gronkowski was inconsistent as a lead blocker and will be best remembered for a blown assignment on a blitz pickup that resulted in Romo's broken collarbone. The Cowboys tried to replace him with seventh-round pick Shaun Chapas, who didn't perform well enough in the preseason to make the 53-man roster.

Fiammetta, who was claimed off waivers from Carolina, is more physical and athletic than Gronkowski. It's coincidence that the Cowboys' one big rushing game this season came in one of the two games that Fiammetta has been active.

[+] EnlargeTyron Smith
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireTyron Smith has already been the Cowboys' best offensive lineman through four games and will only get better.

Released: Marc Colombo; Replacement: Tyron Smith.

The Cowboys upgraded at right tackle the second they selected Smith with the ninth overall pick in the draft, the first time in 30 years the franchise had used a first-round pick on an offensive linemen.

Colombo's stint in Dallas was a major success story, considering that he gave the Cowboys three and a half good seasons as a starter after being picked up off the scrap heap while fighting back from a career-threatening knee injury. But it was painfully obvious in 2010 that age and injuries had robbed him of his ability to be an adequate starter.

The 20-year-old Smith has been the Cowboys' best offensive linemen in the first month of his career. He's good right now. He should be great soon and for a long time.

Released: Leonard Davis; Replacement: Bill Nagy.

Davis, whose release created $6 million in cap space, is still unemployed. What does that tell you about the former Pro Bowler's performance last season?

Nagy, a seventh-round pick, might not be a long-term solution. He might not even be a short-term solution. Derrick Dockery, the eight-year veteran signed just before the season began, might have seized the starting job if he didn't suffer a knee injury during the Week 2 win over San Francisco.

But Nagy hasn't been bad, even though he tends to get overpowered at times. He certainly hasn't been worse than Davis was last season, and Davis was being paid like a premier guard.

Released: Andre Gurode; Replacement: Phil Costa.

This is the one spot where a strong argument can be made that the Cowboys took a step back.

Costa has spent time in the national spotlight, but he would much rather have remained anonymous. His three premature shotgun snaps in a Monday night game against Washington -- and ensuing accusations that the Redskins were illegally imitating Romo's cadence -- sparked a pretty good controversy.

Just remember that Gurode's shotgun snaps were somewhat of an adventure, too. Romo's ridiculous scramble for a first down against the Rams in 2007 started when Gurode airmailed a snap 30 yards deep, you know. That was one of several errant snaps for Gurode in that game and during his Dallas tenure.

Gurode played in the past five Pro Bowls, but his past two invitations were based on reputation, not performance. He's a more powerful player than Costa, but Costa is quicker and a better fit for the Cowboys' screen game.

And the move makes sense because of the dollars: Gurode was due $5.5 million, more than 10 times what Costa will make as a minimum-salary second-year player.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.

ALSO SEE