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Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Updated: September 22, 8:13 AM ET
Offseason decisions impact Cowboys

By Calvin Watkins
ESPNDallas.com

We are two weeks into the 2010 season and the Dallas Cowboys are winless. It's not the end of the world, but only 13 percent of the teams that started 0-2 since 1990 have made the postseason.

Coach Wade Phillips had a team go 0-3 in Buffalo (1998). He not only reached the playoffs with that team, but the Bills finished tied for second in the AFC East.

Phillips said he will take some of the things he learned then to help the Cowboys get out of their recent troubles. But the offseason moves the Cowboys made have had a direct impact on why this team is 0-2. We look at five key moves and what they've meant the first two weeks.

Changing the left tackle

The Cowboys released veteran Flozell Adams in the offseason to make room for a much younger Doug Free. In 2009, Free took over for an injured Marc Colombo and had many in the organization thinking he was the best lineman on the squad. Free was then asked to move to the left side with Colombo staying on the right side for 2010. The first two weeks of the season posed big tests for Free.

In Week 1, he took on Redskins pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Kedric Golston. Golston wasn't credited with a sack or quarterback hurry, but Orakpo caused trouble for right tackle Alex Barron, who committed three holding calls.

Free has played well against some strong pass-rushers, including last Sunday versus Chicago's Julius Peppers, who didn't get a sack on Tony Romo.

Even running the ball, the Cowboys feel comfortable going toward Free's side. Dallas has run 18 plays to the left side of the line of scrimmage, compared to eight times on the right side, which is the lowest in the league.

"Doug has played well," offensive line coach Hudson Houck said. "He graded very well versus the Bears, and he can only get better."

Staying with younger players

The Cowboys released Pat Watkins and Steve Octavien within a few days of each other in late August and early September. Those were two veteran special-teams guys the Cowboys depended on. Dallas elected to go with younger players Chris Gronkowski, Danny McCray and Barry Church to make special-teams plays.

After two regular-season games, kicker David Buehler led the team with two special-teams tackles. Dallas hasn't done a good job on kickoff coverage, allowing Johnny Knox and Devin Thomas to each have 42-yard returns. Also, the Cowboys have twice failed to down a punt inside the 5.

Phillips believes these are growing pains that will improve as the unit starts to understand what other teams are doing scheme-wise on kicks.

An example of this was rookie Dez Bryant's 62-yard punt return for a touchdown in the loss to the Bears.

"I thought in some areas we did [some good things]," Phillips said. "Certainly the punt return. It was blocked well, besides the guy making a great run."

Trading Crayton

Dez Bryant
Rookie Dez Bryant saw his playing time reduced from Week 1 to Week 2.
Jerry Jones likes to talk about progress stoppers. It's one of the reasons he released Adams -- so Free could play the left tackle spot. The Cowboys traded veteran wide receiver Patrick Crayton to San Diego for a seventh-round pick. In doing so, the Cowboys opened the door for Kevin Ogletree and Bryant to get more opportunities with the offense.

Through two games, Ogletree and Bryant have no touchdown receptions and have seen their snap counts diminish from Week 1 to Week 2.

Ogletree, after playing 10 snaps in the season opener, was down to what he says was "three or four" in Week 2.

"I just have to be patient and wait," he said. "When my number is called, just be prepared to make the plays on the field."

Bryant was involved in 43 snaps in the regular-season opener but down to 28 in Week 2. Bryant missed a few snaps with a minor leg injury, but the Cowboys threw to him just two times versus the Bears. Bryant didn't speak with reporters after the game, but the Cowboys still believe in his abilities.

Bryant has yet to grasp the entire offense. That and the lack of a preseason -- he missed it with a high ankle sprain -- are limiting his abilities.

Cowboys officials have said they believe Bryant will be a dynamic player, as evident by his punt return for a touchdown Sunday.

Giving Buehler the kicking job

Late last season the Cowboys released Nick Folk after he missed an NFL-high 10 field goals. Folk was coming off offseason hip surgery and never found a good tempo to his game.

There was a belief that maybe the Cowboys should have kept Folk and fixed his mental state while his body healed. But he's with the New York Jets now and he's 5-for-5 on the season. The man the Cowboys kept, Buehler, is just 2-for-4 this season with both misses coming in situations when he could have tied the game.

Jerry Jones said he's going to be patient with Buehler. However, if he struggles in a key situation again this weekend at Houston, the Cowboys might make a move. The team won't release Buehler because he's a good kickoff specialist. Dallas would have to create a roster spot for a field goal kicker should Buehler lose that job.

"The percentages over 40 yards are not going to be great," Phillips said of Buehler, who made a 48-yarder but missed from 44 yards against the Bears. "I'd like for him to make them all. I've been through it with kickers before, and I think you give them a chance before you say, 'Hey, you can't do it at all.'"

Extending Phillips' contract

After Phillips led the Cowboys to the 2009 NFC East title and a playoff victory, the team's first since 1996, Jones awarded him with a two-year contract extension through 2011.

Phillips Our division is going to be rough, we know that. But they're all 1-1. It's not like they're all 2-0 and we're 0-2. But it isn't about them. It's about what we do.

-- Cowboys coach Wade Phillips

Two weeks into the 2010 season, the Cowboys are 0-2 and Phillips said he is planning changes. He won't be specific about these changes, but it would seem Phillips is trying to save the season. That's understandable considering the team is winless going into Houston (2-0).

Phillips was even asked about his job security, something that doesn't bother him because he's been on coaching staffs that were fired after success.

He's admitted his team is at a crossroads because it is very difficult to start the season 0-3 and reach the playoffs.

"It's real early in the season," he said. "We all can realize that. But we've got to do something about ourselves. Our division is going to be rough, we know that. But they're all 1-1. It's not like they're all 2-0 and we're 0-2. But it isn't about them. It's about what we do."

One thing of note about the division: The Cowboys have one division loss and one conference loss already and don't play another conference foe for three weeks. Getting behind, division- and conference-wise, could affect tiebreaker situations down the line.

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