Cowboys position review: Defensive line

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30
3:00
PM ET
Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Lawrence
Mincey
Under contract: Jeremy Mincey, DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Josh Brent, Terrell McClain, Lavar Edwards, Jack Crawford, Ken Bishop, Ben Gardner, Amobi Okoye, Chris Whaley.

Free agents: Nick Hayden, George Selvie, Henry Melton, Anthony Spencer.

A look back: The Cowboys parted ways with DeMarcus Ware, the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks, and did not attempt to keep Jason Hatcher, who led the team in sacks in 2013. For a defense that is based on front-four pressure, the Cowboys entered 2014 without much of a pass rush.

Mincey was a solid free-agent pickup and led the Cowboys with six sacks. Melton had five sacks but never felt 100 percent in his comeback from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Melton’s struggles allowed Tyrone Crawford to flourish. He might have been the Cowboys’ best defender during the season, not just the best defensive lineman. He found a home as the three-technique in Rod Marinelli’s scheme. You want more than three sacks, but he was coming off a torn Achilles and showed potential to be a cornerstone piece.

Hayden and Selvie were serviceable parts. Spencer’s recovery from microfracture surgery was a long one, but it paid off later in the season.

The Cowboys gave up a lot to move up to take Lawrence in the second round. He started the season on injured reserve because of a broken foot, missing the first eight games. He did not record a sack in the regular season but he had two in the playoffs, including the clinching play to beat the Detroit Lions in the wild-card round.

McClain had moments, but not as many as expected from his work in the spring in part because of an ankle injury that bothered him early and late. Brent returned to the Cowboys after his suspension was lifted and played in one regular-season game after hurting his calf. He returned for the playoffs.

A look ahead: The Cowboys have to treat the defensive line the way it has treated the offensive line in recent years. They need to upgrade the talent. Doing it all at once, however, is not likely.

The drafting of Lawrence started the process, but the Cowboys need to find more pass-rushers. They have decisions to make on players such as Melton, Spencer, Hayden and Selvie. Melton has a $9 million option the Cowboys will almost certainly decline. Spencer, Hayden and Selvie could be stop-gap guys as the Cowboys look to gradually rebuild.

Crawford, Mincey and Lawrence give the Cowboys a give the Cowboys a solid trio up front. McClain and Bishop have the ability to fill out the rotation. Crawford was coming on just as he suffered a thumb injury that ended his season. He can play end or tackle, especially in pass-rushing situations. Brent should be able to benefit from a full offseason after missing two seasons with legal problems. He remains a favorite of Jerry Jones.

Okoye, Gardner and Whaley are coming back from injuries that kept them out the entire season. The hope is they develop into solid backups.

A look out: The Cowboys have picked an offensive lineman in the first round in three of the last four years and they now have a line that is the envy of the league. They need to make the same commitment to the defensive line for the defense to progress from OK to good in 2015.

The Cowboys had just 28 sacks in the regular season. They need to bump that considerably. A strong pass rush helps the back seven produce more takeaways. That the Cowboys were able to get 31 turnovers is pretty remarkable. Imagine what they could do if they had a more consistent rush.

While there could be big names available in free agency, such as Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul, the Cowboys’ free agency approach is likely to be more about numbers than signing one player at a huge price. In letting go of Ware, the Cowboys were able to compensate with guys such as Mincey, Selvie and Spencer at roughly a third of the cost.

The draft is the likely spot for the infusion of talent. Sitting at No. 27 in the first round, it might be difficult to get a game-ready player, but guys like Alvin Dupree, Trey Flowers and Mario Edwards Jr. might be names to keep an eye at defensive end and Texas' Malcom Brown and Ohio State’s Michael Bennett could be names to watch at tackle.

Cowboys position review: Offensive line

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30
1:30
PM ET
Reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Dallas Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Under contract: Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Darrion Weems, Donald Hawkins, John Wetzel

[+] EnlargeTyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin
AP Photo/Gus RuelasDon't rule out a fourth first-round pick joining Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin on the Cowboys' offensive line.
Free agents: Doug Free, Jermey Parnell, Tony Hills

A look back: There is no doubt this group changed the way the Cowboys played the game. Since 2011, the Cowboys rebuilt the offensive line with first-round picks in Smith, Frederick and Martin. They also hit on an undrafted free agent in Leary and saw Free's level of play rebound.

Smith, Frederick and Martin were named to the Pro Bowl. Smith and Martin were named All Pro.

The ability is unquestioned. As a group, they have a work ethic that seeps through the entire roster. They stay longer on the practice field than other groups. They meet longer than other groups.

Smith was not as dominant as he was in 2013, but he was still one of the best left tackles in football. He signed a 10-year deal with the Cowboys over the summer that included $40 million guaranteed. He might have the strongest hands in football. When he locks on to a defender, the battle is over.

Frederick is mostly known for his smarts but is more athletic than people think and moves well. Martin's selection with the 16th overall pick was well chronicled and he did not disappoint. He might have been the best rookie in football even if he won't win Rookie of the Year.

Free missed five regular-season games and the playoffs with foot and ankle injuries, but his fellow linemates consider him the glue to the unit. Parnell did a serviceable job when Free was out. Bernadeau started one game when Leary had a groin injury. He is a solid backup at all three interior spots.

A look ahead: The Cowboys might face an either/or decision on Free and Parnell. Parnell is younger, but Free, 31, is a better player. He can communicate faster in large part because of his experience. He had his pay cut in half the last two years from the big deal he signed in 2011, so the negotiations on a new deal might be a little tricky.

The trio of Smith, Frederick and Martin figure to get better. Most players believe their biggest jumps come between their rookie seasons and second year but Martin is already at a level reserved for veterans. He doesn't make mistakes twice. The common thread between the three -- besides skill -- is their fight. They don't give up on plays and they make it hard for linemen every snap.

Leary is a better run blocker than pass protector but he is solid and continues to improve. Bernadeau's making good money for a backup and offers security if something happened to the three interior linemen.

Hawkins was inactive for every game but his roster spot was never in jeopardy. He is a developmental player along the lines of Weems, whose season was KO'd by shoulder surgery. Wetzel spent the year on the practice squad but might have ability as a tackle and guard.

A look out: Bill Callahan is off to the Washington Redskins, but the Cowboys made sure the message will remain the same by promoting Frank Pollack to offensive line coach. Pollack has been with the Cowboys the last two years and has the line's ear. They listen to him and trust him.

With the uncertain status of Free and Parnell, it is not out of the realm of possibility the Cowboys look at a fourth first-round pick on the line in the last five years. It's too early to discern who that could be, but the current track record of success would suggest they can find a guy who will help.

To me, Free needs to be kept. There is always a price that is too high, but he means a lot to a line that is still learning the game to a degree. They could look for interior help in the middle rounds or in a low-cost free agent.

Regardless, there is no reason to feel this group will drop off in 2015.

The series:

Quarterbacks
Specialists
Running backs
Safeties
Wide receivers
Cornerbacks
Tight ends
Linebackers

2015 Hall of Fame finalist: Charles Haley

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30
12:00
PM ET
One of the main arguments for Charles Haley to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the same as it has been the past few years: He is the only player to own five Super Bowl rings.

For the Dallas Cowboys, however, he was the missing piece. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has said on numerous occasions the Cowboys could not spell Super Bowl without Haley. He arrived in a trade from the San Francisco 49ers in 1992 and the Cowboys won three of the next four Super Bowls. He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Year twice (1990, '94) and was voted to the Pro Bowl five times. He earned All-Pro honors, first as an outside linebacker with the Niners and as a defensive end with the Cowboys.

With a defensive line that was loaded with talent, Haley did not play every snap, but he played the most important snaps. He brought a nasty demeanor to the Cowboys' defense that made it one of the best groups in the NFL.

The most important part of any résumé should be winning, and Haley won. He has the Super Bowl rings to prove it. His teams won 10 division titles in 12 years and he played in six conference championship games in a seven-year span.

This is the sixth time Haley has been a Hall of Fame finalist. Maybe his wait will finally come to an end on Saturday.

2015 Hall of Fame finalist: Jimmy Johnson

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30
12:00
PM ET
For the first time in the process, Jimmy Johnson will have his name bandied in a room full of Pro Football Hall of Fame voters.

He faces long odds as a first-timer on the ballot. He is one of three coaches up for discussion with Don Coryell and Tony Dungy.

He has more Super Bowl wins than either coach, but Coryell is considered one of the finest offensive minds in NFL history and Dungy had longer success with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts.

But what Johnson accomplished with the Dallas Cowboys is worthy of the discussion. He took over in difficult circumstances after Jerry Jones purchased the team in 1989, replacing a legend in Tom Landry and inheriting a roster void of talent. The Cowboys went 1-15 in his first year.

By his fourth season, the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII and were the envy of the league. The Herschel Walker trade changed the Cowboys' route to success. Johnson's knowledge of the college football landscape helped the Cowboys find talent in almost every round of the draft.

In 1993, Johnson helped the Cowboys repeat as Super Bowl champions, something that had happened just six times previously.

There would be no chance for three straight Super Bowl wins. The relationship between Jones and Johnson deteriorated badly, and Johnson was out of the game until returning as head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 1996.

He remains the second-winningest coach in Cowboys history with a 44-36 regular-season record. He went 7-1 in the playoffs, but there is a hint of wonder regarding both of those marks had Jones and Johnson been able to work through their issues.

Maybe if they had, Johnson would already be enshrined.

Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30
9:30
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Part 1 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:
Away we go:

@toddarcher: I received a few inquiries on the franchise and transition tag this week. First, you can't use both. You can use just the franchise or just the transition, so that takes one option away. The franchise tag numbers haven't been set yet, so we will have to go with some guesses. The receiver tag figures to be about $12.5-$13.5 million; the running back tag could be about $11 million. The transition tags will be lower. The Cowboys want to lock up Bryant to a long-term deal, but they aren't about to just give him everything he wants. There is a negotiation that has to happen. Something could happen before March, but I highly doubt it. I've said since last summer that Bryant is destined for the franchise tag. Why not tag Murray? Well, that is $11 million against the cap this year. It's entirely doable, but not the wisest allocation, especially if they would go to $15 million on guaranteed money on a long-term deal. I'm just throwing that number out there as a guesstimate. Maybe the transition tag would make some more sense, but there is compensation due if they choose not to match an offer made by another team.

@toddarcher: Let me answer this a couple of different ways: If you're waiting for the Cowboys to make big moves in free agency, like signing a big-name player, I think you will be waiting a long time. The big moves will be in attempting to keep their own guys, like Bryant and Murray and a few others. Personally, I think the best way to go about free agency is to do what they did last year: sign smaller deals with a number of guys to fill some holes leading into the draft. I'd put guys like Nick Hayden, Anthony Spencer and maybe even a Cole Beasley or Dwayne Harris into this category.

@toddarcher: I guess there are different levels of "legit effort" to ponder, but I think the Cowboys make a bid to keep Rolando McClain. It's difficult to conjure up a comparison to help zero in on the contract, so maybe it takes a little bit of time. He is a difference-maker for the defense, but there are questions about him, especially his health. Was it a product of sitting out of the game for so long? I think an offseason program will really benefit him. Based on what he said at the end of the season, I believe he wants to come back. He knows he has a good thing with the Cowboys. The coaches know him and his quirks. Jason Garrett has the Nick Saban seal of approval, so that helps. But I'm not so sure the Cowboys break the bank to keep him.

@toddarcher: Beasley is often compared to Welker because they are short by NFL standards. Before that, the same comparison was made between Welker and Danny Amendola, who also had Texas Tech ties. I don't believe Beasley is the next Welker. It's not an ability issue. Beasley is talented. But their games are a little different. Welker has a more compact build and has shown he can make plays outside. Beasley has a slighter build and has been an asset in the slot. I don't want this to come off as a knock on Beasley. I think the Cowboys should sign him to a multi-year deal soon. But he won't get the opportunities Welker got in Miami, New England, and Denver to catch 100 passes in a season. Not with Bryant. Not with Jason Witten. Not with the Cowboys wanting to run the ball more. But Beasley can be a valuable part of the offense the way Welker has been for his teams.

@toddarcher: From what I've been told, everything is coming along fine. It was a little slow in the beginning, but the hope is that he will be able to take part in the offseason program and do at least some of the organized team activities and minicamp. I can see a scenario in which the Cowboys limit him somewhat in the spring so he doesn't overdo it. Lee will always try to do more. It's just his nature. The Cowboys will want to make sure he is building throughout so he's ready for Week 1 of the regular season, and not just thinking about getting back this spring. Lee has gone through an ACL rehab before, so he knows the steps necessary to get back on the field..

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IRVING, Texas -- Adrian Peterson has been hit at least 1,100 more times than DeMarco Murray.

Peterson, who turns 30 in March, is scheduled to earn $12.7 million this year, which is more than any other NFL running back. And just so you know, he has carried the ball more than 300 times only once in the past four seasons, which is important because this Dallas Cowboys offense requires a workhorse.

Oh, and Peterson still must be reinstated to the NFL by commissioner Roger Goodell after last season's child-abuse scandal forced him to the sidelines for the final 15 games.

Regardless of whether the Cowboys sign the 26-year-old Murray to a long-term deal, which should be their top priority, signing Peterson would be the kind of dumb, high-profile, headline-generating move the Cowboys used to make, when owner Jerry Jones had the loudest voice at Valley Ranch.

Now, he doesn't.

Vice president Stephen Jones, coach Jason Garrett and scouting director Will McClay just let him think he does. Hey, whatever works.

Obviously, Peterson will have a bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day, but good organizations resist the temptation to fall in love with the name on the back of the jersey.

That's another mistake Jerry has made over the years. He has paid players for what they've done instead of paying them for what they will do. Good organizations focus on the future -- not the past -- and they deal in reality, not what they want reality to be.

So the 2,097 yards Murray gained two years ago isn't really part of his discussion, though it speaks to his overall talent. Neither are his 91 career touchdowns or his 5.0 career average per carry.


(Read full post)


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PHOENIX -- The 108 official Super Bowl XLIX footballs will receive additional security this weekend amid an ongoing NFL investigation into the inflation of game balls in the AFC Championship Game, vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said Thursday.

"There will be some added security just because of the environment we're in for this game," Blandino said during a football operations news conference at the Phoenix Convention Center.

ESPN.com reported last week that, per longstanding NFL policy, an independent set of equipment managers and ball attendants will handle pregame preparation of game balls. This year, Chicago Bears equipment manager Tony Medlin was chosen to supervise the group.

The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks will prepare 54 balls apiece to be used in Sunday's game; Blandino said the high number is due to charity commitments for game-used balls. Each team will hand over its footballs to Medlin and the NFL on Friday afternoon, where they will remain -- with the additional security -- until about three hours prior to the game. At that point, referee Bill Vinovich will test each ball to ensure it is within the NFL's allowable range of 12.5-13.5 PSI.

The NFL has hired attorney Ted Wells to investigate how 11 of the Patriots' 12 footballs were found to be underinflated at halftime of the AFC Championship Game. In the meantime, the league has already said it plans a full review of its policy regarding pregame football preparations this offseason. One possibility could be to discuss the legal range with Wilson, the league's official manufacturer. The 12.5-13.5 range has been in the NFL's rulebook for at least 75 years, Blandino said.

Blandino did say Thursday that the inspection of the footballs by referee Walt Anderson before the AFC Championship Game was handled properly.

"My major concern is did we follow proper protocol?" Blandino said. "Everything was properly tested and marked before the game. Walt gauged the footballs himself; it is something he has done throughout his career.

"Officiating is not part of the investigation."

Some other highlights of Blandino's news conference:

• Blandino clarified the protocol for referees if and when the Patriots' offense attempts to declare ineligible a player with an eligible number. Vinovich will point at the player, wave his arms in a manner similar to the signal for an incomplete pass, and then point at the player again when announcing he is ineligible. Blandino said the referee will not tell the defense not to cover the ineligible player, as Vinovich did when the scheme first surfaced during the AFC divisional playoff round.

• The NFL's competition committee has already received proposals from teams to expand instant replay, and Blandino said there is a growing movement in the league to capitalize in whatever way possible on emerging technology to correct more mistakes. The "process rule" that disallowed a key postseason catch by the Dallas Cowboys


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Cowboys position reviews: LBs

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
2:00
PM ET
Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Lee
Carter
Carter
McClain
Under contract: Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Dekoda Watson, Kyle Wilber, Cam Lawrence, Keith Smith, Will Smith
Free agents: Bruce Carter, Rolando McClain, Justin Durant, James Anderson

A look back: It started out poorly last May when Lee was lost for the season because of a knee injury. He was their best playmaker on defense and the heart of the unit. It just added a question to a defense full of questions.

Throughout the season, linebackers coach Matt Eberflus mixed and matched his guys because of injuries, but as a group the linebackers performed well.

McClain was picked up in a next-to-nothing trade with the Baltimore Ravens and finished second on the team in tackles despite missing three games. Durant was having his best season before it ended because of injury. Carter was maddening at times, but led the Cowboys with five interceptions and played better down the stretch.

Hitchens proved to be a jack of all trades, starting games at all three linebacker spots. He finished with 100 tackles, according to the coaches’ breakdown. When he was picked, the Cowboys hoped the fourth-rounder could be a serviceable backup to Lee and play special teams. Wilber also had some moments in spot duty as a strongside linebacker.

A look ahead: Lee will be back in 2015, which is good news, but the rest of the group is in a state of flux because of free agency.

If the Cowboys re-sign McClain, then Lee can play the weakside spot. If not, he will return to his middle linebacker spot. It will be difficult to define how much McClain is worth because this was the first time he has had success at this level. The Cowboys got lucky with him and he might realize this is a good spot for him to remain and not just go to the highest bidder in free agency.

Carter and Durant are also interesting studies. Carter has all the athletic ability in the world, but there are stretches of play where you wonder how much he likes football. Durant was lighting it up but has durability concerns. Carter turns 27 next month. Durant turns 30 in September.

Hitchens showed incredible toughness playing through a high ankle sprain late in the season that earned him points throughout the organization. Is he a full-time starter or a fill-in replacement? What’s his best spot? It might be the Will linebacker, but he has some natural middle linebacker skills, too.

A look out: If they are unable to keep their free agents – or unwilling, depending on price level – the Cowboys have to find help.

Without McClain, Carter or Durant, the starters going into the season would be Lee, Hitchens and Wilber and plenty of questions with the depth. The answers would likely be low-cost free agents, such as Durant two years ago, and the draft, such as Hitchens in 2014. They had better be able to run and rally to the ball. That's what made the group successful in 2014.

McClain was a Pro Bowl alternate. With a full offseason of work and another year in the system, his play should improve. Putting him and Lee on the field together could give the Cowboys their best 4-3 linebacker pairing since Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen.

In Eberflus, the Cowboys have a coach who can develop players and teach new pickups on the fly. He might be a coordinator of the future for another team because he knows the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.

Cowboys position review: Tight ends

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
12:00
PM ET
Reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Dallas Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Position: Tight end

Under contract: Jason Witten, James Hanna, Gavin Escobar

A look back: At some point you would think Jason Witten will slow down. He turns 33 in May but he is looking like another Tony Gonzalez, a player who can go at a high level well past what is reasonable.

[+] EnlargeJason Witten
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsJason Witten didn't put up his usual numbers in 2014, but he remained a vital presence in the Cowboys' offense.
Do not look at Witten's numbers as a true sign of how well he played in 2014. His 64 catches were his fewest in a season since 2006. The 703 yards were the fewest since his rookie season. He scored five touchdowns. Witten's blocking is what separated him from just about every other tight end in the NFL. He doesn't come off the field. In the Cowboys' zone game, the tight end is responsible for setting the edge and Witten did a great job of that.

So did Hanna, whose play was vastly underappreciated. He came to the Cowboys with the reputation as a pass catcher but has developed into a decent blocker. He caught four passes for 48 yards. His toughness is also unnoticed. He played the final few games with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee.

Escobar had four touchdown catches but caught just nine passes for 105 yards on the season. His blocking improved but he was not able to keep Hanna off the field. Rarely did he have his hand on the ground as the true tight end during the season.

A look ahead: Witten's production increased in the final month of the regular season and playoffs, almost as if the Cowboys went back to the script that had him catching 80-90 passes a season. He is remarkably durable and he consistently wins the offseason awards for the way he trains.

He is probably more fluid now than he was five years ago. Again, maybe there will come a time where he slows down, but it doesn't look like it'll happen in 2015 with the way he played in 2014.

Escobar
Hanna
Hanna is going into the final year of his contract. Like any tight end, it's difficult to play behind Witten because the options are so limited. Hanna fills a vital role because of how much the Cowboys use two-tight end personnel.

It's not Escobar's fault he was picked in the second round in 2013. The Cowboys need more value out of a pick that high but Escobar looks more like a situational player than an every-down player. Again, that's not his fault. It's almost a product of the Cowboys' system. Tony Romo trusts him more, but there will only be so many chances with Dez Bryant, Witten, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and possibly DeMarco Murray around.

A look out: The Cowboys will need another tight end at some point in the offseason just out of numbers. They could conceivably carry a fourth tight end on the 53-man roster, but that would likely be at the expense of a fullback.

It will be hard to attract any significant free agents to Dallas because the depth chart appears set. Because Hanna will be a free agent after the season, looking late in the draft or at a priority undrafted free agent might make sense. But that tight end has to be able to do a lot of everything -- not just be a pass catcher or just a blocker.

The series:

Quarterbacks
Specialists
Running backs
Safeties
Wide receivers
Cornerbacks

NFL Nation TV talks Hall of Fame

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
11:00
AM ET
Join us at 3 p.m. ET, 12 p.m. PT Thursday for the second special NFL Nation TV Super Bowl Week Spreecast.

Episode No. 42 will review ESPN.com's recent joint venture with Pro Football Focus, which broke down how many "above-average" players each team is from contending for the Super Bowl.

The crew will also preview the Super Bowl matchup between the defending champion Seattle Seahawks and three-time winner New England Patriots as well as break down how the Pro Football Hall of Fame's upcoming class may shake out Saturday.

Host Paul Gutierrez (ESPN Nation's San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter) and ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando, both of whom are among the Hall's 46 selectors.

 

IRVING, Texas -- Tony Romo just completed the most efficient season of his NFL career, passing for 3,705 yards with 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

He completed a league-leading 69.9 percent of his passes and led the NFL with a passer rating of 113.2.

Obviously, Romo has had plenty of outstanding seasons but this was the year Romo’s mental acumen and his physical skills morphed together perfectly.

But he didn’t do it by himself. No quarterback does.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsTony Romo threw at least three touchdown passes in seven games this season.
Here are 10 reasons Romo had the best season of his career.

1. It took two games, but Romo, coach Jason Garrett and the training staff finally figured out that it was better for Romo to use Wednesdays working on his back-strengthening exercises instead of practicing.

2. The Cowboys ran the ball 49.9 percent of the time this season, which meant Romo shared the offensive burden for the first time in his career. In the previous three seasons, the Cowboys ran the ball 35.1 percent (29th in the league), 33.8 percent (31st) and 40.1 percent (23rd).

3. Romo and first-year playcaller Scott Linehan quickly established a good relationship that allowed them to build the rapport every quarterback needs with the playcaller.

4. Rookie right guard Zack Martin gave Garrett and Linehan the confidence they needed to lean on the running game.

5. The primary offensive starters missed 10 games to injury. Right tackle Doug Free missed seven games.

6. DeMarco Murray carried a league-leading 392 times and recorded 12 100-yard games, which is why Romo threw a career-low 29 passes per game.

7. Romo made protecting the ball his top priority. He threw three interceptions in his first 14 passes, and six in his last 421 attempts.

8. The performance of the Cowboys’ role players played an integral part in several victories, whether we’re talking about tight end Gavin Escobar’s two touchdowns in a home win over the New York Giants or Cole Beasley’s two-touchdown performance in a road win over the Chicago Bears. Running backs Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar combined for 26 plays of 10 yards or more in just 102 touches, while Terrance Williams, Beasley, Dunbar and Escobar combined for 1,363 yards and 16 touchdowns.

9. Dez Bryant is a touchdown machine, setting a franchise record with 16 touchdowns, including eight of 20 yards or more.

10. Jermey Parnell started seven games this season, while Free worked through two different foot injuries. Parnell played well enough that he was never a topic of discussion after a game.
Tony Romo in the huddleAP Photo/Alex BrandonDallas is looking to avoid another letdown like the one it experienced after its 2009 season.
IRVING, Texas -- In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East, finished 11-5 and won a playoff game before losing in the divisional round to a team from the NFC North.

Wade Phillips' staff coached the Pro Bowl and everybody had a grand old time in the Fort Lauderdale sun.

The feeling then was that the Cowboys were close to contending for a Super Bowl, that they would make the jump in 2010 after Tony Romo finally got the playoff monkey off his back.

And then 2010 happened.

The Cowboys finished 6-10, Phillips was fired at the midway point and it started a four-year run without the playoffs.

Yes, Romo broke a collarbone and started only six games, but the Cowboys were 1-5 in his starts.

The jump never came and it put the Cowboys on a re-tooling process -- remember, rebuild is a taboo word at Valley Ranch -- that finally paid off in 2014.

In 2014, the Cowboys won the NFC East, finished 12-4 and won a playoff game before losing in the divisional round to a team from the NFC North.

Jason Garrett's staff coached the Pro Bowl and everybody had a grand old time in the Phoenix sun.

The feeling now is that the Cowboys will contend for a Super Bowl in 2015 and make that jump after coming within possibly an overturned Dez Bryant catch of at least making it to the NFC Championship Game.

How do the Cowboys make sure 2015 is not like 2010?

Keep Romo healthy would be a good start, but the makeup of the team is different.

"It's about building," Garrett said. "This is about building, keep building, keep bringing in the right players, keep doing things the right way and building a program. Within that you're building a football team for the 2015 season."

The 2010 Cowboys did not sign an unrestricted free agent. Since the inception of the current system, the Cowboys did not sign an unrestricted free agent in 1993, 1997, 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2010. The 1993 team was so loaded it didn't need much help in winning consecutive Super Bowls. In the other five years, the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs.

Free agency is not the cure all. Teams are never a player away, but the Cowboys can make smart additions in free agency in 2015 to help grow the program.

In 2010, the Cowboys had seven starters 30 or older and three players at least 29. Four of the five starters on the offensive line -- Marc Colombo, Kyle Kosier, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode -- were older than 30. Inside linebacker Keith Brooking was 35. Cornerback Terance Newman was 32.

With players under contract for 2015, the Cowboys have just three starters more than 30 years old: Romo, Jason Witten and Jeremy Mincey. Right tackle Doug Free (31) and fullback Tyler Clutts (30) are free agents to-be and could be re-signed.

The Cowboys will welcome linebacker Sean Lee back in 2015 after he missed last season with a knee injury. He turns 29 in July. They could also bring back defensive end Anthony Spencer (31). DeMarcus Lawrence figures to be a starter in 2015. He's turns 23 in April. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens also turns 23 in June.

Linebackers Rolando McClain and Bruce Carter are free agents as well. They will be 26 and 27 when the new season starts.

Looking back at 2010 with the perspective of what happened, that Cowboys team was one that was hanging on, not building.

"I think we're a better football team right now," Romo said. "At the same point, you've got to start over. To me, you just can't try and just recreate what you had. You're going to be a different team in certain areas. Each guy has to commit himself to being a better version of himself than he was the year before. If everybody does that, you'll come back as a whole better team than you were."

Cowboys position review: Cornerback

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
2:00
PM ET
Dallas Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the team, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Carr
Scandrick
Under contract: Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, Tyler Patmon, Morris Claiborne, Robert Steeples
Free agents: Sterling Moore

A look back: Only four of the Cowboys’ 18 interceptions came from their cornerbacks in 2014. Scandrick had two. Claiborne and Patmon had one each.

Carr did not record an interception and struggled until late in the season. The turning point might have been Odell Beckham Jr.’s unbelievable one-handed catch for the New York Giants. Carr still gave up a big play or two and a touchdown, but he was more physical in all aspects of his game. He played more like the cornerback the Cowboys thought they were getting in 2012 when he signed as a free agent.

Scandrick’s season started with him suspended for two games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, but he had his most effective season. He remained one of the better slot corners in the league but did his best job on outside receivers and the coaches showed more faith in him by having him shadow wideouts all over the field.

Claiborne’s season was spotty at best and ended after just four games because of a torn patellar tendon. He lost his job to Scandrick and left the team facility briefly. Things have not gone well for the No. 6 overall pick of the 2012 draft. He has a long comeback from the surgery and is in the final year of his contract.

Moore had his best season but struggled in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. He did not have an interception, either, but he led the team with 14 pass breakups. He showed he can play in the slot and outside.

Patmon is an interesting find. He made the team off a rookie minicamp tryout and had a pick-six against the Arizona Cardinals.

A look ahead: Carr is slated to count $12.7 million against the cap in 2015. The Cowboys will ask him to take a pay cut or be cut. While it appears an easy decision, Claiborne’s health complicates the matter a little bit. The Cowboys simply can’t just get rid of corners when they don’t have enough corners. If he plays the way he did in the final month-plus of the season, the Cowboys would be happy.

In 2013, the Cowboys cut Doug Free’s pay in half and saw him perform well in the last two seasons. They can hope Carr can do the same if he chooses to accept less money.

There is no reason to believe Scandrick’s play will fall off. He is smart, tough and more athletic than people realize. His smarts will keep him out of trouble on the field. He understands offensive concepts more than most defensive backs.

Despite what Jerry Jones said at the Senior Bowl, the Cowboys simply can’t pick up Claiborne’s fifth-year option for 2016. He has not shown the ability to stay healthy or play at a level worthy of where he was picked. And he is coming back from knee surgery.

Moore is a restricted free agent. The Cowboys want to keep him but his presence on the roster won’t keep the Cowboys from looking to upgrade. Patmon might not be a future starter but he is a guy who can help in sub packages.

A look out: With the 27th pick in the first round, the Dallas Cowboys select … a cornernback? Sure. Teams long have said "you can never have enough corners." We mentioned Moore is a restricted free agent. Claiborne is going into the final year of his deal. Carr’s deal ends in 2016. Scandrick is signed through 2018.

The Cowboys not only need numbers at the position, they need more ability. A better pass rush would make the coverage guys better. An intriguing draft possibility could be Miami University’s Quinten Rollins, an intriguing candidate because of his basketball background. Oregon’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is coming off a major knee injury but could be had later than expected.

Do not look for the Cowboys to be players at the high end of the free-agent market for guys like Darrelle Revis, if he is available. But they could look for a stop-gap corner if they are not able to keep Carr.

Cowboys position breakdown: Wide receiver

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
12:00
PM ET
Dallas Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the team, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future, and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Bryant
Bryant
Beasley
Under contract: Terrance Williams, Devin Street, Chris Boyd, Reggie Dunn
Free agents: Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris

A look back: Bryant was magnificent again with 88 catches for 1,320 yards and a single-season team record 16 touchdown catches. He made the big plays, but more importantly he made the boring plays.

With the way the Cowboys ran the ball in 2014, the opportunities were not the same for the other receivers. Williams, Beasley, and Harris had to fit in behind Bryant and Jason Witten. The Cowboys did a better job of moving Bryant around to make it more difficult for defenses to guard him, but he deserves credit for knowing how to handle different chances from different spots.

The Cowboys parted ways with Miles Austin, in part because they felt Williams was ready to assume the No. 2 role. He caught eight touchdown passes and showed a knack of finding open spots for quarterback Tony Romo when things broke down, but he has to do a better job with his route-running and making contested catches.

Beasley’s role increased as the season went on. Romo trusts him, but there were a handful of miscommunications and Beasley had two fumbles. Despite being a slot player, he still averaged 11.4 yard per catch and caught four touchdown passes. Harris’s chances were fewer than he would have liked, but he was a devastating blocker at times in the run game.

Actually, wide receivers coach Derek Dooley deserves credit for his group doing the dirty work down the field when running back DeMarco Murray broke long runs.

A look ahead: Bryant will be a free agent, but the Cowboys won’t let him leave. Without a long-term deal, they will put the franchise tag on him. It might not make Bryant happy, but if he wants to complain he can send them the union’s way for not doing a better job of getting rid of the tags in the most recent collective bargaining talks.

Regardless, the Cowboys want him for 2015 and beyond, but they will only do so if the deal makes complete sense for them. They don’t want to get out of whack with their salary structure in the future, and it’s entirely possible for them to use the franchise tag on Bryant in 2016 as well if necessary.

Beasley will be a restricted free agent. The Cowboys will have to determine whether it makes sense to put the low tender on him, which would not require compensation from another team since he was an undrafted free agent, or the second-round tender, which will be roughly $2.4 million. They could look into signing him to a multi-year deal before free agency begins to keep that cap figure lower. He has too much value to let walk, however, so the Cowboys will likely put the second-round tender on him.

Harris has value as well, especially when factoring in his return ability. But he could be looking for more chances as a receiver and could get that elsewhere.

Williams’ playoff run suggests he is about to figure it out. He has shown he can make the big plays, but he needs to grow the way Bryant grew in making the boring plays that keep drives alive. Street has ability and was active for every game, but caught just two passes.

A look out: Let’s go with the premise that Bryant and Beasley will return. That would give the Cowboys their top three receivers back in 2015, with Street possibly moving into a larger role as the fourth receiver.

There does not appear to be a lot of room at the inn for another receiver, so early- or middle-round picks in the draft do not appear likely. The same would go with a veteran free agent. If Bryant somehow is not re-signed, then there could be options worth exploring in free agency. The Cowboys coached Randall Cobb at the Pro Bowl. But this is just a waste of breath considering how the Cowboys value Bryant.

The series:
Quarterbacks
Specialists
Running backs
Safeties

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