Cowboys Report: A D in Disarray

There’s stability on offense but still plenty to sort out on the other side of the ball—and not a lot of time to do it

By
Robert Klemko
· More from Robert·
Romo and the offense should be flying again; the problems are on the other side of the ball. (Gus Ruelas/AP)
Romo and the offense should be flying again; the problems are on the other side of the ball. (Gus Ruelas/AP)

OXNARD, CALIF. — It was an unmistakably Cowboys affair, with more branding and fanfare than a Ringling tent, but the key figures were M.I.A. when I rolled up to the Residence Inn in this quiet beach town a little more than an hour up the coast from Los Angeles. Team owner Jerry Jones was in Canton for Hall of Fame weekend, quarterback Tony Romo sat out of practice as a precaution for his surgically repaired back, and both linebacker Sean Lee (ACL) and rookie second-round defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (foot) are out for the foreseeable future. This barnstorming triage trips to San Diego next weekend for its preseason opener with much of the lineup still in flux.

One vivid memory from watching practice

Cowboys first-round selection Zack Martin, who appears to have the right guard spot locked up, taking on headline free-agent pickup Henry Melton in a one-on-one pass rushing drill and stonewalling the veteran. It wasn’t close; twice in a row Martin stood up Melton, who tried and failed to spin away from the 6-4, 310-pounder out of Notre Dame. The pick by Jerry Jones at 16th overall wasn’t a flashy one, but it looks like the right one at this early stage.

How this team can go 12–4

Rookie Zack Martin’s the real deal—and Dallas’s line may be the NFL’s best. (Chris Williams/Icon SMI)
Rookie Zack Martin’s the real deal—and Dallas’s line may be the NFL’s best. (Chris Williams/Icon SMI)

Fat chance. In the NFC East arms race, Washington gets a now-healthy Robert Griffin III, Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly and quarterback Nick Foles enter Year 2 after a trailblazing Year 1, and Dallas limps its way into the preseason. Lawrence was supposed to replace free-agent departure DeMarcus Ware, one of the few bright spots on a 32nd-ranked defense. Aging DE Jason Hatcher (32) was the other high note last year, and he signed a four-year free agent deal with Washington. For 12-4 to happen, someone from the pool of contenders in the D-Line rotation would have to set himself apart early.

In any case, Romo and the offense will have to carry this club. That’s entirely possible with an offensive line that looks, on paper, to be the best in football with Tyron Smith and Doug Free as bookend tackles and center Travis Frederick emerging as a top-tier road grader. If Romo stays healthy and running back DeMarco Murray runs for 100 a game, a winning record is not out of the question.

How this team can go 4–12

Just one more long-term injury to a main defensive contributor. Coach Jason Garrett ought to wrap Melton and cornerback Orlando Scandrick in bubble wrap for the time being. In addition to their daunting NFC East schedule, Dallas’s non-division opponents include the 49ers, Saints, Seahawks, Bears and Colts—not good news for a defense without a stud edge rusher.

Now, from fantasyland …

1. If you only draft one Cowboy, make it Dez Bryant. Dallas could end up playing from behind a bunch this season, and whether it’s Romo or one of his backups throwing the ball, the main target will always be Bryant. Bonus: He’s in a contract year with something to prove to the organization as it mulls a commitment.

2. Count on running back DeMarco Murray to get the lion’s share of the carries again, especially as his already-strong pass blocking improves and the Cowboys need him on all downs.

3. The Cowboys haven’t added any new receiving options of consequence, so Romo-bestie Jason Witten is good for another 800 yards and eight touchdowns, which is better than you can say for 60% of starting tight ends.

The starters

How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:

  OFFENSE   DEFENSE
WR Dez Bryant LDE George Selvie/Tyrone Crawford
LT Tyron Smith LDT Henry Melton/Terrell McClain
LG Mackenzy Bernadeau/Ronald Leary RDT Nick Hayden/Terrell McClain
C Travis Frederick RDE Jeremy Mincey/DeMarcus Lawrence
RG Zack Martin SLB Kyle Wilber/DeVonte Holloman
RT Doug Free MLB Justin Durant/Rolando McClain/DeVonte Holloman
TE Jason Witten WLB Bruce Carter/Anthony Hitchens
WR Terrance Williams CB Brandon Carr
WR Cole Beasley CB Morris Claiborne
QB Tony Romo Nickel Orlando Scandrick
RB DeMarco Murray FS JJ Wilcox/Jeff Heath/Matt Johnson/Jakar Hamilton
FB Tyler Clutts SS Barry Church
PK Dan Bailey P Chris Jones
 

The coaching staff continues to tinker with the defensive line, occasionally bringing linebacker Kyle Wilber down to audition at end, bumping defensive end Tyrone Crawford to the inside and so forth. They’ll ask Henry Melton to anchor this unit as he returns from a torn ACL … The free safety position is up for grabs, as are the strongside and middle linebacking jobs, though former Lions LB Justin Durant is certain to start somewhere on this defense. … DeMarcus Lawrence should back up at right defensive end when he returns from his foot injury … Orlando Scandrick, as a nickel corner, stays on the field in most Dallas packages.

Best new player in camp

Zack Martin, and there isn’t really a close second. We’re not seeing all-out run blocking in this setting but his pass protection is a joy to watch. He and right tackle Doug Free look to be in harmony when facing two rushers, passing off stunting opponents with aplomb. Watching Martin, it’s hard not to think of Jones’ admission of very nearly spending that first-round pick on quarterback Johnny Manziel. I’ve seen and heard enough to say with confidence that Martin will be the better pro.

N.Y. GIANTS CAMP REPORT: Peter King on Eli’s New Offense

Strong opinion that I may regret by November

Jason Garrett will keep his job for another season. After three straight 8-8 seasons, many assume this is Garrett’s last chance to make the playoffs or bounce. But Jones knows Romo doesn’t have enough time left on the clock to learn a new system, and he must know he hasn’t given Garrett enough talent on defense for a legitimate playoff shot this season. How many wins is enough to keep Garrett in Dallas? I’ll venture nine.

PHILADELPHIA CAMP REPORT: Greg Bedard on Chip Kelly in Year 2

Something I’ve never seen before

Fans stretching around the entire perimeter of two practice fields. People cheering one-on-one drills between third string tight ends and undrafted linebackers. A hype man on a microphone screaming commentary on said one-on-one drills. With very little buzz around this team, fan attendance is slightly down from previous years in Oxnard. But those who showed up were rabid as ever.

WASHINGTON CAMP REPORT: Greg Bedard on Gruden in Year 1

What I thought when I walked out of camp

There’s a sense of desperation here. As Cole Beasley told me after practice on Saturday evening, “Nobody wants to go 8-8 again. Guys are going harder; it’s more intense than it was last year this time.” Compared to other camps I’ve seen on this trip (SF, SEA, OAK), that rang true. You could hear the frustration in the voices of the defensive backfield when quarterback Brandon Weeden chopped up the first-team coverage on a touchdown drive. Mediocre isn’t going to fly much longer.

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19 comments
snowyphile
snowyphile

Their 8th loss is something to look forward to, and the Boys will gift-wrap it for Christmas.

jordanN
jordanN

The Cowboys defense is making Wheeden look good? Ouch, that's gotta hurt.

marberet
marberet

Why are the Cowboys playing in Chicago this year? ( I remember the beating they took there last December) Why are they playing that game on a Thursday night? Why do they have a night away game 4 days before Thanksgiving?

dbum
dbum

that defense is going to be a joy to watch- redskins fan.

John4
John4

Could be the best OL in the NFL?  Huh?  Does the best OL in the NFL have either Mackenzie Bernardeau or Ronald Leary?  Not a chance?  Also, Doug Free is nothing special.  The Cowboys OL may be above average.

John4
John4

Medicore isn't going to cut it much longer?  Huh?  What?  What fantasy world are you living in?  Have you seen the front seven on defense for the Cowboys?  Do you recognize ANY of the names?  Oh, and their defensive backfield is still terrible.  The safeties are among the worst in the NFL.  

The Cowboys offense is average.  Witten is winding down, so is Romo, their RB game is average at best, their WR play is based on Dez Bryant producing well.  

Let's be honest here.  The Cowboys will be terrible in 2014.  They will be lucky to win 7 games.  Tired of 8-8?  Really?  8 wins is a pipe dream for this team.  

They play the 49ers, Seahawks, Colts, Saints and Bears (among others).  They WILL lose those five games.  Also, they will lose to the Giants at least once, the Redskins at least once and will be swept by the Eagles.  2014 will NOT go down in history as one of the good ones for the Dallas Cowboys.  Look for 5-11, potentially worse.

Sportsredo
Sportsredo

One Indian designed the "redskin" logo so that makes the word OK.  So, if dozens of rappers use the N word, then using the word must be OK ….. right?  


The original skins owner that picked the name said he would not have a black man on the team until a white man played for the Globetrotters.  That's also a "Redskin" fact Mr. Snider.  


Take the team down boys!!!

westcoastbias
westcoastbias

Maybe Klemko is under orders to make teams sound better than they are to keep fans coming back, but this is really weak analysis.

1. "In addition to their daunting NFC East schedule, ..."  This division was minus-7 last year, worst in the NFC and 2nd worst in the league.

2.  "better than you can say for 60% of starting tight ends"... There were only 4 TE's with 800+yds and 8 TDs and Gonzalez retired.  Witten is one of the top 3 left, but you could add Julius Thomas and Gronkowski on hope.

Sportsredo
Sportsredo

@marberet Why is Dallas always at home on T-Giving?  Nice advantage eh?  Seems like you're complaining about the same things other teams do EVERY year on T-Giving in Dallas.  But, you get to play at night. An extra 1/2 day.  Doh

Mike26
Mike26

@marberet The NFL says so.  (kidding)  Yeah, that seems a little fishy.

LanceLee
LanceLee

@John4 you have no idea what you are talking about. Dallas o line was rated top 5 by stats last year. Now they upgraded with the best guard in the draft. Doug free was rated one of the top tackles in the NFL last year for performance.

Brian Huggins
Brian Huggins

@John4  Cowboys offense line is the strength of this team and they will manhandle the NFC East teams . Zach martin is the real deal. You didn't watch him at Notre Dame. Frederick will be an All Pro this year. Tyron Smith (an All Pro) is the best left tackle in football. Cowboys offense is a Top 5 or 6 offense in the league. We have a  better offensive line than all the teams you named (possibly San Fran) . Dallas offense is loaded with weapons. Yes our defense is the weak link of the team. The defensive line will not be beset with the injuries they did last year !

Fred24
Fred24

@John4 Yopu seem to be an know-it-all, but your oppinion is based on what you ~wish~ versus facts. Aka A classic hater. The Cowboys offensive line and offense will be ~excellent~, but not their defense this year. The offense will suffer because of a lack a lack of defense, but still will be ~excellent~. THINK vs. spew nonsense.

Sdavis8
Sdavis8

@John4 They have an above average right tackle and 3 all star or borderline all star players at the other 3 positions. Yes, there D line is atrocious and that side of the ball is a joke, but if you think the cowboys offense is average, you're clearly not in your right mind. Now the play calling, I could grind a few axes there for sure, but the offense is probably a top 5 offense if they stay healthy this year.

mktesq
mktesq

@John4 I'm a huge fan and given all that you said above, the Cowboys will have a top 10 offense this year and still go 4-12. Whether it's the defense blowing games late or JG's game mismanagement, this is going to be a LONG year. 

Fred24
Fred24

@John4 Swepted by the Eagles? Even without Romo, the Eagles were lucky to win that last game, the only game they lost in their division. The year before a reversed call, the catch by 2 inches out of bounds determined who won the division. That closed, that unlucky. Sometimes statistics lie, but are still used by the feeble-minded because they fit their agenda.

I DO hope they go 1-15, rebuilt defense and rips the throat and the heart of your hidden NFC EAST team for a decade. You deserve it.

John4
John4

@Sdavis8 I'm not in my right mind?  Because you think the Cowboys' offense will be top five and I don't?  Top five in the NFL?  NFC?  State of Texas?  Let's agree you meant top five in the NFC.  Let's see, Packers, Lions, Eagles, Saints, Falcons, Rams, 49ers, Seahawks.  All will have a better offense than the Cowboys.  And IF they stay healthy?  You mean IF Romo stays healthy?  How in the world is that going to happen?  It won't.

The Cowboys have potentially three very good players on the OL, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, (who has NO NFL experience).  They also have a worn out Doug Free, and either Mackenzie Bernardeau or Ronald Leary.  Their OL could be above average. 

On the other side of the ball, their DL is probably the worst DL in the NFL. Their LBs are probably the worst in the NFL.  Their safeties are probably the worst in the NFL.  Their CBs are odd.  Brandon Carr has not justified his $50 Million contract, and certainly more was expected from Morris Claiborne.  (LSU CB, moved up in the first round of the draft to get him, etc).    

I am in my right mind.  The Cowboys will struggle mightily all season long on both sides of the ball.  5-11 is a likely record for the Cowboys in 2014.

Sportsredo
Sportsredo

@John4 @Sdavis8 You forgot that their offensive stats will be well padded when they're down 20 pts in the 4th qtr of most games.  The offense will have to throw, throw throw and Romo may need help getting off the deck. 

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