By Jay Betsill
As with most every year, the Dallas Cowboys head into the 2012 season with great expectations. The Cowboys defense and most notably its secondary play was the reason they failed to win the NFC East. The additions of free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr from the Kansas City Chiefs and drafting cornerback Morris Claiborne out of LSU should bolster second-year coordinator Rob Ryan’s entire defensive unit and allow for a term that has not been uttered in Dallas in many years: “Coverage sack.” DeMarcus Ware had 19.5 of the Cowboys 42 sacks last season. Expect more pressure from nose tackle Jay Ratliff, defensive end Jason Hatcher and rookie Tyrone Crawford. On the offensive side, look for veteran guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings to help shore up the team’s Achilles’ heel from a year ago, the interior of the offensive line. Second-year back DeMarco Murray’s return from a season-ending ankle injury to his role as the starter in the Dallas backfield will only help Tony Romo as the Cowboys have battled injuries to his favorite targets, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.
Let’s not forget the Cowboys have an extremely difficult schedule. In addition to having the usual two games apiece against the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, the talented Philadelphia Eagles who have had a year to mold all of their dynamic free agent acquisitions from a year ago and the Washington Redskins, who replaced Rex Grossman (their quarterback last season) with RGIII. Dallas is also slated to face off against two of the NFL’s tougher divisions, the NFC South and the AFC North. For the NFC South, the Cowboys travel to Carolina and Atlanta while hosting Tampa Bay and New Orleans. With the AFC North, Dallas hosts Pittsburgh and Cleveland while traveling to Baltimore and Cincinnati. The Seahawks and Bears are their two ‘swing games’ this season. Based on last year’s win-loss records, other teams have higher strength of schedule ratings, but when you factor in upgrades from the teams they face, only the Eagles are facing a tougher road to the post-season.
“Jerry Jones owns this football team and he has owned it for 23 years, so he can do anything he wants,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “We don’t make any guarantees around here. We’re going to work hard to put a great football team together. We’re in the process of doing that.”
ADDITIONS: LG Nate Livings (from Bengals), RG Mackenzy Bernadeau (from Panthers), ILB Dan Connor (from Panthers), CB Brandon Carr (from Chiefs), CB Morris Claiborne (1st Round, LSU), QB Kyle Orton (from Chiefs), FB Lawrence Vickers (from Texans), C Ryan Cook (from Dolphins), WR Cole Beasley (free agent, SMU), TE Colin Cochart (From Bengals)
DEPARTURES: TE Martellus Bennett (to Giants), LG Montrae Holland (free agent), RG Kyle Kosier (released), ILB Bradie James (to Texans), CB Terence Newman (to Bengals), SS Abram Elam (to Chiefs), P Mat McBriar (free agent), QB Jon Kitna (retired), RB Sammy Morris (free agent), FB Tony Fiammetta (to Patriots), WR Laurent Robinson (to Jaguars), WR Jesse Holley (to Patriots), OG Bill Nagy (to Lions), ILB Keith Brooking (to Broncos), CB Alan Ball (to Texans), CB Frank Walker (free agent)
PRACTICE SQUAD: RB Lance Dunbar, WR Danny Coale, DT Ben Bass, WR Tim Benford, DT Robert Callaway, G Ronald Leary, RB Jamize Olawale and LB Orie Lemo
KEYS TO ROMO’S SUCCESS
Offensive Line: The offensive line endured some hard times a season ago, as evidenced by the 36 sacks given up when Romo was under center. The Cowboys hope see improvement from center Phil Costa and if the veteran guards they brought in (Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings) can show more strength in the middle than the guys who were playing those spots a year ago, it will go a long way in helping not only Romo but running back DeMarco Murray as well. Dallas also acquired veteran center Ryan Cook from the Dolphins following their final preseason game after watching David Arkin get pushed around in Costa’s absence.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends health issues: Dallas was plagued by injuries throughout training camp. Miles Austin’s nagging hamstring injury returned and Dez Bryant has battled a knee injury. Kevin Ogletree is next man up for the receiving corps with Laurent Robinson departed to Jacksonville via free agency. Perhaps the biggest blow of all is the lacerated spleen suffered by Romo’s go-to guy, tight end Jason Witten. With Witten’s availability unknown, Dallas claimed Colin Cochart off waivers from the Bengals.
COWBOYS SECRET WEAPON
Wide receiver Kevin Ogletree has to step up for the Cowboys this year. With the questionable health of Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, Ogletree will have the chance to prove the Cowboys were right by not going out and signing one of the receivers on the market such as Plaxico Burress or Terrell Owens. This is the second consecutive year that Ogletree has emerged as the No. 3 receiver, but he lost the job to Laurent Robinson last season.
Ogletree had a tough offseason dealing with his brother being shot (he is still recovering) and the fact that the Cowboys did not tender an offer to the fourth-year receiver, leaving him to explore free agency. He and the Cowboys eventually agreed to a one-year contract for 2012 and this could be his opportunity to parlay a big season like Robinson had before exiting to the tune of a five-year, $32.5 million contract with the Jaguars.
WARE’S THE HELP
If Dallas hopes to makes any rumblings for a berth in the playoffs, DeMarcus Ware is going to need a little help on defense. With the departures of Bradie James and Keith Brooking, linebacker Sean Lee has stepped up and assumed a leadership role and Bruce Carter beat out Dan Connor for the starting spot next to Lee. Four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff is always a force, but has battled plantar fasciitis all off-season and a high ankle sprain suffered in the preseason against the Rams.
That being said, look for the play of the new corners Carr and Claiborne to make the most significant impact for Rob Ryan’s unit. If they are able to shut down or at least slow down the opposing receivers, the Dallas pass rushers not named Ware will dramatically improve.
Dallas 8-8 (3rd place in the NFC East, miss the playoffs). I really like the new additions to the secondary but there are still a lot of holes on the roster. The offensive line is my biggest concern. If they can play better up front, they could challenge for the title in the stacked division. Should the injuries continue to play as big of a role as in training camp, the team could conceivably finish in the NFC East’s cellar.