IRVING, Texas – As we hit the first quarter-pole of the Cowboys season, here are five surprises so far:
- Although I had a feeling that Bruce Carter had a chance to be a nice complimentary player to Sean Lee, he is much better than that. I had questions about how fast he would be able to read schemes and get off blockers like Lee, but through four games this season, he has been outstanding. When you study Carter, he is no longer a tick late to Lee. He is actually moving in step, which is hard to do because Lee is one of the best that I've seen inside reading schemes. Carter has also shown the ability to play as a cover linebacker. Where I really first noticed this was during the San Diego practices when he was battling Antonio Gates. When you talk about the most important players on this defense, Ware, Lee and Carr, Carter is right there in the mix. To his credit, he has made himself a more complete player and the defense has benefited.
- I really believed that with Lawrence Vickers added to the squad in the offseason, this offense would be more of a physical team at the point of attack running the ball. When Vickers signed, I studied his games with the Texans and Browns, knowing that he was a different fullback from what the Cowboys had last season with Tony Fiammetta and John Phillips. I did have concern about Vickers and Murray working together in training camp and building that same cohesive bond that Murray and Fiammetta were able to develop, an issue that has now carried over into the season. My point is not to solely call out Vickers for the problems in the running game, but to offer the opinion that he is not performing like the player that I observed this offseason, which I feel is hurting this team.
- I have never been a Kevin Ogletree fan, but he has made me eat my words through four games this season. I was disappointed that he was unable to make that catch against Chicago on the "4" route inside with the defender on his back. I was disappointed because I had seen him make that play by extending his hands and snatching the ball. Instead, he allowed the ball to get to his body and it resulted in an interception. Despite that one mistake, I feel like Ogletree has done well and deserves the amount of playing time he has received. There is a side of me that believes that with the problems this offense has had running the ball, head coach Jason Garrett and his staff might turn to its "11" personnel package, putting three receivers on the field and trying to use the short passing game as a way to get the running game started. If that's the case, Ogletree will continue to get opportunities because he has been running solid routes and, for the most part, finishing plays.
- Coming into this season, I was very high on the ability of Sean Lissemore and what he could do if given a bigger role in the defense, and so my focus was really on him. What I missed was the talent level of Josh Brent. I had seen Brent show great strength and power at the point of attack to hold up offensive linemen, but I also felt that he got into too many personal battles with blockers. If he played better with his hands, he had a chance to be a better player. Brent has really done a nice job of taking what defensive line coach Brian Baker has taught him and putting it to good use on the field. There still are times when Brent does get tied up; you just no longer see it down after down. Let's not confuse Brent with Jay Ratliff, but his play these last four weeks has allowed Ratliff to take his time getting back on the field from his high ankle sprain. The greatest feeling for a scouting department is when you can develop offensive and defensive linemen. Brent is on that track.
- There were so many questions going into this season about who was going to be the starting safety opposite Gerald Sensabaugh. In the offseason, the club went out and got Brodney Pool, which I knew wasn't the best option. To their credit, though, the Cowboys realized it was a mistake as well and moved on. My surprise came in how much Barry Church and Danny McCray were able to develop. For both of these players, the improvements started in the minicamps and OTAs. You could see it in their confidence in the way they were able to make plays. No longer playing like core special teams guys or just box safeties, Church and McCray were in coverage making range plays. The question was never about how physical these guys were or how well they were able to tackle, but rather could they cover in the scheme when asked to? Church's injury was a huge blow for this defense because of all the things he was able to do, and coordinator Rob Ryan has done his best to work around it. McCray's start against the Bears just proved to me how far he really had come. He once again played with confidence and was assignment-sure, which for a young player making his first start, that's all you can ask. Both of these guys have been nice surprises.