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Offseason | 2024

Mick Shots: Calling your football life to order


FRISCO, Texas – We knew it was going to be hard, this 2024 Dallas Cowboys schedule. That's what happens when you win a division and are burdened with a first-place schedule, earning the unfortunate right to play at least four other division winners.

Remember, last week pointed out the Cowboys will be playing 11 games against 2023 teams with winning records, nine against 2023 playoff teams and facing three of the four teams that played in the conference championship games.

Now we know the order.

And would say the hardness is pretty darn fair.

They do have to play three playoff teams in a row early in the season, two of those division champs, but at least a bye week breaks up the gauntlet of facing Pittsburgh, Detroit and then after the bye San Francisco. Probably a good thing to take two weeks preparing for the Niners, owners of a three-game winning streak over the Cowboys.

There are also back-to-back home games against playoff teams Philadelphia (Nov. 10) and Houston, but at least the Texans arrive at AT&T Stadium on a Monday night (Nov. 18), along with back-to-back games against playoff teams Tampa Bay on the Sunday night (Dec. 22) before Christmas and then at Philly (Dec. 29)

There's no stretch of three consecutive road games, always seemingly a sure pratfall, and only twice do the Cowboys face consecutive road games, at the Giants (Sept. 26) on a Thursday night and at Pittsburgh on Sunday night (Oct. 6), along with at San Fran on a Sunday night (Oct. 27) and at Atlanta (Nov. 3).

The only somewhat brutal stretch, as always seems to be the case, surrounds Thanksgiving, being asked to play three games in 11 days. OK fine, but this is a bit tougher when considering the NFL has the Cowboys playing a Monday night home game against Houston (Nov. 18), then a Sunday noon game at Washington (Nov. 24) followed by the traditional Thanksgiving Day game (Nov. 28) against the Giants at AT&T.

But at least the Cowboys, instead of playing a Thursday night game the following week as has happened in three of the past five seasons, will get a great 10-day break between Thanksgiving and resuming Monday night, Dec. 9, at home against Cincinnati.

And still, no matter this playoff victory desert – not having advanced past the second round since 1995, their last Super Bowl-winning season and last NFC Championship Game appearance – the Cowboys still are prime-time TV favorites. Six prime-time night games, three on Sunday, two on Monday and one Thursday. There's the usual prime Thanksgiving 3:30 p.m. slot. And guarantee you five of their eight Sunday afternoon games will become the primarily nationally televised game at 3:25 p.m.

Time to plan out your football-watching life. Only nine-and-a-half weeks until the start of training camp.

That includes me, too.

  • Run Story: More music to my ears about this renewed priority on stopping the run. First, we heard that from Cowboys COO Stephen Jones, pointing out after hiring Mike Zimmer as the new defensive coordinator, that stopping the run is a big part of Zimm's DNA. Well, now we hear it from the horse's mouth, Zimm telling this story of realizing stopping the run is of great importance. Zimm, in his first tour of duty with the Cowboys, was first a secondary coach. Became the Cowboys defensive coordinator in 2000 when former DC Dave Campo was promoted to head coach. The season opener that year was against Philadelphia, soon to be known as the "Pickle Juice Game," since on an extremely hot Sunday afternoon at Texas Stadium, where guys were suffering from dehydration, the Eagles combated by hydrating with pickle juice. "I had been a secondary coach," Zimm began the story, "and I said, 'Hey, we're going to go, go, go up front, get those guys up the field,' and we gave up 220 yards rushing." It was worse than that, actually 306 yards rushing, with Duce Staley accounting for 201 himself in an Eagles' 41-14 victory, portending to an eventual 5-11 Cowboys season. "Since that day, we concentrated on getting runs stopped," Zimm said, going from 31st against the run that personnel-challenged season to third in 2003, and if you can believe this, first overall in total defense. Yea, baby.
  • More Music: So we know the Cowboys are moving first-round draft choice Tyler Guyton from right tackle to left tackle, third-rounder Cooper Beebe from guard to center and seventh-rounder Nate Thomas from tackle to guard. But this tells all you need to know about Beebe trying to make that transition. During the rookie minicamp last weekend, Beebe, knowing moving to center means snapping the ball with the quarterback either under center or in shotgun, decided he needed to do some homework, so immediately began working on his snaps with anybody who would catch. "I mean anytime. I'll be in the hotel, I'll be taking snaps in the ballroom, that kind of thing. Anytime I can," Beebe said. And who might we ask is playing quarterback? "I had my dad out there, my little brother, whoever is available," Beebe said. My kind of guy. Yours, too, I bet.
  • Curious Mick: Was told the other day by Cowboys equipment director Mike McCord after the rookie minicamp that this is one of the Cowboys' smallest rookie classes, with eight draft choices and 12 undrafted rookies, totaling 20. And McCord was right, the 20 matching the smallest in the last 10 years, also only 20 in the 2020 COVID-affected season. The largest over these 10 years was 28 in 2022 and then 24 in 2015. By comparison, going back to 2005, also 20, but in 1995 the rookie class swelled to 35. And as for Everson Walls' 1981 rookie class when there were no roster restrictions for camp, he swears there were 120 players reporting to the pre-camp workouts in Thousand Oaks, California, before the veterans reported two weeks later.
  • Back To Cowboys: So the 49ers will play host to the New York Jets, and presumptive New York returning starter Aaron Rodgers, in the prime-time Monday Night Football opener on Sept. 9. There is historic relevance here. Rodgers, who grew up in Northern California (Chico, Calif.) and went to community college at nearby Butte CC before moving on to Cal (2003-04), was passed up in the 2005 NFL Draft by the Niners, who instead took Alex Smith at No. 1 with Rodgers going to the Packers at 24. The San Francisco offensive coordinator at that time for general manager/head coach Mike Nolan was Mike McCarthy, taking over the Packers and Rodgers with Brett Favre initially aboard the very next year.
  • Scatter Shots: This will be the fourth time the Cowboys have opened a season at Cleveland, the first two times against the original iteration of the Browns in 1967 and 1991 before the Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens, with the second iteration of the Browns returning to Cleveland in 1999 and the Cowboys opening the 2008 season there – winning all three games … Those who aren't familiar with Zimmer's coaching style and temperament continue to ask him about his sort of no-nonsense, hard-ass reputation, causing Mike to feign surprise. So on Tuesday when asked again, Zimm said, "I don't like mistakes." … Cowboys special teams coach John Fassel paid special teamer C.J. Goodwin a compliment by saying the Cowboys, "Weren't as good on (defending) punt returns" this past season, averaging just 5.4 yards, with Goodwin going on IR after just five games, the best, most-experienced gunner on the team.

Since we had a lot of last words over the past six days, going to give you a bonus this week with two last words, one coming from Zimmer and another shorty but goody from Cowboys defensive backs/assistant head coach Al Harris.

First up is Zimmer, when talking about Cowboys' 2023 first-round draft choice Mazi Smith, that big-bodied defensive tackle the Cowboys sorely need to make a gigantic second-year step up at the nose-tackle position, especially since losing previous veteran starter Johnathan Hankins in free agency. Remember, The Maz played in just 25.2 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie, including just four snaps in the playoff loss to Green Bay. And after offseason shoulder surgery, Maz is unlikely to participate in any of the OTAs or minicamp practices, the priority being to be ready for the start of training camp.

"Obviously, he was a high draft pick," Zimmer said of Smith's perceived talent. "I heard that he kind of struggled last year. We're going to start with the basics: Get him in a good stance, get him using his hands the right way, getting his footwork the right way, and kind of go from there. I talked to him a little bit (Monday). I asked him, 'What weight do you feel comfortable at?'"

Zimm said he's at 305 but withheld ideally what weight he eventually wants Smith at, yet insists Mazi still is a talented player, saying, "He lost a lot of weight when he got here. He was trying to be an attacking 3-technique to get up the field. We're going to be able to play blocks a little more than that, try not to get reached so linebackers know (the gaps) they're supposed to fit in (against the run) and so on and so forth."

As for Harris, in a blunt sort of comical way, when asked what it will be like to have Pro Bowl cornerbacks Trevon Diggs, returning from his 2023 season-ending ACL repair, and DaRon Bland lining up on the outside together for the first time since Bland began last season in the nickel slot, he responded with great enthusiasm before catching himself, "(Shoot, figure it out). I'm fired up. Seriously, man, fired up to see those guys out there together."

And he's not the only one.

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