Oxnard, Calif. – The Cowboys are getting younger.
Much, much younger, and that is a very, very good thing.
What is it they say? Youth must be served? Well, suddenly these Cowboys are beginning to biggie-size their servings out here as they will finish up their first two weeks of training camp with the Monday night preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders.
Funny how all the offseason talk seemed to center on these "closing windows," when in fact the Cowboys are systematically opening window after window in constructing this year's eventual 53-man roster. Yeah, yeah, I know. Tony Romo is 32 and DeMarcus Ware just turned 30 and Jason Witten is 30 and Jay Ratliff will turn 31 the end of the month.
But if you really want the truth – if you can handle the truth – this is not a veteran, aging team, but instead becoming one still wet behind the ears, likely in need of seasoning, putting the Cowboys in a serious pickle:
Trying to balance winning now while reconstructing for the future.
I mean, have you looked lately? The starting running back (DeMarco Murray) is in his second season. The starting left tackle (Tyron Smith) is in his second season after just turning 21. The budding star wide receiver (Dez Bryant) is in his third season. The center (Phil Costa) is in his third season. The kicker (Dan Bailey) is in his second season. The projected punter (Chris Jones) is officially listed as a first-year player. Heck, don't be surprised if the eventual starting right guard is a free-agent rookie (Ronald Leary). And that's just on offense.
Have you looked at the defense? One starting inside linebacker (Sean Lee), emerging as the defensive leader, is just beginning his third season. The guy next to him inside very well may be a second-year player (Bruce Carter). One starting corner is expected to be a rookie (Morris Claiborne). The projected starting free safety (Barry Church) is a third-year player. And don't be real surprised if this Sean Lissemore kid, in his third season, doesn't end up starting up front, or, if not, getting starter's snaps at any one of those three spots.
This is no accident. Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett has a plan, similar to the one he saw implemented quite nicely 20-some years ago when Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones did a tear down of Tom Landry's dilapidated 3-13 team from 1988, before starting this franchise's second great do-over. The first took place in the mid-1960s, and the franchise remained on a sturdy foundation from that 7-7 season of 1965 until the 10-6, NFC East Division title season of 1985.
Might the third be on the way?
The key thing here is to replenish and succeed, not grow old and crotchety, and then have to start all over again. And the Cowboys did grow old by the late '90s, but refused to give in, patching with veteran spackle instead of gritting their teeth and developing some kids. Quick fixes signing veterans either do not work or they provide foundations filled with quicksand. Sooner rather than later you sink.
That's why this notion of signing a Plaxico Burress, at least at this point of training camp, as the team's designated third receiver makes my skin crawl. He turns 35 on Sunday. Then there is this, the first line of the first entry when you Google his bio: American football wide receiver Plaxico Burress is a great football athlete, but has proven to attract trouble off the field.
Seriously, is that what you want to start building your team with? That the kind of influence you want for Bryant? I mean, if we've been paying attention, have we not readily identified the type of players Garrett and the Joneses have been bringing on to this football team? Smart. Loyal. Dedicated. Clean-cut. Gym rats. And* young*.
See, if a big-time third receiver was the last piece to the Cowboys winning a Super Bowl this season, then fine, I'd roll the dice on Burress, just as Jones and Johnson did in 1992, when trading for the then-troubled Charles Haley. But he's not, and third wide receiver certainly isn't the only looming question mark on this roster.
I mean, what if something happens to Phil Costa? Who is playing center? What if Claiborne and Mike Jenkins aren't ready to start the season? Who is the third corner? What if there is an All-Comers flop at right guard? What do you do there? Punter?
And oh, by the way, there is a salary cap in this league. You can't just go out this time of year and get one of these and one of these and one of these as if you're in The Dollar Store. Teams must be judicious with their remaining salary cap bucks.
So to me, everyone should applaud the Cowboys for holding steady at this time. Give the young guys a chance, Andre Holmes, Cole Beasley, Tim Benford, Raymond Radway, Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris. My gosh, we haven't even played a preseason game and these panic buttons are being mashed.
See, start bringing in veteran stop-gappers like Burress, looking for instant gratification, and they become progress stoppers, snug blinders preventing the likes of Tony Romo or Miles Austin from emerging.
At this point, the Cowboys have but 10 thirty-something players on this 90-man roster, with only seven likely to make the final 53. There are only four players with double-digit years of NFL service: Kenyon Coleman (11), Romo (10), Witten (10) and Derrick Dockery (10). That's good, real good.
This also is good: eight rookies with a great chance of making the team, and 19 players either considered in their first, second or third years who likely will make the final roster, with five others possibilities.
Also check out this two-year greening of the Cowboys: At inside linebacker, they've gone from 36-year-old Keith Brooking and 31-year-old Bradie James to a 26-year-old Lee and either the 24-year-old Carter or 26-year old Dan Connor. At cornerback they've gone from 34-year-old Terence Newman to the 22-year-old Claiborne. At safety they've gone from 31-year-old Abe Elam to 24-year-old Barry Church. And don't be surprised if the soon 25-year-old Lissemore doesn't cause problems for Coleman (33).
On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys have moved from 39-year-old Jon Kitna to 29-year-old Kyle Orton at backup quarterback. Murray is just 24, Bryant 23, Smith 21, Costa 25, Bailey 24. They go from 33-year-old Mat McBriar to the 23-year-old Chris Jones. And just look at the transformation on the offensive line, the usual starters in 2010 from left to right were Doug Free, Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo. At this point, Kosier, Gurode and Colombo are out of the league. At this point, only one projected starter up front, left guard Nate Livings once he's healthy, is 30. The next oldest likely starter will be Free at 28.
Now, all this is good, this getting younger and banking on getting better, but this process requires patience, and I know patience and the Cowboy fan are not synonymous. After seasons of 6-10 and 8-8, no one asks if you think the Cowboys will have a winning season in 2012. They ask, "Can the Cowboys win a Super Bowl?"
Well, to that, let me say this: They are on the right path as long as they stay the path, and not get itchy trigger fingers looking for quick fixes. Just seems to me the kids are alright.