IRVING, Texas – So with the season opener now just 11 weeks away, you still have concerns about these Dallas Cowboys. Seem to hear about them all the time. But take solace. There likely isn't a perfect team in the National Football League this time of year. They all have something to worry about.
Think the New England Patriots aren't worried about their tight end position, what with Gronk having back surgery this week to repair a herniated disk and Aaron Hernandez being accused of destroying his cell phone and home surveillance equipment, along with having his house totally cleaned, in the midst of a murder investigation of an acquaintance found in a field not far from his house?
Think the Philadelphia Eagles aren't worried about going to training camp with five quarterbacks on their roster but not knowing just who the starter is going to be?
Think the Redskins aren't worried Robert Griffin III won't be ready for the start of the season after having surgery to repair his torn ACL?
Think the San Francisco 49ers aren't worried about the loss of wide receiver Michael Crabtree for probably the entire season after tearing his Achilles tendon?
Think the Giants aren't worried that wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks missed nearly their entire offseason workouts over contractual concerns and that even though Cruz finally signed his restricted tender he might not report on time for training camp if a long-term deal is not consummated with a club reportedly having only $3.3 million of cap space available and still needing to sign its first-round pick?
Want me to continue?
Like just maybe the Green Bay Packers are worried at running back, not knowing if last year's eventual starter by season's end, DuJuan Harris, will be ready for camp after having a grapefruit-sized noncancerous cyst removed from his* lung *of all places?
Think the Jacksonville Jaguars aren't worried they, too, are heading into training camp not knowing who their starting quarterback will be?
Or gosh forbid, what if this had been your Dallas Cowboys, admitting as the Minnesota Vikings have recently that their first-round pick Shariff Floyd – you remember him, don't you? – likely will not be a starter at defensive tackle this season, projecting him as a rotation player?
Almost all make the Cowboys' concerns as this offseason is about to bleed into vacation season before the July 19 start to training camp seem, well, pfffft, right?
The Cowboys aren't perfect by any means. But at least they don't appear to have a front-line player already out for the season with an injury or with one that will linger beyond the season opener. They don't have a projected starter bellyaching over a contract, and goodness knows Anthony Spencer certainly could be. Not only do they know who their starting quarterback will be, but also who the backup is, although will keep an eye out for a minimally-experienced third guy if one that suits their liking comes available.
But if you just must worry or complain about this or that, here, let me be of assistance, and give you a couple of warts that must be lanced away before they take the field the night of Sept. 8 at Cowboys Stadium for the opener against the Giants:
Run Stuffers?: Yes, I'm aware the Cowboys defense was decimated with injuries last year, and that probably attributed to finishing 22nd in run defense last season, their lowest since going 5-11 in 2000 when they finished 31st and their second lowest since finishing 24th in the 6-10 season of 1997. So yeah, that bad, giving up 125.2 rushing yards a game. And this might scare you, but the 2,003 yards rushing they gave up last year not only is the most since that 2000 season (2,636) but the next most since yielding 2,200 in 1986 when they finished 7-9. Think about that, 19-86!
Now I'm aware they have changed defensive coordinators, causing some of you to wonder why far louder than called for, and yes, they have changed formations, too, going from a 3-4 to a 4-3. But still, the principles making up this front four are basically the same: from left to right Spencer, Jason Hatcher, Jay Ratliff (though injured most of last year, amounting to a significant loss) and DeMarcus Ware. The question will be how well do defensive ends weighing just 254 (Ware) and 250 (Spencer) hold up against the run with their hands on the ground. Also aware both played the position with their hands on the ground in college. But this ain't college, folks.
Beside that unknown, though new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin insists their speed up the field will compensate for their lack of size, for this to work up front Ratliff must remain healthy and Hatcher must play the run better than he did in the 3-4. The coaches have raved over Hatcher's play this offseason. The raving must continue when the pads come on because merely a healthy Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, and the addition of Justin Durant at strong-side linebacker, won't be enough to make all the difference in the world.
Do Run-Run?: Yes, I'm aware DeMarco Murray missed six games because of injury, and while Felix Jones played in all 16, he probably played through injury most would not have in at least six of them. Still, most of the time there was nowhere to run, evidenced by not just their 16-game, franchise-low of 1,265 yards rushing in 2012 or the franchise low of just 79.1 rushing yards per game, no matter the length of season, but also the 3.6 yards per attempt, ranking them 30th in the NFL, only Arizona and San Diego worse. That represented the Cowboys' lowest average per carry since they posted a 3.6 in 2005 and the fewest since averaging 3.5 in 1996. Yep, that bad, causing me to wonder why so many criticized Jason Garrett for not calling more running plays. Guess they enjoy watching a man beat his head against a wall.
This must improve. Tony Romo can't be solely responsible for matriculating the ball down the field – and into the end zone, since Cowboys not named Romo last year accounted for just seven of the team's eight rushing touchdowns. Eight, which represented just three more than the team's all-time low of five the previous season. That's just 13 rushing touchdowns the past two seasons. Why, 13 teams rushed for more than that just last year and just four fewer than the Cowboys' eight of 2012.
Murray must stay healthy and Joseph Randle must produce better than a fifth-round rookie running back might be expected to, since behind those two currently are Phillip Tanner, Lance Dunbar and Kendial Lawrence, all having entered the league as rookie free agents. So we'll see.
Line Of Contention: And the No. 1 worry, still and to me undisputed, is … the offensive line. What, you say, not safety? Well, if there was a fourth, safety likely would have been the choice. But come on, would we seriously at the end of the season blame the safety play if the Cowboys do not win the NFC East this year? Like, how many of you blamed safety for last year's 8-8 season or for not winning the final game on the schedule and the division title?
*Those darn safeties! *That's what I thought.
While the Cowboys have Tyron Smith at left tackle, drafted center/guard Travis Frederick in this year's first round, convinced Doug Free to take that pay cut so they could qualify his salary vs. production on the roster and have a healthy-again Phil Costa, the guard play still worries me – a lot. How 'bout you?
See, where have you heard this before: Neither projected starting guard has been able to participate in the offseason workouts more than once, both Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau either nursing an injury (Livings, knee) or rehabbing from offseason surgery (Bernadeau, shoulder). Same thing, next year, right? Guess having the same guy working with the first team at center, Frederick, is an improvement from last offseason/training camp when Costa missed nearly all of camp with back issues and Livings and Bernadeau were injury MIAs. So maybe three stable positions at this point in place of last summer's two is a step in the right direction. [embedded_ad]
The Cowboys desperately need a stable starting five, providing some continuity on the offensive line, even if that means Ron Leary breaking into the starting group at guard, maybe Costa at center and Frederick at the other guard spot. Just give me the best five on the field, and healthy at the same time. Maybe that becomes the much-needed energy boost for the running game. Maybe that keeps Romo from getting beat up. Hey, who knows, as much as he was on his back last year – a career-high 36 sacks – maybe the beatings precipitated the cyst growth that was surgically removed from his back in April.
So there you are, at your service, go ahead, worry all you want.
Just remember, though, you're not alone. All them others out there have something to worry about, too, believe me.