The Cowboys are saying the right things about their suspension-riddled front line, but the holes on D are putting an awful lot of pressure on the offense’s shoulders
OXNARD, Calif. — As the Cowboys wrapped up training camp with a final full practice Wednesday, it was hard to think of any discouraging words. How can anything be a negative when it’s 72 degrees, with a slight breeze from the Pacific, and not a cloud in the sky, and there’s football with a very optimistic team on the practice fields next to the Residence Inn here?
Well, there were two discouraging words, actually. “Pass rush.”
The Cowboys have no idea who’s going to emerge, with the suspensions of key rushers DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. Even with those two on the line, Dallas would have been in trouble getting enough pressure. Without them, the projected starting four has 14.5 career sacks. Last season, starting ends David Irving and Benson Mayowa combined for 1.5 sacks. If you’re Eli Manning, preparing for the Sept. 11 opener at Dallas, you’ve got to be thanking Howard Katz, the NFL scheduler, for the timing of what is annually one of the toughest rivalry games on the schedule.
“Everybody hears the chatter about us being nothing. We hear what people say,” said defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford. “We just come out and work, work, work. We can’t worry about what people say. We’ve just got to do what our coach, [defensive coordinator] Rod Marinelli, preaches every day: Be relentless to the quarterback.”
Sounds good. But in practice, no one will know what the Cowboys have, particularly without the emerging Lawrence for the first month, until the real games start. For now, the pass rush, and really the entire defense, feels the heat. “We hear it all,” said cornerback Brandon Carr. “We are the stepchildren here. We got it. We use as fuel. When the games start, we’ll remember it.”
Compounding the suspension problems: Moyowa, signed as a free-agent from Oakland, was on physically unable to perform until being activated this week, as was defensive-tackle-rotation helper Maliek Collins (broken foot), also just activated. Mayowa and Collins, a third-round rookie, must contribute if Dallas is to get any pressure in September, but the fact that they’re so inexperienced just underlines the major issue there are up front.
Back when the Cowboys took running back Ezekiel Elliott with their first-round pick last April and Jaylon Smith, a linebacker likely to spend all season rehabbing from a devastating college knee injury, in the second, owner Jerry Jones was heavily criticized for ignoring immediate needs on defense. Then Dallas didn’t re-sign Greg Hardy. Then Lawrence and Gregory got whacked with suspensions. Then two valuable pieces got hurt. So in reality, the Cowboys have no idea what they’re going to see once the games start.
Coach Jason Garrett told me he was convinced this team will have better defensive depth than the 13-win 2014 team once Lawrence returns. Maybe, but it’s still the piece of the Dallas puzzle that is in most doubt, with good reason.
I asked Garrett if he could say today what he and Jones told me (and the world) on draft weekend: A great and multiple offense will solve lots of the defense problems.
“No question,” Garrett said as he made his way to the team’s late-afternoon walk-through practice here in nirvana. “But we’re not talking about the offense being conservative. We still want to be an attacking offense, be able to do a lot of things that put pressure on the defense, with the kind of dominant offensive line a good offense needs. We are not going to be like this”— Garrett bowed his back and bent over, simulating a turtle in a shell—“because we have too many weapons. The classic Cowboy teams on offense have always done that. I anticipate we will too.”
The NFC East is there for any of the four teams to win. But leaving here, it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys taking the division unless Tony Romo is healthy enough to play 14 to 16 games, Elliott can give the offense the 325 touches he was drafted to give as a rookie, and the offense can score 27 points on a bad day. Dallas can win it, but a lot of very good things have to happen. And the pass rush has to have a couple of surprises. That’s a lot of ifs.
Five Things I Thought About the Cowboys
1. Tony Romo is healthy—now. He didn’t practice Wednesday in the last full workout before leaving for Texas, his fourth absence in 15 practices here. He’s not hurt; Garrett’s just being as conservative as he was with Romo last year. Talked to Romo at length Wednesday afternoon, and he said he feels great and anticipates his surgically repaired collarbone will give him an excellent chance to survive the season. “That’s what the doctors tell me, and I’m trusting them,” he said.
2. Elliott will start practice next week. Not a good sign when your bell-cow running back begins training camp with a bum hamstring. Everyone’s downplaying it here. But Eliott is going to be a vital piece in the running game, in blitz pickup for Romo and in receiving out of the backfield. He’d better be whole on Sept. 11.
3. The Jaylon Smith report. So he’s wearing number 54, rehabbing his wounded knee like crazy and impressing everyone here with his attitude. Dallas didn’t expect him on draft day to be available this season, and I’m told they still don’t; the nerve damage in his knee was severe, and the nerve is regenerating slowly. The Cowboys have no regrets, though, in picking him 34th overall, with talents like Myles Jack still on the board.
4. Amazing what one preseason game can do for an image. “DAK!!!! DAK!!!!!!!” shrieked the crowd after the morning practice, beseeching rookie quarterback Dak Prescott to sign autographs near the fence on the way to locker room. Poised kid, happy kid, and the Cowboys are pleased with the 135th overall pick. I’m told Dallas could still add a veteran backup, but it’s less vital that they do now, with the strong performance of Prescott in the preseason opener.
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5. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Darren McFadden as trade bait late in camp. With projected backup-to-Elliott Alfred Morris having a nice summer and McFadden looking like the third back, Dallas would be tempted to part with McFadden if a run-needy team dangles a 2017 draft pick come Sept. 1.
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