Romo and the offense should be flying again; the problems are on the other side of the ball. (Gus Ruelas/AP)
OXNARD, CALIF. — It was an unmistakably Cowboys affair, with more branding and fanfare than a Ringling tent, but the key figures were M.I.A. when I rolled up to the Residence Inn in this quiet beach town a little more than an hour up the coast from Los Angeles. Team owner Jerry Jones was in Canton for Hall of Fame weekend, quarterback Tony Romo sat out of practice as a precaution for his surgically repaired back, and both linebacker Sean Lee (ACL) and rookie second-round defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (foot) are out for the foreseeable future. This barnstorming triage trips to San Diego next weekend for its preseason opener with much of the lineup still in flux.
One vivid memory from watching practice
Cowboys first-round selection Zack Martin, who appears to have the right guard spot locked up, taking on headline free-agent pickup Henry Melton in a one-on-one pass rushing drill and stonewalling the veteran. It wasn’t close; twice in a row Martin stood up Melton, who tried and failed to spin away from the 6-4, 310-pounder out of Notre Dame. The pick by Jerry Jones at 16th overall wasn’t a flashy one, but it looks like the right one at this early stage.
How this team can go 12–4
Rookie Zack Martin’s the real deal—and Dallas’s line may be the NFL’s best. (Chris Williams/Icon SMI)
Fat chance. In the NFC East arms race, Washington gets a now-healthy Robert Griffin III, Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly and quarterback Nick Foles enter Year 2 after a trailblazing Year 1, and Dallas limps its way into the preseason. Lawrence was supposed to replace free-agent departure DeMarcus Ware, one of the few bright spots on a 32nd-ranked defense. Aging DE Jason Hatcher (32) was the other high note last year, and he signed a four-year free agent deal with Washington. For 12-4 to happen, someone from the pool of contenders in the D-Line rotation would have to set himself apart early.
In any case, Romo and the offense will have to carry this club. That’s entirely possible with an offensive line that looks, on paper, to be the best in football with Tyron Smith and Doug Free as bookend tackles and center Travis Frederick emerging as a top-tier road grader. If Romo stays healthy and running back DeMarco Murray runs for 100 a game, a winning record is not out of the question.
How this team can go 4–12
Just one more long-term injury to a main defensive contributor. Coach Jason Garrett ought to wrap Melton and cornerback Orlando Scandrick in bubble wrap for the time being. In addition to their daunting NFC East schedule, Dallas’s non-division opponents include the 49ers, Saints, Seahawks, Bears and Colts—not good news for a defense without a stud edge rusher.
Now, from fantasyland …
1. If you only draft one Cowboy, make it Dez Bryant. Dallas could end up playing from behind a bunch this season, and whether it’s Romo or one of his backups throwing the ball, the main target will always be Bryant. Bonus: He’s in a contract year with something to prove to the organization as it mulls a commitment.
2. Count on running back DeMarco Murray to get the lion’s share of the carries again, especially as his already-strong pass blocking improves and the Cowboys need him on all downs.
3. The Cowboys haven’t added any new receiving options of consequence, so Romo-bestie Jason Witten is good for another 800 yards and eight touchdowns, which is better than you can say for 60% of starting tight ends.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
George Selvie/Tyrone Crawford
Henry Melton/Terrell McClain
Mackenzy Bernadeau/Ronald Leary
Nick Hayden/Terrell McClain
Jeremy Mincey/DeMarcus Lawrence
Kyle Wilber/DeVonte Holloman
Justin Durant/Rolando McClain/DeVonte Holloman
Bruce Carter/Anthony Hitchens
JJ Wilcox/Jeff Heath/Matt Johnson/Jakar Hamilton
The coaching staff continues to tinker with the defensive line, occasionally bringing linebacker Kyle Wilber down to audition at end, bumping defensive end Tyrone Crawford to the inside and so forth. They’ll ask Henry Melton to anchor this unit as he returns from a torn ACL … The free safety position is up for grabs, as are the strongside and middle linebacking jobs, though former Lions LB Justin Durant is certain to start somewhere on this defense. … DeMarcus Lawrence should back up at right defensive end when he returns from his foot injury … Orlando Scandrick, as a nickel corner, stays on the field in most Dallas packages.
Best new player in camp
Zack Martin, and there isn’t really a close second. We’re not seeing all-out run blocking in this setting but his pass protection is a joy to watch. He and right tackle Doug Free look to be in harmony when facing two rushers, passing off stunting opponents with aplomb. Watching Martin, it’s hard not to think of Jones’ admission of very nearly spending that first-round pick on quarterback Johnny Manziel. I’ve seen and heard enough to say with confidence that Martin will be the better pro.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Jason Garrett will keep his job for another season. After three straight 8-8 seasons, many assume this is Garrett’s last chance to make the playoffs or bounce. But Jones knows Romo doesn’t have enough time left on the clock to learn a new system, and he must know he hasn’t given Garrett enough talent on defense for a legitimate playoff shot this season. How many wins is enough to keep Garrett in Dallas? I’ll venture nine.
Something I’ve never seen before
Fans stretching around the entire perimeter of two practice fields. People cheering one-on-one drills between third string tight ends and undrafted linebackers. A hype man on a microphone screaming commentary on said one-on-one drills. With very little buzz around this team, fan attendance is slightly down from previous years in Oxnard. But those who showed up were rabid as ever.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
There’s a sense of desperation here. As Cole Beasley told me after practice on Saturday evening, “Nobody wants to go 8-8 again. Guys are going harder; it’s more intense than it was last year this time.” Compared to other camps I've seen on this trip (SF, SEA, OAK), that rang true. You could hear the frustration in the voices of the defensive backfield when quarterback Brandon Weeden chopped up the first-team coverage on a touchdown drive. Mediocre isn’t going to fly much longer.