Brandon Carr off to strong start in Dallas
Granted, Jerry Jones probably has a room somewhere in his house filled with 50 million $1 bills so he can swim around in them like Scrooge McDuck. But in the unpredictable, salary-capped NFL world, teams don't hand out $50 million contracts on a whim.
The Cowboys were more than happy to reach that stratosphere, though, when they signed cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year deal -- with a hefty $25.5 million in guarantees -- this offseason. One month later, Dallas doubled down and traded up for Morris Claiborne in the 2012 draft.
The thinking behind those moves was simple: For Dallas to improve on its 8-8 record and make the playoffs, the secondary had to be better. Much better. Saturday night stands as an encouraging first step.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers opted to test Carr on multiple occasions in San Diego's 28-20 preseason win over the Cowboys. Carr responded, picking off a pair of Rivers' throws. The first came on a deep ball intended for Robert Meachem -- Rivers slightly underthrew his receiver, allowing Carr to close and make a nice leaping pick. Later, Carr jumped a route by Vincent Brown and reeled in a juggling interception.
Performances like that could completely change the way teams approach attacking the Cowboys.
A few days back, I was chatting with ESPN analyst Herm Edwards who, as most of you no doubt know, previously was an NFL head coach and before that was a defensive back for three different teams. He said that the key to any defensive game plan is "figuring out which two (offensive) players you do not want to beat you" and going from there.
The Cowboys' problem last year, en route to finishing 23rd against the pass, was that they couldn't really take away any weapons. It started in Week 1, when LaDainian Tomlinson, Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes and Dustin Keller all topped 60 yards receiving in a Jets win over Dallas. And it really became an issue late, as Dallas lost four of its last five -- in three of those four losses, the Cowboys' opposition each had at least three players top 50 yards receiving; in the fourth, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks combined for 254 yards.
The additions of Carr and Claiborne won't turn Dallas into the world's greatest pass defense (Carr was, in theory, the Chiefs' No. 2 cornerback behind Brandon Flowers). What they will do is help the Cowboys force the issue a little better.
That's what you saw in action Saturday. Rivers almost totally avoided Claiborne to go after Carr and Orlando Scandrick. The result was that Rivers completed 13 of 15 passes but for just 109 yards -- and his only three passes of 10 yards or more during his half of work came on the final three snaps of the second quarter, as Dallas dropped into a deep prevent.
The Cowboys would consider that a huge success: They forced Rivers into short, underneath passes, and when he did try to go up top, Carr made him pay.
Carr will have his work cut out for him matching up with No. 1 receivers each week, if that's his task, but in an ideal world the Cowboys will be able to mix and match Carr, Claiborne, Scandrick and Mike Jenkins (once he's healthy). If all goes according to plan, the Cowboys' pass defense will be formidable and opportunistic. Carr showed off his potential Saturday, the first small step toward rewarding Dallas' huge investment in him.