Dallas Cowboys 2004 Season Preview
from John Hughes - Dallas Cowboys Correspondent
Can Parcells Work Second-Year Magic Again?
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones expected Bill Parcells to have a huge impact when he hired him to coach America’s Team, he just didn’t know it would be so sudden. After watching his Cowboys struggle through three consecutive 5-11 seasons, Jones was just as surprised as the next guy when the Cowboys doubled their win total and made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. And all that happened in Parcells' first year with the club when history tells us that it’s always Parcells' second season that his teams usually have their breakthrough.
Despite Dallas’ astonishing turnaround last year, both Jones and Parcells knew the Cowboys still needed to improve on an offense that ranked 15th in total offense and 21st in scoring. In order to boost the struggling offense Dallas brought in former Parcells players Keyshawn Johnson and Vinny Testaverde.
They also selected Notre Dame RB Julius Jones along with offensive linemen Jacob Rogers and Stephen Peterman with their first three picks in April’s draft. Dallas also traded next year’s third-round pick to the Houston Texans for former Michigan star QB Drew Henson hoping he will evolve into the teams franchise QB someday.
Defense wins championships though, and it’s Dallas D that has the expectations among fans probably a little too high for next season. The Cowboys already had the No.1 overall defense and they think the addition of Marcellus Wiley will make them even tougher by improving their pass rush. If Wiley can regain his form of a couple years ago, then look for Dallas to make the jump from a great defense to one that can totally dominate games.
Despite Quincy Carter’s ability to “drive the bus” for Parcells’ offense, he still made too many mistakes and didn’t use his athletic scrambling ability enough to put pressure on opposing defenses. The coaching staff love’s his work ethics and attitude, but have been stressing to him the importance of protecting the football. One thing Parcells won’t stand for is turnovers, so Carter must improve on his 21 interceptions this season in order to hold on to his starters job.
Testaverde was brought in as an insurance policy and tutor for Carter and Henson, but he will get an opportunity to earn the starter’s job in training camp as well. Chad Hutchinson had a rough season for the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe and appears to be the odd man out with the addition of Henson. The former Wolverine, who spent the last three years playing 3rd base in the NY Yankees organization, was a standout in 2000 when he led Michigan to the Rose Bowl. And the coaches are also intrigued by second-year free agent Tony Romo, who is expected see some action during the pre-season. This all spells bad news for Hutchinson as his days in Dallas seem to be numbered.
Usually 972 yards is enough to keep a running back around, but not in Dallas as Troy Hambrick and his 3.5 yards per carry were shown the door. In Big D, where the list of former RBs reads like a hall of fame ballot with names like Smith, Walker, Dorsett and Perkins the shoes are awfully hard to fill. Next in line to try his luck will be the rookie Julius Jones, who will be feeling considerable pressure to succeed after Dallas passed on Stephen Jackson in the first round to trade down and select Jones.
The Cowboys are happy with FB Ritchie Anderson, who could share some of the carries with Jones, is a receiving threat out of the backfield and a great leader in the locker room. But Jamar Martin, who appeared to have the back-up spot secured, has recently felt the wrath of Parcells for being overweight. He will now have to fight for a roster spot with un-drafted free agent Lousaka Polite and Darian Barnes, who was acquired in a trade from Tampa Bay for a 7th-round draft choice.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
The Cowboys traded away Joey Galloway during the off-season for Keyshawn Johnson, a long-time Parcells favorite. What Johnson lacks in speed, he makes up for with intensity and toughness. Terry Glenn and Antonio Bryant will vie for the second WR spot, with Glenn as the early favorite because of his relationship with Parcells and Bryant’s inability to control his emotions. Randall Williams is a guy the coaches will really take a long look at during training camp. At 6’3” 225 Williams is a big man, but he has incredible speed and soft hands and he will push for playing time this season, especially should Bryant follow up last year's disappointing campaign with a poor training camp.
Dallas has one of the better and most underrated TE corps in the league. Dan Campbell is one of the best blocking TEs in the game today and another great locker room guy as well. He emerged as one of the true leaders of the team last year. Second-year player Jason Witten turned out to be one of the steals for Dallas in last year’s draft. After a slow start Witten came on strong and finished with 35 catches and a TD. He also showed the coaches his toughness by playing with a broken jaw for six weeks last year. Jeff Robinson and James Whalen will be fighting for the last TE roster spot along with fifth-round draft choice Sean Ryan from Boston College.
Larry Allen seems to have finally gotten the message that if he wants to continue playing in the NFL he has to work harder now than he did when he was 25.
After a rough start to the off-season, Allen is reportedly in the best shape he’s been in for quite some time. His pro-bowl berth last year was based on his name more than his play and he’ll be pushed this year by the rookie Peterman. Andre Gurode shared the Parcells doghouse last year with Allen by making senseless penalties at seemingly the worst times. He has unlimited potential but needs to step his mental game up a notch to keep his job. DeMingo Graham and Torrin Tucker will also be in the mix at the guard position.
At center the Boys’ are desperately hoping that Al Johnson can return from micro-fracture surgery on his knee. He had basically won the starter’s job after just two practices last year only to have his season come to an abrupt halt due to the injury. Matt Lehr and Gennaro DiNapoli did a respectable job filling in last year and were expected to compete with Johnson for the starter’s role this year. But DiNapoli will be sidelined for 4-to-6 weeks with a stress fracture in his right ankle (he’ll likely miss the first week or two of training camp) and Lehr is currently penciled in at the guard spot. That leaves Tyson Walter as the only competition for Johnson as training camp opens.
The Cowboys took a beating from the media last year when they signed Flozell Adams to a long-term deal. But the left tackle proved Dallas and Parcells right by earning his first pro-bowl appearance and becoming the leader and anchor of the group. There will be a fierce battle for the right tackle position between the rookie Rogers and incumbent Kurt Vollers with Javier Collins also getting a look from the staff.
The signing of Wiley was two-fold in that the team hopes he can regain the form he displayed a couple years ago and that his presence will also open things up for Greg Ellis. Regardless, he should still be a huge upgrade over Ebenezer Ekuban. Eric Ogbogu and Kenyon Coleman have also caught the coach’s eye during mini-camps and should be a part of the rotation going into next season. Ogbogu actually finished third on the team last year by recording three and a half sacks in a limited role.
La’Roi Glover is a perennial pro-bowler at DT despite being consistently double-teamed. His sack totals have dipped since coming to Dallas from New Orleans three years ago, but he’s still been the most dominant defensive lineman on the team. Willie Blade is the favorite to win the other starting job, but will be challenged in camp by Leonardo Carson, Daleroy Stewart and Shaun Smith.
Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley are the leaders of the linebackers and huge contributors to the leagues No.1 ranked defense. It is no secret that Parcells prefers big LBs, but Coakley and Nguyen have made believers out of him with their play on the field. Al Singleton is the other starter and provides experience and stability to go along with the size that Parcells prefers. Second year pro Bradie James should see a lot more action this year and could even oust Coakley or Singleton from their starting job. Markus Steele and Jamal Brooks provide excellent depth for the Cowboys.
With Roy Williams, Terence Newman and Darren Woodson manning the secondary, it’s no wonder the Dallas Cowboys led the league in pass defense last season. Pete Hunter will be asked to take over the right CB spot for departed Mario Edwards and the coaching staff loves his combination of size and speed. Add in the return of Donald Mitchell and rookie Bruce Thornton along with Lynn Scott and Keith Davis, and it’s no wonder why Parcells considers this to be the strength of his top ranked defense.
Billy Cundiff had a solid sophomore campaign, proving he can be a consistent place-kicker. He tied an NFL single-game record by making seven field goals versus the NY Giants on a nationally televised Monday night game, including one from 52 yards out with no time left to tie the game. The Boys’ will go with Mat McBriar at punter this year after releasing Toby Gowin. Zuriel Smith, Michael Bates and rookies Jacques Reeves and Patrick Crayton will all compete for return duties during training camp.
Dallas didn’t make as big of a splash in the free agent market as many expected. Then when they passed on Stephen Jackson in the draft, most experts (especially Mel Kiper) questioned their strategy. But Jones and Parcells realized that Dallas overachieved last year and they weren’t just one or two players away from competing for the Super Bowl.
Therefore they resisted the urge to throw money at high priced free agents, instead continuing to build through the draft. And with two first-round picks in next year’s draft, it seems apparent the Boys’ are building for the future.
But Bill Parcells’ influence and the history of success he’s had during his second year with teams shouldn’t be overlooked. Neither should the fact that Dallas plays seven non-playoff teams from last year in their first eight games and do not have any back-to-back road games on the schedule this year. Expect a quick start and a strong finish by the Cowboys this year. And while they’re not quite a championship caliber team just yet, Dallas should be able to duplicate last year’s 10-6 record and contend for another play-off berth.
Overall Grade: B