We continue our team-by-team early off-season look at the NFL with the ...
Some football plays are like your favorite Jenna Jameson video: worth watching over and again. This play from one of the big games of 2007 certainly qualifies.
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2007 record: 13-3 (455-325)
Expected W-L (based on PF/PA): 11.0-5.0
Last five seasons: 47-33 (.588)
Best game of 2007: 37-27 home win over Green Bay (Week 13). In one of the NFC's most heavily hyped games of the past decade – and the first time in nearly two decades that two NFL teams 10-1 or better faced each other – the Cowboys frustrated, then injured, Brett Favre and cruised to victory in a nationally televised Thursday primetime contest a week after Thanksgiving.
Tony Romo was at his very best, completing 19 of 30 passes (63.3%) for 309 yards, 10.3 YPA, 4 TD, 1 INT and 123.5 passer rating. His batterymate Terrell Owens was at his showboating peak, too, hauling in 7 catches for 156 yards, 22.3 YPC and 1 TD. Then, after the score, in one of the marquee images of the 2007 season, Owens grabbed a container of popcorn from a spectator in the end zone and poured it over his facemask, as if gulping down a cool drink of water. The victory virtually guaranteed the Cowboys homefield advantage throughout the postseason – an advantage they promptly threw away by failing to win a single playoff game.
: The Cowboys have been fairly quiet through this point in the free-agent market. The main activity has been the slow, steady march of assistant coaches leaving Dallas to work for former Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells in Miami, including Tony Sparano, who took the Dolphins head job, and the equally slow, steady march of newcomers to replace them.
On the player front, two moves have stood out: the Cowboys re-signed four-time Pro Bowl LT Flozell Adams, and inked former Miami Pro Bowl linebacker Zach Thomas. Troubled Titans DB Pacman Jones, meanwhile, has made no secret his desire to play for Dallas after his one-year suspension from the NFL ends next month. But for now there's no concrete reason to believe Jones will land in Dallas.
Passing attack. Only the Patriots (7.79 YPA) passed the ball better than Dallas (7.38 YPA) last year, based upon our adjusted Passing Yards Per Attempt
Quality Stat. Quarterback Tony Romo, in his first year as a fulltime starter, set franchise records with 4,211 passing yards and 36 TDs. Now, he has to prove he can do it in the playoffs: the Cowboys are 0-2 in the postseason under Romo, with the quarterback's play a critical factor in both defeats.
Coaching. The Cold, Hard Football Facts reacted with shock and horror when the Cowboys brought in Wade Phillips last year to replace Bill Parcells. After all, Phillips has won nothing in his NFL career, including zero playoff games, and is singularly responsible for the worst NFL coaching decision of the past 50 years – the decision while head coach in Buffalo to bench Doug Flutie before the playoffs, thus launching the famous Curse of Flutie that has haunted Phillips
(and now the Cowboys) for nearly a decade.
He seemed to prove the Cold, Hard Football Facts wrong by leading Dallas to a surprising 13-3 season and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. But the team never played smart, efficient football – especially defensively – which is often the sing of poor coaching. And the team's play trailed off considerably late in the year – as if the Cowboys went on mental and physical cruise control after the win over Green Bay. A team that once stood at 12-1 would lose three of its final four games, including a home playoff game against the Giants. The undisciplined Cowboys outplayed the Giants statistically and for large periods of the game, but unraveled with costly penalties on both sides of the ball.
Phillips needs to learn how to close as a coach. As of now, he's proven only an ability to blow late-season opportunities.
Most underrated player: None. The Cowboys are still America's Team, one of the NFL's most popular franchises and consistently have their games broadcast to greater stretches of the country than any other club. It's great for merchandise sales, but also leads to overexposure and an elevated sense of the quality of the team and its individual players.
Dallas received, for example, a wholly undeserved 13 Pro Bowl positions – including players from every single unit of the offense and, inexplicably, virtually its entire defensive backfield. The Dallas secondary was good – the Cowboys finished 5th in Defensive Passer Rating
and in the Top 10 in most key pass defense categories – but hardly great. But when you play on America's Team, you don't have to be great to be considered as such.
Unit on the rise: Kicking game. Kicker Nick Folk earned a Pro Bowl berth in his rookie year, nailing 26 of 31 field goals (83.9%) and all 53 extra points he attempted. He proved his guts in the improbable 25-24 Week 5 win at Buffalo, when he twice had to kick a 53-yard goal as time expired to secure the victory.
Folk needs to get more length on his kickoffs – just 4 of 94 went for touchbacks last year, and only Chicago's Robbie Gould was worse. But otherwise it was a very effective rookie year that bodes well for the Dallas kicking game for years ahead.
2007 Draft grade: C. With the exception of Folk, the Cowboys got little production out of their 2007 draft class. No. 1 pick Anthony Spencer started at OLB early in the season, but hit the bench when veteran Greg Ellis returned from an Achilles tendon injury. The only other draft pick to crack the starting line-up was sixth-round fullback Deon Anderson, who got four starts in the crowded Dallas backfield and proved a key contributor in the win over Buffalo, with four catches for 39 yards.
2008 Draft power: 1st (22), 1st (28), 2nd (61), 3rd (92), 4th (123), 5th (157), 6th (160), 7th (219)
General Draft strategy: The Cowboys have loaded up on linebackers and defensive linemen in recent years, with all four first-round picks over the past three years devoted to those positions (OLB DeMarcus Ware, DE Marcus Spears, LB Bobby Carpenter and OLB Anthony Spencer). They've also shown a thirst for tight ends, grabbing a player at that position in three of the past five drafts (Jason Witten, Sean Ryan and Anthony Fasano) – very unusual for one of the least-drafted positions in football.
Overall, the strategy has worked fairly well. Spears, Ware and Witten are key starters, with Pro Bowler Ware the teams leading pass rusher (14 sacks in 2007) and Witten, also a Pro Bowler, its leading receiver (96 catches last year). Carpenter, Spencer and Fasano give the team building-block back-ups who are probably good enough to start on many teams.
Youth/experience: The Cowboys boast an enviable position, with most key starters, from quarterback on down, young and in the primes of their careers. The notable exceptions are at wide receiver, where Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn both joined the league back in 1996 – the virtual Stone Age in the Not For Long League.
The oft-injured Glenn did not step on the field all year until the season finale against Washington and the playoff game against the Giants, when he caught two passes for 30 yards. There's a good chance he won't be in any future plans in Dallas. Owens, however, has proven to be as good as ever, with 81 receptions for a team-leading 1,355 yards and 15 TDs.
Gregg Ellis and Zach Thomas give the Cowboys a couple of dinosaurs at the linebacker position, but the team is loaded with so much young talent at the position that their veteran leadership will most likely be only an asset.
Coaching: We talked about coaching quite a bit above in the "weakness" category. Phillips has never won a playoff game (0-4) in six full seasons (and parts of two others) as an NFL head coach. One wonders what a better coach might be able to do with the talented Cowboys.
Jason Garrett is considered the heir apparent to the job, and became a hot commodity in coaching rumor-mill talk, to which the Cold, Hard Football Facts respond with an emphatic, "Why?"
He's been an NFL assistant for just three seasons, the first two (2005-06) as the quarterbacks coach in Miami – a period during which Dolphins quarterbacks, all 37 of them, floundered. Granted, Garrett didn't have a lot of great raw material to work with those two years, but we're simply trying to find the source of the "Garrett is the next great head coach" school of thought. The Dallas offensive was certainly prolific last year, Garrett's first as an offensive coordinator. But last we checked, there are a lot of guys who have spent a lot more time as a coordinator with a lot more success who are yet to be dubbed the "next great thing."
Overview: It's simple for the Cowboys: prove you can win in the postseason. This is a talented team with a lot of great pieces in place that tied a franchise record with 13 victories last year. But it's been over a decade since the organization tasted a playoff victory. And for the current team to earn the praise, the notoriety and the Pro Bowl honors already bequeathed upon it, the Cowboys have win the games that count the most.