Around the campfire
Questions abound as Cowboys get ready to start camp
DALLAS — When last seen, the Cowboys were being run out of the Metrodome with a 34-3 loss to Minnesota in a divisional-round playoff game. Since then, the Cowboys have somehow become a chic pick to play the Super Bowl at their home stadium this season. Time for a reality check. The Cowboys were a good club last season, taking the NFC East at 11-5 and winning a playoff game for the first time since 1996. It is a long way from there to Super Bowl Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.
A look at the hot spots for the Cowboys during training camp:
1. The ‘rookie’ kicker
David Buehler is not a rookie in the strict sense of the word. He handled kickoffs last season.
Buehler is a “rookie” kicker in that he has not had a field goal try in a regularseason game. The Cowboys are putting their faith in a strong-legged unknown. That is not the normal course of action for a Super Bowl contender.
If Buehler does the expected and wins the job against what is now minimal competition, he will be the 10th rookie kicker for the Cowboys since 1990, when Ken Willis debuted. Only one of those kickers reached a Super Bowl: Lin Elliott with the 1992 club.
The 1997 Green Bay Packers, with Ryan Longwell, are the last team to reach the Super Bowl with a rookie kicker.
The Cowboys believe Buehler can handle the pressure because he is a football player who kicks rather than a kicker who plays football. That does not offset his lack of experience under pressure. In two seasons at powerful USC, he was never asked to make a fourth-quarter kick with the game in the balance.
Buehler also was rarely asked to make a long kick. He had only five tries of 40plus yards in his final season at USC and made two.
2. The road show
Too bad Jerry Jones never met C.C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle, a Chicago promoter from the Jazz Age. They would have gotten along famously.
In 1925, Pyle put together an elaborate deal in which collegiate star Red Grange joined the Chicago Bears and went on a cross-coun- try barnstorming tour that included 18 games in about 10 weeks. The extravaganza left Grange battered, Pyle wealthy and the NFL on the sporting map.
Jones shares Pyle’s grandiose vision of linking marketing and football. To that end, Jones has his club on the move during camp: five games in three time zones; three training bases. It is an unusual way to prepare a team.
Jones sees nothing but benefits. Weather will be kind with indoor practices at San Antonio’s Alamodome and near the Pacific Ocean in Oxnard, Calif. The changes in scenery will guard against monotony setting in with the team. The Cowboys will increase their profile. The negatives? With the San Antonio segment, the Cowboys will be the only team to spend an extended period of camp on artificial turf, which can be
3. Thinking takeaways
The turnaround of Super Bowl champion New Orleans started well before last season began.
In every preseason workout, new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams stressed the need for takeaways. The Saints listened and learned. They tied for the third-most takeaways in exhibition play with 10 and finished second in the regular season with 39. Green Bay had the most takeaways during exhibition play with 13 and during the regular season with 40.
Wade Phillips does not gamble on defense as much as Williams does and is more concerned with preventing points. The Cowboys had only 21 takeaways last season, tying with Miami for the fifth-lowest total in the league. That will not do.
In the last 10 seasons, every Super Bowl contestant has had at least 25 takeaways during the regular season. That included 13 teams with 30-plus takeaways. With takeaways, the defense makes life easier on an offense. The Cowboys’ defense last season rarely gave the offense good field position.
4. Jobs, jobs, jobs
The Cowboys go to camp with 47 of the 53 players on the roster for the playoff loss at Minnesota. That does not rule against competition during camp.
There are three obvious job openings: left tackle, free safety and kicker.
David Buehler has a decided edge at kicker. Left tackle Doug Free and free safety Alan Ball will face bigger challenges. Tackle Alex Barron, a former first-round pick acquired from St. Louis, quickly took to the Cowboys’ system during organized team activities and bears watching. So does free safety Michael Hamlin, whose progress as a rookie last season was undermined by a wrist injury.
The Cowboys need help in other areas. Start with kick returner.
If Patrick Crayton is dumped, as he expects, the Cowboys will need a punt returner. Felix Jones has shown that he is not the answer on kickoff returns, a weakness last season. The Cowboys ranked 20th with an average return of 22 yards.
Rookie wide receiver Dez Bryant returned three punts for touchdowns in his final two seasons at Oklahoma State but is inexperienced on kickoffs. Receiver Titus Ryan ranked sixth in the Canadian Football League for kickoff returns last season with an
average of 23 yards.
5. Sharing the load
The Cowboys last season were among 10 teams that had three backs with 60-plus carries. Look for the timesharing arrangement with Marion Barber, Tashard Choice and Felix Jones to continue. It worked well enough for the Cowboys to rank seventh in rushing with 131.4 yards per game.
The decision that must be made during camp is how to divide the usual total of about 28 carries per game. More specifically, can the Cowboys continue to give Marion Barber about 15 carries per game?
Barber has had two consecutive mediocre and injury-plagued seasons. A year ago, he ranked 16th in yards per game (62.1) and 14th in per-carry average (4.4) among the 22 backs with 200-plus attempts. He had only 18 yards on 11 carries in the playoffs.
Jones did well when given increased work. In the final six games, including playoffs, Jones ran for 475 yards with a per-carry average of 6.0 yards. Choice, who did his best work out of the singlewing Razorback formation, is also pushing for more time.
This could be the most fiercely contested area in camp. Barber is not the undisputed No. 1 back. He must earn the spot, or lose it.
“When you have a number of guys who are so capable, you’re always going to feel like they can do better if given more chances,” offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said.
“You’re always going to feel like there’s more meat on the bone for them.”
Only as good as your last game? Tony Romo, left, and the Cowboys hope not. Their last game was a 34-3 drubbing by the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Divisional playoffs on Jan. 17.
Felix Jones runs on a 30-yard pass play from Tony Romo during the NFC wild card playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles in January. In Jones’ final six games, he ran for 475 yards with an average of 6.0 yards per carry.