Around the camp­fire

Ques­tions abound as Cow­boys get ready to start camp

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS -

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

un­for­giv­ing.

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.”

Paul San­cya GERRY FRA­LEY

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.

Louis DeLuca

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.

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