Friday, July 14, 2006

taking the lazy way out...for now anyway...

here's the article i submitted for the website. i'm telling you right now if you're not into football this is gonna be a dry read, but seeing as it won't be put up on the site for another week or two and i've got some editing to do on it, i figure i'd give you a peek. i'm working on another entry i'll post later today.

note to Amadeo - i'm not writing about the seahawks thank goodness. i'm writing about the best team in the history of the world, the dallas cowboys. so THERE.

Four of a Kind or Three and a Dud?

"My best success when gambling was to gamble with "quality". If I started with the fundamental of quality, uh, as in this particular case you start with an outstanding football player all the time, practices I mentioned as well as the games and competitor. So if you're gonna run some risks, do it with that kind of quality." - Jerry Jones speaking on his signing of Terrell Owens.

Jerry "The Gambler" Jones sits with erect back high in his chair, the air of smugness rising in tendrils of curling aura from his form. His steel gray gaze cuts across the press room at a steadied pace, leaving incisions in the carefully constructed questions of the gathered corps as they attempt to glean from him what he's holding in his hand. Maintaining his poker face, he relaxes slightly, a glint of knowing in his eyes as he recognizes the importance of appearing as if what he has in his hand is unimportant so long as he's got the cards necessary for him to beat the other teams in the league. He's already acquired Terrell "The Wildcard" Owens, but will his presence be enough to win the Cowboys the Super Bowl Championship? Which Owens will show up, the "Ace" or the "Joker"? Jones leans back into his seat, the expensive suit hugging his frame as crisply as the many newly minted dollar bills he'd gambled for and won to purchase it, as he contemplates the previous gambles with "quality" that ultimately proved fruitful for him:

- His purchase in 1989 of a once-heralded Dallas Cowboy franchise supposedly on the decline after a combined record of 26-37 the preceding four seasons. He would ultimately turn it into a three-time Super Bowl Winner.
- His acquisition of Coach Jimmy Johnson, successful on the college level but unproven in the NFL. Johnson would be the mastermind behind the 76-36 record and two Super Bowl winning Cowboy squads from 1990 to 1993.
- His drafting of relatively unknown players from non-Division 1-A schools (Leon Lett - Emporia State, Erik Williams - Central State) who would become the cornerstones of the offense and defense and establish themselves as perennial Pro Bowl starters.

Yes, Jones has every right to wear the arrogant smirk dangling at an angle from his lips.

Jones glances down at the four cards cradled within his hand. Each card represents an integral component for his success on the field – Draft, Defense, Special Teams, and Offense. He's confident he'll be victorious at season's end. Will the 2006 season be one in which he'll be forced to fold early or will his hand prove strong enough to ride out to the end? An anvil of anticipation slams the sound around him into shards of silence as everyone at the press conference focus their attention on Jones. He decides to reveal each card one by one. A murmur of approval spreads across the room as the first card is placed upon the table. It is the card representing their performance in the draft...

The Dallas Cowboys used their picks wisely and chose players who will instantly vie for starting spots in the most threadbare positions – Defensive Linemen and Secondary. Expect an immediate impact from OLB Bobby Carpenter, first round draft pick out of Ohio State. At 6'3, 255 lbs., his build makes him versatile enough for Parcells to place at both inside and outside linebacker. Scouting reports say he has a slow reaction to the snap and lacks the burst of speed necessary to make up the ground to compensate for his lack of instinct. However, those supposed shortcomings didn’t hinder him at Ohio State, where he finished his career ranked 10th all-time with 14.5 sacks. Another plus, and probably the reason why he was drafted above other more athletic guys at his position is his familiarity with Bill Parcells' coaching philosophy. His father is Ron Carpenter, who coached him in high school after a nine year career in the NFL, four of those years as a member of the Parcells-led New York Giants. No doubt he groomed his son to reflect all of the characteristics Parcells favors in a player – relentless worth ethic, overachievement regardless of natural talent, and doggedness on the field. Bobby Carpenter has the determined nature and acuity for quickly grasping defensive schemes necessary to give him the inside track on a starting position in his rookie season.

3rd round pick Grambling State DE Jason Hatcher lacks experience against the elite competition of Division 1-A opponents but his size (6'6, 283 lbs.) and his explosiveness when finishing tackles makes him a versatile commodity as does 6th round pick DT Montavious Stanley of Louisville. Both will add speed and athleticism to the defense, although they're considered to be raw talents in need of a season to more fully develop their skills. 5th round pick Florida State FS Pat Watkins is expected to start immediately in a secondary that only managed to snag 13 picks (15 total) last year, placing Dallas 21st in the league in interceptions.

Dallas was also very effective in picking up the exact players needed to fill up their holes on the offensive line. 7th round draft selections OG Pat McQuistan out of Weber State and center E.J. Whitley out of Texas Tech will both be expected to improve upon an offensive line that allowed for 50 sacks on its quarterback, ranking it 29th in the league in pass protection last season. The selection of 2nd Round draft pick Anthony Fasano, a TE out of Notre Dame, was a surprise because there was no perceived need for a tight end given the fact the Cowboys already have a Pro Bowl tight end in Jason Witten. However, Fasano will prove to be an integral part of the offense as the Cowboys adopt a two tight-end formation this season. He is a great blocker and has soft and intuitive hands, which makes him just as much of a pass-catching threat as Witten. His tenacity in manner and style of play on the field is reminiscent of Mark Bavaro, former Pro Bowl tight end for the New York Giants who was also one of Parcells' favorite players.

It looks like the draft card is a Jack of Diamonds which means they had an above average draft but it wasn't the best.

Jerry Jones stifles a yawn as he reveals the next card. He looks a little bored, as do the rest of the individuals who see it as its being played. Oh's the one representing Dallas' defense...

2005 was the year everyone expected the Cowboys' defense to step it up a notch given Parcells' history of fielding dominant defenses. However, due to the lack of depth and experience he inherited in the linebacker position, he was forced to adopt a 4-3 scheme instead of the 3-4 scheme he'd been successful with in the past. As a result, while the defense did improve from the 2004 season, it was average against the run and little better than average against the pass (ranked 15th and 11th in the league respectively). With the release of La'Roi Glover and Scott Fujita and the retirement of Dat Nguyen, Dallas lost experience but gained both youth and potential with its free agent acquisitions. The signing of OLB Akin Ayodele will definitely facilitate the transition from a 4-3 defense to the 3-4 defense as he brings the playmaking abilities that netted him 70 tackles in 2005. He's expected to battle with recruited OLB Bobby Carpenter for the starting position opposite OLB DeMarcus Ware. Ware and DE Greg Ellis both tied for 10th in the league last season with 8 sacks apiece and I predict the numbers to improve even more so as the new defense will allow for more opportunity of aggressive pursuit of the ball.

The secondary is headed up by free safeties Roy Williams while on the opposite side is Keith Davis, who will be going up against free agent acquisition FS Marcus Coleman for the starting position. Coleman brings much needed experience and leadership to a relatively young secondary that was among the least opportunistic in 2005 with its low interception numbers. On the plus side, Williams and Davis, along with starting cornerbacks Anthony Henry and Terence Newman, were responsible for holding opposing offenses to an average of only 192.7 passing yards per game, good enough for a ranking of 11th in the league. The addition of draft pick Pat Watkins guarantees a fierce battle for playing time at free safety as his presence means at least two quality backups at the position. Unfortunately, this quality depth doesn't extend to the cornerbacks, as there were no draft picks or free agency signings for this position, leaving the Cowboys with the same guys as last year. Bill Parcells is banking the additional year of experience will mean improvement for the cornerbacks and the added linebackers on the field will provide more opportunities for interceptions.

The defense overall is still a relatively inexperienced squad, but they have youth and depth at the linebacker and free safety positions. Also, their shift to the 3-4 defensive formation will best utilize the athleticism and speed found in the linebacker corps, ultimately making the defense more aggressive than last season. Expect Dallas' defense to continue to climb out of mediocrity and into the top ten in sacks, along with experiencing a marked improvement in its performance against both the run and pass.

This card is a ten of diamonds, setting Jones up for the unbeatable combination of a royal flush. A royal flush would earn him the ‘jackpot’, a Super Bowl win.

At this point Jones is wearing a feline line across his face reminiscent of the cat who got away with swallowing a canary right under the nose of its owner. He tosses the next card almost carelessly onto the table and the audience sees it's the one representing special teams. No one can argue against the strength of this particular card...

With all of the talk about Terrell Owens and his troublesome behavior joining the Cowboy ranks, people have forgotten he's not the only big mouth to sign with Dallas in the off-season. Maybe it's because the other player in question is a kicker, an important member of the team but not the spotlight player. Don’t tell that to newly signed free agent K Mike Vanderjagt. Few can forget the uproar created as a result of his comments criticizing both head coach Tony Dungy and star quarterback Peyton Manning in 2004 following yet another Indianapolis Colts playoff loss. Vanderjagt baldly questioned whether Manning and Dungy had the mental toughness necessary to win the big game, ultimately creating a rift between quarterback and kicker that would never be repaired. Now he's in Dallas where Bill Parcells still has the taste of bitter defeat in his mouth after watching Billy Cundiff and Jose Cortez shank kicks from short distances last year. Neither of the kickers from last year put up good numbers so Vanderjagt is certainly an improvement on those two guys. He's money in the bank when he kicks a field goal under 29 yards (last miss occurring in 2002) despite his inability to keep his mouth shut. However, there is a distinct contrast between the cerebral Tony Dungy and the cantankerous Parcells. Expect Vanderjagt to learn the difference as he's taught to put up AND shut up in 2006.

This card is a ten of clubs. A royal flush is impossible now now but Jones can still pull four of a kind, good enough for third most powerful hand in the league.

Just when it appeared Jones was assured of taking the entire pot he looked into his hand and notices the last card now being held in a white knuckled grip between his fingers. To his right sits the other card, the one needed in order for the one in his hand to stand any chance of being effective. Terrell "The Wildcard" is sitting there with a contrite and somewhat faux look of humility on his face and Jones is reminded of a similar look Owens wore a couple of years ago when he sat at a press conference just like this one, only it was in Philadelphia. Jones fights off the desire to pinch himself to make sure he isn't dreaming this moment. He knows his wild card has to be in complete accord with his offense card, otherwise the jackpot of a Super Bowl win is out of the question. The silence in the room thickens as the gathered press realizes Jones has only card left to reveal. He carefully places the card for offense on the table, now holding onto the arrogant smirk on his mouth with desperately reaching lips. No one says a word...

The Cowboy offense will charge the field led by 35-year-old quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Enough has been said about him. Yes, some say he's about 75 years old in NFL quarterback years. Yes, he was sacked 50 times in 2005, with only the quarterbacks of the Jets, Vikings, and Houston finding themselves swallowing dirt at a more frequent clip than he. Yes, at times last season Bledsoe appeared to be either lost or hesitant or both as he stood in the pocket just a second too long or threw a pass that flew just a few inches beyond the grasp of his receiver time and again. Was it because of his age? Was it because of the lack of a true possession receiver to throw the ball to? Was it because the offensive line was just plain offensive with the way it let anybody waltz through it and take Bledsoe down? The answer is all of the above, and while the 2006 season finds Bledsoe one year older, he now has a possession receiver and upgraded offensive line to rid him of the lost look clouding his eyes and the clumps of grass clogging his nose.

Bledsoe's start this season will mark the first time Dallas has had one quarterback starting the most games in consecutive seasons since Troy Aikman did it in 1999 and 2000. It will also mark the reunion between Bledsoe and quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer, the former QB coach of the New England Patriots back in 1996 when Bledsoe was a young quarterback leading the Patriots to a Super Bowl appearance. Will Palmer be as effective with an aging quarterback as he was with a green one? Frankly, he doesn't have to be, as Bledsoe isn't really suffering as far as his numbers go. His 2005 quarterback rating of 83.7 was tied for third highest of his career with his 1996 campaign and his 3639 passing yards ranked him as 8th highest in the league. In fact, his statistics from last year (60% percent of passes completed, 23 TDs thrown, 42 passes successfully caught between 20-40 yards) show his skills haven't diminished enough to hurt his team. If you don't think that's important you must have missed all the times Brett Favre killed the Packers last year with his mistake.

Drew Bledsoe isn't an old man playing on fumes on the field. He's experienced and still ravenous for the opportunity to lead his team to a Super Bowl Victory. He doesn't have to worry about a Tom Brady-type quarterback waiting in the wings to take his starting position, though. Palmer will be responsible for grooming backups Drew Henson and Tony Romo who still woefully inexperienced as Henson took no snaps last year and Romo took only one. It'll be even more important for Bledsoe to remain healthy as there is no one to pick up the helm if he becomes injured.

The offensive line experienced a serious boost with the free agent signings of OTs Kyle Kosier and Jason Fabini. In 2005 Kosier anchored a Detroit offensive line that allowed only 31 sacks of its quarterback, good for 12th place in the league. Bledsoe can breathe a sigh of relief. The draft additions of OG Pat McQuistan and center E.J. Whitley will add depth to a line that was thinned out last year as a result of the season-ending ACL injury suffered by T Flozell Adams. If former Pro Bowler Adams recovers from his injury he figures to be the anchor of an offensive line suddenly deep with enough bodies to protect Bledsoe.

The running game will also benefit from the improved offensive line, but its success will depend on the health of starting RB Julius Jones. Sidelined for numerous injuries throughout his two year career, he has played in only 21 out a possible 32 regular season games, a statistic which doesn't bode well for his status as Parcells' number one running back. Marion Barber ran for 252 yards in three games without an injured Jones last season and figures to become a more prominent force this year as Parcells prepares for the possibility of Jones going down with yet another injury. With the offensive line getting in gear and the presence of Terrell Owens in the receiver corps, expect the running game to improve upon its average ranking of 13th in the league in 2005.

Dallas must be a glutton for punishment because they got rid of one arrogant, loud-mouthed receiver only to replace him with another. Only thing is, the one they signed is one of the best receivers in the league, the gamble on 'quality' as opposed to garbage stock. Not that Keyshawn Johnson is garbage, but he never established himself as the receiver guaranteed to move the sticks. In fact, no one among the receivers really took on that role. Terry Glenn had the most receptions, catching 62 passes for 1136 yards and seven touchdowns but he was double-teamed often as the defenses were able to contain a slower Keyshawn Johnson. The presence of Owens will change all of that. Glenn's numbers will definitely improve as T.O. will force alot of zone coverage and double-teaming from the opposing defense but don't think that will mean Owens will miss out on all of the fun. He will be the guy Bledsoe will look to the most for the yardage needed to move the chains which means he'll get the first looks and alot of catches under twenty yards. With Bledoe's skills and Glenn as the number two receiver, Owens will be putting up big numbers this year similar to his first year in Philadelphia where he caught 77 passes for 1200 yards and 14 tds.

Dallas is adopting a two tight-end formation this year which means a splitting of the pass catching and blocking duties between Pro Bowl TE Jason Witten and rookie Anthony Fasano. The backup receivers all have less than three years experience and none of them except for Patrick Crayton, has spent a significant amount of time on the field. This lack of experience in the receiving corps will make them particularly vulnerable if Owens or Glenn goes down with an injury.

Owens has his work cut out for him. His troubles in other organizations have been well documented, from him lashing out against the quarterback and coach at San Francisco to him lashing out against the quarterback and coach in Philadelphia. However, this last time he was held accountable for his behavior. Suspended four games and deactivated for the remaining four, Owens would spend half of the season watching the games instead of playing them. For the first time in Owens' career, his personality as the loud-mouthed and perpetually petulant "Wildcard" off of the field adversely affected his play as the "Ace" receiver on the field and he won't forget that. It marked only the second time in his career Owens was punished for his behavior with game suspension. The first one was for one game in 2000 after the now infamous 'spiking of the ball on the Dallas Star' at Texas Stadium. That move didn't endear him to Cowboy fans, but that's only because he played for the other team. Now that he's with the Cowboys, the fans will embrace both him and his swagger, reminding them of when Michael Irvin played for the team. Meanwhile, T.O.'s presence on the squad automatically makes Dallas a contender for the top spot in its division.

As for the pattern of disrespect towards the head coach, it will end in Dallas. Bill Parcells isn't a young coach like Steve Mariucci, eager to work it out with his star player, nor is he like Andy Reid, the quiet coach willing to thwart conflict at any cost. Parcells is a older and more confrontational. He gets rid of guys who don't play like he wants them to play and doesn't tolerate anyone on the team who thinks they can disrespect him. T.O. can't afford to lose his temper when he knows there will be an immediate and swift punishment for it. Another thing to consider is Owens' age. He'll be 33 this year so he's on the short end of his career. How much longer will he be able to produce at the level that has made him one of the most productive wide receivers in the league? Surely he realizes his time in the league is dwindling and his past behavior means his new bosses will have a low tolerance level for any behavior deemed detrimental to the team.

The card representing the offense is a ten of spades, but is contingent upon "Wildcard" Owens' transformation into a player who leaves his talking on the field. If he's able to accomplish this, he becomes the ten of hearts, thus giving Jerry Jones and the Cowboys the third best hand in the league, good enough for a 12-4 record and an appearance in the NFC Championship.

Jerry Jones shrewdly absorbs the sight of the skeptical faces around him. They don't think he can win with the "Wildcard". The small smirk rooted to his face this entire time now expands into a full-blown grin. "Never doubt 'The Gambler' folks...never doubt 'The Gambler...'"