Dallas needs oft-rambling Pro Bowler Romo to be less improvisational.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
at N.Y. Giants
N.Y. JETS (T)
GREEN BAY (T)
at Buffalo (M)
at Carolina (S)
(T) Thurs. (S) Sat.
The King 500
400Marcus Spears, Defensive end
No Cowboy is happier about Wade Phillips's arrival than the '05 first-rounder out of LSU. The 6' 4", 298-pound Spears had just 2 1/2 sacks in two years under Bill Parcells, during which he mainly kept opposing tackles engaged while the outside 'backers attacked the passer. "Now I have a chance to do my thing," says Spears. "I'm finally going to be able to use my quickness to beat guys and make plays."
The sideline decibel level is way down, but can this mellowed-out bunch of Boys at last make some postseason noise?
No, the Tuna wasn't canned. But after guiding the Cowboys to a 34-30 record
in four seasons and extending the franchise's streak of years without a playoff
victory to 10, Bill Parcells and his domineering act had clearly worn thin in
Dallas, and he resigned in January. Enter defensive guru Wade Phillips, late of
the Chargers, who will seek to ramp up the Cowboys' 3-4 defense and turn
25-year-old linebacker DeMarcus Ware, whose 11 1/2 sacks got him into the Pro
Bowl, into a Shawne Merriman-like force.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
"I'm not making any comparisons," says inside linebacker Akin Ayodele,
when asked to discuss the differences between Parcells and Phillips. And
Phillips himself, when encouraged to describe how his philosophy might diverge
from that of his predecessor, says, "I really don't compare myself to anyone."
Most Cowboys, in fact, profess to have no interest in comparing the notoriously
cantankerous Parcells with the mild-mannered Phillips.
Then the comparing begins.
"You don't have Bill yelling at you, bearing down on you," says quarterback
Tony Romo. "There's some truth in what Bill did, and there's some truth in what
Wade does -- it's just a matter of approach. Wade's going to treat you like a man.
He's not going to call you out in front of the group. But if you make a mistake,
he's going to pull you aside and talk to you." Even a certain mercurial wideout
seems enthused about Phillips. "He calls me Terrell," the gentleman formerly
referred to by Parcells as the Player said in August on a Dallas radio show.
But don't think these Cowboys will be kinder and gentler. In three years at
San Diego, Phillips molded his defense into one of the NFL's most fearsome -- last
season he got more sacks (35 1/2) from just three players (Merriman, Shaun
Phillips and Luis Castillo) than Dallas had as a team (34). "Also, Merriman
didn't play four games, and Castillo was out six," notes Phillips. While
Parcells's 3-4 scheme relied on outside linebackers to pressure the quarterback,
the pass rush in Phillips's system can come from any defender. "It gives
everybody a chance, so we're not so predictable," says a suddenly less
comparison-shy Ayodele. Adds linebacker Bradie James, "We know without a shadow
of a doubt we'll have more sacks than we had last year. We'll have more
An aggressive front seven should create opportunities for a pass defense that
ranked 24th last year and had just three combined interceptions from its skilled
starting cornerbacks, Terence Newman and Anthony Henry. The arrival of hard-hitting free agent
Ken Hamlin, 26, should provide stability in the backfield; since Darren Woodson
last played in January 2004, six safeties have started next to four-time Pro
Bowl selection Roy Williams. Hamlin's range will also allow Williams to play
closer to the line, where he's effective on blitzes and in run support.
The Dallas offense will undergo fewer changes; it ranked fifth in the NFL
last season and will continue to benefit from the field position produced by
Australian punter Mat McBriar, whose
48.2 gross average in '06 was the fifth best of all time. The Cowboys also bring
back a Pro Bowl quarterback (Romo) and tight end (Jason Witten); two 1,000-yard
receivers (Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn); a 1,000-yard rusher (Julius Jones);
and the NFC leader in rushing touchdowns (Marion Barber).
First-year offensive coordinator Jason Garrett vows not to fiddle much with
the balanced attack and will continue to split the carries between Jones and
Barber. However, the 41-year-old Princeton graduate, who spent eight years as a
backup NFL quarterback, will try to harness Romo's improvisational tendencies.
"We talk about this all the time: Your greatest strength can be your greatest
weakness," says Garrett. "He's a very spontaneous player; he's a guy who can get
himself out of jams. But the trick is to play within the system, and then when
things break down, you're able to tap into some of those abilities." Says the
27-year-old Romo, "The older and more experienced I get, the better I'll be at
Romo will benefit from a veteran offensive line into which owner Jerry Jones
poured $30 million in guaranteed contracts during the off-season. "On paper -- and
you have to get a big piece of paper because these guys are huge -- we've got an
awfully good line," says Phillips. Leonard Davis, a free agent from the
Cardinals, will move from left tackle to right guard, where he excelled early in
his career. "I feel better at guard because guys have got to take me on," says
Davis. "They can't run away from me."
The Cowboys are one of the few teams with a proven starter at every position
(if you include Romo, who earned the job midway through '06). Should they stay
healthy, their string of years without a playoff victory won't enter a second
-- Ben Reiter