Kevin Nogle, The Phinsider (KN): How has Tony Romo looked in training camp and the preseason, following his offseason back surgery?
David Halprin, Blogging the Boys (DH): The best thing we can say so far about Tony Romo's back after the offseason surgery is that he looked like the old Tony Romo in the last preseason game. He missed the first preseason game but played two series last week and looked very good doing it. He was efficient with his passing and threw a TD, and he moved well around the pocket and his passes looked very much like his old passes. So if you didn't know he was coming of injury/surgery, you would have never known. But, that was a very short sample size and he really didn't take any big hits. So we still have a ways to go to be totally sure about his health. The Cowboys have been resting him a lot in training camp, he probably missed over 50% of the practices, and that was by design to keep his re-hab on track and to not overwork the back. Romo and the Cowboys claim he will be fine for the regular season and that he's basically healthy, but we as fans still have a little bit of worry that probably won't go away until a week or two into the season.
KN: The Cowboys defense was pretty bad last year, but looked to be getting better for this season, only to see some early injury issues to some big time players. What are your expectations for the Dallas D this year?
DH: That is the number one, two and three question of the offseason. The Cowboys offense is going to score points, so can the defense get any better than last year to help them out? Here are the things they're trying to do, or things they believe will happen, to get better. They replaced Monte Kiffin with Rod Marinelli as defensive coordinator. Kiffin had been out of the pro game for while and he might have been out of touch with modern NFL offenses. Marinelli has coordinated some very good Bears' defenses recently, so he's hopefully better equipped to deal with adjustments and such. Even though Marinelli replaces Kiffin, they both run a very similar scheme, so there will be familiarity. Last year was Dallas' first year as a 4-3 (from a 3-4), the players were brand new to it. This year, they hope they will be able to play faster without thinking so much. There is also hope that some guys who were injured or played injured last year, come back and improve. Cornerback Morris Claiborne played injured a lot, safety J.J. Wilcox missed time, defensive ends Anthony Spencer and Tyrone Crawford missed the season. They added Henry Melton in free agency. The hope is some of these players will come back healthy and improve the defense.
Kn: On that same note, the team also lost seven time Pro Bowl selection and four time First Team All-Pro defensive end DeMarcus Ware to the Denver Broncos in free agency this year. How are the Cowboys looking to replace the pass rush Ware brought, and how has that pass rush looked so far?
DH: I love DeMarcus Ware, one of my all-time favorite Cowboys, so keep that in mind when I say Ware's pass rush hasn't been the same since he was injured in the middle of 2012. Being the warrior that he is, he's played through multiple injuries, but his stats have been very un-Ware like. In his last 22 games played for the Cowboys, he had 7.5 sacks. That would average to 5.5 sacks in a 16 game season. The reason I say this is that Ware's dipping production was part of the Cowboys defense's dipping production. Injuries and age are part of it, but possibly playing out of position as a 4-3 defensive end last year was part of it, too. Maybe he's just better as a 3-4 OLB. Now, that's not to say we won't miss him, we will, he was a great player and still hurried the QB at a pretty good clip. In no way did I want him to leave, so I'm not being an apologist and trying to sugar-coat it. But, the point is, over the last 1.5 years, Ware has been very ordinary for us. So we aren't replacing the dominant Ware of 3 to 4 years ago. But if he can stay healthy in Denver, and he's playing more of a stand-up pass rusher role, he could flourish once again.
So far the pass rush has looked weak. The guy we drafted to replace Ware, DE DeMarcus Lawrence, fractured his foot and will miss the first 3 to 6 games of the season. We still don't know how DT Henry Melton will play, he's battling a groin injury so they are being cautious with him. And we're still waiting on DE Anthony Spencer to return from injury, and possibly the reinstatement of DT Josh Brent. All of that will greatly affect how the pass rush will play out. So there is no reason to think the Cowboys will be a dominant pass rush team, but they may be able to generate more than last season, but there is just no way of knowing right now.
KN: What are the general strengths and weaknesses for the 2014 version of the Cowboys as they look to end the 8-8 streak?
DH: The strength is the offense. The Cowboys have one of the better offensive lines in football now with three first-round picks, LT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick and RG Zack Martin. RT Doug Free bounced back last year to have a solid season. The Cowboys starting offensive line is young and very talented. They are a major strength. The skill positions are also stocked, with Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray and Jason Witten. Put all that together and the Cowboys offense should have no trouble putting up points this year. They even have some other offensive weapons, like WR Terrance Williams, RB Lance Dunbar and TE Gavin Escobar that could also contribute. Last year the special teams were also very good. Kicker Dan Bailey is one of the best and return guy/coverage ace Dwayne Harris is another weapon.
But, as discussed above, the defense is a huge question mark. If they improve, the Cowboys stand a chance of doing something and making the playoffs. If the defense falters, or the injury bug crushes us again like it has the last few years, all bets are off.
KN: Who are some of the lesser known names that could have an impact on this game?
DH: I'll give you some rookies and UDFAs to watch. Defensive tackles Davon Coleman and Ken Bishop are trying to make a mark, and both have shown some promise early on, especially Coleman. Look to see if they can penetrate the middle of the offensive line. Cornerback Terrance Mitchell has shown promise, but he's also played like a rookie at times. This will be his third preseason game and we'll want to check his progress.
Some other guys who are more veteran include Rolando McClain at MLB, he's trying to re-start a once promising career. Tight-end Gavin Escobar is showing up better this preseason, he might do some damage. And last week, the Cowboys added DT Zach Minter to the roster a couple of days before the Ravens preseason game. No one expected anything, he was just a training camp transaction that hardly anyone notices. He then proceeded to blow up the Ravens in the second half of the game. Now we'll see if he can repeat that.