NFC East: Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys' trio part of new core

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
10:30
AM ET
OXNARD, Calif. -- They came to the Dallas Cowboys a year apart: Dez Bryant in 2010, Tyron Smith and DeMarco Murray in 2011.

The trio represents what the Cowboys hope is their bright future, not a continuation of a three-year run of mediocrity.

Jason Witten and Tony Romo are entering their 12th seasons with the organization and serve as the team's leaders. It befits their accomplishments, tenure and status, but the Cowboys have slowly changed their core.

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDez Bryant, left, and DeMarco Murray celebrated 22 combined touchdowns last season but not a trip to the playoffs.
Only eight of the 90 players on the current training camp roster were on the team when Jason Garrett took over as interim coach in 2010. Bryant is the Cowboys' most dynamic player. Smith is their best player, regardless of position, taking that spot over from DeMarcus Ware. Murray is one of the most important.

In January, all three played in their first Pro Bowl.

"I think for all those guys, there's not harder workers and competitive guys than the guys you just mentioned," said Witten, whose nine Pro Bowls have been topped in team history only by Hall of Famers Bob Lilly, Larry Allen and Mel Renfro. "But I think for anybody, you do it [make the Pro Bowl] once you want to stack a bunch of these together. It gives you confidence that you can do it. These guys are elite players. They are ingrained in this system. They are committed to help turn this around. They want to be the best players they can be, but also help this team compete for a championship."

The Pro Bowl is a validation of individual talent. Witten would give up his Pro Bowls for playoff success. When Smith, Murray and Bryant met with Garrett after their Hawaii trip, they "said the same thing to me: ‘That was great, but we want to be in the big game. We want to be one of those teams,' " Garrett said.

SportsNation

Which Cowboy is the one to watch at training camp?

  •  
    12%
  •  
    29%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    7%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,196)

That's why during special teams' portions of spring practices, Bryant caught balls from the Jugs machine off to the side. It's why Murray worked on hand placement on a blocking sled during the same period of practice. It's why Smith was one of the last to leave the field.

"There are levels of desire to be great, and you want guys to come in every day who want to be great and who demonstrate that each and every day," Garrett said. "We talk about that a lot, this desire to be a Dallas Cowboy playing in the National Football League. It's not about the guy that wants to put the jersey on, walk through the mall and send the hats to his family and friends and tell everybody you're a Dallas Cowboy and you're playing in the NFL. You need to demonstrate it each and every day. If you really, truly want to be great, you have to come to work every day with that mindset. Everything you do, take full advantage of it to try to make yourself be the best player you can be, and hopefully part of a team that can be the best they can be."

Smith prefers to be in the background, like most offensive linemen. He is considered by many to be one of the best left tackles in football. He will be paid handsomely by the Cowboys sooner rather than later. But he views his accomplishments differently.

"I just feel like it's not there yet," Smith said. "I feel like I've got a long way to go. You've got guys that are eight-time Pro Bowlers and things like that. I'm still at the beginning stage. I have a long way to go."

[+] EnlargeTyron Smith
Howard Smith/USA TODAY Sports"What makes Tyron great is his consistent ability to dominate every play," Mackenzy Bernadeau said of Tyron Smith, above.
His linemates are not as shy.

"What makes Tyron great is his consistent ability to dominate every play," Mackenzy Bernadeau said. "Just his athletic ability for his size, his strength and his hard work, so when you're at that level and can do that consistently at such a young age, that's what makes Tyron great. And he works hard. He's well deserving of all he's getting."

Smith helped Murray to his first 1,000-yard season, finishing with 1,121 yards in 2013. This year Murray hopes to become the first Cowboys rusher since Emmitt Smith in 2001 to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. The Cowboys are 11-0 when he gets 20 carries in a game.

Bryant's athletic ability was on display the minute he arrived. The rough edges of his game have been smoothed during his four years. He is the only Cowboys wide receiver with back-to-back 90-catch seasons. In the past two seasons, no receiver has more than Bryant's 25 touchdown catches.

As he enters his fifth season, Bryant is now the most senior voice at his position.

"My little saying that I go about it is you've got to love and respect the job you do," Bryant said. "If you do that, you're going to dominate. I love my job. I'm doing a better job of respecting it. That's what you do."

Because of the Cowboys' past, Smith, Bryant and Murray are matched against Hall of Famers like Allen, Rayfield Wright, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett, and Ring of Honor member Drew Pearson.

They combined for 36 Pro Bowls, but more importantly, they were part of the Cowboys' five Super Bowl titles.

Winning drives these three.

"Yeah, that's it," Murray said. "That's the result, just straight winning. Yards, all that crap doesn't mean a thing. If we're winning, at the end of the day, that's what you play for."

Cowboys sign WR Dezmon Briscoe

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
5:15
PM ET
OXNARD, Calif. -- The Dallas Cowboys signed wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe on Monday, bringing the total receivers on the 90-man roster to 11.

To make room on the roster the team released defensive tackle Chris Whaley.

Briscoe, a Dallas native, had not played in a regular-season game since 2012. He has been with the Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins.

Of his 43 career catches, 35 came in 2011 with the Buccaneers when he finished with 387 yards and six touchdowns. He was on injured reserve last year with the Redskins.

The Cowboys like to bring a high number of receivers to camp because of the amount of running required at the position and do not want to tax the group as a whole
Jason GarrettAP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherJason Garrett enters his fourth full season as Dallas' coach searching for his first playoff appearance.
IRVING, Texas -- This is the biggest year of Jason Garrett's coaching career with the Dallas Cowboys.

That's after 2013 was the biggest. And 2012. And probably 2011, even if it was his first full year as a head coach and the offseason was shortened because of a lockout. This is Dallas, after all, where winning is a birthright, even if those fans born after Jan. 28, 1996, have never seen their team make a conference title game.

But now we mean it. This year -- 2014 -- is the biggest in Garrett’s coaching career.

Basically we mean it because there are no more options for Garrett. He is not under contract for 2015 with the Cowboys. He is in a contract year the way Dez Bryant, Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray are.

The good news for Garrett is that the outside expectations have never been lower in his run as the Cowboys’ head coach. The offseason predictions, which are often ludicrous anyway, have the Cowboys tumbling from 8-8 to 5-11 or worse.

The bad news is that he has a defense that has a ton of questions at every level. Pick a defensive lineman and there is a question. Pick a linebacker and there is a question. Pick a defensive back not named Barry Church or Orlando Scandrick and there is a question.

On offense things look much better, provided quarterback Tony Romo is able to come back from back surgery to play at a high level. To some that might be a huge "if" considering Romo’s age (34), but the general feeling is that everything will be fine with the quarterback, who had 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 15 starts in 2013. Add Bryant, Jason Witten, Murray and an offensive line that should be this franchise’s best since 2007 and you can see the offense putting up yards and points this season.

That is where Garrett has to hang his hat if he wants to be the Cowboys’ head coach or another team’s head coach in 2015. And he can’t really hang his hat in the room, because he won’t be in the room as much as he has been.

One of Garrett's themes of 2013 was that he was entering what was the biggest year of his coaching career and unable to do what he does best -- run the offense -- because Jerry Jones gave those duties to Bill Callahan. Garrett won’t be running the offense in 2014 either, but neither will Callahan. Garrett at least has his guy, Scott Linehan, running it this season. So that is a slight bonus for Garrett.

The better news for Garrett is that if he makes the playoffs, he can control his future.

Looking objectively at what he has done since taking over as the full-time coach, there have been positive signs and mistakes that have cost the Cowboys games. The general direction of the team is better than it was when he took over. Troy Aikman said this offseason that if Garrett is not back in 2015, then the next coach will benefit from the foundation Garrett put down.

There aren’t many people outside of Valley Ranch giving the Cowboys a chance to compete in the NFC East in 2014. The Cowboys went 5-1 in the division last season and had the worst defense in the league. If they are a tick better on defense this season, can’t they contend? When did the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Washington Redskins become such juggernauts?

If the Cowboys made the playoffs, would Garrett become a hot commodity again? Would teams look at the big picture of the mess he inherited, how he kept the team competitive in a retooling if not rebuilding mode and how he worked with owner and general manager Jerry Jones, and view Garrett differently than he is viewed now?

Perhaps, and that would put him in a position of leverage.

Garrett will not address his future no matter how many times he is asked. He gives the same answer about keeping his focus on being the best coach he can be each and every day. Jones has been patient with Garrett and he doesn’t mind that the coach is in a lame-duck status. Jones wants to see the Cowboys reap the rewards of working through some of Garrett’s missteps made because of inexperience in his first three seasons.

This week Jones will be sitting next to Garrett and will be asked about the coach’s long-term status. He will profess faith in Garrett, extoll what he has done in his first three seasons and talk about the potential payoff coming in 2014.

If it doesn’t come this season, then all bets are off.

That is why this year -- 2014 -- is the biggest year of Garrett’s coaching career.

Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
11:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Examining the Dallas Cowboys' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

The Kyle Orton watch is over now that the Cowboys released the veteran backup. The timing of it is a surprise, and Jason Garrett spoke optimistically all offseason about Orton’s return. Now the Cowboys turn their attention to Weeden as Romo’s backup. Weeden had a productive spring, running the first-team offense as Romo recovered from back surgery. The Cowboys haven’t kept a third quarterback since 2011, and Caleb Hanie and Dustin Vaughan will have work to do to crack the 53-man roster

RUNNING BACKS (4)


The last two spots could be up in the air. Randle, a fifth-round choice, will be pushed by free-agent pickup Ryan Williams in the preseason. Williams, a former second-round pick, was not able to stay healthy in Arizona. The Cowboys have given him a chance to win a backup job. Clutts did a nice job as a late-season pickup in 2013. He is more versatile than undrafted rookie J.C. Copeland, but I don’t think having a fullback on the 53-man roster is set in stone.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)


I debated whether to go with a sixth, but later on you will see why I stuck with five. It is possible the Cowboys will look for a veteran in the final cuts if they feel limited by their depth because of injury, but I think they like the overall group. They will work their No. 3 receiver role on a rotation basis, but Beasley could emerge as a bigger threat on third down. There will be a lot of eyes on Williams, who takes over the No. 2 role on a full-time basis. Bryant is set for another Pro Bowl-type season.

TIGHT ENDS (3)


Witten remains near the top of the game at his position. His total catches were down last year, but his touchdowns were up. Escobar’s role figures to expand, especially as a No. 3-type receiver. Hanna has the inside track on the third spot, but I have a feeling the Cowboys will be looking for more of a traditional blocker, especially if they want to get away from the fullback spot to open up a role elsewhere.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9)

The top six are set, with Bernadeau or Leary fighting it out for the left guard position and the loser becoming the top backup on the interior. Parnell is in the final year of his deal, and if Weems develops, I wonder if the Cowboys would look for a trading partner. They have invested a lot in Parnell in time and money for him to be a backup, so it would be a risk, but perhaps one worth taking. Weems had a decent offseason. Clarke gets the nod as the No. 9 guy right now, but veteran Uche Nwaneri could work his way into the mix.

DEFENSIVE LINE (10)

I think the Cowboys will go heavy here, especially considering what happened last year and the numbers they have thrown at the position this year. Four of them are rookies -- Lawrence, Gardner, Bishop and Coleman. I believe Anthony Spencer and possibly Amobi Okoye will start the year on the physically unable to perform list, so they don’t make this 53-man roster with the idea that they join the team after the sixth game of the season. Wilson garnered the last spot over a 2013 starter, Nick Hayden, but there will be a few players in the mix for the final few spots, including Ben Bass.

LINEBACKER (7)

Carrying seven linebackers might be a little heavy, but I have special teams in mind when it comes to Will Smith. He benefits from having only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. The Cowboys spent the offseason telling us games are won and lost up front, so carrying an extra offensive or defensive linemen could get in this mix as well. McClain gets a spot only because of his experience. Backups of Holloman, Hitchens and Smith would be tough considering their youth, and I can see the Cowboys looking for veteran backup help around the final cut dates.

CORNERBACK (5)


Carr and Claiborne have to play exceptionally well for this defense to have a chance, and they might have to do it without much help from a consistent pass rush. Scandrick is coming off his best season, and Claiborne will have to beat him out to reclaim the starting spot. Moore can play inside and out. Mitchell showed in his limited offseason work that he can make plays. Last year’s fourth-round pick, B.W. Webb, will have to fight for a spot. Based on his offseason work, he did not make the cut for this roster.

SAFETY (5)

Church is the only player without questions. The Cowboys are projecting the other four with their biggest bet on Wilcox. He enters camp as the starter, but he could be pushed by Heath and Hamilton. Dixon will be more of a special-teams threat if he is to make the roster. Hamilton showed some playmaking in the offseason. No Matt Johnson? Not right now, especially after he couldn’t practice -- again -- for most of the offseason.

SPECIALISTS (3)


Perhaps Cody Mandell can push Jones, but Jones is the more consistent punter and has a good rapport as a holder for Bailey. Ladouceur remains one of the best long-snappers in the game. This group won’t change during the summer unless there is an injury.
IRVING, Texas – Brandon Weeden's bid to be the Dallas Cowboys’ No. 2 quarterback in 2014 got a lot easier when the club decided to release Kyle Orton.

Weeden
Barring something unforeseen, Weeden, who signed a two-year deal in the offseason, will be Tony Romo’s backup. But Weeden does not look at the move as “weight off my shoulders.”

“Given the situation Kyle has been in in previous years in Dallas, he’s been the backup quarterback, so I think if he was there it would be one more obstacle I would have to kind of hurdle,” Weeden said. “But at the same time I can’t really get wrapped up in putting all of my attention on that. I need to do what I did in the [organized team activities] and continue to play well and get better. I think hopefully things will work out that way regardless.”

The Cowboys felt confident enough to jettison Orton, who skipped the entire offseason program and minicamp, in part because of what Weeden did in the spring. With Romo recovering from back surgery and being kept out of competitive drills and Orton missing, Weeden took all of the first-team snaps.

“I think the reps I got in the OTAs were kind of irreplaceable,” Weeden said. “If I was in a situation where God forbid something happened to Tony and I’m asked to play, those are the guys I’m going to battle with, so those reps I got were invaluable. I know I won’t get many of those in [training] camp, but fortunately I had 12 practices where I was able to get out with those guys. Now it’s, ‘Let’s get to work.’ I’m ready to get to California and get things rolling.”

Orton had the same benefit last year of taking all of the offseason snaps in 2013 as Romo recovered from surgery to remove a cyst from his back. When Romo hurt his back in Week 16 against the Washington Redskins, he was able to step into the season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles and play well. He completed 30 of 46 passes for 358 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, but a late turnover sealed the Cowboys’ loss.

“[Gavin] Escobar and [Jason] Witten are two totally different players. Dez [Bryant] and Terrance [Williams] are two totally different players,” Weeden said. “You kind of learn what certain guys’ strengths are and little nuances of what they do. That’s the thing more than anything. You kind of get a feel for what Dez likes on fades and all that stuff a certain way where Terrance might like it another way. You’ve got to learn what each guy likes. When you’re with so many new guys it takes time. You always want more time, but it’s nice to have the reps I did get there to get a head start.”

Camp preview: Dallas Cowboys

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's Todd Archer examines the three biggest issues facing the Dallas Cowboys heading into training camp:

The health of Romo: Ever since he became the starter in 2006, how Tony Romo goes is how the Cowboys go. He is coming off his second back surgery in less than a year, but he was able to do much more this offseason than he did in 2013, when he had a cyst removed. The Cowboys kept Romo out of any competitive drills in the spring in order for him to be fully healthy by the time they got to training camp. Using last year's camp as a guide, Romo did not miss a day of work, and the Cowboys don't believe he will need to be eased into the full practice load this summer either. Because a big part of Romo's game is his ability to move and create in open space, however, they will be cautious if there even hints of more soreness than just the aches and pains of training camp. All offseason, the Cowboys have not expressed any worry about Romo, who turned 34 in April, being able to return to form. He will get his first chance to show it on the practice fields in Oxnard, California. If he can play at a high level -- he had 32 touchdown passes and 10 picks in 15 games last season -- then the Cowboys should be able to contend for a playoff spot in a division that is not as strong as it has been in the past.

Marinelli to the rescue: The Cowboys' defense was historically bad in 2013, and they enter this season without their all-time leader in sacks (DeMarcus Ware), last year's leader in sacks (Jason Hatcher) and their best playmaker (Sean Lee). Rod Marinelli takes over for Monte Kiffin as the defensive coordinator and will bring subtle changes in coverages, fronts and blitzes, but the core of the 4-3 scheme will remain the same as when that coaching duo was together at Tampa Bay. The Cowboys did not make any splash signings in free agency, but their most important was Henry Melton. If he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and play the way he did under Marinelli in Chicago, the Cowboys have a chance. Marinelli also plans to lean more on cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne in man coverage, but Carr and Claiborne have to play much better in 2014 than they did in 2013. There could be as many as seven new opening day starters on defense this season than in 2013, and it is up to Marinelli to make it work. He had more talent with the Bears when he was running their defense, but the players believe in what he is selling.

Plan of attack: From 2007 through 2012, Jason Garrett called every offensive play. In 2013, Bill Callahan was the playcaller, but he was forced to run Garrett's offense, and there were hiccups. Scott Linehan will be Romo's third playcaller in as many years, and he will have the autonomy Callahan did not have. The Cowboys are not changing schemes, but Linehan has brought on alterations to an offense that struggled on third down in 2013. Linehan leaned toward the pass in his time with the Detroit Lions, but he did have a 1,000-yard rusher in Reggie Bush last season. With the Cowboys, he has a better offensive line, better tight end (Jason Witten) and better running back (DeMarco Murray). The Cowboys aren't about to become a run-first team under Linehan, but they need to run more, especially when they have a lead in order to help end games, protect a defense filled with questions and protect Romo, who is coming off two back surgeries. Because Romo did not take any team or seven-on-seven snaps in the spring, they will need to play a little bit of catch-up in what each other likes and, perhaps more importantly, doesn't like in situational football. The Romo-Linehan relationship might be the most important the Cowboys have. They have to make it work.
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' decision to part ways with backup quarterback Kyle Orton has opened up a spot on the 90-man roster for training camp.

Orton
Josh Brent's name has come up as a possible fill-in, but sources say there is nothing new on that front. Brent remains at a treatment facility after he was released from county jail for his involvement in a 2012 car accident that killed his friend and teammate Jerry Brown.

The Cowboys have not ruled out the possibility of re-signing Brent if he wants to re-start his NFL career, but they have more pressing needs to fill with training camp starting next week.

At this point in the summer, finding players is difficult. With teams carrying 90 players, there are only so many available. The pool is not filled with stars. It’s filled mostly with guys you hope can get you through a few days of practice, limit the amount of snaps you give your regulars and perhaps develop into contributors.

Tight end remains a position of need. The Cowboys have Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, James Hanna and Jordan Najvar. They need more of a blocker in the group, not only on the 90-man roster but perhaps the 53-man roster.

The Cowboys like to carry a high number of receivers and corners because of the amount of running they do in training camp. They have 10 receivers and eight cornerbacks under contract. Again, the idea isn’t to sign a name veteran to make the masses happy at this point. It’s about practice (said in best Allen Iverson voice).

The Cowboys could also gain a spot if Amobi Okoye is not fully cleared for drills. He spent most of the offseason with the team, working out, but he did not take the field as he attempts a return from a personal medical issue. Including Okoye, the Cowboys have 16 defensive linemen on the roster.
IRVING, Texas -- Even though Kyle Orton skipped the offseason program, the Dallas Cowboys believed he would eventually show up for the June minicamp. When he failed to show up for the minicamp, Jason Garrett spoke optimistically that the backup quarterback would show up for training camp.

On Tuesday, the Cowboys decided to release Orton.

Orton
For all of the threats of coming after his signing bonus money if Orton retired, which could have been up to $3.4 million, or docking his base salary nearly $150,000 for skipping a physical, the minicamp and the workouts, the Cowboys decided having a player, especially a quarterback, not fully vested in the program was not worth it.

My initial reaction is surprise. My second reaction is: why not do this sooner?

Orton made it clear what his intentions were. He didn’t want to play football anymore. But with training camp fast approaching and a daily fine of $30,000 staring him in the face, he was preparing to come to Oxnard, California, next week.

The Cowboys will save $3.25 million in salary-cap space this year, which opens up more room for potential deals for Tyron Smith and/or Dez Bryant. Orton will count roughly $2.25 million against the cap next year, which he would have counted whether he played this year or not.

If Orton had retired, he would have had to pay back the signing bonus money on the $5 million he received in 2012 and the $510,000 restructuring of his deal in 2013. He wasn’t about to pay back that money and call it a career. He would have showed up for camp. Had he missed the first six days of camp, then the Cowboys could have come after parts of the $1.127 million signing bonus proration in 2014.

Orton was hardly unprofessional in his two years. He served as a sounding board for Tony Romo and other teammates as the backup. He played well in his one start last season, despite his fourth-quarter turnover. It was much better than people could have anticipated even though the Cowboys lost the NFC East title game to the Philadelphia Eagles.
IRVING, Texas -- Jimmy Graham was unable to declare himself a wide receiver in an arbitration case, but the New Orleans Saints tight end did fairly well with his reported four-year, $40 million deal that includes $21 million guaranteed.

As the Dallas Cowboys and Dez Bryant look for ways to come to an agreement on a long-term deal so they can avoid any franchise-tag hassle next offseason, can Graham’s deal be something of a barometer for Bryant?

Graham
Bryant
Bryant
Graham argued he was a receiver because he lined up mostly off the line. It was an argument that was eventually denied by an arbiter, but there is some truth to what he was saying. Graham is not a tight end in the way Jason Witten is a tight end. But that is his position. Bryant will never be asked to put his hand on the ground to block somebody the way Graham is asked to do at least part of the time for the Saints.

But I digress. Let’s just look at the statistical comparisons of Bryant and Graham. Both players were selected in the 2010 draft. Bryant was a first-round pick, so he has an extra year on his rookie deal. Graham was a third-round pick.

In the past three seasons their numbers are fairly similar.

Bryant: 248 catches, 3,543 yards, 34 touchdowns.
Graham: 270 catches, 3,507 yards, 36 touchdowns.

Any discussions between the Cowboys and Bryant’s agent, Eugene Parker, have been kept under wraps for the most part. Most of the figures thrown around have been by the media. There are seven wide receivers with an average annual value of at least $10 million: Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson.

Marshall, Johnson, Fitzgerald, Wallace, Bowe and Jackson have at least $20 million in guaranteed money in their deals, as does Andre Johnson, who is threatening a holdout from the Houston Texans' training camp.

Graham’s contract puts him in line with receivers if not with the top-paid guys like Johnson ($16.2 million), Fitzgerald ($16.1 million). Harvin ($12.9 million) and Wallace ($12 million) who cashed in during free agency. Bowe averages $11.2 million. The Washington Redskins signed DeSean Jackson to a three-year, $24 million deal that included $16 million guaranteed in the offseason.

So where does Bryant fit in? Should he get Graham’s $10 million average or play out the season and possibly get tagged (that was $12.3 million in 2014)?

There is some middle ground in which both sides can compromise, but Graham's deal could help define just where that ground is, even if he is a tight end (wink, wink).
IRVING, Texas -- It's a week before the Dallas Cowboys arrive in Oxnard, California, for training camp and we already know just how big of a year it is for Bruce Carter.

It's been written and talked about countless times in the offseason.

[+] EnlargeDallas' Bruce Carter
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesCowboys linebacker Bruce Carter, a second-round pick by Dallas in 2011, is set to become a free agent after this season.
Carter is entering the final year of his rookie contract, set to become a free agent after the season. At one point he was viewed as a core player, vital to the future growth of the Cowboys' defense. After a frustrating 2013 season, he is not viewed that way anymore.

But it doesn't mean he can't be viewed that way again.

In 2011, Anthony Spencer was in a contract year and tied his career high with six sacks. He also had 31 quarterback pressures and four forced fumbles. His overall game made him a valuable player in the Cowboys' 3-4.

The Cowboys placed the franchise tag on Spencer for the 2012 season.

In another contract year, Spencer had his best season, putting up a career-high 11 sacks and earning his first Pro Bowl bid.

The Cowboys put the franchise tag on him again for 2013, guaranteeing him nearly $20 million over the two seasons in which he was tagged.

Last season, he played in only one game because of a knee injury that required microfracture surgery and might keep him out of the beginning of this season. Once again he is in a contract year, having signed a one-year deal that could be worth as much as $3.5 million.

Jason Hatcher was in a contract year last year and responded with his best season. He had 11 sacks -- after putting up just 16 in his previous seven -- and was named to the Pro Bowl. His age -- he turned 32 on Sunday -- kept the Cowboys from making a play at re-signing him, but the Washington Redskins signed him to a four-year, $27.5 million deal as a free agent.

Way back in 2007, Ken Hamlin joined the Cowboys on a one-year deal. He put up a career-high five picks and was named to the Pro Bowl. Prior to the 2008 season, he signed a six-year, $39 million deal with the Cowboys that included $15 million guaranteed. He was cut after the 2009 season.

Some contract years have not been as productive. Cornerback Mike Jenkins saw the Cowboys add Brandon Carr in free agency with a $50 million deal and draft Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick. Jenkins was coming off shoulder surgery, did his rehab elsewhere and started only two of 13 games in 2012. He signed with the Oakland Raiders.

Gerald Sensabaugh played on three straight one-year deals with the Cowboys from 2009-11 before cashing in at the end of the 2011 season with a five-year, $22.5 million deal that included $8 million guaranteed. He was cut after the 2012 season.

Which brings us back to Carter, the club's second-round pick in 2011.

"That's certainly a cliché thing in all of sports, that people talk about, 'He's in a contract year and he's going to take a different approach than he had up till this point,'" coach Jason Garrett said. "I don't know if I buy that with guys that I have been around. I think Bruce Carter wants to be a really good football player. I think that's independent of anything that is going on in the business side. I think getting comfortable in this scheme for the second year -- I think Sean Lee's absence will help him. It will force him to step up a little bit more. It will force Justin Durant to step up a little bit more. Sometimes you can have a player as strong as Sean Lee is -- such a great leader like Sean is -- sometimes you defer to that guy. I think it's really important for those guys to understand he's not here right now. They have to step up. They've done a better job of that throughout the OTAs and minicamp."

Linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said Carter has "ramped up," the meetings with the position coach in the offseason.

"I think he's taking steps in the right direction," Eberflus said. "And he's putting the work in. He's meeting with me as much as he can. Studying the tape, giving him clear and concise goals daily for practice and he's doing a good job of attaining those goals each and every day so when he does that he takes steps in the right direction to improve his fundamentals and his game."
IRVING, Texas -- A year ago, Barry Church was something of a question mark.

He was coming off a torn Achilles and played in parts of only three games in 2012.

This year, the safety might be the Dallas Cowboys' most established defender.

[+] EnlargeBarry Church
AP Photo/James D SmithMore will be asked of Barry Church this season.
Anthony Spencer is the most tenured, but he might not play until the seventh game of the season. Orlando Scandrick has the most Dallas experience among the defensive backs, but he will be pushed for a starting job by Morris Claiborne. Bruce Carter has more career starts, but the linebacker is enigmatic to say the least.

That leaves Church, who led the Cowboys with 147 tackles from his safety spot. He also had five tackles for loss, an interception, six pass deflections, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown.

“You never want to get too complacent or take things for granted,” Church said. “I feel like I have a role on this team now, especially at the safety crew because I’m one of the oldest guys out there in the secondary, me and Orlando and Brandon Carr. It’s a different role coming in being one of the old guys.”

Church came to the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2010. He worked his way up from special-teamer to sub-package player to a starter.

This year he figures to add another role: leader.

With Sean Lee out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Cowboys are in need of a defensive leader. Church deferred to Lee, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher last year, but now the younger players (as well as his peers) will look to him.

The coaches have asked him to be more vocal.

“I pretty much know the defense front and back, so the more I can communicate to the other guys and get people lined up, the better. I definitely feel like I can do it. I could’ve done it last year, but Sean was the designated leader and the vocal captain, so you roll with him. He was the guy. He proved himself. I was coming off an injury and had to re-prove myself.”

Church is a player coach Jason Garrett often cites as an example to younger players trying to figure it out.

“He loves to play,” Garrett said. “People respond to him. And he does a lot of positive things. He’s around the ball a lot. He makes a lot of plays. So he has that way about him where people kind of gravitate toward him because of his personality and because of his play. Just needs to play more and keep doing that. In regards to the absence of Sean, he absolutely needs to step up as a leader. Your best players need to do that. When you play a position like safety, you’re a big communicator back there with everybody else in the secondary. So being strong with his [voice] and being strong with his mannerisms and getting everybody squared away, I think that’s a big part of what his job is.”
Roger Staubach and Drew PearsonAP Photo/Bill Kostroum
Score: Cowboys 17, Vikings 14
Date: Dec. 28, 1975 Site: Metropolitan Stadium

With nearly 40,000 votes cast, Roger Staubach’s Hail Mary pass to Drew Pearson was voted as the most memorable play in Dallas Cowboys' history by the ESPN.com readers.

Troy Aikman’s fourth-quarter pass to Alvin Harper in the 1992 NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers that set in motion the 1990s dynasty finished second. Bob Lilly's sack of Bob Griese in Super Bowl VI was a distant third even if it propelled the Cowboys to their first championship.

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Cowboys' history?

  •  
    57%
  •  
    36%
  •  
    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 38,414)

The voters got this one right. Staubach is the most iconic player in franchise history, and that play is frozen in time. It was one of the most iconic plays in NFL history and introduced “Hail Mary,” into the league’s lexicon. You cannot write the history of the NFL without that play.

To recap the play: With time running out in a 1975 divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, the Cowboys had the ball at midfield and needed a miracle. They had dominated statistically, but the Vikings had a 14-10 lead.

Staubach pumped to his left after taking the shotgun snap, in hopes of moving safety Paul Krause away from the sideline. As he pumped, Staubach said he nearly lost the ball and as a result the pass was underthrown.

Subsequently, Pearson had to pull up and either knocked Nate Wright down (Minnesota's version) or made an excellent adjustment to the ball (Dallas' version) to score the winning touchdown, pinning the ball against his right hip.

Some of you wondered why Tony Dorsett's 99-yard run, Emmitt Smith's carry in which he broke Walter Payton’s rushing record or his stiff-arm of Lawrence Taylor playing with a separated shoulder, Clint Longley's Thanksgiving Day heave against the Redskins or even Leon Lett's miscue in Super Bowl XXVII didn’t make the list.

Two of my personal favorites: Marion Barber’s run out of the end zone against the New England Patriots breaking seven tackles and Tony Romo's first-down scramble vs. the St. Louis Rams after a shotgun snap sailed over his head didn’t make the list either.

There needed to be some historic value to the play. The Hail Mary had that, so did Aikman-to-Harper and Lilly’s sack.

But there’s no question which play had the most value.

Cowboys' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
PM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Since Tony Romo took over as quarterback, the success of the Dallas Cowboys has mostly centered on Romo's effectiveness.

Romo
He has played well enough in the past three seasons to throw 90 touchdown passes and get intercepted 39 times, but the Cowboys have not been able to finish better than 8-8 and have missed the playoffs. They have not qualified for the postseason since 2009.

As the Cowboys look to end the drought in 2014, Romo will remain the central part to their success, but the core of the team has changed.

While Romo and Jason Witten remain, the core of the team has become players like Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church and Sean Lee. The Cowboys have transitioned from an older team to a younger team.

Starting next year, the Cowboys will be in much better salary-cap space. The days of the Cowboys setting the market on free agents might be over. They signed cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal in 2011 and have not received the payoff. They parted ways with DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin this offseason. They did not attempt to re-sign Jason Hatcher. For a team that did not hesitate to pay age often, the Cowboys have turned almost frugal.

They have drafted better and smarter. Three of their past four first-round picks have been offensive linemen. Their drafting will never be perfect but it has been better. They have found more role players after a disastrous 2009 draft. They are trying to build the roster from the inside out as opposed to outside in.

For the Cowboys to make the jump from 8-8 to a consistent playoff team, they honestly need to continue down the same path. Patience has never been one of owner Jerry Jones’ strong suits, but the team has shown a willingness to change its ways.

If they continue to build smartly and avoid the costly mistakes that come about in free agency, the Cowboys could find themselves beginning to open up another window of opportunity as Romo and Witten wind down their careers.
IRVING, Texas -- Rod Marinelli likes what he saw from his Dallas Cowboys defense in the spring.

The defensive coordinator liked that he has more players along the defensive line. He likes the linebackers’ “movement skills.” He likes how cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne can play man-to-man. He likes the growth J.J. Wilcox made at safety opposite Barry Church.

[+] EnlargeBarry Church and Morris Claiborne
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsDallas defensive backs Barry Church and Morris Claiborne didn't have much to celebrate during 2013.
But there’s something else Marinelli likes about the group.

“I think there’s something to prove a little bit,” Marinelli said. “Not something to prove from last year, but there are some guys coming here off the street with something to prove. There are some guys in contract years with something to prove. There are some guys coming out saying, ‘I want to be a better player,’ who have something prove.

“You get that many guys wanting to prove something, then you can become better. Right now what I like is how hard they’re going after their craft.”

Last season was a mess for the Cowboys' defense. It has been referenced so many times this offseason that “32nd-ranked defense” has been tattooed on everybody. The Cowboys gave up 6,279 yards in 2013 a year after giving up a franchise-record 5,687 yards. Five quarterbacks had four-touchdown games against the Cowboys. Two times in a three-week span, they allowed more than 620 yards. The New Orleans Saints had 40 first downs.

“It definitely bothers us,” Church said. “I’m speaking for myself, but it definitely bothers me. But there’s nothing we can really say or prove different. We were 32nd in the league and we weren’t that good on the defensive side of the ball. This year, the only way we can counter that is by playing good and becoming one of the better teams in the league at taking the ball away and against the run and the pass.”

It’s not just the players. The tag falls on the coaches, too.

“Nobody wants to look at last year and take ownership of that, but we have to,” secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. “And we’ve got to get better from there, and we cannot let that happen again.”

Oh, and now the Cowboys have to show they can be better in 2014 without the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware, who was cut, last year’s leader in sacks, Jason Hatcher, who signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins, and their best playmaker, Sean Lee, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in organized team activities.

But the sense is that Marinelli likes it this way. He had ubertalented defenses with the Chicago Bears with guys like Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. He won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with guys like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice, John Lynch and Ronde Barber.

He doesn’t have an Urlacher, Sapp, Brooks, Briggs, Rice or Lynch with this group.

He has Henry Melton, whom he coached to the Pro Bowl with the Bears, trying to prove he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He has Bruce Carter trying to prove he is a big-time player in a contract year. He has Claiborne, a former sixth overall pick in the draft, trying to prove he is not a bust. He has Carr trying to prove he is worth the five-year, $50 million contract he received in 2012. He has George Selvie trying to prove he was not a one-year wonder after putting up seven sacks last season. He has Tyrone Crawford trying to prove he can come back from a torn Achilles.

He has low-cost free agents such as Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey and Amobi Okoye trying to prove they can be prime-time players. He has Justin Durant trying to prove he can be a middle linebacker and Kyle Wilber trying to prove he can be a strongside linebacker. He has Rolando McClain trying to prove that a player who has retired twice in the past year has the desire to keep playing. He has DeMarcus Lawrence trying to prove that a second-rounder can make an impact as a rookie. He has Wilcox trying to prove he can play strong safety.

He has guys like Church and Scandrick trying to prove that they can put up solid seasons in back-to-back years.

So much to prove. So much to forget.

“The first thing you do is you take it as coaches and players and you take accountability for it,” Marinelli said. “And no excuses. Now we look forward. Now it’s about the expectations of this group and with expectations you have to execute. It’s that simple. That simple, yet that hard.”
Bob Lilly and Bob GrieseAP Photo
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is one of three finalists for the most memorable plays in Cowboys history. We already discussed the Troy Aikman-to-Alvin Harper pass in the 1992 NFC Championship Game and the Hail Mary from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson.

Please vote for your choice as the Cowboys’ most memorable play.

Score: Cowboys 24, Dolphins 3
Date: Jan. 16, 1972 Site: Tulane Stadium

The Cowboys were known as "Next Year's Champions" after losing the 1966 NFL championship to the Green Bay Packers, the ’67 title game (better known as the Ice Bowl) to the Packers and Super Bowl V to the Baltimore Colts.

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Cowboys' history?

  •  
    57%
  •  
    36%
  •  
    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 38,414)

But the Cowboys quickly put to rest any doubt that they would win Super Bowl VI against the Miami Dolphins.

After taking a 3-0 lead, the Cowboys forced Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese into retreat mode. Larry Cole had the first chance at Griese but jumped in the air, allowing the quarterback to escape. Briefly. And in reverse. Eventually, Bob Lilly, Mr. Cowboy, was able to bring Griese down for a 29-yard loss.

Doomsday had dominated, and with their 24-3 victory, the Cowboys were “This Year’s Champions,” becoming the first team to win a Super Bowl the year after losing one.

The Cowboys lost Super Bowl V to the Colts on a Jim O’Brien field goal that led Lilly to flinging his helmet in disgust. A year later, Lilly had his championship moment.

The sack remains the largest negative play in Super Bowl history. The Cowboys are the only team not to allow a touchdown in a Super Bowl. A Miami offense built around Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Jim Kiick was shut down. Csonka and Kiick had 40 yards rushing each. Warfield had 39 receiving yards, with 23 coming on one play.

Roger Staubach was named the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl VI with two touchdown passes, completing 12 of 19 passes for 119 yards. But it was the defensive dominance, highlighted by Lilly’s sack, that brought Tom Landry and the Cowboys their first championship.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider