NFC East: Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys position breakdown: RBs

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
12:00
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Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Under contract: Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, Ryan Williams
Free agents: DeMarco Murray, Tyler Clutts

A look back: In a word, Murray was phenomenal. The Cowboys wanted to be a physical team and Murray allowed that to happen. He led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards, setting a single-season franchise record. He also scored 13 touchdowns and opened the season with eight straight 100-yard games.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
AP Photo/Scott BoehmDeMarco Murray rushed for an NFL-best 1,845 yards this season, nearly 500 yards better than second-place Le'Veon Bell.
He was helped by three first-round picks on the offensive line, but he also saved his best season for a contract season. And he played in every game for the first time in his career, working through a broken left hand that required surgery.

When the MVP and offensive player of the year awards are announced later this week, Murray should be in the conversation.

Because Murray was so good, the Cowboys did not give Randle or Dunbar much work. Randle, however, managed to average 6.7 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns on 51 carries. He had runs of 38, 40 and 65 yards. He ran hard and his pace was different than Murray's and caught defenses off guard. Dunbar did a decent job as a third-down back. His opportunities will be lacking just because of the depth of the Cowboys' offense but he has a good feel for setting up screens.

Clutts didn't have a carry during the season and caught just one pass in the regular season. He added his first touchdown in the playoffs. Williams' comeback from injuries was a good story in training camp and he spent the year on the practice squad.

A look ahead: What happens to Murray will be the story of the Cowboys' offseason. Do the Cowboys pay him a nice reward or do they let him walk as a free agent? Depending on the day, hour, minute that answer can change.

Murray has value to the Cowboys for more than just his ability to run the ball. Finding how to come to a financial agreement with all those things considered will be difficult. It won't be impossible. The Cowboys can certainly afford Murray, Dez Bryant and make plays in free agency with their salary cap. If they don't keep Murray, it will be a decision that they don't want to overpay for a running back.

If that happens, then Randle will get a chance to prove he can be effective as a full-time back. There are those at Valley Ranch who believe he can be a 1,400-yard rusher, but they also acknowledge there is more to the position than running the ball.

Clutts could be brought back at a decent price as well.

A look out: If Murray walks, then the Cowboys would figure to be players in the running back market. While everybody wants to connect the dots between the Cowboys and Adrian Peterson, who remains under contract with the Minnesota Vikings, the cost of business with a running back will be a factor. Peterson won't come at a discount and the Cowboys would have already passed on keeping Murray because they didn't want to fork over a lot of cap space to a running back.

The draft would figure to be the more logical spot. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon looks to be a good fit for what the Cowboys want to do in the running game and with the 27th pick in the draft, they might be in a good spot to get value. There will be other runners that will gain attention between now and May as well.

Remember, Murray was a third-round pick.

The series:
Quarterbacks
Specialists
IRVING, Texas -- On Sunday, ESPN and Pro Football Focus unveiled a project to determine how close each team not in Super Bowl XLIX is to playing in the Super Bowl.

The Dallas Cowboys were deemed to be the closest of the 30 teams not in the Super Bowl. PFF graded the Cowboys with four elite players, eight good players, 16 average players and just two bad players.

But close is a relative term. Thirteen of the 30 players rated by PFF are set to be either restricted or unrestricted free agents. Teams change. Opponents change. What is true today won’t be true in September when the season begins.

[+] EnlargeBryant/Murray
AP Photo/Brandon WadeRe-signing stars Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray will likely help Dallas be a contender again in 2015.
“I think more so now than ever before,” tight end Jason Witten said, “I think we have an identity in which how we play. And I think that’s something that you feel like you’re building and can build upon. Coach [Jason] Garrett did a great job of kind of enforcing that, kind of laying out that as a blueprint week in, week out since April of what’s going to allow us to have success. Having said that, you start over. No team's the same, and so you have to build that again. I think it was good for us to taste that. It was good for guys to get back there.

“But I don’t think that says next year just roll the ball out and we’re going to do it again. No, you’ve got to do it all over again. I do think we’re good at the right positions that will allow us to have a chance to be successful.”

The Cowboys should have the best offensive line in the NFL with Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin leading the group. Tony Romo had his best season. Dez Bryant, who is set to be a free agent, is among the best wide receivers, as is Witten among the best tight ends.

But then there’s DeMarco Murray. Like Bryant, he is set to be a free agent but there is no guarantee he will be back. If they have to use the franchise tag, it will be on Bryant.

If Murray leaves, the dynamics of the offense are sure to change. Maybe Joseph Randle can replace Murray. Or maybe Adrian Peterson, in fact, ends up a Cowboy. Or Mark Ingram. Or maybe some rookie. Maybe doesn’t fit into an equation.

And this is where "close to the Super Bowl," talk is not necessarily realistic. Thirteen of the 30 Cowboys graded by PFF are free agents, either restricted or unrestricted.

Eight of those 13 players are on the defensive side of the ball, including the leading tackler (Rolando McClain), leading interceptor (Bruce Carter) and second-leading sacker (Henry Melton). Key contributors like Anthony Spencer, Justin Durant and Sterling Moore (restricted) could hit the market to some degree.

When Garrett’s five-year extension was announced shortly after the Cowboys' season ended, he mentioned the word "build" in his opening statement.

“I think teams make mistakes when they say, ‘OK, we’re one player away,’” Garrett said. “I just think you’re continuing to try and build a football team. If we do that, right guys, the right way, that’s what gives us our best chance.”

The quick fix in free agency is sometimes never quick or a fix because the cost is so prohibitive. The Cowboys signed Brandon Carr in 2012 to a five-year, $50 million deal but he has not played to that level and entering his fourth year with the team he is looking at a pay-cut-or-be-cut scenario.

There is also the element of luck. Was it lucky that Tony Romo spun away from J.J. Watt and found Terrance Williams for a touchdown in the overtime win against the Houston Texans? Was it good fortune that the Cowboys were matched up with the dreadful AFC South?

The Cowboys saw a bit of bad luck in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers when Bryant’s catch was overturned.

“Sometimes it’s the way the ball bounces,” Frederick said. “You’re on the sideline and you drop one and it might bounce out of bounds or it might bounce back in and the other team picks it up. There really is a bit of luck in there.”

Each year is a delicate balance of skill, luck, health and chemistry mixed in with a team’s ability.

The 2014 Cowboys were close to contending for the Super Bowl. That doesn’t mean the 2015 Cowboys will be close to competing for Super Bowl L.

“One of the things you learn early on in this game is if we brought back the exact same team, the exact same players, the exact same coaches and we got together on April 20 for the start of the offseason program, we have to start all over again,” Garrett said. “So I do believe that you get yourself to a point and the experiences that we’ve had up to this point are real ones and we can benefit from those experiences, actual game experiences, success and adversities and all that, so we start from that point but we have to get back to work.

“We have to put our socks back on and start from the ground floor and do it all over again. That’s an exciting thing.”

Cowboys position breakdown: QBs

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
12:00
PM ET
Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Dallas Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Under contract: Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden, Dustin Vaughan

A look back: It’s difficult not to call 2014 Romo’s best season. He led the NFL in completion percentage. He led the NFL in quarterback rating and Total QBR. He had the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesBy many statistical measures, Tony Romo had the best season of his career.
And he did it coming off major back surgery and not being able to practice fully the entire season. After the second week of the season, Romo did not practice on Wednesdays during full practice weeks in order to build up strength in his legs and core.

It worked perfectly. The one time it didn’t was on Thanksgiving, a shorter week, in a 33-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Romo threw 34 touchdown passes and was intercepted just nine times. Three came in the first half of the season opener. He was more efficient than ever and benefitted from the belief in the running game. But as the running game slowed some late in the season, Romo’s play picked up and the Cowboys closed the regular season with four straight wins. He had 12 touchdowns and one interception. He completed 90 percent of his passes in the win against the Indianapolis Colts. He showed he didn’t need to throw for 300 yards to be successful. He did it just once all season.

And he showed again just how tough he is playing through two transverse process fractures and torn rib cartilage.

Weeden started the 28-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals and completed 18 of 33 passes for 183 yards. He was picked off twice and threw one touchdown pass. The Cardinals made a lot of quarterbacks look pedestrian during the season. Weeden had a good spring, which helped the Cowboys decide to cut Kyle Orton after the veteran skipped the offseason program, organized team activities (OTAs) and mandatory minicamp. He had some good moments in the preseason and played well in relief of Romo against the Washington Redskins.

Is he a long-term answer or a stop-gap backup? The Cowboys will give him a chance to show that either way.

Dustin Vaughan made the roster as an undrafted free agent and was active for just one game. He has a big arm and showed potential in training camp and in the preseason, but his presence would not deter the Cowboys from taking a quarterback in the draft this spring.

A look ahead: For the first time since 2012, Romo will have an offseason to be able to perfect his craft. Back surgeries held him out in 2013 and ’14 and while he was able to play at a high level, he has long believed his improvement came in the spring when he tinkered with different things.

Romo turns 35 in April, but the Cowboys believe he is different than most 35-year-old quarterbacks because he didn’t play the first three years of his career. Maybe the back surgeries or hits he has taken eat up some of that clock. But this isn’t about a five-year plan with the Cowboys. There is no reason to think Romo’s about to hit a steep decline in play.

Mentally, he is at his best. Physically, he can still get it done and he has a top offensive line that is a huge benefit.

He is set to count $27.773 million against the cap, which is an astounding number but one that the Cowboys could keep him at with the kind of salary-cap shape they are in. By restructuring his deal, they would only add to how much he will count against the cap in the future.

Weeden is signed through 2015. The Cowboys will have Vaughan's rights through 2017.

A look out: Every spring we wonder if this is the year the Cowboys draft Romo’s successor. The guess now is no, they won’t. Whenever the Cowboys decide to move on from Romo or Romo moves on from the Cowboys, then they will find his successor. The thought of grooming quarterbacks these days seems quaint, like a glass of lemonade on a hot day. Teams mostly draft a guy early and play him.

They could look for a more veteran backup than Weeden, but there’s not a lot available and they still like Weeden’s arm and potential. The same goes with Vaughan.
IRVING, Texas -- According to ESPN Stats & Information, the highest salary-cap figure in the NFL since 2000 has been the $24,752,941 the Washington Redskins heaped on defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth in 2010.

The Dallas Cowboys could very well break that mark with quarterback Tony Romo in 2015.

Romo is set to count $27.773 million against the cap because of a $17 million base salary and a proration of $10.773 million from his signing bonus in 2013 and restructure in 2014.

At the Senior Bowl last week, Executive Vice President Stephen Jones told reporters it is not a given the Cowboys will restructure Romo’s deal.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesTony Romo will cost the Cowboys almost $28 million in salary cap space next year.
“Obviously you don’t like to mortgage your future if you can help it,” Jones said. “We started making the move toward being a younger team and going a different direction in terms of pushing money out, so we’d prefer not to do that, but at the same time every situation has ramifications and you have to make tough decisions sometimes. I don’t think there’s an exact science, ‘Hey, we’re going to do it or not do it.’”

The Cowboys don’t want to do it and they probably don’t have to do it either even when it comes to re-signing Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray to long-term deals or even putting the franchise tag (or transition tag) on either player and signing one to a long-term deal.

They can still create about $31 million in space with other moves and have enough to be viable players in free agency, re-sign their key guys and get all of their draft picks signed.

(Let’s get a misnomer out of the way: a restructure is not a re-do. A restructure is simply an accounting tool where the player still gets the same money it’s just counted differently against the cap. A re-do is a player taking less money. And Romo will not be taking less money, nor should he be asked to take less money.)

Last year the Cowboys turned $12.5 million of Romo’s $13.5 million base salary into signing bonus as part of a restructure. It helped the Cowboys get under the cap last year. They don’t need that help this March.

Romo turns 35 in April. The Cowboys have to believe he has three years left at a high level. If they can withstand such an astronomical cap figure, they should do it. Too often in the past they kept kicking the salary-cap can down the road.

The most common practice in restructuring a player’s deal is to turn the difference between his salary and the league minimum into signing bonus and prorate it five years. The Cowboys like round numbers, to a degree, in their capology and could move Romo’s base to $1 million and turn the remaining $16 million into a signing bonus.

Just like that, they create $12.8 million in space against the cap.

They also eat up $3.2 million more in cap space from 2016-2019 by doing so. Romo’s cap numbers in 2016-19 would jump to $20.835 million, $24.7 million, $25.2 million and $23.7 million.

But the cap will be going up in the future, so what’s the big deal? Sure. And Romo’s base salary in 2016 is just $8.5 million (just?). It might be better to turn the restructure trick in 2016 when you don’t have to prorate as much of the salary and don’t inflate the future cap figures too much.

But there is also this to consider when examining Romo’s $27.773 million cap figure in 2015.

The Cowboys can nibble away at that figure by restructuring it as many times as they want in the coming months, taking a bit here and there as they see fit instead of doing the maximum at the start of the league year and perhaps leaving themselves a bit more compromised in the future.

But go back to Jones words last week: The Cowboys don’t have to do it.

They should be more than willing to erase Haynesworth’s record.
IRVING, Texas -- Throughout the years, we have heard countless teammates rave about Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.

Witten
Graham
This past season, we heard Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray talk about Witten’s impact on them as players and men. We heard Tony Romo say Witten might be the best Cowboy of all time. Jason Garrett called Witten the best tight end in football for the past decade.

On Thursday, I pulled aside New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham after a Pro Bowl practice and asked about Witten.

During the practice, Witten, who was added to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement for Denver’s Julius Thomas, took the first-team snaps over Graham. I wondered if it was Graham deferring to a tight end who will be playing in his 10th Pro Bowl.

"The first thing I told him is, you know, he’s my idol and he always has been," Graham said. "I try to emulate everything he does on the field and off the field. Not only does he do everything right on the field, and he’s been consistent for the past forever, but he does so much in his community. So I’ve tried to emulate myself just like him as a man, just because of the type of individual he is."

Graham and Witten have played in Pro Bowls before. They share the same agent, Jimmy Sexton. How they play tight end is different. Graham is more athletic, almost a wide receiver playing the position. Witten is the more traditional tight end.

"He is what I know I will be or what I try to be each and every year," Graham said. "And I strive to be the type of tight end that he is."

Tony Romo: 'I have to be better'

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
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IRVING, Texas -- Throughout the Dallas Cowboys’ season, Tony Romo was often asked to reflect on what he was able to do.

He never took a big picture view, saying the timing wasn’t right, that the focus was on that week’s opponent or that day’s practice.

The end of Dallas' season wasn't even two weeks old, and as he stood outside one of the team buses after a Pro Bowl practice in Glendale, Arizona, Romo’s big picture view wasn’t about his season. He did not discuss his comeback from major back surgery to lead the NFL in passer rating, Total QBR and completion percentage. He didn’t go on about the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesAfter throwing 34 touchdowns in 2014, Tony Romo is already looking forward to how he can improve his game next season.
 He didn’t thumb his nose at critics who wondered if he would ever rid himself of mistakes in big games or those who scoffed when he said in training camp his best football was ahead of him.

“Ultimately, I feel like we didn’t accomplish what we set out to do so it leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” Romo said. “I think you just figure out how you have to be better. I have to be better. Our team has to be better. And you have to go attack this thing with everything we got.”

On Tuesday night, sitting in the lobby at the Arizona Biltmore, Romo watched his fellow Pro Bowlers walk by. He was struck at how different it felt from his earlier trips. In his first Pro Bowl in 2006, he was the unknown kid who led the Cowboys to the playoffs. He had the world in front of him.

Now in his fourth Pro Bowl and five years removed from his most recent trip to the all-star game, his life has changed. He turns 35 in April. He is married and has two sons. He knows these moments don’t last forever.

The world may still be in front of him, but his view of it has changed.

“You want to keep constantly trying to figure out new ways to improve,” Romo said. “You’re never satisfied. Last year is not a satisfying feeling. If anything, it makes you more hungry to be better going forward so you have an opportunity to achieve all your goals. Ultimately we didn’t get that done and that just never sits well. I’m a firm believer that you have to start over and go do everything you did to be better the next season. You can’t just rest on anything you’ve done. It just doesn’t work that way.”

“I’m going to have to start over, tear it all down and figure out what I did well and work on the things I didn’t do as well and then go try and continue to perfect your craft to get to your highest level.”’

How does he improve on 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions? On completing 69.9 percent of his passes? On 8.5 yards per attempt?

The secret is in the dirt. It’s an old Ben Hogan saying and one Romo references often. It’s on the practice field or in the meeting room. It’s studying the tiniest of details from where he places his ring finger on the ball to how he slightly adjusts where he points his lead foot.

“If you’re not improving and getting better from year to year, if you don’t think you can try to figure out new ways to perfect your craft, I don’t understand how you can help your football team,” Romo said. “You’re going in the wrong direction, to me, if you don’t. You’ve got to figure out how you can be a better player. Each guy has to do that a little different and just think if our team takes that approach, we have a chance to be better.”

For the first time since 2012, Romo will be able to work on his craft in the offseason. In 2013, he had surgery to remove a cyst from his back and did not take part in organized team activities and the minicamp. In 2014, he was coming back from the discectomy that prevented him from playing in the winner-take-all finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.

It limited him in training camp. He never practiced more than two straight days. It limited him early in the season until the Cowboys’ athletic training staff formulated the ‘Romo Wednesday,’ in which he worked on his strength in his core and legs.

“It’s going to be a much better offseason on building in areas that I haven’t been able to in a couple of years,” Romo said. “I’ll always have to maintain a little bit of what I’ve been doing for my back. Strengthening the areas there, that’s the most important thing. I think what I’ve found is that you’ve got to attack the offseason, and you can do it in many different forms. I think it’ll be nice to attack some area that I haven’t been able to.”

He doesn’t want to say what areas he will attack. He prefers to keep that secret in the dirt to himself. He said the tear-down process will start in the middle of February.

“Right now you’re just trying to enjoy the Pro Bowl and family and things like that,” Romo said.

When the bus returned to the Biltmore, he was going to sit by the pool and relax with his family and teammates. The sun was out and everything was bright.

“Next season is a whole new season and we’ve got to tear it down and start all over again,” Romo said. “You’re guaranteed nothing. That’s the only way to be successful year to year. I think our team has an opportunity with a lot of the right people in place, and I’m excited about the challenge and excited about the ability to work and get after it.”
PHOENIX -- There is a theory going around about the Dallas Cowboys and their running game that sounded a lot like the theory around the team in the 1990s: You can get just about any running back to have success behind that offensive line.

Murray
Emmitt Smith became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with help from an offensive line that had too many Pro Bowlers to count. DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing in 2014 with 1,845 yards, breaking Smith’s franchise record for yards in a season, with three Pro Bowlers blocking for him.

Jason Witten does not subscribe to that theory. At all.

“We’ve got good running backs,” he said. “Joe Randle took advantage of every opportunity he got. I think [Lance] Dunbar’s got a great future ahead of him. Obviously the O-line, but I think it would be silly to not give him the credit for what he did. It’s not easy to do that and I think Coach [Jason] Garrett said it a few weeks back that he created a mindset for our team and that’s not easy to do. He deserves a lot of that credit, DeMarco does, and so that’s why you want a guy like that back because he stands for everything you want in your football team.”

But the financials will play a part in Murray’s future. The Cowboys can afford to pay him whatever they want. It will be a question of if they want to pay him big money before the free-agent market opens.

Witten will do everything he can to make sure Murray stays. The two developed a tighter relationship in 2014 as workout partners in the offseason.

“You don’t invest that time just for one year,” Witten said. “You’re really thinking big picture. But he deserves it. He’s worked hard. He has a lot of good things around him and he’s the first to give others credit. You want him to have as much success as he can, but of course you want him on your team. … You want to see him maximize that but there’s no question that I hope he’s thinking about guys like me when he’s going through that decision. Not that he owes us anything because he doesn’t, but that he wants to be a part of that. But you know it’s a business, too.”
PHOENIX – A year ago at this time, Zack Martin was in Mobile, Alabama, preparing for the Senior Bowl, unsure of his football future.

This week he is at the posh Arizona Biltmore preparing for his first of what should be many Pro Bowl appearances.

Martin
“There was a lot going on last year,” Martin said. “Obviously, more of trying to do as much as you can to get noticed and get picked. This year it’s a little more relaxing, just kind of here for a week to enjoy everyone’s company and enjoy yourself playing.”

As Martin was walking to his room Tuesday, Joe Staley introduced himself to the Cowboys rookie.

“Zack Martin, the greatest guard in the history of guards,” Staley said.

Or not.

“He was joking,” Martin said.

Staley played for Brian Kelly at Central Michigan. Martin played for Kelly at Notre Dame. That Martin earned that kind of praise -- joking or not -- from Staley speaks to Martin's reputation across the league. In addition to the Pro Bowl, he was named All-Pro, the first Cowboys rookie to be so honored since 1969.

“I didn’t really expect this coming in, but obviously I kinda hit the jackpot with the situation I came into with great coaches and even better players to play next to,” Martin said, “Really got lucky with that.”

The Cowboys got lucky. While most of the draft-day talk centered around Johnny Manziel, the Cowboys would have selected linebacker Ryan Shazier if the Pittsburgh Steelers hadn’t taken him with the 15th overall pick.

Martin was a Day 1 starter and didn’t miss a game or a snap. Coaches like to say a player’s biggest improvement comes between his rookie year and second season.

“Honestly, I have no idea how he could improve that much,” center Travis Frederick said. “My level of improvement was a lot, and it just had to do with learning the game, but he’s already at such a high level … that if he continues to improve at the level he did this year, there really is no ceiling for him.”

Martin said he needs to get stronger. He said he can improve on the big things as well as the fine details.

He doesn’t consider himself to be the greatest guard in the history of guards.

“Just go in and do what I’ve always done,” Martin said. “I’ve always said our group takes care of that because we hold ourselves to such a high standard that that group won’t allow anything else but that.”

Team Irvin loads up on Dallas Cowboys

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
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PHOENIX -- When the Pro Bowl kicks off Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Dallas Cowboys will be almost completely represented on Team Irvin.

With DeMarco Murray as one of his captains and Darren Woodson one of his assistants, it was not a surprise to see Cowboys Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin load up on players from his former team.

Only long snapper L.P. Ladouceur will be on Team Carter, led by Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter.

Murray will have his three offensive linemen -- Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin -- as well as tight end Jason Witten blocking for him. Tony Romo was Team Irvin’s first pick.

Not only are the six players on the same team, they will be coached by the Cowboys staff.

“It’s going to be great because it just brings that continuity,” Frederick said. “Even if we’re not exactly running our playbook it’s at least the same terminology. It’s a lot of the stuff we will have heard before.”

Team Irvin even was able to grab the Cowboys’ all-time leader in sacks in DeMarcus Ware, who concluded his first season with the Denver Broncos after a nine-year run in Dallas.

“Actually [defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli] came to me and he said, ‘Do you have any rushes left in you? Let’s get to the quarterback this week,’ so I know he’s excited,” Ware said. “He takes his game to a whole other level. Whenever he’s out there able to coach it’s a game and he said, ‘I am going to be on the winning team. I’m not going to lose.’”
PHOENIX -- The Dallas Cowboys won't know for sure who will be their starting running back in 2015 until a decision is made on DeMarco Murray or by DeMarco Murray.

If Murray does not re-sign, the Cowboys won’t know if Joseph Randle will be the starter, some early draft pick will be the starter or some free agent will be the starter.

But they will know how they want to run the ball.

“I just think we build on what we did,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “I think we obviously were very successful at it. I give a lot of credit to [new offensive line coach Frank Pollack] and some of the things we’re doing too. They were in place before I got here. Some of the concepts he brought from Houston I think are good fits for DeMarco. But we’ll look at it all and we’ll say, 'These run types fit this player,' and 'This player did this the best.' Once you go through and evaluate our season again. It’s amazing what you either confirm that you already knew or you might say, ‘What were we thinking? We ran this play twice and we got 15 yards on one and 20 on another and decided not to run it again?' That’s the kind of stuff you go through."

Murray led the NFL with 1,845 yards on 392 carries with 13 touchdowns. Randle carried the ball just 51 times but gained 343 yards and had three touchdowns. The draft class appears to be strong. However, a running back hasn’t been picked in the first round the last two years. There could be several free agents that attract the Cowboys if Murray’s price tag is too high, such as Mark Ingram.

Jason Garrett and Linehan want Murray to return in 2015. They realize his importance to the Cowboys' success.

But they can’t get caught up in the business of the NFL.

“I know we’ll do everything we can to get all of our current players back under contract that aren’t,” Linehan said. “There are business aspects that we’ll have to cross potentially but you don’t concern yourself with it. You’ve just got to place people in those positions in your mind hypothetically or if you already know, and then you move forward. Free agency is not for a while and we’ll see a lot of things between now and then and you just kind of stay with -- it’s probably an overused term -- but the process to go start hitting the evaluations of our team and our scheme and do all of that and everything else will take care of itself.”
PHOENIX -- DeMarco Murray is a month removed from surgery to repair a broken left hand, but the Dallas Cowboys running back did not consider pulling out of the Pro Bowl.

Murray
“I love playing, so I’m not going to (sit out),” Murray said. “The hand’s all right so I’m excited to just go out there have fun and compete.”

Murray played six days after undergoing surgery against the Indianapolis Colts. He did not miss a game for the first time in his career. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March. He said he is not sure if in Sunday’s all-star game he will wear the hard plastic shell he wore as extra protection, but he is sure the Cowboys’ athletic training staff that is working the game will have it packed.

“I’m not worried about (the possibility of getting hurt),” Murray said. “It’s not been a worry all year, so it’s not going to start now.”

Murray is one of Team Irvin’ captains along with Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden. Cowboys Hall of Famer Michael Irvin is the captain of one of the teams and has former Cowboys safety Darren Woodson as his assistant.

Murray will lobby for Irvin to pick up his offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin when the final selections are announced on Wednesday.

“I definitely want to make sure they’re the top three picks,” Murray said.

That would be OK with Frederick.

“It certainly would be nice to work with DeMarco,” Frederick said. “Obviously you know his style, and it really would be nice for the three of us all to be on the team on the offensive line. But we’ll see how it goes.”
PHOENIX -- Plenty of things can change between now and March 2 when the Dallas Cowboys have to place the franchise tag on wide receiver Dez Bryant, but the read-between-the-lines talk is that there is little doubt the team will use the designation.

By doing so the Cowboys must pay Bryant the average of the top-five salary-cap figures for wide receivers over the last five seasons. That figures to come in at $12.5 million to $13 million.

It's a hefty price for the Cowboys to have lock in on one player for one year. It creates a potential unhappy Bryant, who wants the security of a long-term deal and all the guaranteed money that comes with it.

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Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesThe Cowboys may be leaning toward using the franchise tag on Dez Bryant, but a long-term deal would allow them to potentially keep DeMarco Murray, too.
A long-term deal would benefit the Cowboys, too, because Bryant would not count as much against the 2015 salary cap and potentially free them up to keep DeMarco Murray, too.

But the design of the tag is to keep Bryant from playing elsewhere.

"It's certainly a tool that franchises use to manage their roster, manage the salary cap," coach Jason Garrett said. "I think it's an important tool. I think in general you'd rather not have to use it, you'd rather have guys under contract so you can put the kind of team together that you want over a longer period of time. But there's a business part of this, and that's a tool that teams use to do their business well. Hopefully it's beneficial to different people."

The Cowboys last used the franchise tag on outside linebacker Anthony Spencer in 2012 and '13. The total cost was $19.4 million. The tag prevented Spencer from shopping his wares to other teams coming off his best season -- he had 11 sacks in 2012 -- but when he missed all but 34 snaps in 2013 he was rewarded handsomely.

"You're getting paid the top of your position, but at the same time everybody wants a long-term contract," Spencer said. "But what guarantee do you have in a long-term contract? You're only guaranteed what they give you up front. Usually the franchise tag is just about the same or a little bit more than what you're going to get for signing up front. I was fortunate to get two of them, so I ended up coming out of it ahead. I ended up making more than what I was asking for in the beginning so it didn't really affect me in a negative way."

Bryant already said he would be disappointed if the Cowboys gave him the franchise tag. He wants to be a Cowboy. The Cowboys want to keep him but they want to do so while mitigating some of the financial risk.

His options would be limited. He can sit out and not be paid. He can make due with roughly $13 million with the hopes of getting the multi-year deal at another point.

"I don't want to get into the business of all of that," Garrett said last week when asked if the team would be worried about the receiver's reaction to the tag. "But Dez is a football player that's really, really … he's a hell of a player. He's one of the best at his position and we're lucky to have him, have him here for a long time."
PHOENIX -- Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant will miss the Pro Bowl because of a lingering groin injury.

Witten
Bryant
Bryant
Bryant was never listed on the injury report during the season with a groin injury and he never talked about an injury late in the season. Bryant caught 88 passes for 1,320 yards and a team single-season record 16 touchdown catches.

He will be replaced by Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb.

Bryant is scheduled to be a free agent in March but the team has said it will use the franchise tag on him if they were unable to reach an agreement on a long-term deal.

Despite Bryant's absence, the Cowboys will still have seven players in the all-star game with tight end Jason Witten added on Monday to replace Denver's Julius Thomas.

It will be Witten's 10th Pro Bowl in 12 seasons. With the honor, only Hall of Famer Bob Lilly will have more Pro Bowls as a Cowboy than Witten. Hall of Famers Larry Allen and Mel Renfro also played in 10.

Witten made the Pro Bowl from 2004-10 and has now made it the last three seasons. His numbers were down in 2014 with 64 catches for 703 yards and five touchdowns, but coach Jason Garrett repeatedly called Witten the best tight end in football because of his ability to block.

Witten's blocking helped DeMarco Murray lead the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards. His receiving numbers improved after the Pro Bowl vote was counted, catching 18 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown in the last three games.

He joins Murray, Tony Romo, Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and L.P. Ladouceur in the all-star game.
IRVING, Texas - Brandon Carr didn't nearly play as poorly during the final month of the season and the playoff as most folks think.

He was more physical against the run and actually broke up some passes. He played with more confidence and his performance against Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson in the playoffs was terrific. Shadowing him much of the day, Nelson caught only two passes for 22 yards.

Carr
For the record, Nelson caught 98 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns in the regular season.

Still, he's supposed to count $12.7 million against the salary cap with a salary of $8 million. The Cowboys will probably give him the same option they gave right tackle Doug Free a couple of years ago: Take a pay cut or get released.

“Carr played well this year and I’m not as critical of Carr as others,” owner Jerry Jones said. “But that’s a lot of money. One thing that we've just got to do is we’ve got to make sure that every way we can we get the value for the money.

Free took a pay cut, and it worked out well for him. He has played well the past two seasons, and now he has the leverage as a free agent. While the Cowboys have restructured Carr's deal in the past, it's unlikely they choose to go that route again.

“There’s an issue of going and borrowing some money, borrowing it in the sense of hedging, taking money from future years," Jones said. “There’s an issue there. We’ll maximize our dollar.”
IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones loves the term "walk-around head coach."

In 2013, he made Jason Garrett a walk-around head coach -- meaning he does not call the plays for the defense or offense. Jones forced Bill Callahan to be the playcaller. There was one problem with the move (and it was no fault of Callahan's): Garrett didn't trust him with his offense.

Coming into the 2014 season, Garrett hired Scott Linehan as his offensive playcaller, and the walk-around thing worked a lot better.

[+] EnlargeLinehan
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsScott Linehan allowed Jason Garrett to focus more on defense. By being more well-rounded, Garrett became a better coach.
If not for the Miami Dolphins, maybe that never happens.

In 2005, Garrett was in his first year as a coach, working as the Dolphins' quarterbacks coach, and Linehan was the coordinator. For hours and hours, they worked closely together. There was almost a game between the Dolphins' assistant coaches to get to the office before Nick Saban. Even a hurricane couldn't stop Saban. When others could not get down their streets, Saban somehow made it to work early.

Linehan and Garrett built a bond that lasted.

"I think at that time, I had a lot of philosophies about football from growing up in a football family, from playing football at this level for a number of years and being influenced by lot a of different guys," Garrett said. "But that was my first opportunity as a coach to be influenced, and his influence was significant, and in many ways it crystallized my thoughts about how I felt about offensive football and football in general."

In 2013, Garrett could not divorce himself from the offense. Jones' arranged marriage failed because Callahan was not familiar with the passing game. He ran a West Coast system. Football is football, but the differences in systems lead to nuances in playcalling.

When Linehan was made available after the Detroit Lions fired Jim Schwartz, Garrett had his guy. He was still the new guy around a lot of guys who had been in the same system and on the staff for at least a few years.

"I thought he did a great job coming in here and dealing with the staff that was in place, a system that was in place, a lot of players who knew how to do things a certain way," Garrett said. "All that stuff in place, and he did a great job kind of maximizing the way it was, the people, the system and then adding to it and making it better."

Garrett was still involved with the offense with Linehan on board, but it was more in an advisory role. In practices, he spent more time with the defense. In meetings, he spent more time with defense.

By being more well-rounded, Garrett became a better coach.

"Maybe one of the most underutilized opportunities in coaching is the communication between offensive guys, defensive guys and special teams guys," Garrett said. "One of the things that we have done in the past is you break each other down. The offensive line coach is talking with the defensive line coach. What are you doing? What are you looking at here? Why is he in that kind of stance? Why is he so wide? Sometimes you sit on one side of the ball and say, 'If we do this, they're going to do this.' The defensive guy says, 'They ain't doing that. This is why they're doing that.'

"Just opening up those lines of communication, I think they're really, really important. So one of the things I tried to do for the defensive guys is provide an offensive perspective. 'This is what they're trying to get accomplished here. This is how we run that play. This is how we block that.' Maybe give them some insights, and obviously learning more about what we're doing and being able to communicate and coach better was a big a part of the process for me as well."

With Linehan returning in 2015, Garrett can continue to walk around and continue to grow.

"Hopefully, I'm better than I was yesterday," Garrett said. "That's really the way I look at it, and the culture we're trying to create here is that everybody is striving to get better each and every day. That applies to me too. This is a good structure that we have in place right now. It certainly affords me the opportunity to be more involved in a lot of different parts of our team. We have people in place who I trust to do those jobs well in the structure that we have them, so I think those are all positives.

"You can be more involved in the defense, more involved in the kicking game, more involved in the offense, more involved with personnel, how the roster is put together, and I think those are all positive things for a head coach to be able to do."

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