The offseason is virtually complete from a team construction standpoint.
Franchise tagged players like Dak Prescott still face a judgment day of sorts on July 15th.
A few notable free agents like Jadeveon Clowney and Everson Griffen remain available. Of course, we still have the many storylines that come with training camp. Nonetheless, we are nearing June, and at this point, teams are for the most part what they are going to be.
When we reach this point each year I like to peruse the roster, coaching staff included, and just try to get a feel for the team. Combing over that roster, it struck me immediately that I felt I had seen this team before. It took me a while, but eventually, it hit me like a ton of bricks.
The current Dallas Cowboys, at least on paper and by circumstance feel a lot like the infamous 2007 squad.
The 2006 Cowboys underwhelmed. By no means were they Super Bowl favorites, but the team was expected to at least make a little postseason noise.
The season began with high excitement about a promising group of young defenders and newly acquired superstar WR Terrell Owens. The Cowboys started slow, experienced a changing of the guard at QB, and saw their season famously end with a botched field goal attempt on a slippery night in Seattle. The team came into 2007 with the taste of disappointment still fresh on its palette.
The 2019 Cowboys also underachieved. Based on 2018’s late-season success, the 2019 Cowboys were expected to walk through the NFC East and were gifted a bad division that should have been easy to win. Spotty defense, abysmal special teams, and inferior strategy in big spots ultimately doomed the 2019 unit. The team saw it’s playoff hopes dashed in embarrassing fashion at the hands of a battered Philadelphia Eagles squad in a Week 16 “NFC East Championship Game.” The 2020 Cowboys should also enter the season with a sizable chip on its collective shoulder.
The 2007 and 2020 were/will be coached by head coaches new to Dallas. Bill Parcells retired after the 2006 season and was replaced by longtime defensive guru Wade Phillips.
2019 Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett (who’s time in Dallas began in 2007 as OC) was fired after the season and has been replaced by a long time, Super Bowl-winning Packers head coach Mike McCarthy.
Parcells and Garrett were both conservative “hand-cuffers” replaced by coaches more willing to adapt and innovate. Bill Parcells was married to his scheme and player prototypes and wanted to be the prevailing voice on both sides of the ball. Wade Phillips came in after Parcells and adapted the scheme to talent. Phillips was also more than happy focusing on his specialty, defense, and letting his offensive staff have autonomy.
Jason Garrett, like Parcells, was also married to the scheme (or in his case more philosophy), and player templates. Garrett coached offensively with a “line up and do what we do,” plain bagel philosophy, and hired defensive coaches of the same mindset. If Mike McCarthy’s words are worth anything, he wants to use analytics and innovation to his advantage, and also match scheme to talent. He has already backed up his words by deciding to learn the native offensive terminology of the Cowboys offense, rather than forcing the team to learn the lingo he has been familiar with since the late 1980s.
The freshness of Wade Phillips provided a lift for the 2007 Cowboys, and hopefully, McCarthy can provide something similar present day.
In 2007, a 27-year-old Tony Romo entered a contract year with Cowboys fans still very split on the idea of Romo being the Cowboys quarterback long term. Ultimately, Romo was rewarded with a 6-year/$67.4M contract during the home stretch of the season. The 2020 Cowboys will be lead by 27-year-old QB Dak Prescott. Prescott is currently set to play the season under the “franchise” designation. Time remains for time and player to reach the likely conclusion of a long-term pact. However, despite 67 starts (regular and postseason) of compelling evidence, fans and possibly Cowboys ownership are still on the fence about Prescott as the QB of the future, and he may be forced to prove his worth yet again this coming season.
Upon signing free agent OT Leonard Davis (moved to guard), the 2007 Dallas Cowboys had snapped the final piece into place on what turned out to be it’s best offensive line unit since the 90’s glory days “Great Wall of Dallas.” Left tackle Flozell Adams and center Andre Gurode were perennial Pro Bowlers, and late-bloomer Marc Colombo had emerged as one of the premier right tackles in football. The average age of the OL starters was 27.6 years.
The 2020 Cowboys return a rather formidable offensive line themselves. Left tackle Tyron Smith, and right guard Zack Martin are perennial Pro Bowlers, and right tackle La’el Collins has emerged as one of the premier right tackles in football.
In with new head coach Wade Phillips (2007) came a change in defensive philosophy. Phillips, like previous head coach Bill Parcells, was a practitioner of the 3-4. Parcells however employed a 2-gap heavy scheme.
Front line players were expected to stack up and control the line of scrimmage while interior LBs played downhill and took on “trash” head-on. The defense was predicated on heft, and players beefed up physically to better execute and endure the punishment. The scheme for the most part was very stationary and vanilla, relying much more on execution than creativity.
Phillips employed a one-gap scheme predicated on penetration. Rather than be 300 lb. meat shields, defensive linemen were allowed to shoot gaps and play in the opposition’s backfield a bit. Upon Phillips’ arrival, players along the Cowboys front 7 began shedding weight, as ballast took a backseat to athleticism within the new scheme. The unit came into the season energized, as players took on new and different responsibilities, in a more creative defense.
The 2020 Cowboys will stick with the same 4-3 front they employed in 2019, but the similarities likely end there. Damning evidence confirming our worst fears about the Marinelli/Richard regime has surfaced since their departures. As current and former Cowboys defenders have now verified, the previous scheme was less about attacking the opponent’s weaknesses, and more about “lining up and doing what we do.” The team didn’t disguise its coverages or rushes. It didn’t look to deceive or gain any sort of schematic advantage. “Execute” was the name of the game, and the Cowboys simply were not good at it, at least not often enough.
From what we can gather about new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s past, coupled with the team’s recent free agency and draft activity, things look as if they should be much, much different. These new-look Cowboys appear to be willing to tailor the scheme to fit talent and utilize players of all shapes, sizes, and skillsets. Fronts will be varied, coverages will be disguised. You know, a modern-day NFL defense. Much like the early stages of the Phillips takeover, players should be excited about new roles, and the unit should subsequently have a little extra bounce in its step.
Above all, the most obvious similarity between the 2007 and 2020 Dallas Cowboys is the expectation. Both units entered/enter the season with enormous expectations, as cursory look over the roster would almost certainly inspire. The 2007 Cowboys ran roughshod all over the league to the tune of 13-3 and saw 13 of its players land in the Pro Bowl. In the end, none of it meant much, as the Cowboys were wiped from playoff contention at home by a Cinderella New York Giants on it’s way to a Super Bowl title in the Divisional Round.
The book on the 2020 Cowboys is obviously still in the “preface” pages.
Hopefully, a loaded roster, coupled with the natural “new coach” energy/morale boost, the later chapters will provide Cowboys fans with the climactic ending we were robbed of 13 seasons ago.
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