By Ryan Johnson
Football is back. I figured those words would be uttered at some point in 2011, but seeing it begin to be played again brought a warmth to my heart that only this sport can. More important than football being back, Cowboys football is back. The whole off-season has been a blur given all of the lockout nonsense. In my estimation, the off-season went from draft to lockout jargon to free agency to this point in a flash. In the time between the draft and the opening of free agency, a lot of what was being said about football just kind went in one ear and out the other. I kept tabs on everything, but it was nothing I felt terribly invested in. All in all, it was the most bizarre NFL off-season I can remember, and I’m hardly alone in that assessment. There was just something about this whole ordeal that detached me from the game. However, seeing football properly start seemed to awaken the beast inside of me that hungers for this game.
My weekend of football began with the Broncos vs the Cowboys. The first set of Cowboys starters we got to see here was the defense. But before I go any further, I have to spotlight the first playcall of Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator in Dallas.
(Photo Credit: bloggingtheboys.com)
As you may or may not be able to to discern from that screen shot, the Cowboys were aligned in Tom Landry’s legendary flex defense. There was even the added touch of Kenwin Cummings, a linebacker who wears #54, playing in Randy White’s position of the formation. It’s strange enough that Rob Ryan is in a prominent position in the Cowboys organization given his father’s history attempting to thwart it, him showing his respect for it’s tradition is quite another thing entirely. What made this homage even better is that it actually worked. The Broncos were completely perplexed in regards to how to go about blocking this and the confusion allowed DeMarcus Ware to come free and bat down a pass. That would be the high point of the effort for the Cowboys’ first team defense. From there, they proceeded to get trampled all the way down the field. The Cowboys managed to stiffen on the goal line and hold the Broncos to 3, but it was an indication that this unit still has a ways to go.
Things went a bit better for the Cowboys offensive first team. The important things to note were the play of Felix Jones and the offensive line that allowed him to look like a dynamic player. The starting offensive line in this game consisted of Doug Free (LT), David Arkin (LG), Phil Costa (C), Kyle Kosier (RG) and Tyron Smith (RT). It was the most athletic this team has put on the field in some time and it was exciting to me because I feel this is the direction they need to be headed towards up front. The Cowboys seem to love trying to get Felix Jones out on the edges and chuck the ball around constantly. Why not use mobile linemen, that’s what you’re ultimately trying accomplish? Now the projected Cowboys offensive line won’t look quite like the one that started this game, but I feel like we were gazing into a crystal ball on Thursday night. The actual line is Doug Free, Montrae Holland, Andre Gurode, Kyle Kosier and Tyron Smith. Montrae Holland is exactly the type of lineman the Cowboys need to get away from. These big body on body guys just don’t fit what looks to be a “fast break” type offense. You could probably put Andre Gurode in that category as well, but I’m not quite ready to see him go. Keying in on Holland specifically, I really don’t see him playing 16 games. I hope the Cowboys aren’t delusional enough to think that he will, but it appears they are. That’s where you enter David Arkin or Phil Costa (he plays guard and center). One of these men is probably going to be the left guard at some point for the Cowboys in 2011. Based on the early returns, my dog in the fight may just be Arkin. He’s a very raw product coming from a small school and he’s probably not NFL strong yet, but I feel like he’s a fit for this offense. Even if Costa ends up being the LG further down the line in 2011 and frankly his chances are probably better than Arkin’s, he’s a better fit for the offense than Holland (maybe not a better player though). Both Arkin and Costa did things unseen from the likes of Leonard Davis and Montrae Holland and that is actually get hats on moving targets. If you’re going to constantly try to get the edge and run screens, that’s key.
Beyond the first units, there were a number of standout players who need to be identified. First off, Victor Butler (OLB) had himself a game. Over the past couple of seasons, he’s shown himself to have pass rush ability on some level. Beyond mop-up situations and preseason games, he’s just not had much opportunity. With a new defensive coordinator in the fold, he is being looked upon with a blank slate. Apparently, Rob Ryan likes what he sees because he was centerpiece of what creative things he tried here. Butler rewarded Ryan’s faith by putting pressure on the QB and finding his way to the ball quite a bit. He could be a guy to monitor going forward. With Anthony Spencer’s motor running hot and cold and Ryan having no ties him, Butler could push for more reps.
Two other guys who shined here were WRs Dwayne Harris and Raymond Radway. They’re totally different players and at different stages of development, but I’m lumping them in together because of they share a position. Dwayne Harris, out of the draft, was looked at as a Patrick Crayton type slot WR. That’s not saying a hell of a lot, but he looks like might be able to be just that. And it’s a role the Cowboys need to fill desperately. With Miles Austin and Dez Bryant topping the depth chart, there is little in the way of certainty behind them. Harris showed Thursday night, that he might be on well on his way to being this team’s 3rd or 4th WR by find
ing soft spots in the defense and making drive extending catches. He even flashed a bit of kick return ability. Raymond Radway on the other hand doesn’t look very ready to contribute much now, but screams upside. He generally separated from defenders based on pure athletic ability alone. Given what he did here, it didn’t take much to prompt comparisons to Miles Austin from armchair GMs. Like Austin when he came into the league, Radway played at a small school, is raw (Radway was a track star) and has an excellent size to speed ratio. I’d personally tap the brakes on that really hard, but he’s an interesting prospect. If he can continue to show the things he did in this game, the Cowboys will probably have to put him in their active roster to keep and try to develop him further.
Last, but not least, there’s Stephen McGee. Selected as a developmental QB in the 4th round of 2009 the draft, McGee has been the subject of much debate. An injury shortened and underwhelming preseason during rookie year prompted some to call for the team to keep 4th string QB rather than him. Ultimately, the Cowboys stuck with their draft choice and he marched on towards another season. In 2010, McGee was able to show some progress during the preseason and stick on the roster. Towards the end of 2010, Christmas Day to be exact, McGee got the opportunity to see action in the regular season for the first time. He made the most of the opportunity and led the Cowboys to thrilling comeback in which they would fall just short of victory, highlighted by a long TD that he put on a rope to Miles Austin. The next week, McGee got his first ever NFL start against the Eagles (okay, let’s be fair, Eagles’ back-ups) in Week 17. It wasn’t a very pleasing performance to the eyes, but somehow at the end of the game McGee had the Cowboys in position to win and this time they finished the deed. Now in his third year with the Cowboys, many are looking for McGee to make a leap. I don’t know if that can still be said with the lost offseason, but his development is still interesting to monitor. On Thursday I saw the same Stephen McGee we’ve been seeing the last 2 years. He’s a guy who lacks the anticipation of pass catchers getting open that NFL QBs need and a bit too quick to scramble. But the positives of McGee were there as well. He was still the same guy who’s very careful with the football and somehow, someway finds a way to be in position to win the game at the end. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the cries for him to be the Cowboys #2 QB are very loud by the end of this preseason. I don’t necessarily agree with that since I don’t believe in things like clutch or knacks for doing things, but it’s just something I can see happening.
I’m almost 1,600 words into this and I haven’t talked about anything aside from the Cowboys. Those are the breaks, but I’ll wrap up in saying HOLY SHIT they have to do away that new kickoff rule (the ball has been moved back from the 30 to the 35, for those who haven’t seen this in action). If they’re going to bastardize special teams this badly, why not just give teams the ball on the 20? It’ll be interesting to monitor team’s strategies in regards to how they construct rosters to reflect this change. I don’t know what’s the point of a kickoff specialist now or how much special teams “aces” mean anymore. I can’t imagine this is going to get any better and it better be the first thing the competition committee addresses next year.
Add Ryan Johnson on Twitter: @johncowheel