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OXNARD, Calif. – On the day the team reported to training camp with high hopes for the future, the Dallas Cowboys lost a key member of their history.
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Technically speaking, the phone call to Jim Garrett was supposed to be about his son Jason’s head-coaching gig with the Dallas Cowboys. And, it was to some degree. Like any conversation with the elder Garrett, though, it was so much more. It was educational, insightful and ridiculously entertaining. It was the kind of discussion that you don’t want to end, to the point of making up the last few questions on the fly in the hopes of learning something else.
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This was different. Yes, it was still business, no way around that, but this was also personal.
DeMarcus Ware wasn’t other people. He was a face-of-the-franchise guy, one who took that role quite seriously. He was the anti-diva, too, one who almost never declined a charity event or the signing of an autograph. The fans came first.
Ware, as much as any athlete I’ve covered, never forgot who he was. He was the kid no one wanted coming out of high school, the kid who used to clean out chicken coops. There was no diva in Ware. He just wanted a chance.
Amazingly, Ware was offered just a single football scholarship, that being from Troy. We’re talking all divisions, junior colleges and everything in between. Just one school was interested. If not for some former high school teammates already playing there and convincing the Trojans’ coaching staff, who knows what would have become of Ware.
He arrived in the NFL with high expectations and a skeptical head coach in Bill Parcells. It’s no secret that the Tuna preferred Marcus Spears or Shawne Merriman with the 11th overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft in favor of Ware, and although the Dallas Cowboys were able to eventually land both Spears and Ware, Jerry Jones wasn’t budging on that first selection. The pick would be Ware.
There were many times Jones allowed Parcells to talk him into draft picks, but this wasn’t one of them. Jones and Parcells even made a little wager on how many sacks Ware would have his first five seasons. Jones won.
Parcells was tough on Ware, even more so than other rookies, which is truly saying something. Ware would bring his coach orange Gatorade during breaks in practice. Any other flavor wouldn’t suffice. Parcells would tell him how great Lawrence Taylor was back in his days with the New York Giants and that Ware was no Taylor. Not even close. There were instances Parcells would chew him out, tell him what he did wrong and on the very next snap, Ware would do exactly as Parcells said. Instead of acknowledging the positive result, Parcells would just turn and walk away, a disgusted look on his face. Ware could do no right.
The media would ask a question about Ware, mention a sack in a preseason game or how quick the rookie looked coming off the ball. Parcells would stare as only he could before saying, “Let’s not put him in Canton just yet, OK?”
Ware has told me that no one has ever treated him like Parcells did. He broke him down and built him back up and in the end, Ware gives the Hall of Fame coach a lot of credit for how his career turned out. It wasn’t easy that first season, though. Lot of tough love.
Reminded of that rookie season at his own Canton induction in 2013, Parcells said, “With this media the way it is nowadays and the internet and the social media, we’re quick to anoint these guys. You know, that’s the last thing he needed to hear, in my opinion, at the time because he really didn’t know what the hell he was doing and that was the truth. But he found out and he continued to do it well. I’m proud of him, and he’s turned into quite a football player.”
The numbers would suggest that Ware will one day join Parcells in Canton. And his career isn’t finished. So far, 117 sacks, and 32 forced fumbles. Seven Pro Bowls, four First Team All-Pro nods and a Second Team All-Decade selection for the 2000s. After a few solid seasons in Denver and the body of work should be more than enough.
This has to rank at the top of the list for most difficult decisions Jones has had to make in his 25 years of ownership, right there with allowing Emmitt Smith to sign with Arizona.
Jones adores Ware and vice versa. And they both always hoped Ware would be one of those guys who played his entire career with the same franchise. That is the ultimate honor for any NFL player, to play their entire careers with one team. Ware wanted that, told me on multiple occasions how important that was to him. In a perfect world, one without a salary cap, that would have been the case, too. Jones would have had no problems signing a few checks these last few years when Ware may have been overpaid. Cost of doing business. The salary cap made that difficult, though.
Ware earned all of the $75 million or so he made with the Dallas Cowboys. That’s a lot of dough, of course, but he never missed a practice, was never late to a meeting and never big-timed anyone, teammate, reporter or coach. The man worked every day like a rookie trying to make the team, and nothing more can be asked of an athlete.
He played every snap the same way, and he played hurt. There are at least 10 occasions in the last five years when the overwhelming majority of players would have sat. Instead, Ware took the field, most famously against undefeated New Orleans six days after being carted off the field with a neck injury against San Diego during the 2009 season. He literally cried on the field thinking his career was over and he’d never be able to play with his kids.
Then there was the finale against the Redskins in 2012, a division title on the line. Ware could barely come out of his stance, never mind make a play. There he was on the field, though. Whether he should have been or not is a debate for another day. Ware played 34 snaps and, he somehow, through sheer will, mustered a QB hit and hurry on Robert Griffin III.
Ware is one of those guys who will do anything for the team and on that day, in his mind, all he could do was take the field. Throughout his nine seasons in Dallas, he was always begging offensive coaches to let him take snaps at tight end, H-back, whatever. Let him block someone, throw him the ball, Ware just wanted to help. They never took him up on the offer, but he was willing. He was always willing for the team, for the fans, for the Dallas Cowboys. He was and is a class act.
The reaction Tuesday was rare in sports today. No one blamed Ware for leaving. Was just one of those situations in life. Not fair, not easy, it is what it is.
This was indeed different. DeMarcus Ware was and always will be a Dallas Cowboy, destined for the Ring of Honor a few years after he hangs them up. He’s just going to play for someone else the next few years.
And that sucks. No other way to say it.
Courtesy: Jeff Sullivan
No more whistles, no more playbooks, no more coach’s dirty looks. Sure, not quite as catchy as the iconic “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks,” but we’re talking football grades here, not math, science and social studies.
The biggest difference in grading pupils and players is expectations. All students are created equal; not so much for a professional football team. Just doesn’t make sense to hold Miles Austin, one of the highest-paid wide receivers in the game and a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and Cole Beasley, an undrafted free agent rookie, to the same standard. Ditto for DeMarcus Ware, headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and some dude signed off his couch midseason. Not even Batman.
Without further ado, here are our final grades for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys:
Tony Romo – B
This one is difficult, because for 80-plus percent of the season, 13-of-16 games, Romo played as well as any quarterback in franchise history. Yes, including Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. His numbers for those contests include 303.1 yards per game, 24 touchdown passes, seven picks and a 100.2 rating. Even with the other three games – vs. the Bears and Giants and at the Redskins – Romo had the league’s sixth-highest rating by Football Outsiders, behind only Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan.
He threw for nearly 5,000 yards, and on many occasions was his own best pass protector in terms of finding an extra second or two. There were times when he was brilliant, and never before has he shown the leadership he did this season. Still, in the end, Romo flunked his final. Again. That’s not easy to write. Romo has been sort of the teacher’s pet these last five years, but there is no excuse for those final two picks at Washington.
Kyle Orton – I
He broke Clint Longley’s 38-year-old mark for highest passer rating (minimum 10 attempts) with a ridiculous 137.1. Played just the one game, though, giving him an incomplete.
DeMarco Murray – C
A disappointing season for the second-year back who was expected to anchor the offensive load. Didn’t rush for 100 yards after Week 1 at the Giants and rarely showed the explosiveness from his rookie season with just five 20-plus carries. Finished tied for 21st in the league with 2.5 yards per attempt after contact. He also picked the worst of times for his first two NFL fumbles. His durability has also become a concern as he has missed nine of the team’s last 19 games with injuries.
Felix Jones – C
Finished with more offensive touches than expected, was much improved in picking up the blitz, caught the ball well, and for the most part, maximized his rushing yards with the gaps provided. He averaged just 3.6 yards per carry after entering the year at 5.1 for his career.
Lance Dunbar – B
Was impressed with the free agent rookie from North Texas from the first preseason game through Week 17. Finished with eight special teams tackles, was solid if unspectacular on kick returns and showed a little burst on offense. Should play a bigger role in 2013.
Phillip Tanner – C
Solid on special teams with 10 tackles, although he didn’t show much in limited action carrying the ball.
Lawrence Vickers – C
Showed promise catching passes, that little dump-off was seemingly always available. But his blocking was average and his four penalties in 305 snaps was the highest percentage of any fullback playing 25 percent of his team’s snaps.
A week or so after becoming head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, Jimmy Johnson sat down to watch some film with his defensive coaches, Dave Wannstedt and Dave Campo among them. What they saw was stunning, with Campo later recalling, “We were pretty sure we had more speed the season before at (the University of Miami.”
The objective became quite simple. The roster needed to be overhauled; younger, quicker players would be targeted. For Johnson, stripping football down to its most simplistic level, speed and quickness equal success. Of course, this philosophy led Dallas to a trio of Super Bowl wins, the first with the youngest team in the league, and Team of the Decade status in the 1990s.
Fast-forward 20 years from the aforementioned film session, almost to the month, and Troy Aikman and Jason Garrett are in the Florida Keys, visiting with their former head coach on what was supposed to be a relaxing fishing trip. Instead, Garrett arrived with a notebook overflowing with questions on what it takes to be a successful head coach in the NFL. At the time, Garrett was the Dallas offensive coordinator, but he knew – heck, everyone knew – his time was coming, especially after having turned down head coaching offers from the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.
Johnson later said of Garrett and the trip, “He wore me out.”
Now into his second full season as head coach, it’s obvious some of the sage advice Johnson offered involved adding more speed and quickness to the roster. A byproduct of those personnel changes has been a youth movement of sorts, one which has transformed this current Cowboys squad.
Consider: In Week 14 of 2010, the Cowboys’ 22 starters averaged 29.2 years of age, which was tied for the oldest in the NFL with the Ravens and Brett Favre’s Vikings.
Entering the 2012 campaign, not even two years removed, the average age of the Dallas starters was 26.9, coincidentally on both offense and defense, while the roster overall checked in at exactly 26.0, which was the 14th youngest in the NFL and second to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East. Even last year, Dallas finished as the 10th-oldest team in the league.
That is staggering. In 21 weeks of regular-season games, Dallas went from the oldest team to one of the younger squads in the league, while also going from a 6-10 finish to a promising 2012 campaign kicked off with a road defeat of the defending Super Bowl champions.
Garrett addressed this very subject at the conclusion of last season’s 8-8 finish.
“We had a lot of players, veteran players, who were really good players for us, Pro Bowl-type players for us, and we made some hard decisions to get away from those guys and move on,” Garrett said. “Those aren’t easy decisions to make. We went with some younger guys and we felt like that was the right decision for our football team now and going forward.
“We knew there were going to be some growing pains, but we felt like we had to get on that course and not only do that with a particular position, but also get the structure of our team right from a financial standpoint as well. So we started down that course and we feel like that was the right move for our team in 2011 and moving forward.”
Even in the ever-changing culture of the NFL, the transformation of the roster has been stunning in such a short time frame. Currently, 23 players on the Cowboys’ active roster are 24 years of age or younger, while just five are older than 30. Tony Romo, who turned 32 in April, is the second-oldest player on the team after defensive end Kenyon Coleman, 33.
Let’s look at the changes at each position from the Week 14 home loss against Philly in 2010 to this season:
Quarterbacks: The only real change here is behind Romo, where the team is almost a decade younger in having landed arguably the league’s premier backup in 29-year-old Kyle Orton this summer in favor of the retired Jon Kitna.
Running Backs: Marion Barber out, DeMarco Murray in. Am guessing no one has a problem with that exchange. And while Barber isn’t as old as most of the departed players, his physical running style certainly accelerated his football shelf life.
Wide Receivers/Tight ends: Not much has changed here with Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, although Roy Williams and Sam Hurd have been replaced by some younger, unproven options, including Dwayne Harris, Andre Holmes and Cole Beasley.
Offensive Line: Perhaps at no time in franchise history has the front seen such a dramatic overhaul inside of two years. The starters in Week 14 of 2010 were Doug Free, Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo. Combined age: 153, with four of the five at least 31. The starters for Week 1 of 2012 were Free, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Phil Costa, Nate Livings and Tyron Smith, who doesn’t turn 22 until November. Combined age: 130, with none of the five older than 30. That’s a ginormous difference. Take away Free, and that’s 25 years younger among four positions, six-plus years per man.
Defensive Line: Little fluctuation here, although Sean Lissemore and Josh Brent are seeing extensive playing time and were just rookies in 2010. Igor Olshansky has also moved on, while rookie Tyrone Crawford, a third-round selection, has shown promise.
Linebackers: DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are still on the outside, but there’s been a complete upheaval inside with Sean Lee and Bruce Carter replacing Keith Brooking and Bradie James. In terms of speed and quickness, perhaps no position has been improved more, with the possible exception of cornerback. Brooking and James were both respected veterans, stronger against the run than in pass coverage, while Lee and Carter are two of the team’s better athletes. There hasn’t been a more Jimmy Johnson-like pick over the last two years than Carter, the classic example of “give me the athletic talent, we’ll shape him into a football player.”
Of the eight linebackers on the roster, Ware is the oldest at 30, and six are 26 or younger.
Secondary: Never mind 2010, just look at last year’s team. Terence Newman was 33, Abram Elam and Frank Walker 30. Replace that trio with Brandon Carr, 26, Morris Claiborne, 22, and Barry Church, 24. And yes, Church was on the team, but has now replaced Elam in the starting lineup. Of the six corners currently on the roster, Mike Jenkins is the oldest at 27, while 29-year-old Gerald Sensabaugh is the oldest safety. Not a single 30-year-old among the secondary.
Special Teams: Even at punter, the Cowboys didn’t re-sign longtime veteran Mat McBriar in favor of 23-year-old Chris Jones.
So it really has been across the board, a youth movement much like the one orchestrated by Johnson during his first two seasons at the helm. Only time will tell if the same results follow for Garrett.