— To say the 2008 Dallas Cowboys were a disappointment is an understatement. They were long on promise and short on delivery. Some may think it's best scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. That's too extreme.
The Cowboys can be saved. They can reach the Super Bowl.
Here are five ways to do it.
1. Feature a physical running game
Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice are the kind of running backs that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett can rely on — and rebuild his offensive reputation. It doesn't have to be a run-the-ball, don't throw doctrine. The last thing Dallas needs is less of Tony Romo.
But these running backs can make everything else easier.
Barber, when healthy, is the league's toughest running, according to Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. The 6-foot, 225-pound beast doesn’t just run for first downs — he wants to run over defenders at the same time. Injuries are a concern, as Barber was slowed badly by a toe injury in the last five games of the season. But that's where Jones and Choice come in.
Jones’ 4.4 speed makes him a big-play threat. His rookie season was cut short by a torn hamstring and a torn knee ligament, but he showcased his skills when he was on the field with 30 rushing attempts for 266 yards and 3 TDs (8.9 yards per carry). The Cowboys expect him to be fully healthy for 2009. Choice has power and explosiveness (92 carries for 472 yards and 2 TDs).
Dallas can use the three in the same way the Giants used Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw so effectively this season. It's not as fancy as the downfield passing, but it will be more effective each week, and later in the season.
2. Tell Terrell Owens time is ticking
This is the hard part. Owens is classified as a me-first, out-for-himself type of player. There are mountains of evidence to suggest that this assessment is correct.
And for Dallas to succeed, it must be made clear that Owens is just past of the team, not the whole team. He's still a viable weapon (69 receptions for 1,052 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2008) who still makes game-breaking plays. But as 2008 wore on, and Owens became increasingly unhappy with his role, it became a bigger and bigger distraction for Dallas.
The easy thing would be to get rid of the distraction. That's also the worst thing to do. If the Cowboys, whether it's Wade Phillips, Jerry Jones or a teammate, can explain to him that at 35-years-old, Owens doesn't have many years left in the NFL. The sooner he comes around to that idea, the sooner Dallas benefits.
3. Support Tony Romo
Sure, there are plenty of questions about Tony Romo. He struggles during December. His arm strength isn't top shelf. Some wonder about his leadership. It doesn't matter.
Questions always pop up when a high-profile team falters. But that doesn’t mean that Romo isn't the quarterback for the Cowboys. He's one of the NFL's top five quarterbacks by nearly any definition.
He posted stellar stats in just 13 games (completed 276-of-450 attempts for 3,448 yards with 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions), is 27-12 as a starter and doesn't get enough credit for his mobility in and out of the pocket.
Yet, Garrett's biggest goal should be to ensure Romo is confident entering the season. Don't have him throw downfield as often. Rely on the running backs. Get him on the move and let him hit short passes.
4. Go get Ray Lewis
It’s one thing for the coaches to set the tone during times of disharmony. It’s another thing to have law-and-order in the locker room because of a player.
Lewis is that rare players who uses his dominant persona to establish himself as a leader — and doesn't accept any excuses from his teammates. That's the difference between Lewis and a player like DeMarcus Ware. Ware is great player, but Lewis has talents coaches can't teach.
Even better, Lewis can still play. Sure, he's going to be 34 next season. But he remains a ferocious hitter who can still cover the field better than most. His 85 solo tackles were his most since 2004.
Lewis would have to transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, but he can handle it. Dallas doesn't need him to make every play — the Cowboys were 8th in total defense and 1st in sack percentage — but to provide solid run defense and leadership.
5. Trade Roy Williams – both of them
Receiver Roy Williams is big, slow and can't get open. Trading a first-round draft pick to Detroit to bring for Williams to run half-hearted pass patterns was a mistake.
Safety Roy Williams is a big hitter who has struggled in coverage for years. His tendency to get called for the late hit causes more problems and penalties than it creates fumbles.
Trading both could result in a couple of high drafts picks and a chance to add some much-needed youth.