The battle for the Governor's Cup resumes this Saturday night at Reliant Stadium when the Texans square off against the Dallas Cowboys.
Coming off an impressive win at Arizona, the Texans look to avenge last season's 34-6 loss against the Cowboys at Texas Stadium. After the Texans led 6-3 at halftime, the wheels fell off in the second half as the Dallas scored 31 unanswered points.
Dallas enters this season with a new coaching staff, coming on the heels of Bill Parcells' sudden retirement in the offseason. Wade Phillips, son of Houston coaching legend Bum Phillips, takes the reigns and looks to build on last season's playoff run. The former San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator adds the Cowboys to his list of head coaching stops, which includes Denver and Buffalo. Phillips was also an interim head coach with New Orleans, where he took over after his father resigned late in the season, and Atlanta, where he replaced Dan Reeves.
Known for his aggressive style of 3-4 defense, Phillips inherits one of the most talented teams in the NFL. The key to this season, however, lies with the development of Tony Romo, who prepares for his first full year as the Cowboys' starting quarterback. If Romo continues to develop the way that Dallas hopes, the Cowboys have as good a chance as any team of representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLII.
Most people remember Romo's rookie season for the way it ended – fumbling the potential game-winning field goal snap in Seattle during the NFC Wild Card game. Few, however, remember that it was Romo's unexpected stellar play that led the Cowboys to their playoff berth in the first place.
The fifth-year veteran threw for 2,903 yards and 19 touchdowns in only 10 starts, but lost four of his last five starts including the playoffs. New offensive coordinator Jason Garrett will help Romo by keeping the same offense in place, spreading the football around and emphasizing the short passing game. New backup quarterback, veteran Brad Johnson, will take over should anything happen to Romo. The Cowboys signed Johnson after former backup Drew Bledsoe retired in the offseason.
One of the most interesting storylines for Dallas this season will be how Phillips and Garrett handle their two-headed monster at running back. Julius Jones notched his first 1,000 yard rushing season and added four touchdowns in 2006, but was ineffective down the stretch and eventually fell out of favor with Bill Parcells. Barber rushed for fewer yards (654) than Jones, but was among the league leaders in rushing touchdowns with 16 and has shown that he is the more explosive back. Look for Dallas to once again split carries at first, but make a final decision once a leader emerges.
Dallas gambled this offseason by not targeting a wide receiver via either free agency or the draft. Instead, they let last year's starters, Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn, keep their jobs without serious competition. Owens (85 receptions, 13 touchdowns) and Glenn (70 receptions, six touchdowns) turned in fine 2006 seasons, but both will start the season at 33 years old and have had durability problems in the past. Should the injury bug bite, backups Patrick Crayton (36 receptions, four touchdowns) and Sam Hurd (five receptions) will need to produce.
At tight end, the Cowboys will look for better red zone production this season from Jason Witten and Anthony Fasano. Last year, the pair combined for only one touchdown. Witten, the fifth-year veteran, is well-known as one of the better receiving tight ends in the league and should rebound from his sub-par season. Fasano will play mostly in two tight end sets.
Another question mark comes on the offensive line, where the Cowboys replace two starters, Marco Rivera and Jason Fabini, from last year's unit. Dallas' biggest free agent splash came when the team signed former Arizona tackle Leonard Davis to a multi-million dollar contract. "Big," as Davis (6-6, 366) is known, will move from tackle to right guard. Joining Davis in the interior will be Kyle Kosier at left guard and Andre Gurode at center. Both Kosier and Gurode started every game last season. At tackle, returning starters Flozell Adams and Marc Colombo look to overcome offseason knee surgeries. If either goes down during the season, Davis may be asked to slide over to tackle.
Every player on defense for the Cowboys will benefit from Phillips' aggressive play calling. Although the Cowboys had a top-10 rushing defense last season, their pass defense struggled, finishing 24th. Phillips also will implement his version of the 3-4 defense, the same one he ran in San Diego with the Chargers. In Phillips' defense, Dallas will utilize a one-gap scheme, in comparison to the two-gap scheme they ran last year.
The defense is led by their ultra-talented crop of linebackers. DeMarcus Ware, coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance, headlines the unit. The former Troy University standout looks to surpass his 2006 numbers, where he collected 71 tackles, 11.5 sacks and one interception en route to Honolulu. Joining Ware on the outside will be rookie Anthony Spencer, who fills in for the injured Greg Ellis. Phillips hopes Spencer, from Purdue, can develop into a second complimentary pass rusher on the outside, just as Shaun Phillips is to Shawn Merriman in San Diego.
Two talented players will man the inside backer spots in Bradie James and Akin Ayodele. James notched a career-best 101 tackles last season, forced two fumbles and made one interception. Ayodele, meanwhile, registered 84 tackles, including one sack, and picked off two passes. In backup roles, Kevin Burnett and Bobby Carpenter will be asked to contribute mostly on special teams.
Along the defensive line, the Cowboys will be looking for more production from ends Marcus Spears and Chris Canty and tackle Jason Ferguson. Last season, the trio combined for only two sacks. Under Phillips' one-gap scheme, Spears and Canty should be freed up to rush the passer, while Ferguson will be responsible for the run-stopping duties. Jason Hatcher and Montavious Stanley will be the top backups at end and tackle.
Four-time Pro Bowler Roy Williams leads the secondary. The hard-hitting former Oklahoma Sooner totaled 64 tackles and five interceptions last year. To solidify the pass defense, Dallas signed free agent Ken Hamlin from Seattle this offseason. Pat Watkins and Keith Davis will inherit backup duties, though both saw significant playing time in 2006.
Cornerbacks Anthony Henry and Terence Newman also should benefit from Hamlin's arrival. Newman, a former first-round pick, and Henry now know they have a dependable presence behind them, allowing both to be more aggressive in pass coverage. Dallas' most notable backup cornerback is former Texan Aaron Glenn. The 14-year veteran most likely will fill the nickelback spot, but has struggled recently with knee problems.
Martin Gramatica returns to handle place kicking duties after taking over for Mike Vanderjagt toward the end of last season. Gramatica's long-range kicking has been erratic in recent years, but he remains their best option. Rookie Nick Folk will handle the kickoff duties.
Mat McBriar, one of the most underrated punters in the league, returns for his fourth year with the team after posting a career-best 48.2 average last season.
Tyson Thompson and Miles Austin will return kickoffs. Last season, both averaged 26 yards per return, though neither returned a kick for a touchdown. Newman once again assumes his role as punt returner. He averaged 10.1 yards per attempt in 2006, including one touchdown.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR ON DALLAS:
- Will Owens be able to stay healthy all season? Owens led the league in drops last season, surely caused by the finger injury he suffered early in the year. A hamstring injury has limited Owens' reps during this year's training camp, but he seems to have responded well to treatment. Even though he has been slowed by injuries the last few seasons, Owens remains among the top producing receivers in the game. Barring a major injury, Owens should put up some of the biggest numbers at his position once again.
- Garrett was hired as offensive coordinator even before Wade Phillips was hired as head coach. Garrett never has called plays by himself, so how he handles this new responsibility will be interesting. He will keep much of the same offense in place, so that should ease the transition. Many believe that Garrett is owner Jerry Jones' choice as the Cowboys' coach-of-the-future, so how he performs in this new role will be crucial for his career.