You must forgive me if once again this week's contest is not top of mind. The Cowboys and Redskins square off Sunday in something that is extremely rare for Game 14 in the NFL season - a game with no playoff implications of any kind. In other words, anything can happen in this game - and none of it will make a difference.
Let's take a look at 2 lists I have been asked about recently, and then you can debate the topic below and let me have it.
5 Cowboys Who Won't Be Back - This list includes those who I believe for football reasons can no longer keep up their end of the bargain for the Cowboys and will not be back in 2011. I am going to try to leave contracts out of this, because we have no idea what the CBA will be like moving forward. From a purely football standpoint, these are 5 guys who need to be replaced (and I will tell you that I could have easily made this list 8 or 9 deep):
1. Marion Barber - It is hard to believe that a RB who is just 27 years old is done, but honestly, many saw real signs of this entering 2010. And, all of that critique has been validated by a plodding Runner who has very little burst and almost no ability to make anyone miss. He has certainly contributed over the years, and may still have a limited role as a short yardage option, but I just don't see much point in going another season with Barber.
2. Leonard Davis - A player who will be 33 when the season starts next year, this one is maybe the most obvious on the list. He was a pro bowl player and a guy thought to be at the top of his position when the Cowboys planted him at guard. Well, skills diminish with Father Time taking his toll. Now, the lack of lateral mobility cannot even be hidden at guard and the Cowboys running game issues can often be traced here. I love what he once was, but that player appears to have left the building. For the Cowboys to carry on, it will need to quickly improve the OL. A case can also be made for Marc Colombo, Kyle Kosier, and perhaps even Andre Gurode. But, the idea that you can replace 4 is not realistic in one offseason, so I must start with the biggest issue. Big Len.
3. Keith Brooking - This one is perhaps more obvious than some of the others. He was a great addition to this team and was able - like Jason Garrett - to somehow get guys to rally around him when other could not due to his leadership skills. But, as far as being a force in the middle of the field, we see that once again time waits for no man. At first, as a Cowboy, Keith was strong against the run and in blitzes, but in 2010, at the age of 35, both of those strengths have eroded into weaknesses. His skills in pass coverage have never been here like they were in Atlanta in his glory days. The Cowboys are better off for having him, but the upgrade is very necessary.
4. Igor Olshansky - Again, I look at this defense and see too many players who are unable to distinguish themselves often enough and you end up having an entire unit of average to below average players producing below average results as a group. I need to start weeding out guys who appear to have a hard time causing fits for the opposition and start plugging in guys who cause issues in game plan. Igor occasionally makes a small difference, but I need way more. I look to upgrade DE by moving Jay Ratliff to end, but more on that in a second.
5. Gerald Sensabaugh - Sorry, but the days of ignoring safety have got to stop. Sensabaugh is a safety that plays a rather gentle style that I cannot live with any longer. This NFL era is marked by impact safeties that use physicality as a weapon and fly around the ball showing a presence in the secondary. Sensabaugh has demonstrated a number of times this season that hitting is not his forte, and is not particularly instinctive when it comes to finding the ball. Alan Ball also needs to improve or to move back to corner, but it starts by getting a Strong Safety for me who can help control the middle of the field.
There were many others to consider, but those were the top 5.
5 Cowboys That Will Break Out in 2011 - This is all about guys who are not starters and not obvious selections (sorry, Dez) for a much bigger role and impact next season. I concede that there is nothing more disconcerting than to admit how difficult it is to find 5 promising names on this roster for the future.
1. Sean Lee - the most obvious of this list, but still rather anonymous to non-Cowboys fans. I have already seen that he can shed blockers better than Brooking and cover in space better than Brooking. I think this will make a major difference moving forward, but it all starts with his ability to stay healthy. Brooking takes 16 starts a year and that is a very nice trick. Let's see if Sean Lee can handle that.
2. Josh Brent - This 22 year old supplemental pick is someone you need to get to know. He is playing more and more these days and at 320 pounds is the proper size to play NT in the 3-4 if the Cowboys do finally decide to properly move Ratliff to a spot where he isn't being wore down by the constant double teams. Brent did not play football in 2009, so he may develop a bit slower, but by next year, I would like to think that he is a part of a NT rotation that can hold its own. The Cowboys seem pretty happy with this young man.
3. John Phillips - Remember the star of the 2010 training camp before he blew out his knee? Well, at 23 years old, the Cowboys are expecting him to provide that competition for Martellus Bennett at the 2nd TE spot, and if nothing else add a 3rd TE that can help carry out a number of the blocking schemes and personnel groups that the Cowboys like to use. We have discussed the lack of running ability in 2010 compared to 2009, and aside from Flozell Adams, only John Phillips is no longer here. Getting him back could be very big moving forward.
4. Sam Young - a healthy scratch for most of 2010, it will be up to the Cowboys to prove they can find some OL help from within. Young appears to be the best chance at that given his 50 starts at RT for Notre Dame and some reasonable reports internally from the Cowboys staff. I am not sure he is the guy, and I am doubtful that he is ready to replace Marc Colombo already, but they need to hit on him I am putting a lot of focus on his development into next year's camp.
5. Tashard Choice - I am not as big a believer as many of you on Choice, but I do concede that he may be the most complete back option of the bunch. Add to that the truth that resources do not allow for the Cowboys to plug every hole, I submit that a year of Jones/Choice splitting duty might be necessary for 2011 and let's see what happens based on the success of that. Perhaps he is everything that they are looking for, but I have suggested many times that I believe the Cowboys braintrust thinks he is rather ordinary by NFL standards.