By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Jones, who made his fortune in oil and gas and built his '90s dynasty in Dallas with a speculative Herschel Walker trade that yielded a gusher of talent, knows a dry well when he's dug one, and 2008 may have been rock bottom.
Because of last year's monumentally disappointing 9-7 season, Jones has altered the course of his team. A whopping 17 players are gone, including their second-best pass rusher, three best special teamers, a former Pro Bowl safety, second-leading tackler and, of course, petulant leading receiver Owens.
While replacing T.O.'s 10 touchdowns won't be easy—since 2006 no quarterback-receiver duo has combined for more scores than Romo and Owens—life without his personal agenda, self-serving rants and divisive locker-room presence should be an addition-by-subtraction blessing.
For the 2009 season, the Cowboys will try socialism. Not the kind that dogs President Obama, but the type that takes a talented team of coddled underachievers and attempts to change its identity by spreading the wealth. With Owens banished to the Buffalo Bills, the Cowboys will attempt to take up his slack via receivers Roy Williams, Patrick Crayton, Miles Austin and Sam Hurd.
"We can really move the ball around [now]," Jones said after Owens' March 5 release. "With Terrell here, there was a thought of how many balls we had to go around. And the main thing is we headed in the direction of being Romo-friendly. At the top of the list, the T.O. move was good for Tony."
The Cowboys transformation starts for real on Sunday in Tampa Bay when they kick off their 50th season against the Buccaneers. But the substance-over-style Cowboys were apparent from the first day of camp at The Alamodome. A purportedly tougher head coach Wade Phillips yanked players out of drills for mental mistakes and drove the team through 31 practices over 22 days. Gone were egomaniacal distractions like Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson, safety Roy Williams and Greg Ellis, and substandard veterans like Brad Johnson, Zach Thomas and Anthony Henry.
This year's training camp—the polar opposite of 2008 in Oxnard, California—featured no HBO cameras, lowered expectations and only a hint of a sheepish swagger. (It did include 4th & Long reality show winner Jesse Holley taking up a roster spot, but the stunt barely caused a ripple of publicity much less consternation.) Super Bowl hype that nosedives into missing the playoffs tends to humble even the cockiest Cowboys.
"I was a little skeptical at first because we lost a lot of good football players," linebacker and defensive captain Bradie James says after a camp practice. "But it didn't take long to get excited. Guys are focused on nothing but football. It isn't about reputations or image or trying to remember lines for the Hard Knocks cameras. It's about football."
Adds Romo, "We learned a lesson last year in failing to recognize the pitfalls of looking ahead and just assuming the success early would continue. We've got to be a different football team. One that continues to get better."
The mellowed mindset led to a boring camp in which the lone off-field high jinks was veteran offensive lineman Leonard Davis giving outlandish haircuts—Greg Isdaner wound up looking like The Three Stooges' Larry—to his rookie teammates. Focus is well and good. But ultimately the Cowboys' results—if not Jones' eternal reputation—will depend on football.
The Cowboys remain talented, but—other than running back and tight end—about as deep as Mr. Skin.
Romo has dumped girlfriend Jessica Simpson, picked up some leadership and added weapons in healthy running back Felix Jones and rapidly maturing tight end Martellus Bennett. The Cowboys are counting heavily on Williams, even though he has just one Pro Bowl season and last year managed only 16 catches and no touchdowns in eight games with Romo. Regardless, a significant injury to the offensive line and the whole thing implodes.
"I think Tony Romo can win a Super Bowl, I do," Jimmy Johnson says of the Cowboys quarterback who is 27-12 as a starter but 0-2 in the playoffs. "He just needs to pull back the reins and protect the ball in the clutch part of the game. He's so confident in his abilities that he takes chances he doesn't need to."
On defense, the Cowboys added two former Phillips players in end Igor Olshansky (San Diego Chargers) and inside linebacker Keith Brooking (Atlanta Falcons) and will have a new starter at outside linebacker (Anthony Spencer), strong safety (Gerald Sensabaugh) and right cornerback (Mike Jenkins or Orlando Scandrick).
The biggest improvement must come on special teams, where an off-season overhaul arrived in the form of firing assistant coach Bruce Read and drafting 12 rookies with coverage capabilities. The Cowboys hired Joe DeCamillis, began each practice in San Antonio with special teams sessions and even drafted a kickoff specialist in Southern Cal's David Buehler. Last year, Dallas had zero touchbacks while the Carolina Panthers, for example, had 30.
"There's an emphasis on getting it right," Phillips says during camp. "We had too many breakdowns on special teams last season. In all areas."