The secret is in the dirt, but the talent is in the roster.
Last year, Jason Witten surprised everyone when he announced his retirement. It marked the end of days for all four of the Cowboys 2014 offensive stars: Witten, Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and DeMarco Murray. Just like that, they were gone.
But alas, one has returned.
There are number of reasons for Witten to return to the Cowboys. He loves to compete and being out of the game was a difficult thing for him, especially with him having a front row seat to the action week in and week out. And speaking of his broadcast career, maybe that didn’t turn out as easy as Romo made it seem. It’s no secret that Witten wasn’t the smoothest speaker of words and it bothered many in the audience.
While those things may have had a big role in his return, there’s another reason that could also be pulling him back in – the Cowboys are a great team. In a recent article from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Clarence Hill Jr. reports that Witten said this current Cowboys roster has “the most talent I’ve seen” in his time with the organization.
That’s a bold statement.
Witten was on the Cowboys 2007 team that tied a franchise record of 13 wins, a mark that had only been reached one other time when Jimmy Johnson’s team won the Super Bowl back in 1992. The 2007 team featured an offense that was breaking records. First-year offensive coordinator Jason Garrett helped Romo and Terrell Owens break long-lasting franchise records for touchdown passes and catches in a single season. Romo, Owens, Witten, and running back Marion Barber all had Pro Bowl seasons. But while the offense was lighting up the scoreboard, the defense was pretty great too. It featured five Pro Bowlers on defense including: DeMarcus Ware, Roy Williams, Terence Newman, Greg Ellis, and Ken Hamlin.
Then, there was the 2016 team just a few years ago that featured a new cast of Pro Bowl talent. Led by rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the team again won 13 games, and it could have been 14 had the team not taken their foot off the gas in a meaningless Week 17 finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.
While there hasn’t been a lot of time that’s passed since 2016, things have changed quite a bit with the Cowboys. But which of Witten’s team is truly better? Let’s examine…
The new triplets
Basically, an aging Dez Bryant has been replaced with the younger, more route disciplined Amari Cooper. This new trio is up-and-coming as Dak, Zeke, and Coop have all made the Pro Bowl twice over the last three seasons.
Back in 2007, the triplets were actually quadruplets as Romo and Owens attacked through the air, but they used an effective running back duo of Julius Jones and Marion Barber on the ground. They were really good at wearing teams down so that Barber could just punish teams late in the game.
Advantage: Love him or hate him, TO was a game-changer. Back in 2007, he and Romo brought new life to the Cowboys offense. The trio of Dak, Zeke, and Amari combo is fantastic to watch and when you factor in a little excitement for Tony Pollard, the weapons on this offense are plentiful. But until they prove it on the field, the 455 points the 2007 squad put up have earned them the advantage.
This one is really simple. You have Jason Witten at 25 years old vs. Witten at 34 vs. Witten at 37. The young Witten takes it easy. In fact, in 2007 Witten had the best seasons of his career. He posted a career high in yards (1,145) and second-best seasons in catches (96) and touchdowns (7).
In 2007 and 2016, it was all Witten. Sure, Anthony Fasano (2007), Geoff Swaim (2016), and Gavin Escobar (2016) were on the team, but their contributions were negligible. The role of Witten now is projected to be far less significant than before, and the contributions of Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz should be a lot more helpful than the other guys in those previous years, but even still – it’s hard to top young Witten.
Advantage: Young Witten easy. He hasn’t slowed down with age as much as you’d think, but he’s slowed down nonetheless.
The offensive line
The first-round All-Pro club of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick are all still in tact, however – they’ve got some added mileage on them. Smith has been missing three games per year in each of the last three seasons and Martin and Frederick both missed the first game of their career last season. All eyes will be on Frederick as he continues to build up strength after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome.
While health concerns linger, the depth of the unit has improved considerably. Cameron Fleming holds down the swing tackle spot and the team has a couple young Connor’s battling for the left guard position. Even backup center Joe Looney has proven himself very dependable.
Many people forget how good the Cowboys offensive line was back in 2007. Just like now, they had Pro Bowlers at left tackle (Flozell Adams), right guard (Leonard Davis) and center (Andre Gurode). Of course none of them ever earned All-Pro honors, but they still made up a strong offensive line. They even had current Cowboys offensive line coach Marc Colombo at right tackle.
Advantage: It’s actually closer than we’d want to admit, but the depth of this current group brings some added strength to the unit.
The defensive line
It can make you cringe a bit to look at the state of the Cowboys defensive line back in 2016. Benson Mayowa was the team’s leader in sacks with a measly six, and DeMarcus Lawrence was an afterthought as he played hurt all year and only recorded one sack.
The 2007 group was loaded with talent along the defensive line. DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis dominated the edge as they both had double-digit sacks and combined for 26.5 sacks on the year. Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher held down the interior, and they had reliable depth guys like Anthony Spencer, Chris Canty, and Marcus Spears. Make no mistake about it, this DL unit was really good.
The current group looks very strong. The addition of Robert Quinn gives the team two really good rushers on the edge. They don’t have stars in the middle, but the rotation of Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, and rookie Trysten Hill should strengthen the middle. The possible reinstatement of Randy Gregory and reliability of veteran Tyrone Crawford rounds out a very strong group.
Advantage: While there’s a new legendary DeMarcus in the making, you still have to give the edge to old DeMarcus. His squad was proven and filled with so much depth that they are the clear-cut winners.
In 2007, only Bradie James had over 100 tackles. In 2016, Sean Lee stayed healthy the entire season and recorded a career-high 145 tackles, including 12 of them for a loss. It was good enough to earn him All-Pro honors for the first and only time of his career. He had help from Anthony Hitchens who added another 78 tackles.
Last season, there was a changing of the guard as rookie Leighton Vander Esch burst on the scene. He recorded a team-high 140 tackles, earning All-Pro honors right away. Jaylon Smith added another 121 tackles. This new group of youngsters are the future for the Cowboys and they’re going to be great for a while. Oh yeah, and Sean Lee is still on the team as the #3 linebacker. How cool is that?
Advantage: The current group is the strongest, hands down. And the great thing is, they’re going to just keep getting better.
The current team features a solid cast of Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, and Anthony Brown at cornerback, with Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods at safety. Jones is an All-Pro after making the switch to corner, but the rest of the group is nothing more than solid. Granted, they’re young, but until they start taking the ball away more, they’re going to be seen as the weak link on the team. But considering they’re still solid, that’s not a terrible thing.
The 2016 squad featured a lot of veterans like Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox. They were also solid for the most part, but the team didn’t retain a single one of them after the season was over as they all left in free agency.
The 2007 group was outstanding and featured three Pro Bowlers. Terence Newman and Anthony Henry manned the outside corners, while the tandem of Roy Williams and Ken Hamlin performed extremely well at safety. Hamlin led the team with six interceptions, and Williams was second in the team in tackles with 92. They were great against the run, and they were great in coverage.
Advantage: The 2007 team runs away with this. The team has struggled to find the success at the safety position since that group departed.
Grading out each position group from those seasons produces the following scores:
The 2007 team still grades out the best, but the full potential of the current group isn’t factored in. If Quinn comes in and provides a Greg Ellis-like complement to Tank, the DE grade goes up. This new WR group has the potential to rise even further as the chemistry between Dak, Cooper, and second-year receiver Michael Gallup continues to grow. Adding Randall Cobb certainly doesn’t hurt either. But the biggest boost can come if the team’s new franchise quarterback takes the next step.
So, Witten might be correct in what he said. Could that mean another 13-3 season is on the horizon? Anything less than an NFC Championship appearance will be considered a let down for many Cowboys fans, yet if the team achieves that – it will be the first time they’ve done it in 24 years. If that manages to happen, it’s safe to say Witten got it right.