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Cowboys camp report: Super swagger or overconfidence?


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SAN ANTONIO -- The Texas-sized swagger coming from the Dallas Cowboys is easy to feel the minute you walk near the team's first training-camp practice.

It starts with an owner/general manager who thinks big and gaudy 24 hours a day -- have you seen his stadium? -- and it runs through each and every member of the team.

After spending two days with this team, the Cowboys' message came through louder than the noise from the thick crowds that come to the Alamodome here every day to see them practice:

The Cowboys think they're good.

And they are.

The Cowboys were the first team to open training camp last Saturday, and the first team on my 14-team training-camp tour. After three practices and time talking to a lot of players, I left thinking the Cowboys might end up being the best team I see all summer.

That includes both Super Bowl teams from the 2009 season.

Is there a more talented roster than the Cowboys, who return 20 of 22 starters from a team that won the first playoff game for the franchise in 13 years?

"On talent, I don't think so," Cowboys corner Mike Jenkins said.

The Cowboys are rock stars in their camp, the fans going nuts with every catch, interception or run, even those coming against air. The scary thing is how big these players can become if they win a Super Bowl -- a game that will be played in their stadium.

It is not something they talk about publicly. But it is something they think about and talk about privately. For the record, you hear all kinds of football clichés when you ask players or coaches about it.

They rattle off the usual suspects: One game at a time. It's a long season. We're looking only at Washington (the regular-season opener).

Deep down, though, you can tell it's about so much more, the expectations of playing a Super Bowl in their lavish new facility, showing off Jerry World to the rest of the world.

"We're going to have that Super Bowl, and I'd like to be in it," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.

Jones, as open and accessible an owner as there is, had two meet-and-greet sessions with the media over the first three days of camp. Each time, his face and his words told of an owner who likes his team -- a lot.

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I asked Jones just how comforting it must be for him to be an owner with 20 of 22 starters. Jones stopped me in mid-sentence.

"Let me first talk about being a general manager," Jones said.

Don't worry, Jerry. We all know you are the GM, a man who helped craft the roster. He's more than just a shrewd businessman who appears on trendy cable-TV shows like Entourage. Jones is a good personnel man. He is not Al Davis, rotting a team from the outside in. The Cowboys, with some help from the departed Bill Parcells, don't have to worry at all about filling jobs. The roster will be an easy cut, save a position or two.

"We have so many good things happening," Jones said.

Yet despite the talent, there are questions. Among them:

  Is quarterback Tony Romo an elite player? He won his first playoff game last season, but he looked bad in the playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings, even if he did spend the day running for his life from a wicked pass rush. Romo has won 38 of 55 starts, but if a Dallas quarterback doesn't win a Super Bowl he isn't good enough. Just ask Danny White.

  Is coach Wade Phillips the right guy to lead the team? He is considered a player's coach, which some hold against him, but by beating the Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs he earned another year back. He has been more critical of the players this year and he had the Cowboys in full pads hitting the second day of camp. "Mr. Softy," a nickname some of have derisively used for Phillips, might be toughening up. That could be a good thing.

  Can the two new starters fill major holes? Doug Free is set to start at left tackle and Alan Ball will take over at free safety. Free started seven games at right tackle last season when Marc Colombo was hurt. Ball started three games for the departed Ken Hamlin in 2009. The Cowboys turned Flozell Adams loose, which pits Free against Alex Barron, a player the team acquired from the Rams in a trade, for the all-important left tackle spot. Anyone who witnessed Romo's beating against the Viking knows the line has to play better.

Ball isn't a worry to the staff and certainly doesn't lack confidence. "I'm a starter," he said. "A starter's a starter. It doesn't matter if you're the newest or the oldest. I'm not a new guy. I've been around here."

  Oh, and they are working with a new kicker. David Buehler, who was only a kickoff specialist for the Cowboys last season, a player who has never attempted a field goal in an NFL game, will be the kicker. But if he struggles in the summer, that could change.

If kicker and safety are two of your biggest concerns in July, you have a good football team. But the Cowboys have to be careful of getting overconfident.

Jenkins said that happened some last year. Players got caught up in Super Bowl hype after they won the division and won a late game at New Orleans.

"It affected our team and turned a lot of people against each other," Jenkins said.


"It started separating the team," he said. "Once they start talking about Super Bowl, they actually feed the individual players and not the team. That kind of makes guys lose focus. We're focused now. There are no superstars right now."

But there's no denying there are a lot of good players, which makes this one of the better teams in the league.

They know it, too.

It's hard to hide the giddy factor for the Cowboys. It's all over Jones' face. It's there in the feel you get from the players and coaches.

And Romo told a crowd at a camp kickoff celebration this: "We'll see you at the Super Bowl in Dallas."

He told the media the next day it wasn't a prediction. It sure sounded like it.

"Expectations are predominately because you've done something right at some point," Romo said, "so if they think you have a chance, then you've probably shown people that it's possible."

Oh, it's a lot more than just a possibility.

The swagger says so, even if the Cowboys won't.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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