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Football Notes

Again, there are big expectations in Big D

To get the most out of a team that underachieved last season, Dallas coach Jason Garrett (left) will need to incorporate more discipline than the man he replaced, Wade Phillips (right). To get the most out of a team that underachieved last season, Dallas coach Jason Garrett (left) will need to incorporate more discipline than the man he replaced, Wade Phillips (right). (File/Mike Stone/Reuters)
By Greg A. Bedard
April 10, 2011

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Whenever football resumes, there will be a few things you can count on to remain the same.

As long as a healthy Tom Brady is in the lineup, the Patriots will be viewed as one of the elite teams.

Rex Ryan will guarantee the Jets will win the Super Bowl.

The NFC will be better than any network or columnist will indicate. What, there are teams other than the Patriots, Jets, Ravens, Steelers, Colts, and, for the West Coast media, Chargers? You don’t say. Meanwhile, the Saints and Packers have won the last two Super Bowls out of the NFC, which has taken three of the last four (2007 Giants — oops, bad memories).

And as sure as the leaves will turn colors, what fall would be complete without the Cowboys being drilled down fans’ throats, usually for all the wrong (read: circus) reasons?

The 2011 season, no matter how many games are played (and we think the odds are strong you’ll get a full season and training camp), will be no different.

The Cowboys may have a new coach — former offensive coordinator Jason Garrett had the interim tag removed — but the heat will once again be on in Big D, especially after Ryan has extolled the virtues of the team whose defense his twin brother, Rob, will now coordinate.

“I tell you what, I always say this to him and I believe it: I think they’ll be second in the league in defense this year and I believe it will happen,’’ said Rex Ryan, implying his Jets will finish first in that category. “They’re going to be good. That team is loaded, I mean golly. They got the best pass rusher [DeMarcus Ware] in football. They have a ton of talent on defense and, by the way, their offense is as good as it gets. So this is gonna be a great combination. Wow. It will be good.’’

Of course, the Cowboys were a Super Bowl favorite a year ago with much the same talent before slipping to 6-10.

Will getting rid of Wade Phillips as coach make all the difference? It should help since Phillips’s lack of discipline permeated a talented roster. So, Garrett is going to need to push some better buttons.

But the real pressure is going to be on quarterback Tony Romo. Coaches are certainly important, but teams only go as far as their on-field leaders take them. And with Romo about to turn 31, it’s time for him to be a difference-maker.

“I think he’s gotten a lot better and I think he can get a lot better,’’ said Garrett, a former NFL quarterback. “One of the real good things about him is he understands that he comes to work with that mind-set of getting better individually, always looking for ways for us to get better as an offensive unit and as a football team. But the strides that he’s made in the last four years is significant. When you watched him play a few years ago he did a lot of really good things, but I just think he’s at a different level now as a quarterback. He’d be the first one to tell you that. We’ll go back, for whatever reason, in a cut-up or watching tape from a few years back and he’ll say, ‘Hey that’s not me, I’m a different guy now.’ And you can see that in his play.’’

That Romo is a different player is in the eye of the beholder.

After finally getting the “first playoff victory’’ monkey off his back, Romo started 1-5 before breaking his left collarbone. His stats were fine: 69.5 percent completion rate, 1,605 yards, and 11 touchdowns. But of his seven interceptions, Romo threw five in the final two games he finished, losses to the Titans and Vikings, who both finished 6-10. Those games effectively finished the Cowboys and Phillips before the midway point of the season.

Whether Romo wants to wear it or not, the Cowboys’ collapse is on his leadership résumé.

There have been rumblings out of Dallas about Romo’s lack of true leadership. Then one Cowboy went on Dallas radio to say there should be a competition between Romo and Jon Kitna, who was 4-5 after Romo was injured.

“He made some things happen in limited time, so I think if he got a longer chance, he’d be able to do more,’’ the player said. “I hope there’s a chance for a quarterback competition this year.’’

It would be given more weight — or any — if the player was anyone other than knucklehead tight end Martellus Bennett, he of the 68 catches in three seasons. Bennett is the same guy who said after being drafted by the Cowboys, “Any quarterback that can get Jessica Simpson, I’ve got to play with him,’’ in reference to one of Romo’s former love interests.

Obviously, there’s not going to be a quarterback competition. Romo remains supremely talented. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Cowboys take a quarterback in the draft.

That wouldn’t be the case if Romo was all the Cowboys think he should be. And that starts with being the ultimate leader. Garrett thinks the makings are there.

“I think Tony is a very natural leader,’’ Garrett said. “People respond to him and you see that in his play. You see that in his play right from the start, but there are always things in every phase of your game so to speak, physically also in terms of your approach and if you are in a leadership role, you can always get better in those areas. Coaches and players.’’

For the Cowboys to finally deliver on the hype, it’s going to have to start with Romo. Or this season will finish with one more tried and true story line: another disappointing season in Dallas.

WELL-MANAGED
Dream job is waiting With so much uncertain this offseason, it wasn’t a huge shock that there was only one general manager job up for grabs. And even that went to an in-house candidate when the 49ers promoted Trent Baalke.

The other teams to fire their coaches kept their talent evaluators: Denver (Brian Xanders), Carolina (Marty Hurney), Tennessee (Mike Reinfeldt), Minnesota (Rick Spielman), Cleveland (Tom Heckert), Dallas (Jerry Jones), and Oakland (Al Davis).

But even with just one opening, it was a little curious that the name of Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta wasn’t mentioned.

The Taunton native and Colby College and Trinity College graduate has been a regular on the postseason interview circuit the last few years because of his work at the right hand of general manager Ozzie Newsome.

But since withdrawing his name from consideration to become Seahawks GM (a job that went to John Schneider), DeCosta has kept a low profile.

Now we know why.

Around the same time as the Seattle interview, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti gave DeCosta, who turns 40 today, a new contract with financial incentives to stay on and become the 55-year-old Newsome’s eventual successor.

“It’s not enough to stop him from leaving, but enough to encourage him to stay,’’ Bisciotti told the Baltimore Sun. “I think it would take a perfect job in the perfect city in order for Eric to say he’s not willing to be Ozzie’s successor.’’

DeCosta joined the Ravens in an entry-level position in 1996, the team’s first season in Baltimore after moving from Cleveland. Now he is in line to be the most powerful football person in an organization that has gone to the playoffs seven of the last 11 seasons.

That track record speaks for itself. As do the four Pro Bowlers he helped draft as director of college scouting from 2003-08: linebacker Terrell Suggs, nose tackle Haloti Ngata, fullback Le’Ron McClain, and running back Ray Rice. Not to mention the dozens of other standouts the Ravens have produced.

There hasn’t been any talk publicly of a timetable for Newsome’s retirement, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down. So, there’s a chance DeCosta could leave for the right job. It would likely have to be for a terrific, hands-off owner (Bisciotti has a lot of fans around the league) with total control of the football operations, including the hiring and firing of coaches.

With a great situation in Baltimore, DeCosta wisely thought getting too deep in the Seattle opening was a waste of time (besides getting a nice bump in pay and security). While Paul Allen is a top-notch owner, coach Pete Carroll is in control there and has final say.

So, now DeCosta can sit back and let the perfect job come to him. Or he, wife Lacie, and their two children can stay right where they are.

UNCERTAIN TIMES
Front offices taking it slow For perhaps false reasoning, most NFL observers — including this one — figured a new rookie wage scale would be a done deal for this season. Same thing for the 18-game season (at least in 2012).

The latter looks like it won’t happen since the owners put in their final pre-lockout proposal that the players would have to agree to for there to be a shift to an 18-game schedule. The previous collective bargaining agreement allowed the owners to do it with only written notice and a boost in pay for the players.

And at this point, the rookie wage scale looks very much at risk. That has led to a lot of uncertainty in front offices as the draft draws closer.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,’’ said one AFC general manager. “Of course we’ve got contingencies for all of these things, but at this point it’s completely up in the air. We could have a CBA with a rookie scale this year, or we could not have one for — who knows — three years? That will change things for some people.’’

Or six years. When the CBA last expired in 1987 and went into the courts with an antitrust lawsuit, it wasn’t until 1993 that another was agreed upon.

You bet that will change things. Or could.

Say you’re the Panthers with the first overall pick. You need a quarterback and Cam Newton is without question the most skilled. But he likely won’t be ready this season. And he has character question marks.

With a rookie wage scale contract of, say, four years and $25 million guaranteed, the Panthers might be OK with that risk.

As the first overall pick last year, Sam Bradford received a six-year contract with $50 million guaranteed. Add 20 percent to that and Newton’s agents would probably be looking for $60 million guaranteed.

Would the Panthers be willing to take that kind of risk? That would have to give conservative owner Jerry Richardson pause.

Then there’s trading up into the top 10, which has been almost nonexistent in the past half-dozen drafts. As profootballtalk.com pointed out, the only time a team has traded into the top six in the last six years was the Jets’ move for quarterback Mark Sanchez (No. 5 in 2009).

That kind of move is cost-prohibitive because not only is a team putting its financial future at risk with a huge cap hit on an unproven rookie, it is putting its future rosters at risk by investing multiple picks to move up for one player.

It would also seem likely to make a team like the Patriots think twice about moving up. They certainly have the ammunition (picks) and the need for another impact player (pass rusher), but would it be worth the double-edged risk without a rookie wage scale?

That’s why what happens in court and in potential new negotiations between the players and owners before the draft will be watched closely by teams.

“If talks resume and there’s real progress, that could make more teams comfortable with the future,’’ the AFC GM said. “But if things break down and it looks like this will end up with a trial, I’d have to think most teams will be more conservative at the top of the draft.’’

ETC.
Receiving with the enemy? Randy Moss in a Jets uniform? It could happen. Among several free agents, the Jets have receivers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards. They have said re-signing Holmes is a priority. Edwards would likely have to agree to a contract with the Jets that might be less than market value. And he might very well balk at that and cash in elsewhere. Enter Moss, another big target. Only one team, the Titans, put in a claim for him when he was released by the Vikings. And considering his performance in Tennessee, most teams aren’t going to waste their time with a 34-year-old receiver with diminishing skills, let alone one who’s known as a problem child. But coach Rex Ryan could be interested. Ryan has enough cachet where he could keep Moss in line, and the Jets would probably enjoy tweaking the Patriots. Ryan spoke highly of Moss last month. “Randy Moss, I’ve said all along, is a great vertical receiver,’’ Ryan said at the owners’ meetings. “And you have to roll coverage. Most teams would have to roll coverage to him. We never did, but we got burned for a touchdown. But he was a weapon. A vertical weapon down the field.’’ Curiously, when Ryan began to speak about Moss, he checked first with team spokesman Bruce Speight to see if it would be tampering.

Short yardage Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver held a conference call last week to encourage season-ticket sales, which he said are 12,000 short of the 40,000 base they’d like to have. What, he thought a lockout was going to create Jaguars fever in Jacksonville? . . . Speaking of teams that might not be long for their market with an eye on Los Angeles, the Vikings finally had their bill to build a new taxpayer-financed stadium submitted in the Minnesota legislature on Friday. It happened at the same time the Twins were hosting their home opener in their publicly financed stadium. This could be the last chance for the Vikings to stay in the Twin Cities. Not only is the Metrodome no longer feasible, it’s still not known if the roof repairs will be ready for the season . . . Patriots free agent tackle Matt Light will be hosting “Matt Light and Peter King’s Lockout Breakfast: Inside the CBA, free agency, and the draft’’ from 7:30-9:30 a.m. April 26 at the Liberty Hotel. Tickets are $250 (tax-deductible) and will benefit the Matt Light Foundation. For more information, go to mattlightfoundation.org.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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