DAL-TB Matchup Report
Tampa, FL - Many of the preseason headlines about the Dallas Cowboys involved where the team played as opposed to the players, and it's unlikely they minded being under the radar.
With big-name distractions like Terrell Owens and Adam "Pacman" Jones - even Jessica Simpson - out of the picture, the Cowboys start looking to recover from another disastrous end to a season as they visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
Oddsmakers from online sports book Sportsbook.com have made the Cowboys -6 point spread favorites (View NFL odds) for Sunday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 82% of bets for this game have been placed on the Cowboys -6 (View NFL bet percentages).
Considered by many a Super Bowl favorite the previous two years, Dallas does not seem to be getting such widespread praise heading into this season. After all, it's a team that has not won a playoff game since 1996.
The Cowboys missed out on the postseason last year by losing their final two games - 33-24 to Baltimore in their Texas Stadium finale and an embarrassing 44-6 defeat to archrival Philadelphia.
That was the only game all season in which Tony Romo played and failed to throw a touchdown pass, finishing 8-5 as the starter after going 19-7 in the previous two years. That career record includes a 5-8 mark in December and doesn't count his 0-2 mark in the playoffs.
"Obviously the way I was before wasn't getting the job done to the extent to the goal you want to accomplish," Romo said. "So you just keep going and keep going and hopefully you are able to accomplish that one day. I can see improvement."
Owens' consistent demand for the ball - not to mention his penchant for being so outspoken - may have negatively affected Romo's play and that of the offense. Some might have said the same about Simpson, the pop star who was Romo's girlfriend - and constant fodder on Dallas talk radio - until the pair broke up during the offseason.
"Everything was just football 24-7," Romo said during training camp. "I think that's the way we want to work around here."
With Owens off to Buffalo and Romo's dating life staying out of the tabloids, as well as the controversial Jones being released, the players surely did not have to deal with as much negative attention.
The team's facilities also took care of that.
First, the collapse of the Cowboys' indoor practice facility seriously injured scouting assistant Rich Behm and special teams coach Joe DeCamillis. Then, the video boards at the new Cowboys Stadium drew heavy criticism when punters were hitting them in exhibition games.
Before playing its first regular-season game at the $1.15 billion venue, Dallas looks to spoil the debut of Buccaneers first-year coach Raheem Morris.
A four-game losing streak to end last season cost Tampa Bay (9-7) a playoff spot as well coach Jon Gruden his job, and Morris has taken over after serving as the Bucs' defensive backs coach.
Tampa's once vaunted defense no longer has 11-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks and includes six new starters.
"New leaders have to emerge," veteran cornerback Ronde Barber said.
That defense will be tested right away as it tries to slow down a potent offense led by Romo, who last year joined Roger Staubach as the only Dallas quarterbacks to throw for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons.
He'll continue to rely on tight end Jason Witten, whose 81 receptions led the team in 2008, but Romo likely needs more help from Roy Williams. He's replacing Owens as the No. 1 wideout after being limited to 19 catches last year following his midseason acquisition.
"This is another level here in Dallas than it was in Detroit," Williams said. "That's fine. I've been in the spotlight since I was little. I know how to handle it. I don't let them get to me. I don't have a big head."
A three-pronged ground game should take some pressure off the passing attack.
Marion Barber looks to rebound from a year in which his rushing yards and touchdowns decreased even though his attempts increased, averaging a career-low 3.7 yards per carry. Felix Jones averaged 8.9 yards as a rookie and scored four touchdowns despite missing 10 games due to injury. That left extra playing time to Tashard Choice, who averaged 5.1 yards per rush.
The defense is led by DeMarcus Ware, who led the league with a team-record 20 sacks last season. Linebacker Bradie James proved to be a team leader - he had eight sacks in his final 10 games - and veteran Terence Newman stars in the secondary.
That unit will be looking to spoil Byron Leftwich's regular-season debut with the Bucs. He was signed during the offseason and won the No. 1 quarterback job by beating out Luke McCown, who was later traded to Jacksonville.
In essence, Leftwich is a stop-gap until first-round pick Josh Freeman is ready to take over the reins.
"One day they're going to give him the keys," Leftwich said. "I'm just going to try to make sure they don't give him the keys this year."
Posted: 9/10/09 1:52AM ET