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April 27, 2005

Best draft since ’91?

By Frank Luksa

Add my voice to the Hallelujah chorus serenading how the Cowboys performed in the NFL draft over the weekend. You will recognize my powerful baritone as the sound Michael Crawford borrowed for his starring turn in The Phantom of the Opera. Since the show closed on Broadway years ago, Mike said it was OK to mention it.

Hallelujah fits reaction to the haul made by beloved owner Jerry Jones and hermit coach Bill Parcells at Valley Ranch, the shop closed to newsmen so often that it’s known as The Forbidden City. Jones and Parcells scored big for a change, and for another change, welcomed a media audience to share their success.

If the draftees play to their college pedigree, and if scout-house research is accurate, and if they’re properly coached, and if none of them throw a wet towel in Parcells’ face, get hurt, go bonkers or stage a contract holdout until October, this well could be the best Cowboys draft since….

Fourteen years ago? Such is the possibility because it’s been that long since the franchise was re-energized with multiple bull’s-eyes. The last instance of rookie talent gathered in volume occurred with the Russell Maryland, Alvin Harper, Erik Williams, Leon Lett and Larry Brown class of 1991.

The 2005 all-defense top three picks — ends Demarcus Ware and Marcus Spears and linebacker Kevin Burnett — arrive with wart-free resumes from all sources. Any keeper found in lower rounds will ring a bonus bell.

Add free-agent signings of veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe, defensive tackle Jason Ferguson, cornerback Anthony Henry and guard Marco Rivera to the incoming mix. Now what can we anticipate? In terms of altered starting lineups, the most extreme makeover since the last sighting of Tammy Faye Baker.

Jones and Parcells had to do something to improve their defense, which frankly was not that difficult to achieve. They could’ve reactivated Bob Lilly at age 65 and gotten a better pass rush than last season. That defense allowed 45 touchdowns, 33 delivered via the pass, and 405 points until forced to shut down after 16 games.

Until this exact moment, when it will be revealed, no one else realized where that most forlorn number (405) registered on the all-time leak meter. Know first that over the span of a regular season, the average yield computes to 25.3 points per game. To find a defense of more frailty, rewind to the collapsible 1-15 unit of 1989 and then keep going into distant history. Even that one-win defense was marginally better by surrendering 24.5 points per game. It requires a retreat of 41 years to 1963 to find a Cowboys defense that averaged a 31.5-point surrender and thus qualified as worse than 2004.

This influx of newcomers led Jones and Parcells to reveal that the Cowboys will line up next fall in a defense to be named later. The options are the 4-3, a staple beginning with Tom Landry’s flex wrinkle at franchise inception, or the 3-4, advertised as a Parcells favorite. The best bet is some of both, with heavy lean toward the 4-3 and the 3-4 in reserve as an occasional change-up.

Asked how much his defense has improved, Jones said: “I just hope we can get somebody off the field on third down.’’

Moving entirely to the 3-4 doesn’t sound whiz-bang smart if railbirds have it doped out correctly. Doing so would remove the two best returning linemen, Greg Ellis and Pro Bowl honoree La’Roi Glover, as starters and restrict their overall game action. Ellis is supposedly too light for a 3-4 end. Nor does Glover carry the 300-plus pounds necessary for 3-4 nose guards to sumo wrestle.

As Jones noted, a switch to pure 3-4 would put young players (Ware, Spears, Burnett) on the field with veterans (linebacker Dat Nguyen, Glover) in unfamiliar positions. Doesn’t seem worth it to me, although there is this to consider: The big brains believe they have enough skill on hand to play it either way.

A summary of preseason moves indicates that the Cowboys made major strides toward fielding a wild-card contender. The upgrade on defense occurred everywhere — line, linebacker and secondary. This is of significance because, if everything clicks, it eases pressure on the offense to win a shootout every week. That’s a factor to consider with another starting quarterback about to begin his break-in phase.

So there’s still a want at wide receiver with Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn on the mend from injuries. Overall, though, the Cowboys earned a “well done” in the draft. My only regret is not being able to use the compliment sooner.

Posted by Garrett Queen at 08:35 PM