Cowboys take on Giants in NFL opener Wednesday night
Cowboys begin season where it ended last year, against division rival Giants in New York
Most of the country noticed on the second-to-last day of July, when Jerry Jones grabbed a microphone a half-hour before the first training camp practice in Oxnard, Calif., smiled big and invited everyone in the crowd to come to Cowboys Stadium and watch the Cowboys "kick the Giants' ass!"
But that wasn't when the Cowboys started thinking about the Giants. That was only when everybody noticed.
The Cowboys have been thinking about the Giants since the Giants won the Super Bowl. The Cowboys geared their offseason to doing two things - beating the Giants and keeping the window open for their own Super Bowl chances.
The Cowboys signed the top cornerback in free agency and drafted the best cornerback available in the draft with the aim of slowing down Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
They signed two free agent guards with the aim of giving their own quarterback, Tony Romo, protection against injury and time to throw. Two years ago, the Giants ended Romo's season six games in. Last year, they sacked him nine times in two games, including six times in the Week 17 game for the division.
Jones kicked himself for not making the playoffs last year behind Romo's best season, statistically (31 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions). He vowed to improve the offensive line. He said the window was closing on this group.
The Cowboys didn't run from it. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware agreed. Tight end Jason Witten, upon landing at training camp in Oxnard, Calif., said, "There's unbelievable urgency."
Ironically, the preseason spleen injury to Witten underscored the urgency. How tight that window really is getting.
And now the Cowboys' plan will be tested. The Cowboys open the NFL season on Wednesday night at the Giants' place, MetLife Stadium, where they lost not only the season finale to the Giants last year but also the season opener to the Giants' roommates, the New York Jets.
The Giants' loss is what lingered. It was a winner-take-all game for the NFC East championship, and it meant the difference between a 9-7 division-title season and a playoff trip and an 8-8 season that ended right there.
The Giants made the most of their chance, going on to win the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys watched, promising themselves to learn.
"We've played them a lot through the years. We understand the challenges we have going against them," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.
"Ultimately, we have to get to their level, and that's what we're working to do. There's a general school of thought in this league that you want to make sure that you can compete well against your division rivals. They're certainly our division rival. A lot of personnel moves that teams make, and that we generally try to make, are designed to help us match up better with those teams that we have to play and beat twice a year."
The Cowboys had two problem areas, the secondary and the offensive line.
The secondary gave up 746 yards and five touchdowns in two games against Manning last year. They sacked him only once. They intercepted him only once. In the swing game of the year, at home in December with a one-game lead in the division, the Cowboys gave up two touchdowns in the final five minutes to Manning and his offense.
The offensive line couldn't run out the clock in that game, never mind that the Cowboys had lost DeMarco Murray to a broken ankle in the first half. And the line couldn't protect Romo against the Giants. He was sacked nine times in the two games.
For the secondary, the Cowboys signed Brandon Carr out of Kansas City, giving the fifth-year corner a five-year deal worth $50.1 million. A month later, they drafted Morris Claiborne of LSU, not only the top cornerback in the draft, but the top defensive player. Jones swapped first-round picks with the Rams and gave up a second-rounder to move the Cowboys from No. 15 to No. 6 to take Claiborne.
The Cowboys also signed veteran safety Brodney Pool (13 career interceptions) and drafted safety Matt Johnson (17 career interceptions at Eastern Washington) with the idea of getting ball-hawkers in the secondary against Manning. Neither will be on the field Wednesday -- Pool was cut in camp, and Johnson is hurt -- but their presence is evidence of the Cowboys' plan.
And the Cowboys signed veteran guards Mackenzy Bernadeau out of Carolina and Nate Livings out of Cincinnati for more push in the ground game and more size around third-year undrafted center Phil Costa, in hopes that they could help protect him against the Giants' fierce pass rush.
"They present challenges all over their football team," Garrett said. "They have a great defensive front. They have playmakers on offense. They just do a really good job of surrounding their team. We look at them and say, 'We've got to get better in this area and that area' to keep up with those guys."
And keep the window open.