Darren Woodson hard to replace

IRVING, Texas -- Of all the terrific players who starred for the Dallas Cowboys in the '90s, who knew Darren Woodson would be the most difficult to replace.

Nine seasons have passed since Woodson's last game, and the Cowboys are still searching for a quality safety.

Think about it.

Whether you like Tony Romo or not, he's a championship-caliber quarterback. Miles Austin is a receiver capable of taking over a game, and the Cowboys hope Dez Bryant will join him this season.

Tyron Smith will soon be one of the NFL's best left tackles, and rule changes have made the running game secondary these days, so there's no need to have a dude such as Emmitt Smith carrying the ball 25 times, if necessary.

Besides, two-man running back tandems are all the rage these days. Still, DeMarco Murray this season should be the Cowboys' first 1,200-yard rusher since Smith did it in 2000.

DeMarcus Ware is the most dominant pass-rusher in franchise history, and the combination of rookie Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, the $50 million free-agent cornerback, should help the Cowboys lock down receivers with regularity.

That brings us back to the Cowboys' never-ending quest to find Woodson's replacement at safety.

The position is important because the safety should be the quarterback of the defense, the guy who gets everyone lined up properly and makes the right adjustments based on the offensive formation, personnel and motion.

It helps the defense when one of its safeties is a thumper, a hard-hitter who makes others nervous when the ball is caught in the middle of the field.

A safety can also impact the defense if he excels at reading the quarterback and makes plays as a center fielder, knocking down passes that seem destined to be completed.

When the season begins, the starters at safety will be Gerald Sensabaugh, who's never been more than average, and either journeyman Brodney Pool or Barry Church, a former undrafted free agent.


Frankly, we shouldn't be surprised.

Since 2004, Lynn Scott, Tony Dixon, Keith Davis, Pat Watkins, Roy Williams, Ken Hamlin, Alan Ball and Abe Elam have started at least five games in a season for the Cowboys.

We all thought Roy Williams was going to be the next Woodson, but once Woodson retired, Williams' game steadily declined.

Williams, who played in six Pro Bowls, was terrific when he played alongside Woodson and lost without him.

Hamlin had one superb season with 62 tackles and five interceptions to make the Pro Bowl in 2007, when Dallas went 13-3. Hamlin turned that season into a six-year, $39 million deal with $15 million guaranteed. Two seasons later, the Cowboys cut him for poor play.

Why the Cowboys signed Sensabaugh to a five-year, $22.5 million deal, when he had played on a one-year deal for three consecutive seasons and generated no serious offers on the open market, is one of life's great mysteries.

Sensabaugh had 75 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles last season.

But his signature play was the horrible angle he took on Victor Cruz's 74-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter of the Cowboys' win-and-get-in regular-season finale against the Giants.

Oh well.

Pool is with his third team in four seasons. He played for Rob Ryan in Cleveland, so at least he knows the scheme. Of course, we heard the same thing about Elam before last season.

Elam's signature play: Whiffing on Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw in the backfield, leading to a five-yard touchdown run and a 14-0 lead for New York.

Church had some success last season in the nickel defense, and with the way Jason Garrett continually harps on competition, perhaps he can push Pool for playing time.

Whoever winds up playing with Sensabaugh this season, the Cowboys need improved play.

No one is suggesting the Cowboys' safeties need to play as well as Baltimore's Ed Reed or Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu, because they're the league's standard of excellence -- just like Woodson used to be the standard for other NFL safeties.

But the Cowboys' safeties need to play a lot better than they have been lately.