Dallas Cowboys Camp '98
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Omar.JPG (42818 bytes)

Ben Noey Jr./Times Record News

Defensive back Omar Stoutmire is one of three players vying for the position of starting free safety.

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Harry Tonemah/Times Record News

Kenny Wheaton, No. 30, picks off a pass intended for No. 16, Jeff Ogden.

Three battle for Cowboys’ starting free safety spot.

The Cowboys have a solid pass defender at free safety. They also have a good run supporter and even a ‘veteran savvy’ at the position.

Problem is, the three qualities are split up into three different players, all competing to become the starting free safety on opening day.

Kenny Wheaton, Omar Stoutmire and George Teague may not be rookies, but they’re all finding themselves battling just as much as young players on the bubble.

Teague, a six-year veteran, is making his second stop in Dallas. After playing for four teams in the NFL, Teague returns to the team he’s been the most successful with. Despite playing just 10 games in the 1996 season, Teague made several key plays during the year, including a huge performance in the playoffs.

Wheaton and Stoutmire are in similar situations. Both entering their second season in a Cowboys uniform, the two are very athletic and have big-play potential.

Wheaton, a converted cornerback, has been praised by coaches as a great defender against the pass, while Stoutmire impressed last season in his run-stopping ability.

Although they may be at the same level now, the two started at different rookie seasons. While Wheaton sat out 14 games last season with a separated shoulder, Stoutmire played in all 16 games on special teams and nickel packages, and even filled in at both free and strong safety as the starter in two games.

Head coach Chan Gailey said all three players are good enough to play the spot, but he’s using camp and the preseason games to determine the best guy.

“Their strengths lie in some different areas and you’re trying to evaluate which one’s gonna fit in the system better overall,” Gailey said.

 

George Teague

George Teague knows all about highlight films.

In his six seasons in the pros, and even in his four at the University of Alabama, Teague has always been a guy who’s made the big plays in the big games.

Despite playing for four different teams in the NFL, the 6-foot-1-inch, 195-pound safety has always had a knack for the ball.

“I think it’s a little bit of luck and instinct,” Teague said about making big plays. “You’ve got to have instincts out there as a defensive back, which comes from studying, preparing, knowing your opponent. But sometimes it does have a lot to do with luck, being in the right place at the right time.”

Teague played three years for the Green Bay Packers, but was released and signed by the Falcons in the summer of 1996. But Teague was not 100 percent healthy in Atlanta and was waived again. The Cowboys picked him days later with hopes of getting the playmaker they saw in Green Bay.

They got that and more.

Designed to play as the nickel back (fifth defensive back on passing downs), Teague played the first six games in the nickel package before starting free safety Brock Marion was lost for the season with an injury. Teague stepped in and the Cowboys’ defense never lost a step.

“I think I had my best playing career here with the Dallas Cowboys,” Teague said. “I had some good seasons in Green Bay, but when I came to Dallas back in ’96, that was the best time I had playing-wise.”

Teague, who ended the season second on the team in interceptions with four, had the biggest game of his pro career in a Wild Card Playoff game against Minnesota. In one half, Teague caused two fumbles, one which saved a definite touchdown, and the other resulting in an Emmitt Smith score on the following play. If that wasn’t enough, Teague came back on the next series after the Smith touchdown run, and intercepted a pass and returned it back for a 29-yard touchdown.

“That game sort of reminded me back to when I played at Alabama,” he said. “Just making plays, making plays. In the Minnesota game, having a couple of forced fumbles, an interception for a touchdown, those are the kind of games you live for as a DB. On national television, in front of everybody, to show up and help the team. That’s what this game is all about.”

Teague’s big game against the Vikings was not the first time he had shined under the national spotlight.

In Alabama’s 1992 National Championship game with Miami in the Sugar Bowl, he had two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown and a well-remembered play in the fourth quarter, where he ran down speedy Miami receiver Lamar Thomas, stripped the ball from behind, and then took off the other way.

With his playmaking ability, and the good season in Dallas, the free agent Teague signed a three-year contract with the Miami Dolphins and former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson.

But Teague said the year in Miami did not turn out for the best.

“It was just an up-and-down season,” Teague said. “We rotated our safeties a lot. We went through at least three free safeties over the course of the season. So it made it tougher to establish myself and get into a rhythm and learn to play with the guys and make some plays.”

After making 70 tackles and four picks in Dallas, he had only 43 stops and two interceptions with the Dolphins.

But Teague, who has 15 career interceptions (including playoffs), returns to Dallas with hopes of possibly starting, or at least getting considerable playing time.

“I knew I wanted to come to a team that I could get on the field and play a lot of defensive packages,” he said. “Coming in here, and having a chance to compete, is a major factor of why I chose to come back to Dallas.”

Gailey said Teague’s experience should help the entire secondary.

“George is a veteran guy who’s been around a while, played a lot of football and made a lot of plays,” Gailey said. “He’s made a lot of plays here. He brings that veteran savvy to the table.”

 

Kenny Wheaton

A year ago, Kenny Wheaton was trying to prove himself as an NFL player. Now he’s just having to prove he can play the free safety spot, and do it better than Teague and Omar Stoutmire.

“I feel good about this year,” Wheaton said. “Last year was tough because I wasn’t proven yet, and then I got hurt. And that’s not a good spot to be in, especially as a rookie. I’m confident that this year I’m in the top five, six defensive backs.”

Before the first preseason game last season, Wheaton’s separated shoulder forced him to miss the first three exhibition contests. He returned three weeks later, and played some against Tennessee, but was hurt again, and then missed the first 14 games of the regular season.

He returned for the last two, and had four tackles against the Giants in the season finale, playing as a cornerback.

But with the loss of Marion, and the talented corners ahead of him, Wheaton asked the coaching staff to move him to safety.

“It doesn’t take Einstein to figure out who’s going to play at corner. Those guys (Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith) are great,” Wheaton said. “I wanted to play more, so I asked if I could go to free safety. Now I’m sort of out to prove that I can play this position.”

After two weeks of training camp, Wheaton, who has played some in the first-team defense, said he’s not sure where he stands in the coaches’ eyes.

“I don’t know about how things are going with the three of us,” he said. “It’s up in the air right now. I consider the three of us good players. So I don’t know where I stand on the depth chart.”

Defensive back coach Mike Zimmer said Wheaton’s cornerback knowledge makes him dangerous in the secondary for opposing quarterbacks.

“Kenny is more instinctive as far as making plays,” Zimmer said. “I don’t know Kenny well enough in the running game to say he’s this or he’s not. But he’s good against the pass.”

Although he was a third-round draft pick, Wheaton certainly has a long way before making himself one of the team’s better defensive backs. He even has a long way to becoming one of the best players out of the University of Oregon.

Wheaton will try to follow in the shoes of Hall of Famer Mel Renfro, who starred at Oregon before playing 14 seasons in the NFL. Renfro is a member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.

 

Omar Stoutmire

Like Wheaton, Omar Stoutmire isn’t worrying whether he’ll have a roster spot on opening day. But he’s certainly not taking this camp easily.

“Last year was totally different. I was coming in just looking to make the team,” Stoutmire said. I wanted to be a contributor on special teams and just make sure I was going to be around here. But now I have an opportunity to start and I have just a different attitude coming here.”

Although he knows he’s the only one of the three safeties to actually play significantly last year, Stoutmire said he can’t even think about his rookie season.

“I felt good about what I did last year,” said Stoutmire, who was sixth on the team and 12th for NFL rookies in tackles with 76. “I think I’m a lot more confident. But now I have to act like last year didn’t exist because it’s over. It’s a whole new camp. That’s what the NFL is all about: proving yourself all over again.”

Stoutmire, who was drafted in the seventh round out of Fresno State, started two games last year, subbing for the injured Darren Woodson and Marion. In a Thanksgiving Day loss to the Oilers, Stoutmire posted a career-high 16 tackles. He also had two of the team’s seven interceptions all of last year.

Zimmer said Stoutmire can do all the needed things well, but is especially tough in the running game.

“Omar is a very good run supporter,” Zimmer said. “He’s also a good cover guy. He gives you a lot in both areas.”

Although being tagged for just one aspect, Stoutmire believes he and Wheaton can play both the run and pass just as well.

“All of us cover pretty good. Kenny was a corner before he was a safety,” he said. “So he has more corner instincts. But he plays the run well. And I think I can play the pass well. It’s not that we do either or. It’s just that we do one thing better than the other. But it will balance and the best man will get the job.”

Regardless of who starts, Stoutmire said all three will play, and focus on their main goal.

“We’re all going to be on the field. We’ve got to get back to the Super Bowl,” Stoutmire said. “As far as the team aspect, we’ve got to do whatever it is the coaches want us to do to get back to where we need to be.”

The final decision on who will be the starter will fall to Gailey and defensive coordinator Dave Campo. But Gailey said not to expect his decision until possibly the end of the preseason.

“It could go to the very end,” Gailey said. “It could go to the last preseason game up until the first ball game.”

Sports writer Nick Eatman can be reached at (940) 720-3470 or (800) 627-1646.

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Becky Chaney/Times Record News

Defensive back George Teague reaches out to catch a pass.

 

 

 


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