For the Dallas Cowboys, it's like a bad joke. The good news is that the defense is looking very, very good. The bad news is that the offense may be making them look that good.
As injuries mount going into the game against the Oakland Raiders on Monday, we all are wondering which is the real story. Good D, bad O, or a little of both.
It is hard to maintain perspective, and there is really not much chance that we will get any real answers after the first pre-season game. With the way things are going, the team is certainly going to be trying first and foremost to keep the healthy players they have from joining the ranks of the walking wounded, or worse. The offense is probably going to be very, very simplified. It is likely the shotgun snap, a staple of Jason Garrett's playbook, will not even be used. And if the ball hits the ground while Tony Romo is under center, he probably shouldn't even try to recover it. Of course, that is not likely. But it would be smart. It is just a pre-season game, and we all know what Romo means to the team.
So is it time for a little optimism, or should pessimism reign? More on that after the jump.
There can be little question about the defense being better. At cornerback, Brandon Carr is a huge upgrade while Morris Claiborne is going to be very good, although it is hard to say how much he can contribute early in his rookie season. Safety Barry Church may be the most unexpected development as a real step up from Abram Elam. Bruce Carter and Dan Connor represent a win-win situation at ILB in my opinion. The defensive line appears able to bring some real pressure and are giving the team some really difficult decisions to make about who to keep. And DeMarcus Ware looks to be at the top of his game, which is very high indeed. Even the various backups have all had some nice moments.
In practice. Against a patchwork offensive line and receivers that, outside of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, are unknown quantities. Not to mention that many of the reps are coming against Stephen McGee, whose tenure with the team looks to be coming to a close.
Can the defenders do the same thing against Oakland? I think they likely will, especially the (available) starters. And even the backups are probably going to do pretty good. Consider the defensive line. The dropoff from Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher to Robert Callaway and Ben Bass just does not seem to be huge. Callaway is pushing Josh Brent as Ratliff's backup, and Bass cannot be ruled completely out in trying to claim the spot of either Kenyon Coleman or Marcus Spears.
With some decent pass coverage to back up the line, the defense should have a good showing against the Raiders. I think we will have a good feeling about Rob Ryan's crew.
The offense will likely still leave us queasy. It is possible that the issue with center, where David Arkin is likely to start in place of the ailing Phil Costa (who is not exactly Mr. Reliable so far), could largely negate any real success. Arkin and his projected backup Harland Gunn could well have enough bad exchanges to disrupt any rhythm or continuity on offense. And this is a major problem, because the team needs to start finding out what it has, particularly in the wide receiver group. With Bryant and Austin both expected to be held out to protect their apparently delicate hamstrings, this could be a golden opportunity to find out which of the other receivers are legitimate NFL players. But that means the quarterback has to get the ball and stay upright. Neither of those are exactly high probability outcomes right now. Based on the reports so far, the only thing that may click is the running game, and the Cowboys don't have nearly as many questions there.
If Dallas does get some decent drives going, that is actually going to be a huge thing. It would indicate that their defense is indeed ahead so far, and may be as good as we all dream it will be. But if it doesn't happen because of bad line play, then we will know very little, since the line that takes the field Monday is very much an ad hoc affair and will have a very different group in the middle than will probably start the regular season.
Add in a very vanilla game plan, and we will likely learn little. That is not to say the coaches won't find out a lot, with the game video and player by player analysis, but it may not be all that obvious to us.
At the moment, I have to say the glass is unquestionably looking more empty. This is largely due to the unfortunate series of injuries to the center position. While many continue to fume about a failure to address this problem, it must be remembered that the plan going into camp was for Kevin Kowalski, Bill Nagy, and Mackenzy Bernadeau to compete with Costa for the starting job. Kowalski is out and may not be back for the regular season opener, Nagy is now looking at possible surgery that will put him on the IR, and Bernadeau is still working his way back at guard and will not be in the center mix for at least another week, and then only in an emergency. Bringing in a veteran to bolster the position is now the plan (Jamaal Jackson is the team's first choice at the moment), but will have no impact on Monday's game. But this state of affairs was just not something that was seen as likely, by anyone. It just falls under the general category of fecal matter occurring.
So not only will we not get many offensive answers against the Raiders, we don't even have the right bodies to look at. The glass is half empty. But it is also still early. Hold off on the panic for a while.