This fanpost, like my other contributions, is not based on gathering information (I don't know how to use Google) or on superior football knowledge (I've never played the game). Rather, I lay out a few philosophical observations I pick up from reading BtB.
Here I try to evaluate 2 opposing concepts I've been running into recently: 1) Some people who know football think Dallas has drafted well recently, handled free agency well lately, and looks like an improving team. 2) The Cowboys are essentially the same team that has been going 8 and 8.
The second concept is the one I want to explore. On the surface, it seems to true. We spent our biggest free-agency money on one of the statistically best (in 2012) D-linemen available, a guy named Anthony Spencer. Keeping the same starter sure doesn't look like a team-changer. Nor does making our top draft pick an essentially second-rounder, a center who (if history is any guide) won't likely grade out much better than average during his rookie year.
Don't get me wrong, I liked our draft from top to bottom. But it's sure hard to argue that upgrading 1/5 of our line to "average" is really a game-changer. It's hard to argue that the team is changed by a high-potential receiver who may be our 3rd WR, or a high-potential TE who may be our 2nd TE. (I'm not counting out Harris or Hannah). It's hard to argue that our defense is going to take off because we added some potential rotational guys to the depth chart. And unless I missed something, Kiffen and Marinelli don't get to go out on the field and tackle people.
So why isn't this the same team that went 8-8? The answer to this question is the factor that will make this a better season than many anticipate. The answer is development.
Miles Austin was the same human being in his first year with the Cowboys that he was in his third year--but he was not the same receiver. The team changes when Romo goes from sitting the bench to his pro bowl. There are hundreds of other examples, but the principle is the same: The team changes when the same human being is on the roster, but that human being plays at a higher level. Some of it is coaching. Some of it is health. Some of it is opportunity. Most of it, however, is probably simple improvement that comes from maturity, experience, practice.
Where is development taking place for the Cowboys? Potentially, all over the place. Development can make Dez even better. It can help Lee or Carter or Murray be more durable. It can make Church and Johnson essentially new additions, and valuable ones, to our starting roster. It can make Mo a great corner instead of a high-potential, still-learning-the-ropes, average corner.
In fact, development may even come through on the O line. Yes, our O-line stinks. But I'd rather have a young O-line that stinks than an old O-line that stinks. Because Proctor and Holland and Gurode just got worse as the season progressed, but players like Costa and Bernie, not to mention Tron himself, got better as the season progressed. Might that mean they'll get better from one year to the next? Development may give us a stud at LT, not just a potential stud. Development may give us a pair of solid guards out of the intriguing pool of Livings/ Bernie/ Arkin/ Leary/ Kowalski/ Costa, to pair with our probably-only-average (this year!) rookie Center. Development may even give us a new RT (Parnell) who can play the way Free used to play before he un-developed. (Or maybe Free will get his head on straight--who knows?)
Just because someone was on the roster last year--but too injured or inexperienced to see the field enough (Johnson, Church, Murray, Lee) or too raw to really make an impact yet (Wilber, Crawford, Claiborne)--does not mean they will be the same player this year.
Granted, not all of these players will make a stride forward. And it's always possible that our older players (Witten, Ware, or Ratliff) will make a stride backward. But the simple process of keeping and developing talent, all while feeding in new players who will one day develop into a new core, is the right way to build a team. It's why the 2013 team, on paper not all that different from the team that went 8-8 in 2012, will still be on the field in January 2014.
So no. It's not the same team.