Back on the Mothership, Mickey Spagnola wrote a nice article about the differences on the Cowboys from the end of last season to now, as they head into camp. It's hard not to see the potential for tremendous improvement in the team when the changes in personnel and staff from the end of last season to the present are laid out for comparison, however, I feel like I need to temper my growing enthusiasm.
Even when Tom Landry was posting 20 consecutive winning seasons, or when Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys were manhandling every other team in the league, things didn't always work out as well as we may have hoped, but for the most part, the teams were competitive, exciting, and always fun to watch. I used to enjoy getting carried away this time of year about the prospects for the upcoming season, and who wouldn't? Unfortunately, in recent years this team has disappointed me too often for that to happen again. What seems so obvious in July can change drastically by September, and even more when we reach dreaded December, when the hopes of summer are long forgotten, and any dreams of going to the playoffs and beyond are dashed on the cold, hard rocks of reality. This time, while I'm still as big of a fan as ever, and will be closely following every development from training camp on, I'm taking a more pragmatic approach. I won't be convinced that the team has truly improved until they start racking up wins, which is the ultimate measuring stick, and that's the way it should be.
I control my natural enthusiasm by remembering that I haven't seen any of the free agent acquisitions or rookies, drafted or otherwise, play a lick in the NFL. Oh, I may have seen a game or two where Justin Durant played for Jacksonville or Detroit, or when Will Allen was a Buc or a Steeler, but either I didn't focus on them, or they didn't make much of an impression on me at the time. Probably a little of both. I think I recall seeing Terrance Williams catch a few TD passes from RGIII when they were both Baylor Bears, but that was against college competition, where even average NFL players can, and should be at least dominant, if not spectacularly successful. And even though I find myself pulling for Ronald Leary and Matt Johnson to eventually earn starting roles at some point in the season, hopefully on their own merits, and not due to injury, I have no real idea what kind of players these guys actually are. I'm just going off seemingly endless observations and speculations from reporters close to the team, and from others who haven't attended any more practices than I have. I've also seen short interviews with a few of these players, and for the most part, they all seem like good people, the type of guys I'd like to pull for, but that doesn't mean that any of them are an improvement over the likes of Brady Poppinga and Kevin Ogletree. Realistically, I can only hope that's the case.
I have much more practical reasons for optimism based on the return of all the injured starters and other veterans who are known quantities, and whose abilities, when healthy, are unquestioned. If Sean Lee and Bruce Carter at linebacker, and DeMarcus Ware, now a defensive end, can return to form and avoid further injury (always a big “if”), that alone could make all the difference in the overall performance of the defense, and should lead the Cowboys over the hump to a winning season. That's not even factoring in the contributions of younger players like Crawford, Wilbur, and Albright. If any one of those three has a breakout season, this defense could go from merely improved to something special, but again, that's just idle speculation at this point.
At the risk of getting my hopes up TOO high, I can't even allow myself to dream of what might happen if DeMarco Murray can play an entire season and maintain his whopping 5 yards per carry career average, or if Dez Bryant actually lives up to all the off season chatter that he's on the verge of a breakout season. All the talk of his dominance on the practice field, and that he's finally grasping the nuances of his position, and has now learned how to prepare himself to play the entire game at it's highest level, plus stories about his new-found focus and maturity, and the expectation that he will take his place among the most physically gifted, and feared receivers in the NFL, like Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall, would almost be enough to fill my head with dreams of Dez hoisting the Lombardi Trophy over his head amidst a rain of confetti at the Meadowlands in February.
That is, it would if I let myself get carried away.