The Blue Kool Aid is flowing freely and the realists are up in arms. "Show me something in the regular season! Show me playoff success! I'll wait till then to get excited."
And they have a point. Optimism runs rampant. This time last year I was predicting us in the NFC Championship game based on the fact that we should've reached a critical mass of RKGs and that the 2012 draft class had awesome potential. Of course, the draft class, along with the heart of both offensive and defensive squads suffered massive injury losses and, coupled with early offensive struggles, this left us on the outside looking in, despite a furious effort by one Tony Romo to carry the team (more on this in a minute). This team under Jason Garrett has been the epitome of average. Why should we believe this year will be different?
I offer you, now, some legitimate reasons to believe and, like Charlie Waters before me, I implore you to do so.
- The Schedule -- In every way, shape, and form, the 2013 schedule favors the Cowboys. From VAFan's post along these lines, our schedule is much easier this year. After eliminating the teams with identical records, last year's teams come to 30-34, while this year's total to 17-46-1. While there is usually some turnover from team to team, year to year (perfect example: this entire post is about why Dallas will be significantly better this year) that is a massive difference in average quality of opponent. But more than that, we have some other decided advantages over years previous. We do not have a single stretch of 3 away games, and only two back to back away games. Furthermore, one of those is separated by the bye week. Add in that it's the very important away game against the Giants and you begin to see how deeply stacked in our favor this schedule is. Another of our tougher away games (the rebuilding Bears) is after the Thanksgiving mini-bye. Perhaps biggest of all, every single playoff caliber opponent has to come here. Broncos, Redskins, Vikings, and Packers will all play here. Only the Redskins get to face us on their turf. The kicker, however, is that we only have four playoff caliber opponents. The Redskins and Giants each have five and the Redskins have to face *FOUR* of them on the road.
- D-line Depth -- Much has been made of how lacking in depth this team is and particularly of our "failure" to draft offensive and defensive linemen. When Tyrone Crawford was lost for the year, some people wasted no time in rushing to the side of the injured young man, not in support, but positively crowing with delight at their ability to scream "I told you so" while pointing at the young man in tears of frustration at the loss of his sophomore season before it even started. I do not hesitate to call those of you who did so vultures and asses, but more to the point, you are *wrong*. Ben Bass has performed admirably in Crawford's place and George Selvie may yet prove adequate depth as he has certainly not lacked for effort. Previous unknowns like Long and Pendleton are making good moves towards the practice squad and Nick Hayden has even earned some first team reps. Meanwhile Hatcher is not only playing like a man possessed but is getting his name thrown around quite a bit as a leader... even from positions like WR, which is about as far removed from the 1 tech as you can get. Defensive line does indeed appear to be a strength for this team, as evidenced by the way it has carried on in the face of the significant loss of Crawford and the short term injuries to Ratliff and Spencer.
- Injuries at Large -- OCC did a recent write up comparing injuries to this time last year and we are ahead of the game for sure. More to the point, when you look at the injuries across the league and see names like Percy Harvin, Jeremy Maclin, Michael Crabtree, and Dennis Pitta as possibly out for the year, and guys like Jarius Byrd sitting out for contract reasons, you begin to appreciate how lucky we actually are, so far. To put it in perspective, the Raiders just dragged Andre Gurode out of retirement.
- Speaking of O-line -- the big question mark is unequivocally the o-line. If we remember OTAs, there was significant buzz about Leary, and his return to the line up yesterday seems to have gone very well. But the real story here is David Arkin. Watch video of Arkin in drills and he is as good or better than anyone on the interior line. Further, he has some clear chemistry with Free and that carried through to the Blue and White scrimmage. Given that Livings has struggled a bit and that Bernadeau has been out while Free and Arkin develop together and I think there's a very real chance that our starting O-line is Smith-Leary-Frederick-Arkin-Free. And that's with a significantly better Free than last year. Interestingly, if that is the case, I believe that would be the first entirely homegrown offensive line since Landry was here as Jimmy Johnson inherited three of his greats (Tuinei, Gesek, and Newton), drafted two (Stepnoski and Williams) and used a revolving door of free agents to fill in (Kennard, Donaldson, Gogan and others). People who mistakenly think that they are geniuses because they were Cowboys fans in the 90s can put that in their Jimmy's Johnson-shaped pipe and smoke it.
- Coaching -- the improvement and depth on both sides of the line may well be due to the fact that both our o-line and d-line coaches have been extremely successful coordinators at the NFL level and both have head coaching experience. Add in Kiffin, Bisaccia, and continued development from promising young coaches like Wes Phillips, Matt Eberflus, and Joe Henderson and we may have one of the best staffs in the NFL. Credit Garrett for bringing these men together. Also, now that he has given more responsibility to them, it'll be interesting to see if Garrett can improve on his biggest weakness-- being a game day situational coach. But should you have any question about the culture change, this is without a doubt a different ball club than three years ago. Witness the fight and determination that this team showed last year, but, more importantly, the single biggest bit of video this off season. No, that isn't Garrett's pre-camp speech. It's Dez Bryant, showing maturity, leadership, and a 100% buy in to Garrett principles. If you click no other link from this post, click that one. If it doesn't convince you that a new culture is installed here, you are simply unwilling to believe. Don't worry, I'm sure there will be room on the bandwagon for you after we have six Lombardis, but it's simply clear that if that video doesn't excite you, you will not be on board before then.
- The Quarterback -- I have dedicated numerous posts this offseason to debunking Romo myths.This is fairly standard for me, as I believe Romo is a hall of fame caliber player and easily the most underappreciated QB in Cowboys History. Remember, we're talking a group of fans that drove Don Meredith to bitterness and alcoholism, wanted Clint Longley over Roger Staubach, Gary Hogeboom over Danny White (inventing the term "QB Controversy" along the way) and whose response to Aikman (while he was playing) was "he has a horrible deep ball" and "he wins a lot of games, but he can't bring the team back from behind" (yes, that was really said about him on a regular basis, and yes, after the greatest comeback performace in team history, and possibly the greatest footballl game ever played-- the '94 NFC Championship game). And despite all those idiocies, Romo may be the biggest mistake of all. I have already discussed his performance with the team on his back last season (see above, "why Romo got paid", under the "I have" link). It's also worth noting that, since 2009, Romo has played, essentially, 16 games in December, January, and playoffs (not counting his 2 throws in the 2011 game against Philadelphia). In that "season" he has gone 400/593, 4696yds, 33TD, 8INT, for a 104.2 passer rating. But perhaps most telling of all has been the advanced stat "Win Probability Added" which attempts to measure exactly how much a player contributes to his team by making important plays that shift the flow of the game. Romo has always ranked very well in this stat, almost inevitably top 10 (exceptions being 2010 when he was injured most of the year and 2008 when he was 15th in the league with a 1.16 WPA) and half of his complete seasons he was top 5. But last year was his best year ever, in terms of doing things to help the team win, with a career high 4.37 WPA. On the other hand, the injury-riddled, turnover-impotent Dallas defense was 27th in the NFL last year at the same stat.
- Safekeeping -- But the biggest reason for a great 2013 season might be the improvement of that defense. To say they were injury riddled at safety is an understatement, but consider this for the moment: the safety that contributed the most to Dallas's victory last year was... get this... Danny McCray. Just let that sink in. This year, if he makes the team, he will be our 5th safety. If Church and Johnson are injured again, we have Will Allen and up and coming rookie J J Wilcox to hold down the position this year before resorting to McCray and (the even worse last year, apparently) Sensebaugh is no longer with them. I don't think I can overstate the difference good safety play will make, especially against the play-action dependent Redskins.
Apart from Romo being Romo (which was more of a "holy cow, I didn't realize just how good he is" than an improvement) these are real and undeniable improvements from last year. Each of them would've, individually, almost certainly added a win or two to last year. Put them all together and you can see why there is, indeed, realistic and genuine reason to believe great things are in store for this team, and the display will be starting in just a few days. Get your tickets now, because the lines are going to be long soon.