With enough of the off-season behind us to know what we have, I think it's time to reach a verdict. We've made a few improvements from last year. We still have reasons for concern. Neither one should be a surprise.
Teams don't get rebuilt from one year to the next. I expect at least one game in 2013 that Romo gives away, maybe two--which is par for the course unless your name is Brady or Rogers. I expect to see the pocket collapse from time to time, and our QB will even get a boo-boo or two.
I expect our defense, judged by such stats as defensive YPA or opponent-passer-rating, to remain in the bottom of the league. Yes, we've seen flashes from some new guys, but I'm struck that throughout the off season everyone's emphasized that nobody is really close to matching our Big Four: Ware, Hatcher, Ratliff, Spencer. All 4 are guys who have been out there for years, and our D has been in the bottom half for years. It's just possible (but by no means certain) that better coaches and a new scheme will keep our aging line from regressing.
On offense, it looks like Leary gives just a bit more push than Livings, and that Free is not going to stink quite as badly as last year. Frederick beat out Costa (let alone Cook), which is good news for a rookie, but don't expect any Pro Bowls from him, at least this year. Arkin and/or Bernie will have plays where they look like they belong in the NFL, and they will have plays where you wonder if they're really starters. Tron will be solid but (so far) has not shown any sign of being truly elite. The injury bug might not be biting as bad as last year, but that hardly means they're all going to stay healthy. Our RBs may look good in the preseason, but we're not going to bounce back from a record low running game all at once.
The good news is that none of this matters. None of it matters because we weren't a bad team last year. We weren't 3-13, we weren't getting blown out week after week. We never even lost to a team with a losing record. We pulled out some close games and we also lost some games by a single pinky on a single play.
Our goal this summer was not to build a different team than we were last year. We will still struggle getting teams off the field. We will still struggle protecting our QB. We will still struggle converting in the red zone. We will still struggle with backups who don't have nearly the upside of our starters. We will still have an anemic rushing YPC.
Our goal this year was to get better. If football is a game of inches, I expect Randle and Escobar and Williams, not to mention an improving Hannah and Dunbar and Harris, to provide a few of those inches. If football is a game of seconds, I expect Leary and Frederick to give us a second here and a second there. Our backups give us just a few more option when our starters go down, than what we had last year. Young players, from Dez to Tron, look like they'll be just a little better. Old players, from Ware to Free, look like they can bounce back for one more season.
We'll see plenty of plays where a back-pedaling Guard keeps Romo from throwing that TD pass. We'll see plenty of plays where a boneheaded fumble will negate the most impressive run. We'll see holding penalties that make us settle for a field goal. Special teams will give away at least one game.
But if just one time out of ten, the 2013 Cowboys convert where the 2012 Cowboys didn't--if, just one time out of 10, our RB has more room to run--if, just one time out of 10, our defense looks less confused than they were under Ryan, and forces a crucial 3-and-out that they couldn't quite manage last year--we'll make the playoffs.
Because it's a game of inches and seconds. And last year, in case you don't remember, we were only inches and seconds away from being a pretty good team.