In 2011, some of us felt more confident that JG was finally at the helm. after all, 2009 had been a great team, and we still seemed to have many of the strengths from that team. 2010 was being blamed on Wade. We had finally addressed the first round O-line pick we really needed.
In 2012, the Cowboys were entering an exciting year. Tron was returning, and there were some modest pick-ups on the o-line. More impressively, they had addressed another perceived area of weakness (secondary) with the #1 defensive pick of the draft (Mo), and the best FA pickup (Carr). Dez was poised to develop into a beast.
In 2013, I kept seeing people suggest that we had really made the leap if only the O-line could hold up. (It did.) Roy, the latest scapegoat, was replaced by the heralded Kiffin/ Marinnelli. Lee and Carter were going to flourish in the 4-3. And training camp flashes made a lot of people think that Ware, Spencer, Hatcher, and Ratliff would be a D-line to fear.
All of which is to say, the season is different from the offseason. On paper, we've been improving in what JG famously calls a process. In reality, those improvements have not translated into wins. Several of us, at the risk of making excuses, think that injuries are a big reason--that an "average" team would not have made it through that many injuries without logging in at least one losing season. Obviously there are disadvantages to relying on players with injury history (MJ, Lee) or who are aging beyond their probbly effectiveness (Ratliff, Ware).
But in general, if you're a true believer like me, you notice that our team is getting younger, more disciplined, stronger in the trenches. Why no improvement in the record? And what about this year? I'll break the answer down into several components:
Compared to last off-season, our D-line looks so much weaker right now. No Hatcher. No Ware. No Ratliff. Spencer questionable to be able to play. Taken by itself, this is a major downgrade.
Of course, if you compare us, not to the offseason, but to the season, the picture looks different. We'll really miss Hatcher--the chances of Melton returning from his injury to the probowl level that Hatcher gave us last year is under 50%. But as for the rest, it's hard to imagine things falling apart quite so bad as last year. Our recent modest signings ought to be able to approximate last year's no-names. Lawrence ought to be able to provide as many quality snaps, and total sacks, as 2013 Ware. Bass and Crawford still have the chance to show something. And Spencer may return to the form that made him the most effective rusher on our team in 2012.
All told: modest improvement is more likely than not.
The Rest of the Defense
I lump the secondary and linebackers together for several reasons. First, it's pretty clear that, when healthy, we have some real talent--Lee, Carr, Scandrick, Church. Second, some players who should be very good, and weren't, really have to prove themselves this year--I'm looking at you, Carter and Mo. Third, some young talent still has the chance to emerge--Wilcox and MJ, Webb and the linebacker-version-of-Wilbur. Fourth, we have made pickups this draft that some think may contribute this year, especially Hitchens. (I'm not holding my breath.)
We haven't lost anyone. Nobody's aging past their prime. We've had a bit longer to adjust to any growing pains from the scheme change, 3-4 to 4-3. All told, there shouldn't be any reason to get worse, and there are a lot of separate shots at getting better--i don't expect all of them to emerge, but one or two may.
I have less to say here because, quite frankly, we're doing pretty well. The big question mark is whether Romo, admittedly aging, will be feeling better now that his back surgery is addressed--compared to 2013, when he was very effective despite his emerging back problems. The only other ticking time bomb is Witten--when he does eventually decline, due to age or injury, we'll be losing a powerful weapon.
Otherwise, it's mainly good news. A young O-line is finally beginning to gel, and Zach Martin is the closest thing to a surefire pick that I can imagine. (Longball had him more highly rated as an NFL guard than Cooper or Warmack.) Our receiving corps is not going to miss 2013-Austin, and Williams should only get better as he logs more NFL miles. I don't see any problems with Dez or Beasley, and Devin Street should at least provide decent depth.
When targeted, Escobar did just fine, and he was always expected to provide value in his second or third year. We'll see. Murray had near-elite YPC numbers, and Dunbar was more than effective as a change of pace. Depth is thin here, unless they still see something in Randle that I don't. Copeland is adequate at FB.
Execution and Injuries
Bottom line? I don't see this team as terribly thin, weak, or undisciplined in any particular area. Yes, I think we still have one of the league's more questionable D-lines, but even here there are glimmers of hope.
The real question will be whether we can live up to potential. This is a play by play, execution issue. Against the league's better teams, it will be a fight. (JG has gone 8-8 three years in a row by pretty consistently beating the league's worse teams.)
As a fan, but also realistically, I don't think it's impossible that we can emerge as a force that knocks off good teams and makes a deep run into the playoffs. Some players are going to have to take the famous "next step"--especially, as OCC has recently said so well, some of our 2012 draft class. Some players are going to have to return from injury at the top of our game--certainly Romo, but also Melton. (Spencer wouldn't hurt, either.)
A major dropoff from any of these players--more missed time from Murray or Lee, a major injury to Dez, and any of another of possible mishaps--could send us into a tailspin where we do even worse than last season and finally get a high draft pick.
It all comes down to injury and execution. This year may be the year when offseason hopes translate into actual wins--especially if the offseason roster can play during the season.