It's been a long, long offseason. All the way back to when the Vikings crushed the Cowboys in a playoff game in January of this year. Since then we've gone through free agency, the draft, OTAs, training camp and five pre-season games. Finally, we can put all that to rest. Come Sunday night, Sept 12th, the Dallas Cowboys officially get their 2010 season underway. And not a moment too soon.
Based on last season's success (minus the Minnesota drubbing), the Cowboys are a hot pick for NFC dominance this year. No one is saying pencil them into the Super Bowl as the NFC representative, but they are one of the big dog contenders in the conference along with a handful of other teams. So with that theme, I'll go with my top three reasons for optimism that the Cowboys will be playing a Super Bowl in their own stadium come early 2011. (Don't worry, if you're a pessimist, I'll be covering that in a post to come).
1. A good defense that looks to be even better in 2010 - The Dallas Cowboys defense was a very good unit last year. Taking a look at some of the stats will reveal just how good they were. Dallas was fourth in the league against the run, giving up just over 90/yds per game. I know, the NFL is a passing league now, but I still say if you can stop the run and make the opposition one-dimensional, you're at a huge advantage. The Cowboys can do that. Adding Keith Brooking to the middle was a big help, Igor Olshansky was also a good addition for stopping the run, and Marcus Spears had one of his best seasons last year. Where it really counts, on the scoreboard, the Dallas D was second in the league giving up just over 15 points per game. That is good stuff.
The Cowboys also ranked in the top 10 in sacks with a total of 42. In respect to pass defense, the trio of Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick had very good years. Mike Jenkins' emergence has made this trio among the tops in the league. Because the Cowboys run defense was so good, teams had to go to the pass. The Dallas pass defense ranked fourth in the league with 88 pass defenses. The one area where the Cowboys could use some improvement is in creating turnovers.The secondary was getting their hands on the ball (see the previous stat) but they weren't getting the INT's, grabbing only 11 on the year. They weren't quite as bad with fumbles, they actually forced a good number, but their recoveries left them in the middle of the pack.
So, this defense is back, and with all the same guys except for Ken Halim who has been replaced by Alan Ball. We'll have to see how Ball performs, but given the low-activity from Hamlin in 2009, it seems like Ball can at least play even with that performance, but might improve on it. Now, if players like Victor Butler and Sean Lee can emerge this year, the Cowboys defense could actually improve on its 2009 performance. Butler has had a fantastic pre-season and has shown a true ability to rush the passer. Wade Phillips loves to get players after the QB so he should find a way to get Butler in the mix. Also, Sean Lee has shown excellent instincts to get to the ball, if he can do better in shedding blockers, he could supplement the tandem of Brooking and Bradie James in the middle.
2. Dez Bryant - This guy has the potential, I said potential, to be an impact player. Easily one of the most-talented receivers to come out in recent drafts, the Cowboys got a draft-day miracle when he dropped in the first round. That's about the only thing that drops around Dez, the guy with the monster hands that actually catch footballs. (ahem, Roy). I'm still not thrilled over the Patrick Crayton trade, but that was only made possible by the addition of Bryant. More than anything, I'm interested in seeing Bryant's after-the-catch ability in action. Miles Austin has already shown us what it means to have a receiver who can make things happen once he gets the ball in his hands. Bryant's ability, at least from what we've seen in college, should be on par with Austin's in that area. If we can get those two working the field on a regular basis, defenses will be losing their jocks and tearing their hamstrings trying to track those two down. Now, this is all based on his college days, we know that playing in the NFL is a totally different ball game. Plus, he's had a long layoff from game action and is recovering from a high-ankle sprain, an injury that can linger. But this column is the optimist side of things, so we should be very optimistic about his ability to contribute in a big way, this year.
3. Tony Romo's new-found love of the football - It didn't start out that way in 2009. Sure, Tony Romo was still the same QB who could make something out of nothing and could put up prolific pass numbers on any given day, but he was also the same Romo that played a little loose with the football. The Cowboys home opener against the Giants was a stark reminder of that when he threw three interceptions and Dallas went on to lose the game even though they put up 31 points. Romo admitted that after that game he started thinking long and hard about ball security, and that self-examination yielded results. He went on to throw for 26 TDs while tossing only 9 INTs. He also was much better about not fumbling the football in the pocket when hit or sacked. Dallas ended up with a +2 in takeaway differential, and that's doing well considering how few turnovers the defense got (see above). If Romo can keep that up this year, the Cowboys chances take a big leap forward.
So those are my big three reasons the Cowboys 2010 season will be a huge success. What do you got?