It's almost time. After the lingering pain of the lockout and the hectic preseason with all the dramatic roster changes, the next big milestone is a real football game.
So where are the Cowboys likely to have problems? What facets of the game are solid? It's time for my first regular season forecast for the team.
For anyone who hasn't seen my forecasts, this is my "bad weather" prediction for Dallas. I look at the various units and try to figure out what the chances are for something to go wrong there. My percentage is my best guesstimate of the probability that things will be bad. The range is 10% to 90%, since nothing is completely certain one way or another.
I also try to take into account the coming opponent. Going into the first game of the season, it naturally involves a good amount of guesswork, since all we have to go on is the preseason performance and last year. But this is my best estimate of what we face for week one.
Quarterback I am a believer in Tony Romo, and I think this is going to be a very good year for him. Last year, there was the uneasy feeling (largely rationalized away before the Washington game) that he had not gotten in synch with his receivers. In 2011 he looked crisp, especially in the "dress rehearsal" game. And Jon Kitna is one of the better backups in the league, although my prediction is based on him not being needed.
CHANCE OF QB BEING A PROBLEM: 10% Last time: 10%
Running back In keeping four running backs, Jason Garrett pretty much made sure he had everything covered. Felix Jones is poised for a breakout season, DeMarco Murray looked good both running and receiving in the action he saw, Tashard Choice is still around and a proven option, and Phillip Tanner looks like a real find. I like this group.
CHANCE OF RB BEING A PROBLEM: 20% Last time: 30%
Tight End/Fullback When the first version of the 53 man roster was announced, there was no fullback. Now the Cowboys have signed Tony Fiammetta. This is a strong unit with All World TE Jason Witten starting and John Phillips as backup. Hopefully, Martellus Bennett will be back soon from his high ankle sprain, but even without him, the TE position is strong, and word is that Fiammetta is a really good lead blocker.
CHANCE OF TE/FB BEING A PROBLEM: 20%. Last time: 20%
Wide Receiver Miles Austin and Dez Bryant look to be one of the best 1-2 receiver pairs in the NFL, and I see them as really a 1-1a. I hope that is not influenced by my homer vision, but Dez looked really good in preseason. Miles is coming off an injury and I wish he had not missed all the preseason games, but I am going on the belief that he left the coaches no reason to doubt he would be back. The third receiver is a step down, and again, I don't know who is actually third. Jesse Holley came on strong, and may be the #3 when the Cowboys take the field.
CHANCE OF WR BEING A PROBLEM: 20% Last time: 30%
Offensive Line The Cowboys kept 10 on the roster in an attempt to address depth, but there are three rookies in the bunch, as well as second year man Phil Costa. It looks like the team rolls with Costa at center and Tyron Smith and Bill Nagy starting, so there is a lot of youth and inexperience. The move to bring in veteran Derrick Dockery to replace Montrae Holland and releasing Sam Young look like good moves to me. I still worry about those young'uns facing the Jets pass rush. I think Romo can compensate somewhat with his ability to get the ball out in a hurry, and Garrett also uses screens to the same effect, but there is still a huge unknown factor here. I do believe this line will be great one day. I hope that day is 9/11/11.
CHANCE OF OL BEING A PROBLEM: 40% Last time: 40%
Defensive Line Igor Olshansky is gone. That alone makes me feel a lot better. But I actually am raising the concern level here, because there are still so many questions about how well Rob Ryan's scheme will work, particularly concerning Jay Ratliff. To beat the Jets, the Cowboys will need to get pressure on Mark Sanchez while not letting themselves get gouged by the running game. That didn't always go so well during the preseason. I know a lot of the pressure comes from the blitz packages and the linebackers, but the DL needs to shut down the running game while helping push into the backfield on passing downs.
CHANCE OF DL BEING A PROBLEM: 40% Last time: 30%
Linebackers Only three active ILBs frankly makes my stomach knot up, particularly since one of them is the aging Keith Brooking. Add in that Sean Lee has had his own injury problems and I really worry. I wish Orie Lemon was active and not on the PS. That is cause to worry. I love the OLB lineup. DeMarcus Ware, Victor Butler, and Anthony Spencer are as good a threesome as there is, in my opinion. (Many don't like Spencer, but he is doing exactly what RR wants, from all reports.) And Alex Albright sounds like another find. But only seven linebackers seems awfully light. I hope the theory that Ryan will use his seven DL in his innovative sets to compensate is correct.
CHANCE OF LB BEING A PROBLEM: 40% Last time: 30%
Defensive Backs The good news is that we are not going to try to go with three cornerbacks. The bad news is that the two starters sat out the preseason, and they have much bigger question marks by their names than Miles. Terence Newman worries me more than Mike Jenkins, but just a little. Orlando Scandrick better live up to his new contract. I am very glad to see Alan Ball back at corner. He looked much better there. Anything will be better than his performance at safety last year. Speaking of safety, the situation looks better, if not great. Abe Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh at least looked competent. And Barry Church showed some real promise in making the team. Still, this remains the biggest area of worry overall.
CHANCE OF DB BEING A PROBLEM: 60% Last time: 60%
Special Teams Jesse Holley is back, which probably makes Joe DeCamillis happy. I think he also got some other STuds (like that?) in Bryan McCann, Phillip Tanner, and Danny McCray. I don't like keeping two kickers, but I do think it means we will have 90% touchbacks and reliable field goal kicking. That is a plus.
CHANCE OF ST BEING A PROBLEM: 30% Last time: 40%
Coaching I still remain a firm believer in all things Jason Garrett, and I like Rob Ryan. I am also still waiting to see what the Big Robowski's scheme does in real games. There is a theory I like that he was keeping a lot of his real plan under wraps to make sure his brother Rex didn't find out what he would be facing in the first game. That sounded like a bit of conspiracy fueled paranoia - until the Jets signed Andrew Sendejo. Maybe Rob is just very wise.
CHANCE OF COACHING BEING A PROBLEM: 30% Last time: 30%
Jerry Jones The owner/GM/CEO/hyperactive media spokesman of the Dallas Cowboys is a truly unique figure in the NFL, and I think he loves it that way. I don't. I wonder if he has ever played poker, and if the other players knew every card in his hand before the betting was done? Jerry has never grasped that having a microphone in front of you does not obligate you to bloviate endlessly. He worries me, and his on-air kvetching about Newman and Jenkins during the Dolphins game didn't help. It just sounds too much like he is trying to prove he is still in charge. Unfortunately, he has the power to do something about it if he is unhappy about the situation.
CHANCE OF JJ BEING A PROBLEM: 50% Last time: 40%
I still feel this is the Season of Hope. The offense could be truly potent, and all my doubts about the defense may be alleviated next Sunday. But they may not. At least we are all going to find out soon.
That's it until next time.