Training camp is always a time for optimism for NFL teams. New players are on the roster, the team is about as healthy as it is going to be all year long (although that starts to go downhill rapidly for many), and every one of the franchises is undefeated.
The Dallas Cowboys are just like everyone else in that respect. They fully believe that they are going to finally get over .500 and make the playoffs. Orlando Scandrick is the latest player to proclaim that this time, it will be different.
"I just think this year is going to be different," Scandrick said. "I don't know if I'm just an optimist, but I really feel that this year is going to be different. We have a different group of guys. We have some younger guys. We have a lot of guys who have a lot to prove. We have some younger guys who want to prove they can play in this league. We have some other younger guys who want to prove they can be starters in this league. I really think from the bottom of my heart that we have a chance to be a solid defense this year."
Given the fact that the defense was rated dead last in the league, and that the offense was generally productive, a "solid", or middle of the pack, performance by the defense might be all the Cowboys need to succeed this year.
Of course, while the players and fans may be optimistic, the wider NFL world is very skeptical that Dallas has any chance of improvement. The common refrain is that the team has, after all, lost its three top defensive talents (and, in some minds, the top three players on the entire team). Sean Lee is out with injury, and DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher have gone to other teams.
We are barely into training camp, but there is some data to work with. A couple of the most interesting bits of information don't deal with the Cowboys at all, but speak to the decisions the staff made in the offseason: Both Ware and Hatcher have already missed time in camp with injury. Hatcher began camp with the Washington NFL franchise on the physically unable to perform list after having a knee scoped. Everyone is expecting him to be back soon (as in couple of weeks or so), but he still has not seen the field. And Ware has a bruised leg or bone that caused him to miss practice. There were two primary reasons that Dallas parted ways with the pair. One was the very high price tags involved with them, and the other was that both are over 30 and starting to have injury problems. While it is still early, and the injuries are not serious enough to threaten their seasons at this point, these dings do show that the Cowboys may have seen what was to come.
Another thing that looks to be trending in the right direction is the contribution being made right now by players who were either out last year or who were underperforming. Morris Claiborne and Bruce Carter have both come out swinging, and both look a lot better, even in practice, than they did last season. Tyrone Crawford looks like he is going to be a very solid part of the rotation for Rod Marinelli's rushmen, and Ben Bass is at least in the mix. On the down side of that ledger, Matt Johnson had his first setback with a strained (wait for it) hamstring, but he is not off the roster yet and may still actually see a real, live, regular season game this season. And Brandon Carr, who is another player that has been very vocal about the defense improving, has missed all of camp with personal issues, apparently dealing with the health of his mother. And there are several players on both sides of the line who saw a lot of action in 2013 that should be making bigger contributions this year.
We've all discussed much of that, of course, but now we are starting to get some feedback from the people covering the players. And for the most part, the word is good. Of the various players we were hoping would step things up, only B.W. Webb seems to be fading. There are even some surprises, such as indications that there is a lot of depth at wide receiver.
One really unexpected, and seemingly unimportant, development was that I saw an observation from camp that Caleb Hanie is far and away the best third-string quarterback the team has had in years. At first, that may seem totally irrelevant, but actually it is the kind of thing that can be very important. It means that the wide receivers and defensive backs at the bottom of the roster are getting more quality reps, rather than going out in the pattern only to see the ball sail far out of reach. It is similar to the desire to have second- and third-string linemen who can give the skill players a chance to complete the play.
Things are upbeat in Oxnard, and it does feel like it is not just wistful thinking. The offense looks very good. Tony Romo and his back are holding up well so far, the running game is good, Dez Bryant is doing Dez Bryant things, and it sounds like Scott Linehan is going to be very hard to anticipate as a playcaller. The biggest question now: How healthy will the team be when it gets out of camp?
That remains to be seen. But for now, the optimism seems very solidly based, despite all the naysayers out there.