There is an odd paradox about the NFL (and perhaps all professional sports). Almost every team and its fan base thinks the team gets better through free agency and the draft. Better talent is brought in, needs are (usually) addressed, and new coaching regimes and schemes have poor fits replaced with players that, on paper at least, look to be much better. But as always, about half the teams get worse while the other half gets better.
The reason this is true is that most NFL teams actually get worse as the season progresses. Injuries take talent off the roster, players decline, often through age but also because of off-field issues, and for some teams friction can build between the players, the coaching staff, and ownership/management. So many teams will actually be improved during the offseason, but the same thing is happening for almost all the other franchises. Everyone gets better. What matters is how good the team was at the end of the season, and how much the team actually improved.
Blue Kool Aid optimism is flowing heavily for many fans of the Dallas Cowboys. But should we be tapping the brakes in light of all of the above? Is this positive view justified, or are we just falling prey to the same misconceptions? There are similar signs of optimism for teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who do have the top pick in the draft to fuel their hopes of at least climbing out of the cellar. The only notable case of a fan base that is very torn over what is going on is our good friends who follow the Philadelphia Eagles. While many are still bedazzled by the towering genius of Chip Kelly, there are many who find his offseason moves inexplicable and egotistical.
Let's attempt to take an objective look at the Cowboys (which is always difficult for a fan, but we strive to do our best here). First off, how good were the Cowboys after the season concluded? Obviously, they were one of the better teams in the league since they were playing well into January. They finally fell prey to some flaws on defense and one really bad call by the officials, but really were just a few plays away from moving on to the conference championship.
However, just as teams add new talent during the offseason, they also lose players. DeMarco Murray is the huge loss that everyone is talking about. Although the team could still make a move to acquire someone else, they seem content to go into training camp with the current group of Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, Ryan Williams, Lance Dunbar and Lache Seastrunk. Whether they will operate with a committee at running back, or one of the players will emerge as the bell cow, the bet seems to be that the talent loaded offensive line will continue to open holes. If that works out one way or another, then Dallas does not look to have lost much otherwise. Anthony Spencer, Bruce Carter, Jermey Parnell and Dwayne Harris all played important roles for the Cowboys, but either had their own issues or were simply offered far more money than the Dallas front office thought they were worth. None of the losses outside Murray were what could be called stars, but more role players. They were important, but by no means irreplaceable. Arguably, Murray is the only departure that made the team noticeably weaker.
The departure of players also made the team younger, which is an ongoing part of the overall strategy in Dallas.The roster is largely made up of players in their early to mid-twenties who are still improving - with two notable exceptions. Jason Witten seems timeless, largely because he has always relied more on precision, determination, and pure football cunning than athleticism. If something should limit his effectiveness this year, the team has some largely untested but not untalented players that may be able to take up the load. The emergence of Cole Beasley and the extra work for Terrance Williams also have made WItten less of the sole go-to guy for Tony Romo.
Romo is a much more crucial part of the team, however. If something happens to him, the Cowboys are in deep trouble. This is largely a truism for any team that has a true NFL caliber starting quarterback. Backups are backups mostly because they are not that kind of player. We all still have very unpleasant memories of what happened when Romo was out for one game and Brandon Weeden just did not step up. Probably no one wants to find out if that was an aberration or just the reality of life with Weeden running the offense. And Dustin Vaughan is almost certainly not ready to be even an adequate number two. Another year may change that, but the concern is this year.
Having said that, Romo is much healthier than he was at this time last year. And last year, while he was still recovering from back surgery, was arguably his best year as a quarterback. There were no signs of any falloff from the outstanding play he demonstrated in December. Keep him upright the entire year, and he should have the same kind of season.
Talent is not only something that applies to players. Coaches are also part of that equation, and Dallas lost a very good man in Bill Callahan, who gets a great deal of credit for building and developing that offensive line. Frank Pollack is fortunately very good in his own right and was right there beside Callahan, even taking the larger share of the work during the 2013 season when Callahan was, at least at the outset, handling the offensive play calling. The rest of the staff is almost entirely intact from last year. With Jason Garrett and his two top lieutenants Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli clearly having wound up on the same page, that is an advantage in continuity over most teams in the league.
On paper at least, Dallas looked to be in good shape as far as what it kept versus what it lost. That leads to the additions.
In free agency, the Cowboys added Greg Hardy. While you may be disgusted by the issues that led to his suspension, which is still waiting on Goodell to release the results of the appeal, from a talent viewpoint he is roughly equivalent in value to Murray. The team just does not know how much he might be available because of the suspension. Otherwise, the Cowboys focused on getting role players to fill obvious needs. Although the Cowboys look to benefit from a true haul of compensatory picks, that is about the dollars offered to players who left, not value. In a certain sense, the overall talent equation of free agency may be close to a wash.
That brings us to the draft, or in Dallas' case, the draft plus one very unusual UDFA. (Most UDFAs are just unknowns who are long shots to make the roster, and no one should pin any real hopes on them.) Even outside observers concede that the Cowboys may have gotten as much or more bang for the buck than any other team in the league. First, they got a player in Byron Jones who may be the most athletically gifted individual taken this year. And he is not just a superb physical specimen. His background and ability to pick things up so far both indicate he is one of the smartest players to come into the league this year. They followed that up with a possible steal in the second round in Randy Gregory. He slipped because of a history of marijuana use, but there is some credible evidence that this was a result of emotional or psychological issues. By all appearances he has responded well to the support system Dallas has in place for him. If he continues to do well off the field, his talent on it seems unquestionable.
And then there was one of the great UDFA acquisitions of all time, La'el Collins. With his addition to the offensive line talent in Dallas, the rich just got richer. Collins was one of the best OL talents coming out of college - and he has an uphill struggle to break into the starting lineup. There is only one thing that keeps him from being perhaps the greatest UDFA signing in Cowboys history. That would be a certain quarterback out of Eastern Illinois.
Dallas also has a large contingent of players who are returning from injury. Sean Lee leads this group, but it also includes DeMarcus Lawrence, who started his return last year and looked impressive enough to get the attention of one of the best pass rushers to ever wear the Star. There are also some intriguing players like Jack Crawford and the people's favorite, Ben Gardner.
This has been an attempt to look at things without the silver and blue tinted eyeglasses, but you will have to judge how successful it has been. However, on balance, the evidence seems strong that Dallas is a truly better and deeper team than it was a year ago. It certainly seems that the questions surrounding this season are far more manageable than they were then - and we know how that turned out despite all the forecasts of doom and gloom. It certainly looks like there is only one thing that can really set the team back this year, and I won't say any more about that because people worry something, something, goatmouth.
The optimism seems to have a solid foundation. Do you share in it?