For Dallas Cowboys fans, there hasn't been a season like the 2015 one in quite some time. With hopes and aspirations of finally reaching that Super Bowl and winning big games, the Cowboys fell flat on their faces in large part due to the injuries to Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Orlando Scandrick. The old adage is that every team suffers injuries, but when your quarterback, star receiver, and top cover cornerback go down, it leads to huge ramifications and the Cowboys were victims of that in 2015.
Even before the draft, the Cowboys knew the model they needed to succeed with for them to reach the playoffs. Running the football was the key to picking up first downs and opening up opposing defenses for Romo to pick out coverages. With a top-four pick in the draft, it was really up in the air as to who the Cowboys favored, between Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey. But after the Cowboys selected Elliott, it became clear that the Cowboys chose to put more emphasis on improving their offense rather than adding the top defensive back in the draft in Ramsey.
Even if Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence were on the field, the Cowboys' defense isn't the most talented one in the world, but the Cowboys are putting all of their marbles into the offense in hopes that the team's best version of the offense can be the team's best version of the defense.
But what needs to happen for the Cowboys to finally finish with a record matching their high expectations? Well it obviously starts with health. It seems like it's been a decade since the Cowboys haven't dealt with injuries to major players. Looking at the 2014 roster, the only major player that was injured was Sean Lee. But besides Lee, the Cowboys stayed healthy and it led to the team's best season result since the 2007 season. And before 2007, the team's best season result was in 1995, when they won Super Bowl XXX against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Having a healthy Romo will do so many things for this offense. It's incredible to think that even with defenses putting eight men in the box to shut down the team's running game in 2015, both Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel were still incapable of getting the football out to the Cowboys' weapons with consistency. The combination of Romo and Bryant will provide for a lot of touchdowns, which in turn will open up the defense for guys like Jason Witten, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and Brice Butler to take advantage.
Then there's Elliott, who's a rookie that I haven't been as excited about since Bryant. When you watch Elliott on tape, it's not hard to see why the Cowboys used a top-five pick on him, regardless of the fact he's a running back. Elliott truly has no weaknesses to his game, but I think this running group as a whole will be huge.
One thing I think people miss about this offensive line is that it can still develop. Each All-Pro offensive lineman on this team can still improve. La'el Collins is only going to get better with NFL seasoning and guys like Zack Martin and Travis Frederick are gaining even more experience, while the line as a whole has continuity.
On the other side of the trenches, the way the Cowboys assembled their defensive line makes me believe that they will try to create disruption from the interior and hope that will affect the outsides of the pass rush. The suspensions to Gregory and Lawrence will mean that players like Jack Crawford, Benson Mayowa, and Ryan Russell will need to step up and generate a pass rush.
The linebacker group looks to be one that has boom-or-bust potential. If Lee can stay healthy and Rolando McClain gives it his all and play like he's capable of, the Cowboys will have two impact linebackers in the middle of the field to swallow up run plays and play coverage as well. The third linebacker spot will likely be Anthony Hitchens, but he'll be on a short leash after a rough second year in the NFL.
Despite what all critics say, I'm still interested to see what will come about with Jaylon Smith and his knee in the coming months. It's definitely not pretty, but I feel that the Cowboys have knowledge about that knee that none of us, not even the national media, are aware of.
The secondary will receive a nice boost from Orlando Scandrick and the back-end might improve with Byron Jones moving to free safety. Brandon Carr has actually played well at times over the past two years, but he has yet to put it together with consistency. Brought back on a one-year deal, this may finally be the year where Morris Claiborne pays the Cowboys back for taking a chance on him. The talent is there, but if injuries don't sap him of his physical abilities, the Cowboys could finally get the most productive version of Claiborne.
There will obviously be a lot of things to keep tabs on, but Dallas' roster is pretty well-balanced in terms of its talent. Yes there are questions with the pass rush and how the Cowboys will get to the quarterback at a decent rate. But it's not like their pass rush was spectacular in 2014. Again, the model is simple: run the football with success, sustain drives on offense and put points on the board, win the time of possession battle, keep the defense healthy and refreshed, and force opposing offenses to play catch-up.
Am I ready to say that the Cowboys are going to duke it out with the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks to win the NFC and make it to the Super Bowl? No, I'm not going to say that, but the Cowboys are the most talented and well-built team in the NFC East. To get to play football in January, all a team has to do is win their respective division. I fully expect the Cowboys to do just that and hopefully advance further than they did in 2014.