The 13-5 Cowboys of 2014 drew the exact blueprint of success for a team with an aging quarterback and a superior offensive line. That year got everyone excited about the prospects for this organization moving forward. Then after 2015, in which the whole thing came crashing down, the Cowboys brain trust has shown that they want to return to the team they once were. A lot of the moves they made would suggest that they believe they are way closer to the 2014 product than the 2015 tattered and broken bunch.
For all the good and excitement that came with the 2014 Dallas Cowboys, they still had lots of warts to cover. In today's NFL, rarely do you have a team that is outstanding in all phases of football. When the pass rush fell apart for them on that cold, blustery day in Green Bay, their ability to stop the Packer's offense was gone. The Packers couldn't stop the Cowboys either, they were stopped by something else that we don't need to rehash. All of this has got me thinking, are the Cowboys really trying that hard to replicate 2014? I would argue that the Cowboys think they can be better than they were two years ago.
What the Cowboys did to be very good two years ago was not that hard to see. In fact, there are plenty of reasons why this front office and coaches believe that they can create an even better product than what we saw in 2014. Call me optimistic, but anything can happen.
5. Sean Lee Starts Second Year At Weakside Linebacker
Last season, Lee was recovering from a torn up knee. This year he's had a scope but should be full-go and in his second year in a position which saw him make his Pro Bowl debut. Look, we all know the unfortunate injury history that has plagued Lee in the past, but nobody can deny how dynamic he is when he's leading the charge on defense. They made it by without him in 2014, but they certainly could have used him in the playoffs. This is a leader in every sense of the word, the way he carries himself on and off the field has been a real positive for this team over the last six seasons.
Lee has the abilities to take over games as we saw in week two against the Eagles. His ability to diagnose and read the eyes of Sam Bradford made it absolutely impossible to get their offense going. Another year at a position that he seems built to play will only help him make the most of his career moving forward. Not only does Sean Lee have one of the most vital roles in Marinelli's simplistic scheme, but he helps others around him excel. There should be a ton of excitement surrounding what he can do in 2016, especially if old Rolando McClain strolls into practice in the near future. If healthy, expect Sean Lee to have another outstanding year and end up right back in the Pro Bowl discussion.
4. The Secondary Will Be Much Better
Give me Byron Jones at free safety over J.J. Wilcox any day of the week. His ability to read and recognize a quarterback's reads and his superb athletic ability will be a large upgrade over anything Wilcox was ever able to produce. Jones is so versatile though that he can cover tight ends and do anything that is asked of him. There will be a noticeable upgrade back there in 2016. Also, as much guff that has been given to the cornerbacks, they should all be healthy. Orlando Scandrick is progressing well from his ACL and PCL tears last offseason and Morris Claiborne is as healthy as he's ever been in Dallas..
Speaking of Mo', a lot of people are upset that he hasn't lived up to his sixth-overall pick status, but he undoubtedly was better in 2015 before the injury. He played with more confidence than we've seen previously. Carr hasn't had a single takeaway in two years, but he's taken a reduced salary to remain with the team in hopes of changing his luck. This all comes down to Byron Jones, though, who is going to be a huge weapon to have as the last line of defense. You can't have All-Pros at every position but sometimes one player who excels in his can make the others look better. Scandrick is a very underrated cornerback and Byron Jones is a stud in the making. I'll take my chances with this bunch.
3. Youth Movement On Defensive Line
We get it, no DeMarcus Lawrence or Randy Gregory for four games. However, four games do not a season make. Both of those guys will be ready to go because they will have had the full offseason and preseason to show they are ready. The Cowboys defensive line as constructed is not very far off from what they rolled out in 2014. In fact, I would argue that it could be better than what they had then. The starters in week one could very well be Benson Mayowa, Cedric Thornton, Tyrone Crawford, and Jack Crawford. They have Ryan Russell, David Irving, Charles Tapper, and Terrell McClain as depth or role players and still have some other youngsters that could make their case.
Of course, they will be much better when their designated pass rushers Gregory and Lawrence get back in the fold, but it's not in dire straits. The one good thing they have on their side is youth. Rod Marinelli is going to do everything in his power to keep a fresh rotation and the powerful offense will help that. Should we expect them to light up the sack column? Perhaps not, but they don't have to be perfect, they just have to play with relentless effort. That's something they shouldn't have any problems producing.
2. Tony Romo Has Still Got It
If you haven't read Gil Brandt's article, go get yourself a dose of Koolaid. In it, he describes a very different Tony Romo. He obviously points out that OTAs were phenomenal for the Cowboys because Romo was the main motivator. It's hard to think that Romo will be able to match what he was able to accomplish in 2014, but it's not impossible. Romo led the Cowboys to three of their four victories last season. Everyone knows what he means to the team and Brandt wanted to make it known he didn't see a mid-30's guy returning from a collarbone surgery. He saw a spry "27-year-old" veteran.
No matter the conditions this week (it rained, sometimes hard), Romo threw the ball extremely well. He looked great in goal-line drills, and threw the ball with accuracy and velocity in tight quarters.
But what really stood out to me was his attitude. We had a chance to catch up after an OTA practice last week, and he showed a lot of enthusiasm. I'm sure it feels great to get back to football after an injury-riddled season that saw him play in only four games.
The Cowboys made moves this offseason to further their belief in their four-time Pro Bowl quarterback. They are determined to bounce back in 2016 and a big part of that will come at the hands of number nine.
1. Ezekiel Elliott, Darren McFadden & Alfred Morris > DeMarco Murray, Joseph Randle & Lance Dunbar
To quote the head coach, "DeMarco Murray is a good football player and has been for a long time." Still, he's not the same caliber of athlete as Elliott. What Zeke is that simplifies this argument and wins it, mind you - he's a finisher. That's what the Cowboys hope to bring to their offense, a running back that finishes you off. For all the games that Murray toted the rock with pride and valor, Elliott scores points. The Cowboys have built a pretty solid stable of horses at the running back position. All three players are capable of being the starting running back on the majority of NFL teams.
They are simply going to put a plan in place that is set to run opposing teams out of the building behind a juggernaut offensive line. What does that do for the Cowboys? One, it wears defenses out and makes them vulnerable to big plays. It takes pressure off their aging quarterback. It creates a severe mismatch in the time of possession category, allowing their defense to rest up and play opportunistic football. It should allow the offense to score points and put pressure on opposing offenses.
So what, maybe I am an optimist. While recognizing that the Cowboys failed to get a free agent pass rusher, or that they got spurned by free agent cornerback, or weren't thrilled about the backup quarterback market; there are lots of reasons to believe that the Cowboys are going to be in good shape. The only true acquisition they need to take them to new heights is a clean bill of health. In the wise words from Gil:
This is a team that's going to challenge for a division title, maybe more. You can't say that about too many 4-12 teams. There's still a long way to go before the season starts, but the signs in the offseason are pointed in the right direction. And there were a lot of them these past two weeks.