Finally. The Dallas Cowboys are headed to Oxnard. It has been an unusually grueling wait for training camp to get here, with a string of bad news leaving a sour taste in our collective mouths. Perhaps the one bit of good news about Dak Prescott being acquitted on his DUI charge on the eve of departure is a sign that things are finally going to look up. Still, there is a lot of apprehension about the season. It has suppressed the excitement that had begun to build over the prospect of healthy stars returning and a stud first-round draft pick. While Dallas is still seen as the most likely team to win the NFC East by many, the recent suspensions and other bad news have led to doubts about just how big a threat the Cowboys are for bigger things.
Although it is not exactly the same, it does feel a bit familiar. Like 2014.
That year, the Cowboys were not expected to do much at all. They had lost their top pass rusher, DeMarcus Ware, due to cap concerns. Their best linebacker, Sean Lee, was out for the season. They were still depending on a running back, DeMarco Murray, who had never shown he was anything special. And then there was the disdain for quarterback Tony Romo.
NFC East QBs, as ranked by Tim Hasselbeck. pic.twitter.com/xoVIIr1KUi— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) July 23, 2014
And the opinions about the Cowboys did not change much after the preseason games.
Never, ever overreact to the NFL preseason. Having said that, the Cowboys are the worst team in the NFC.— Adam Schein (@AdamSchein) August 8, 2014
Besides illustrating the fact that you can never live down stupid things you put on Twitter, these also point out that predictions often fail to match what happens on the field. Dallas had its best regular season in years, and but for a fumble, a failure to sack a one-legged quarterback, and a controversial ruling on a catch that the NFL is still trying (unsuccessfully) to properly clarify, they may have gone on to even more success in the postseason.
As was stated, it is not exactly the same this year. For instance, Romo’s value to the team is now much better understood after seeing what his loss to injury did to the team in 2015. But there is still an air of doubt about just how real this team is.
Embrace the hate. The Cowboys, as many teams do, play better when there is something of a chip on their shoulder. The difficulties of suspensions and the questions about the defense may serve to unify the team. Although there are some issues with Jason Garrett’s performance as head coach, one thing he proved in 2015 was that he can keep a locker room solidly with him. The team never got down on itself in the misery of last year. If they can achieve some success on the field, they may find themselves one of the teams to fear.
The offense is going to be the strength of the team, and it has the potential to be a juggernaut. It all starts with the line, and no one seriously questions how good that unit is. They will be key to both keeping Romo healthy and unleashing Ezekiel Elliott and the rest of the running backs. With Dez Bryant also back, Cole Beasley still as elusive as ever, and Jason Witten hopefully set for another quietly effective year, there are multiple ways for this team to move the ball and score points.
The big question is whether the defense can carry their part of the load, but that was the same challenge faced two years ago. The loss of Rolando McClain for at least the first ten games should not be minimized, but it is probably roughly equivalent to having Lee out for the year. The return of Orlando Scandrick and putting Byron Jones full time at free safety should bring improved play in the secondary, and Scandrick’s fire and leadership on the field is an often overlooked factor that should extend to the entire defense.
That leaves the pass rush as big concern. Now that Randy Gregory is also likely to be gone for anything from ten games to the entire year, those concerns have just gotten worse. Despite that recent development, the staff has not shown any urgency to do something more than it has already. This has led to a certain amount of consternation, which is really a continuation of the debate over the approach to the defensive line that has gone on the entire offseason.
Allow me a moment of cockeyed optimism, but I think things are going to work out. The plan revolves around several things:
- The offense needs to control the ball and score in bunches. It is built to do just that. Elliott still has yet to play an NFL down, but he is about as well suited for his role in this as possible. And the Cowboys have very capable backups, one of which, Darren McFadden, has proven he can gain yards behind that line. The only big if is Romo’s health. Should that pan out, the offense is going to be a true pleasure to watch for fans of the team.
- The secondary has to do a better job than it did last year. Just the fact that the Cowboys should be playing with a lead more often will help there. Add in the Scandrick and Jones factors mentioned above, and it is reasonable to expect things to improve there.
- A little extra time afforded by better coverage, playing more often with a lead, and better pressure from the interior of the defensive line should all combine to help the rushmen get home. Of these three factors, the improvements in the middle are the most often overlooked. Tyrone Crawford functionally played last season with one shoulder. Cedric Thornton is an unquestionable upgrade over Nick Hayden. And if Terrell McClain can stay healthy, he is also a force in the middle. A better push up the middle to move the quarterback out of the pocket before he can get rid of the ball will offer the ends a better chance to get "clean up" sacks.
- The staff appears to believe that it has more in players like Benson Mayowa, David Irving, Ryan Russell, Charles Tapper, and Jack Crawford than most outside observers. This is going to be a huge factor, although the team also still has the chance to look outside the team for help late in the preseason if needed. Still, if they get it right with one or more of the unproven rushers off the edge, the sacks should be sufficient.
That is a lot of things to come together, but the pessimism seems a bit overdone, at least to this writer. Above all, we need to see how things do work out before we give up. And now, we are finally going to see the 2016 version of the Cowboys start to take shape in training camp. The preseason games will be especially riveting this year. Who will emerge? Who will fall short? Hopefully there will be more of the former.
At least the long wait is over. Training camp is here.
Football is here.