May you live in interesting times
- Ancient Chinese curse (supposedly)
This has been perhaps the strangest lead-up to a season we have ever seen for the Dallas Cowboys. Due to a couple of freak injuries at the most critical position on the team, an unexpected showing from a fourth-round supplemental pick, and the deliberate approach to injuries, we enter the season with so much we simply do not know about this team. As we go into the season, our emotions have been whipsawed already at a level that we normally don’t reach until mid-season. Most of all, we just don’t know how so much of the team is likely to perform.
It all started with what should have been something that created more anxiety actually being seen as a blessing in disguise. With apologies to Kellen Moore, the team was taking the very questionable approach that he was the backup to Tony Romo going into camp. His injury wound up giving Dak Prescott, the consolation prize quarterback taken after the team missed out on both Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook in the draft, the chance to take more reps in practice and to start the first preseason game. He put on a simply stunning display, with incredible ratings and production for a player that was not supposed to be ready for the pro game at this point. With him as the backup, the season suddenly looked better than it did before the unfortunate Mr. Moore was hurt.
Then disaster struck. Romo was sacked and had yet another back injury. Suddenly Prescott was thrust into the starting role, and the team acquired Mark Sanchez (!) to become his backup until Romo could heal and hopefully return. Prescott showed us far more than anyone expected, but now he is going to be playing in actual NFL games. That is another animal entirely. His poise was perhaps the most remarkable thing he demonstrated in the preseason, and we all hope he will continue to be the efficient and at times scintillating quarterback he appeared to be when the games didn’t count, but we will not know until he lines up against the New York Giants and there heavily retooled, expensively upgraded defense.
Meanwhile, the other key addition, fourth overall pick Ezekiel Elliott, saw only very limited action after tweaking his hamstring. He did look like everything we expected against the formidable Seattle Seahawks defense, but again we will have to see how that translates to real games. However, running backs have a history of making the easiest transition to the pros of any position, making him a very good bet to still deliver. Further, his backup, Alfred Morris, looked like he is back in his prime, giving the team needed depth. And Lance Dunbar never saw the field this summer, but all reports are that he is at full speed in practices. He brings another dynamic to the field as a dangerous change-of-pace back. The only question is whether he can avoid the injuries that have hampered his career so far.
The receiving corps looks to be in great shape. Dez Bryant is healthy, Cole Beasley still looked able to get open almost every time he went into the pattern, and Brice Butler looks ready to take a step up. Even Terrance Williams looks to be ready for a strong season in a contract year. Tight end is a bit shallow to start the season, and Jason Witten is not getting younger. But he remains confident he can still make the clutch catches.
Even the most highly regarded unit of the team, the offensive line, never really saw the starters for the regular season play together. A recurring stinger issue for Tyron Smith kept him out of action. And there is a depth concern there, as the team only has three backups on the roster at the moment. We all hope that this group will continue to be the best in the league - but we have to see them on the field to find out.
The defense remains a huge question mark. It looks like the secondary is going to be the strongest part, but there are still some concerns there. Morris Claiborne was the best of the cornerbacks in camp, but he will have to remain healthy. Orlando Scandrick is back, which will help, as will having Byron Jones concentrating on free safety after being a jack-of-all-trades his rookie year. Still, it remains to be seen how they will hold up against Eli Manning and a talented group of receivers.
Linebacker is currently Sean Lee, who also has a troubling injury history, and a bunch of guys who don’t have a very strong track record. The strange case of Rolando McClain has left a big concern at the middle linebacker position, with no one really standing out as a strong replacement.
And who knows what kind of pass rush the defensive line will be able to muster? The tackles look to be very solid, perhaps much better than that. But there is no reliable edge rusher, at least until DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory sit out their suspensions, and the league has not seen fit to even determine if Gregory is sitting four games or more. Just as with so many other positions, the projected starters were almost never on the field at the same time, and the patchwork group used in preseason were not overly impressive. Dallas has to hope the group gels rapidly, and it looks like they are having to depend on linebacker Kyle Wilber to come in and provide some situational pass rush at one of the end positions. It has to leave you uneasy.
Special teams look to be in good shape again. The opening game of the season showed us how important having the best field goal kicker in the league truly is as a missed attempt cost the Carolina Panthers the win. And the fact that the Denver Broncos won mainly on the strength of their pass rush just adds to the unease about the unproven nature of what Dallas is bringing to the game.
If everything comes together, this could be a very successful team. But that is a lot of things that have to work out, and due to the great deal of caution taken with minor nicks in camp and preseason, there is a staggering amount of things we cannot be sure of. The opening game on Sunday afternoon is going to be a huge test of everything, and at the moment, it looks like the Giants are the main challenge in the NFC East. A win would put the Cowboys in great shape. But a loss will just leave us asking questions about whatever parts of the puzzle just did not fit.
We will finally start getting some definitive answers when the game starts. But it is really impossible to know if optimism or pessimism is truly warranted until then. Another famous quote may be the most appropriate.
Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.
- Bette Davis, All About Eve