As the season is about to kick off against the New York "Football" Giants on Sunday afternoon, for the most part, everyone is excited for the return of meaningful football. On the other hand, this season approaches with much trepidation. Face the facts, just about nothing has gone right for the Dallas Cowboys the majority of the offseason. Whether it be suspensions or injuries, there has been a series of onslaughts and those things have a way of taking a toll on one's excitement.
Feel free to be optimistic about your team's chances but understand there are some heavy questions surrounding the 2016 Dallas Cowboys as there are with every team in the NFL. It's the Cowboys, though, that seem to be more unbalanced at the moment and it's the Cowboys that we care about. There is a common denominator here and it starts with their obsession with their 2014 success.
Anything and everything that you've heard coming out of Valley Ranch, and now The Star, all point to the 2014 season where they went 12-4 and won a playoff game. The Cowboys as currently constructed want to be their former selves and who could blame them for wanting that? There is an old saying though about wanting in one hand and you know what in the other.
In 2014, the Cowboys had the NFL's leading rusher, which they most certainly could again but remember that Ezekiel Elliott, as good as he is, is still a rookie. The 2014 Dallas Cowboys had Tony Romo in perhaps the greatest season of his career. He led in just about every category a quarterback could lead in. His passer rating was 113.2, his QBR (83.6) was higher than any quarterback in the league by 6.2 points. Romo also led in passing yards per attempt (8.9) and completion percentage (69.9%) as well as third down conversions (66.9% of his passes).
As much good as the running-game dominance was for Tony Romo, it was just as good for the offense that they had a quarterback of that caliber playing that well. Now, the Cowboys will begin this season without their "face that runs the place." We're not sure how long Romo will be out of action with a compression fracture in his back. Chances are optimistic that he'll return sooner than later as the Dallas Cowboys have decided to not place him on IR-designated to return and instead carry him on their 53-man roster. We all became very familiar with what happens to this team in the absence of Tony Romo. However, there is a light at the end of this tunnel.
Enter Dak Prescott...
Some organizations are blessed when it comes to certain abilities. As hard as it was in between post-Troy Aikman to the Tony Romo era, you have to admit that the Cowboys have had good luck finding quarterbacks. This is an organization that has been represented by Don Meredith, Craig Morton, Roger Staubach, Danny White, Troy Aikman, and Tony Romo. It's on par with what the Packers have done with Bart Starr, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers and these two organizations know a quarterback when they see one. By hook or by crook, the football gods seem to be with them when it comes to finding a passer.
On the surface, Dak Prescott is more than what the Cowboys even bargained for. However, we're about to see if he's ready for the challenge that the NFL has waiting for him. All you can do is praise him for what he's been able to accomplish this preseason after outplaying every quarterback drafted ahead of him. Now, the real season begins and he has the daunting task of taking the reins for a team that is 1-13 in the past three season without Tony Romo.
Certainly, there are more than a few reasons to believe that the Cowboys will not be nearly as disastrous as last year where they lost 11 games without Romo. Other than just awful quarterbacking, last year's Cowboys didn't have a healthy All-Pro receiver in Dez Bryant and it took six games before their rushing attack worked itself out. For Dak, they know that the weapons are there and ready at his disposal. Still, again, he's a rookie fourth-round pick. He will have some growing pains, he will not complete nearly 80% of his passes in the regular season, he will make some mistakes as rookies do. There's hope though that he won't make the mistakes that will cost them victories while Romo is on the mend. Seeing what he was able to do when Seattle didn't get the memo about vanilla play-calling for the preseason only add to the pot of positivity.
The real problem in waiting for the Dallas Cowboys is their defense. For as much optimism that exudes behind the Cowboys offensive firepower, they are a complete opposite on the other side of the coin. Last season, the Cowboys were dead last in the turnover margin. They couldn't get a turnover if you gift-wrapped the ball and handed it to the defender. They were simply immune to creating opportunities for themselves. They were also pretty lousy at getting to the quarterback despite having Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory (missed four games) added to the mix.
Hardy is long gone for many reasons but none bigger than his behavioral issues. The Cowboys will also begin this season without their two best edge rushers as Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence serve suspensions for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. The Cowboys had knowledge that this was coming down the pike but neglected the edge of their defense at every turn this offseason.
It doesn't stop folks from hoping that someone out of this roster can be Rod Marinelli's reclamation project. Many will point to the 2014 pass rush that was equally inept at edge rusher and they had success until it all came crashing down as a one-legged Aaron Rodgers made them all look silly in the divisional round of 2014. For at least four games, the Cowboys will rely on unproven commodities at defensive end that didn't give you much to smile about even in the vanilla preseason.
When teams made their cut downs to 53, Dallas decided that taking advantage of their fourth spot in the pecking order was pointless. They kept their own and will work from there, that doesn't mean they are exempt from criticism. As Bryan Broaddus said on The Break, "You mean to tell me out of all the players that were claimed, not one of these guys was good enough to make this team?"
The reason the 2014 defense was successful was the fact that they were second in the NFL in turnovers with 31 takeaways. They were second in turnovers because their offense could score at will. Hopefully, that will be the same case again this season. Still, this is a defense with a lot of questions and not an answer in sight. They have issues at linebacker, questions in their secondary, a giant question mark at defensive end. The only spot that improved significantly was at defensive tackle but unless they are collapsing pockets on a regular basis, this is not going to be a defense that you have to gameplan for. There just isn't a built-in confidence that this defense will be able to get a stop if the game depends on it.
It is perfectly normal to be worried about these Dallas Cowboys because so many things have to go right. You can say that about the other 31 teams in the league as well. I just don't see a team with uncertainty levels as high as the Cowboys have this season. The way the front office has operated and their extreme confidence in their decision making have created trepidation and uneasiness in my confidence in their decision making.
At every question, they have seemingly shrugged their shoulders and have said, "we'll be fine." Now we're going into a season without the leader of the team, without even adequate edge rushers, without a true middle linebacker, starting a rookie quarterback/ running back combination. The Cowboys? Well, they continue to shrug their shoulders and assure us everything will be fine. Excuse me if I'm going to need a lot more convincing before I fall in line and believe this is a playoff contender. Whether you share the same confidence as the Joneses or you are feeling a bit skeptical; we're all in this together. So, with a gulp in the throat and a bit of nervous laughter, Let's Go Cowboys!