In the first article of the new series on the Cowboys’ Championship Quest, I divided the Cowboys’ history into two periods — the great 30-year run from 1966 to 1995, which encompasses their eight Super Bowl wins and appearances, and 16 NFC and NFL Championship games, and the last 20 years, where the Cowboys don’t even have an NFC Championship game appearance on their record. As a Cowboys fan during this entire 50-year run, it’s left me wondering each year: Is this the year the Cowboys finally break through and go after a Championship?
What’s my answer at the outset of 2016? Not sure. But I’m as optimistic about the team as I’ve been since 2007, when the Cowboys finished 13-3. Let me explain why.
In the NFL, It’s Always About the Quarterback
Since 2006, the Dallas Cowboys have relied on one man to lead them — Tony Romo. He came into the league by replacing Drew Bledsoe after half-time of a home game against the Giants. His first pass was tipped and intercepted, and the Cowboys lost the game 36-22, but Romo ignited the team to a 6-4 finish and a playoff berth. He injected energy into the team, and he kept getting better.
Since then, the Cowboys have gone as far as Romo could carry them. Without reliable backups, or a hint of a successor, the team has bet season after season on Romo’s health, taking huge risks.
No more. In 2016, the Cowboys finally went into an offseason with a plan to draft not just Tony Romo’s backup, but his potential successor. Lots of dominoes had to fall to keep the Cowboys from using the fourth-overall pick on a QB, or trading up for Paxton Lynch or Connor Cook, and it’s a story that could consume pages. Instead, mostly by luck, and partially by design, the Cowboys ended up with Dak Prescott as their compensatory pick at the end of round four, the 135th pick of the draft. They slotted him third on the depth chart behind Kellen Moore, and few expected he’d be doing much more than holding a clipboard his first season. But that’s not how it has turned out, has it?
Dak Prescott. What has this kid done? A ton, and we haven’t even played a meaningful game yet. Let’s see:
- He commanded a huddle loaded with veterans from his first pre-season snap.
- He fed the ball on a back-shoulder fade and a jump ball to Dez Bryant on his first drive, which led to a TD, thereby instantly commanding the support and respect of the emotional leader of the team.
- He fed a similar contested TD pass for his first completion to Jason Witten, which commanded the Senator’s respect. “That’s a big-time play by a young player,” Witten said afterward.
- He completed passes to every one of the receivers, tight ends, and running backs in the games with him.
- For a guy who was knocked for being “inaccurate” in college, he led the NFL with a 78% completion percentage in the pre-season, and took lots of snaps under center, which he almost never did at Mississippi State.
- All the veterans on the Cowboys sing his praises, as do the coaches and Stephen and Jerry Jones. “Poised” is one of the most common words used to describe Dak.
Ignore the pre-season stats about Dak Prescott. Focus on the leadership skills, poise, and respect he has among his teammates. That’s the first reason why I’m optimistic about the 2016 Dallas Cowboys. We have a leader.
With Dak Prescott in hand, the team psyche no longer hinges on when Tony Romo comes back, or if he gets hurt again. The future quarterback is on the team. He won’t be perfect, but he’ll get better, just like he did each year at Mississippi State.
The Cowboys now have two quarterbacks, one that the team has relied on for a decade and another with incredible promise and poise, when half the teams in the NFL don’t even have one. That’s cause for incredible optimism.
The Cowboys Can Maul Teams
There is a lot of debate in the NFL about the merits of a running game versus a passing game. The game has evolved into a passing league for the most part, but a case can likely be made on each side.
But if you ask people would they rather have a physical team, or a finesse team, what would the vast majority of NFL fans choose? Being physical, of course.
The Dallas Cowboys, with their young and experienced offensive line, tight ends, and big wide receivers, are not just physical, they are maulers. If you want to win the fourth quarter and close out games, it helps if your opponent has been worn down and out over the course of a game trying to deal with the Cowboys offense.
The 2007 Cowboys also had a big physical line. The problem was, they were nearing the end of the line, not the beginning. Flozell Adams was 32, and the other four starters were 29. By 2009, they were all cooked and had to be replaced. The 2016 Cowboys line only has one player over 25, Doug Free, and a potential replacement for him is already on the team. This the second reason to be optimistic about the 2016 Cowboys.
First Round Cowboys Running Backs Have A Storied History
How many running backs have the Cowboys drafted in the first round? Three: Tony Dorsett, Emmitt Smith, Ezekiel Elliott. The first two are in the Hall of Fame. That’s good company.
Zeke is a third reason for optimism this year. But it’s not mainly for the reasons most people expect. You don’t have to project Zeke to achieve incredible stats to sense how important he is to the 2016 Cowboys.
What I like most about the addition of Zeke is something Todd Archer put his finger on — attitude.
But it’s not just the production. It’s the attitude as well.
In 2014, Murray’s hard-running style transformed the Cowboys from a team that threw it entirely too much in their three straight 8-8 finishes from 2011-13 to a ground-oriented attack that accentuated Romo’s abilities and led to the quarterback’s best season. The Cowboys won the NFC East with a 12-4 record.
The seven runs Elliott had against Seattle had Dez Bryant in a lather.
"He had me crazy,” Bryant said. "Had me crazy on fire. Like, 'Hey, that's what I'm talking about. He's ready. He's ready to go.'”
This attitude, coupled with maulers on the offensive line, is going to make a difference.
The Offensive Skill Positions Are Well Stocked
Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott, Jason Witten, Terrence Williams, Brice Butler, Cole Beasley, Alfred Morris, Lucky Whitehead, and Lance Dunbar. Those are some serious offensive weapons.
Having Bryant back is huge. Having Elliott as a do-it-all back who can not just pound, but is a threat to score from anywhere on the field is great. Brice Butler has shown this preseason he has promise, and adds an extra deep threat and physical blocker. Big upgrade over the invisible Devin Street. Alfred Morris is the perfect complement to Zeke. Beasley, Whitehead, and Dunbar are very dangerous and hard to cover. Dallas is stocked. That’s a fourth reason to be optimistic.
Special Teams Could Be Special
Dallas has the best kicker in the NFL, a top-five punt coverage team, and a top-five kickoff returner who took the first pre-season play to the house. They just need better punt returns. Enter Dax Swanson? He looks like an option. That’s five reasons.
Is The Defense So Bad That It Counters All These Reasons For Optimism?
At defensive tackle, Dallas replaced Nick Hayden with Cedric Thornton and Terrell McClain. That’s a net plus. Tyrone Crawford’s shoulder is healed. Another plus. Demarcus Lawrence is out four games, but will return. Dallas didn’t have a great line in 2014 either, but the team hung in there. And this line is younger, so at least it has the opportunity for upside.
At linebacker, the team swapped in Sean Lee (hurt in 2014) for Rolando McClain. That’s a plus. No one else is great, but they’re passable.
At defensive back, Carr, Claiborne, Scandrick, Church, and Jones are better than the group they had when they went 12-4.
And turnovers will return, if for no other reason than the tendency to revert to the mean.
It’s easy to be concerned about this defense — mostly because it’s not deep enough if they get hit with injuries to key guys — but is it cause for panic?
The schedule could also help here. Dallas plays only one top-five offense from last year, Pittsburgh. The Cowboys also have the Giants twice (6), Cincy (7), and Washington twice (10). The Packers are also likely to improve on their 15th showing from 2015. The rest of the teams were in the bottom half of the league on offense last year, or are likely to be this year.
To sum it up, for those worried about the 2016 Cowboys, you may be right in a sense — the team may fall short of a championship for a 21st straight year. But for my money, the arrow is pointing up for America’s Team, and I can’t wait for the season to get started!!