It’s way too early to come to any real conclusions about how the 2017 NFL season will play out. Still, you can hardly go to a site covering the league without tripping over a prediction or two. Some teams, like the (hated) New England Patriots, are boring in how almost everyone has them making it to the Super Bowl to defend their title. But the Dallas Cowboys are quite the opposite. There are a variety of opinions out there as to how they will do.
According to the Golden Nugget, a Las Vegas sportsbook, the Cowboys are a narrow favorite to represent the NFC against the Patriots. Since Vegas odds are based on what it takes to attract bettors, that is a good, widely based look at how the general (betting) public sees things. But look elsewhere, and things are not nearly as rosy for Dallas. Sports Illustrated predicts them to have a 9-7 record. At the Dallas Morning News, Tim Cowlishaw (who is somewhat known for leaning to the glass-half-empty side of things about all things Cowboys) sees them as coming in second in the NFC East to Washington (not very much in line with most other projections). ESPN has them going 10-6, tied with the New York Giants and only one win better than both Washington and the Philadelphia Eagles. FOX Sports likes them to have another strong season at 12-4, while CBS Sports is in the “sophomore slump” camp, figuring Dallas to just miss out on the playoffs.
You get the (rather blurry) picture.
So why are the opinions all over the place? Well, besides the obvious lack of solid information this early, with OTAs the only real thing to go on at this point, there seem to be a handful of reasons behind this.
The Dak effect.
There is little question that the incredibly surprising performance of Dak Prescott was the biggest story of 2016, and how he does in his second season as the starting quarterback may be just as large. There is a fairly clear demarcation on him. As mentioned above, the “sophomore slump” is seen as all but inevitable by many. On the other side are those who see his remarkable growth under trying conditions, having a full offseason as the starter to build with, and the surrounding talent on the offense as reasons that he will not be victim to any fall-off.
It is interesting that most of the beat writers in Dallas seem to believe that 2016 was no fluke, while most of the real Dak doubters are national writers. There does seem to be a real correlation between examining what he accomplished closely and having some confidence that he is for real. Arguably, his intangibles are his strongest qualities. He displayed football intelligence far beyond that of most rookies (his 23/4 touchdown to interception ratio and 104.9 QB rating are the best statistical evidence for that) and the way he immediately won over the huddle and locker room were major factors in his success. But these are things that are inferred rather than being measured. Many, especially those that cover the entire league, pay more attention to things like total yards passing and touchdowns, where Prescott was actually rather far down in the rankings.
There is also a strange penalty he seems to pay for being surrounded by such talent on the offense. The dominating run game with Ezekiel Elliott and that star-studded offensive line were seen as carrying him. What that overlooks is just how perfectly he wound up fitting the offensive philosophy of the Cowboys. That is one thing that should just be better after a year of work.
But the doubters will have to be convinced. One thing is certain, the debate will be fierce, especially early in the season, where every good play and mistake will be magnified under the fierce glare of the national spotlight that the Cowboys always attract.
The losses in free agency.
A lot of weight is given to this by those who don’t expect the Cowboys to repeat as NFC East champions or even make the playoffs. The staff made some decisions on who to keep and who to let go on to other pastures that are seen by the skeptics as really hurting the team.
But what did the Cowboys really lose? Four starters, Doug Free, Ronald Leary, Brandon Carr, and Barry Church. Morris Claiborne is often included as a starter who the team let walk, but he had his regularly scheduled season ending injury well before the end of the year. J.J. Wilcox was a backup and special teams ace. The rest were players who had middling or small contributions last year, like Gavin Escobar and Terrell McClain.
Losing four starters is not a huge amount of turnover at all, and La’el Collins is hoped to mitigate the losses on the offensive line. Dallas kept to their established approach of not spending much in free agency. Nolan Carroll was the closest thing to a big signing, and there are some doubts as to just how much he can contribute, especially with his likely suspension (probably for two games) due to a DWI arrest.
But the Cowboys build primarily through the draft, and they invested heavily in defense, where their biggest needs lie. We have to see how the new players work out, but given the success of last year’s draftees, there is certainly reason to hope.
The defense is still the Achilles’ heel.
The offense is accurately seen as having carried the team last season, with the defense being mostly just good enough to not let them down, until perhaps the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers - and Aaron Rodgers was on State Farm commercial level fire in that game.
But again, the team invested so heavily in defensive players in the draft, plus they are hoping to have players like Charles Tapper, DeMarcus Lawrence, and especially Jaylon Smith making bigger contributions this year due to improved health. And they also hope for more from players who had a good first year with Dallas last season, like Maliek Collins, Benson Mayowa, and Anthony Brown. The team still has to worry about the vagaries of the season (see how I avoided that dreaded word), but right now, the outlook for the defense appears guardedly optimistic.
And if the offensive line sorts itself out, that side of the ball should be at least as formidable as it was last year. If the Cowboys find themselves in shoot-outs, they should have plenty of ammunition.
The first place schedule.
Because they finished atop their division, Dallas has to face the Packers and the Atlanta Falcons, while the rest of the division gets other opponents from the NFC North and South. That is pointed to as a reason they have a tougher path this year than in 2016, when they had a last place schedule.
But that is only two games out of sixteen. The rest of the schedule is common with their NFC East rivals. And the projected strength of schedule often winds up far differently by the end of the season. It is almost a given that five or six playoff teams from last season will not make it there this year, which of course means that some of those “easy” games turn out to be harder as well. The most important games each season are always the six within the division. That is one place where the Cowboys definitely need to improve, since all three of their losses in 2016 were to NFC East teams.
As with everything else, the views of how much all of the teams in the NFC East helped or hurt themselves in the offseason vary. But there is a general consensus that none of Dallas’ rivals gained a great deal on them - if at all.
It doesn’t help that the “knowledge” about the team is often somewhat questionable. A recent article by Bleacher Report set out to identify the biggest mistake of the offseason for each team. Their faux pas for Dallas was . . . interesting.
Ready for a hot take? Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn't want to trade Tony Romo to a fellow Texas franchise because he feared Romo could be the final piece of the puzzle for a Houston team that had the NFL's top-ranked defense last season.
The Cowboys were never going to receive much in return for Romo, so it wasn't worth risking the ego bruise that would result from the Texans winning a Super Bowl with the highest-rated quarterback in Cowboys history, especially if that happened before Dallas won its next championship.
As it turns out, that take may be more lukewarm than scorching hot. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio suggested in March that Jones didn't want Romo in a Texans uniform because it would shift media and fan attention from Dallas to Houston.
So the biggest misstep was that there was a RUMOR that Jerry Jones turned down a trade for Romo? From Florio, no less, who is probably still a bit distracted by his search for the mythical Dez Bryant video. That’s some trenchant analysis there.
While some are giving the Cowboys credit for their 13-3 record last year, there are clearly others who see it as deceptive. Adjustments are always a big part of the game in the NFL, and the doubters think the rest of the league will be ready for Dak and company.
But the Cowboys will be making their own adjustments. We will see who has the answers, and who comes up short.