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The Cowboys’ championship quest: Is this the year Dallas finally breaks through?

The Cowboys last won the Super Bowl in the 1995 season, and haven’t returned to even an NFC title game since. Is this the year the team finally breaks that string?

Super Bowl 50 - Carolina Panthers v Denver Broncos Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

My first substantive post as a front page writer for Blogging The Boys, on September 5, 2016, asked: How close is America’s Team to getting back on top?

It re-told the story of the last 50 years for the Cowboys, broken into two periods.

The Dallas Cowboys’ Great 30 Year Run

For three decades — from 1966 to 1995 — the Dallas Cowboys had a championship run to rival any team in any sport.

Five Super Bowl wins: 1971, 1977, 1992, 1993, 1995.

Three more Super Bowl appearances: 1970, 1975, 1978.

16 NFC (or NFL) Championship game appearances: 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995.

20 consecutive winning seasons: 1966-1985.

A won-loss record of 378-227, or .624, during those 30 seasons.

Top five scoring offenses 15 times (in 30 seasons).

Top five defenses in points allowed 11 times (in 30 seasons).

The Cowboys’ Last 20 Years

Unfortunately, since the Cowboys last Super Bowl victory, at the end of the 1995 season, things have not gone as well. Over these last 20 seasons — 1996 to 2015 — the Dallas Cowboys have managed:

No Super Bowl wins or appearances.

No NFC Championship game appearances.

Nine winning seasons, with the longest stretch spanning five years from 2005 to 2009.

Eight playoff seasons, but only two playoff victories.

A won-loss record of 156-158, or .496, 128 points below their previous 30-year run.

Top five scoring offenses 4 times (in 20 seasons).

Top five scoring defenses 5 times (in 20 seasons).

Of course, none of this counted the amazing 2016 season, when rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record, best in the NFC. But the glorious year ended with another heartbreaking playoff loss one game short of the NFC Championship game. No one expected that kind of year after Tony Romo went down to injury once again in preseason.

Yet, in December, I wrote an article in this Championship Quest series: How did we get here so fast? I gave eight answers:

  1. Dak Prescott’s amazing best-ever rookie season for a quarterback;
  2. Zeke Elliott breaking even the lofty expectations he entered the year with;
  3. Sean Lee playing every down;
  4. Cole Beasley emerging as a huge receiving asset;
  5. The defensive line doing its part;
  6. Anthony Brown helping hold the secondary together after Orlando Scandrick and Mo Claiborne suffered injuries;
  7. Ron Leary keeping the offensive line humming; and
  8. The coaches doing an incredible job.

That leads us to the start of another year, and the question: is this the year the Cowboys finally break through?

To get at that question, I wrote another series of articles this offseason looking at real quarterback rating differential, a stat developed by Cold Hard Football Facts that highly correlates not only with winning in the NFL, but, over the last five years, demonstrates the best teams in this stat are the ones most likely to reach the Super Bowl. I asked how the Cowboy might improve on their fifth-place finish in this stat, which was driven mostly by their 23rd ranking on defense (compared to third on offense).

I remain convinced that is the crux of the matter. Keep a very high real quarterback rating on offense (real quarterback rating incorporates the rushing stats of quarterbacks, along with their fumbles, so it’s a more comprehensive number than the more commonly used quarterback rating) while dramatically improving the rating against opposing quarterbacks on defense. It seems like that’s exactly the plan the Cowboys have tried to implement this offseason.

One reason to make a big change on defense is that the Cowboys defensive quarterback rating has been steadily bad for the last five years - 27th (2012), 28th (2013), 23rd (2014), 22nd (2015), 23rd (2016). Clearly, keeping the secondary was unlikely to lead to any improvement. So the Cowboys let Brandon Carr, Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, and Morris Claiborne go, and brought in Nolan Carroll, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Bene Benwikere, and Xavier Woods, to go with a healthy Orlando Scandrick and a second-year Anthony Brown. They also overhauled their defensive line, and have Jaylon Smith on the field.

Will it be enough to improve the Cowboys’ defensive rating against opposing quarterbacks? At the moment, the Cowboys defense is still a mystery. But there’s hope. Certainly, one should expect fairly steady improvement over the year as the defense plays together and starts phasing in the rookies.

To start the season, everyone is guessing how things will fall out. My own sense is that the Cowboys have a chance. Perhaps a very good chance if things fall their way and they aren’t derailed by surprise injuries.

On the offensive side, I expect Dak Prescott is going to be better. Dez Bryant will be back. The offensive line will be rock-solid. Zeke will get to play while his suspension fight is played out in the courts. The team has some new weapons in Ryan Switzer and eventually Rico Gathers.

On the defensive side, I believe the defensive line will be better, the linebacking will gain with Jaylon Smith’s presence, and the secondary will have growing pains, but will end the season better than the group was last year.

Meanwhile, Dan Bailey and Chris Jones will do their jobs, and the return game will improve with Ryan Switzer on board.

There will be stiff competition from the Seahawks, Packers, and Falcons, and NFC East games will not be easy. But at the end of the day, the Cowboys should repeat as division champs, and could get a bye and a home game again, which means they will need only one victory to advance further than they have in 21 years.

I think the Cowboys will finally end their drought, and make the Super Bowl, where they are most likely to face off against the New England Patriots. Go Cowboys!