If you are a true Dallas Cowboys fan, and not one of the those who had the audacity to root for the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, the sight of those Eagles hoisting the Lombardi Trophy hurts. In all honesty, they completely earned it, fielding a deep roster that easily handled injuries and having their coaching staff completely flip the script on the New England Patriots. It really is their fan base that invokes the ire of Dallas fans. Finally having the right to call themselves Super Bowl champions is just going to make that group even more insufferable. It is going to be a long year.
Meanwhile, the discontent over not seeing Dallas back in the big game continues. Questions are raised about the ownership, the coaching staff, and the talent of the roster. While Jason Garrett is still trying to break through as he enters his eighth full year as head coach, Doug Pederson only needed two seasons to undo the wreckage left after the Chip Kelley debacle to reach the pinnacle. Dak Prescott had a bad sophomore year. And we can hardly forget the disruptive circus that came with the Ezekiel Elliott suspension and Jerry Jones’ not-so-secret war on Roger Goodell.
The Eagles are indeed the kings of the league. You are by now very familiar with the narrative. They are loaded and have everything in place to keep on winning. It is hard to envision what could derail things. It should be a very familiar story to you.
After all, that is pretty much exactly what was being said about the Cowboys just a year ago - minus the Super Bowl Champion part.
While the 2016 season fell short in the playoffs due in no small part to the heroics of one Aaron Rodgers (again), the regular season far exceeded even the wildest expectations. The duo of rookie stars in the backfield looked like the class of the league. The coaches did a brilliant job of figuring out how to win with them and the rest of the roster. And the team looked like it would just get better. But it didn’t.
That, in a nutshell, is a story we see over and over in the NFL. Teams rise to the top of the league, but the stay is always temporary. Some dynasties like New England’s are prolonged, but often you see a team like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Baltimore Ravens, or the New Orleans Saints get to the promised land, only to slide back into mediocrity or worse over the next few years. And even the vaunted Patriots under Bill Belichick saw some cracks appear in their loss. They have a tough road ahead to try and get back to the top, although the AFC is at the moment an easier conference to win than the NFC. But there is also a possible sign that the magic is fading in the way Pederson absolutely outcoached Belichick. (Even then, it took a strip-sack late in the game to stave off another Tom Brady-led comeback.)
The reality is that the pendulum always swings, and sometimes it swings very fast. It is a reasonable bet that the Eagles are going to be a fearsome team again next year, although they now have an interesting challenge to figure out how to manage the situation of having the winning quarterback from the most recent championship on the roster with the one who was the leading candidate for MVP until his injury. With Carson Wentz coming back from a severe injury, they may have to rely on Nick Foles to start the year - and then they will face another situation the Cowboys know well, deciding when, or even if, to make the transition.
That doesn’t mean they won’t manage it. Pederson and his staff were almost flawless in handling the loss of Wentz and other top talents.
You don’t want to sell the Eagles short in their title defense. But it also is far too soon to decide that the Cowboys are not going to be back in contention as well.
The NFC East is getting to be somewhat notorious for having a new division champ every year. It has been 13 seasons since Philadelphia strung together a four-year run. While the New York Giants and Washington were both in a bit of disarray last year, the former has a new head coach and the latter is working on a big trade to get Alex Smith, who certainly has proven he can help his team to at least win its division (the details of the trade have been widely reported, but it is not official since trades cannot be completed at this time). Still, both New York and Washington have claimed the division in recent years.
And for the past four years, the Cowboys have been enduring a yo-yo factor themselves. They cruised to the division crown in 2014, suffered through the disastrous 2015 season when Tony Romo was injured, rebounded to have an even better regular season in 2016, and then slumped again in 2017. That recent history indicates they may be on the rebound again this year. They certainly have made some moves to shake up the coaching staff. While the changes were not as extensive as some may have wished (cough) Scott Linehan (cough), the team made one hire that looks absolutely brilliant. Kris Richard comes with serious skins on the wall after having molded the Legion of Boom with the Seattle Seahawks. Now he is coming into a team with a bevy of young and talented DBs to see if he can work his magic again. And with the pass rush finally starting to gel, especially if the team does not blow the David Irving situation, Dallas may finally have a defense that is strong both up front and in the back end.
The Cowboys have to do a good job of fixing some other issues, like getting things “Dak-friendly”, which also includes solving the left guard puzzle. But it is absolutely possible. The fate of the coaching staff may well rest on getting it all right.
And again, recent history gives reason to hope. Jason Garrett, Linehan, and Rod Marinelli were all under the gun coming out of 2015, and they clearly rose to the occasion. Now they face a similar, although not as severe, challenge this year. They’ve been there before. That may be a real help in getting back to the playoffs again this year.
After all, just as much as things get worse for some teams each year, they also take a turn for the better for others. We just need the Cowboys to make themselves part of that second group.