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Cowboys 2018 season: The team from Dallas comes in as underdogs

It looks like most people are sleeping on Dallas. And that’s a good thing.

Premiere Of Disney’s ‘Underdog’ - Arrivals Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images

With the NFL’s opening weekend coming at us, it is time for predictions. Social media has opened this up to anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account, so we no longer are limited to just what we can find from major outlets. And a quick, entirely unscientific review reveals one thing: Very few out there have much faith at all in the Dallas Cowboys. Here is a typical prediction:

No sign of the Cowboys. Trust me when I tell you that, in a look at dozens of similar tweets, I could not find one mention of the Cowboys, whether from writers or just fans. If you dig deeper, you’ll find many who don’t just predict Dallas missing the playoffs.

(The prediction is actually from CBS Sports’ Will Brinson, so don’t jump on my buddy Patrick, who clearly disagrees.)

And it wasn’t just individual opinions. Las Vegas feels the same, giving Dallas the 14th best odds to make the Super Bowl.

So the world at large and the betting experts in Vegas all agree, the Cowboys are an underdog this season.

Ain’t it great?

Maybe it’s just me, but I much prefer it when the Cowboys are poorly regarded. It is a win-win situation. If things do not go so well, it is just things falling the way everyone thought. And if they succeed, they are a surprise. Remember 2016? With Tony Romo injured in preseason and an unheralded fourth-round draft pick filling in for him, nobody expected the Cowboys to contend for the playoffs. Most expected them to be in the cellar of the NFC East. Instead, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott set the league on fire with a 13-3 regular season record before falling in the playoffs to Dallas’ postseason nemesis, the Green Bay Aaron Rodgers . . . er, Packers. Of course, last year, on the heels of that performance, the Cowboys were expected to be a Super Bowl contender, and we all know how that went.

Preseason predictions are seldom correct, as they are tinged with recency bias and the true direction of teams is basically impossible to know before the real games are played. What is clear is that most have no faith in the plan for this Cowboys team (although there are a few who disagree). Count me among those who see it differently (duh). I think Dallas is going to surprise people.

There is a lot of risk in that. The only returning receivers who have ever caught a regular season pass for the Cowboys are Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, and Geoff Swaim. That leaves a bunch of untried players with as-yet-to-be-determined chemistry with Dak Prescott. Travis Frederick is out for an unknown amount of time as he recovers from Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Nothing of note was done to add depth to the secondary, which remains shallow with Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier, and now Chidobe Awuzie all dealing with some level of injury. Prescott himself has raised some questions about his play with the way he faltered during and after the Burning in Atlanta. And the man who was responsible for the markedly predictable and unimaginable offense of last season, Scott Linehan, remains as the offensive coordinator.

But there is a flip side to all that. Start with Linehan, who was also the coordinator that coaxed that Offensive Rookie of the Year performance out of Prescott in 2016. The team has committed to changing things up and becoming less predictable, and and if you dig into Linehan’s past, you can see that he has shown some creativity at times. Now he has to emphasize that.

That massive reconfiguration of the receiver group not only encourages that, but in a way, helps accomplish it just by putting so many receivers out there that no one has seen perform in the Dallas offense. Three names in particular to watch to see how they are used are Tavon Austin, Deonte Thompson, and Rico Gathers, who has so many fans convinced he is the next red zone superweapon.

Meanwhile, let’s focus on what the team still has. Two All-Pro linemen, Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, are healthy and ready to go. They are joined by La’el Collins, who is entering his second year at right tackle after switching from guard, and second-round pick Connor Williams, who is already clearly better than Chaz Greet at left tackle, and arguably at least as good as Jonathan Cooper was when he supplanted Green. The defensive ends look to be a hugely talented group, led by DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, while the interior of the defensive line looks to have a real find in Antwaun Woods, plus the experience of Tyrone Crawford and a mending Maliek Collins. The linebackers may be the strongest group on the team, led by Sean Lee and a resurgent Jaylon Smith, plus Damien Wilson, who was a bit overlooked in preseason but really handled the SAM position well. Add in Leighton Vander Esch, who got hidden a bit with his groin injury but is now healthy, and super-sub Joe Thomas, and this unit looks to be solid from top to bottom. The starting defensive backs, especially the corners, are mostly young and improving.

And then there is Ezekiel Elliott. He was kept in bubble wrap all through preseason, but his teammates and coaches cannot stop talking about the shape he is in and the focus and effort he brought every day in practice. After the ordeal he went through in 2017, he is on a mission to reclaim the title of best running back in the league. It is also hoped that he is part of Linehan’s plan to shake things up in the passing game. The few times he has been thrown the ball, he has shown outstanding big-play ability. There is no doubt that he is always dangerous when you get the ball to him with some room to work, and if the team can do that, he may just be in line for a record-setting year.

All of that is still to be proven on the field - which is where all NFL teams are at this stage of things. Yes, the Cowboys have questions, but so do all the other teams. One thing that has been apparent through the preseason is that offensive lines are generally a weak point for many, if not most, teams. Despite having to rely on Joe Looney as long as Frederick is deemed unready to go, Dallas still has a very good line, one that is eager to re-establish the dominance they showed prior to 2017.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am predisposed to optimism. I have been covering this team for eight seasons now, and I like the direction it has taken, even when things have not turned out so well on the field. The long-standing reliance on drafting talent rather than going after it (and usually overpaying) in free agency has led to a group of real or emerging stars for Dallas, which has just reinforced the trend of paying their own rather than spending on big free agent contracts, as the money is increasingly tied up in those home-grown players. That is a long-range approach, and this may be the year that it really starts to pay off, especially as the second-round picks, as a group, look to be hitting their collective stride.

And then there is just the mental aspect of things. Sometimes, being the underdog can spur players and coaches to do better. To do more just to prove the doubters wrong. The team is well aware of how unpopular a pick they are for the playoffs. That should put just a little more fire in the belly - if not a lot.

So you can disagree or buy in. This could be another year when the Cowboys turn out to be a big surprise for most. Of course, we won’t know for a bit yet. But we get the first real indications on Sunday.

It’s football season, and that is a very good thing.

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