It’s almost Dallas Cowboys football season. Every year as we get to the week before the real games start and the team is whittling down the roster, we look forward with great anticipation to what we think will happen. This year is different, however. No offseason, a greatly reduced training camp with even more restricted media coverage, and no preseason games leaves the picture of the team almost opaque. Add in the massive changes the coaching staff has gone through and an unusually high number of promising roster additions, and there is so much to hope for, but it is based almost entirely on hints and some big, big assumptions.
As we wait out the final days until the Cowboys face off against the Los Angeles Rams (IT’S DOWN TO SINGLE DIGITS!), here are some of the most anticipated things we hope will happen.
The Dak-Kellen-Mike partnership will blossom
Dak Prescott is coming off the best statistical performance of his career while being in another contract year. Kellen Moore is back as offensive coordinator, providing badly needed continuity while presumably freed from some overly conservative influence. And Mike McCarthy, a quarterback-loving head coach, seems to have a great grasp of how to maximize his resources without applying an overly heavy hand.
There are many, many factors that make up a winning football team, but in the NFL, none is more important than the play of the quarterback. One major theory concerning Prescott is that he was not often used to his best advantage in games. Last season we saw the Cowboys persist in favoring the conservative, “safe” approach in most situations. It led to six of their eight losses being one score games, while seven of the eight wins were blowouts. Much of the blame for that has been assigned to former head coach Jason Garrett. We are about to find out just how accurate that is.
In particular, we really hope for a more aggressive philosophy when Dallas has the ball. No more “establishing the run” primarily by tipping the play with formation and personnel, then crashing Ezekiel Elliott into loaded boxes. No more striving for a balanced offense, instead favoring the more efficient passing game. No more going to the sticks and turning around for the pass. Some real creativity with motion and who is on the field.
All that has been clearly suggested by both what McCarthy has said to the media and in the limited information coming out of camp. Our dreams of Team 40 Burger rest on it coming to fruition.
The sexy new faces live up to their promise
The list of exciting additions to the roster is long.
- WR CeeDee Lamb was cause for massive celebration when he fell to the Cowboys at 17, and he has more than lived up to the hype according to all reports.
- Trevon Diggs is looking like a second first-round-level talent so far and is firmly in the conversation as a starting, ball-hawking cornerback.
- Fifth-round pick Bradlee Anae may have shown the most potential to be a rookie that will also have a significant impact this season as part of a much improved pass rush.
- The rest of the draftees are going to be depth pieces, but all flashed some real potential in practices.
- There’s usually at least one UDFA that breaks through each year, and this time it is linebacker Francis Bernard, who everyone expects to make the 53.
- Then there are the free agents, starting with Dontari Poe. Signing a huge, two-gapping nose tackle shows that Mike Nolan and Jim Tomsula have some very different ideas on how to run a defense.
- Aldon Smith was something of a revelation in camp. He should not have been so impressive at EDGE after his lengthy suspension, but all he did was terrorize the depleted offensive tackle group.
- Just before camp the team surprised us with the signing of Everson Griffen, both gratifying and confounding those who were clamoring for exactly that move. The pass rush is now locked and loaded.
- If you are looking for a sleeper in the free agents, I submit Daryl Worley. Cornerback is one area that is still a bit concerning, but he had a solid camp and could be important in shoring up the secondary.
Don’t forget some returning players who took a step up
The list here is shorter, but there are some very exciting developments to watch.
- One of the most unexpected was the way Trysten Hill showed out. He was active, effective, and may have just earned the starting 3-tech job on the defensive line.
- Cedrick Wilson finally showed consistently that he is a good wide receiver. He would be WR3 on most teams, but with the tremendous trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Lamb, he has locked up the still essential WR4 job.
- And a shoutout to Noah Brown, who was finally used as a wide receiver and not a “light end.” He made the most of the opportunity and is the presumptive fifth WR, plus will likely be a key special teams asset.
- Meanwhile, Blake Jarwin is out of the shadow of Jason Witten, and thriving, especially down the seam where he excels. Additionally, Dalton Schultz was surprisingly effective catching the ball. Tight end is going to be used differently this year, and that’s a very good thing.
- The linebacker shuffle that moved Jaylon Smth to WILL and Leighton Vander Esch to MIKE was a resounding success in camp. If it continues into the regular season, that front end of the defense is going to be flat-out scary.
A two-headed backfield monster?
One very funny thing was the way the beat reporters in the camp coverage pool, particularly David Helman, performed some impressive rhetorical gymnastics to let us know that the team was really using Elliott and Tony Pollard in tandem. Both are potentially dangerous weapons in the passing game and showed that they can be an effective way to make the running attack more powerful. It is just another thing we relish seeing on the field.
Looking for the ball
One of the more maddening things to emerge from the days of Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard was that the defensive backs were not coached to face the receiver in coverage or to turn and track the ball. It had to have been a major reason the team was so unsuccessful in getting interceptions. Now things have done a 180, with Diggs specifically stating that he considers the ball just as much his to catch as the receivers’.
We even have reason to be confident in the kicking game
The decision to release Brett Maher before camp and roll with Greg Zuerlein was a bit confounding, especially with the latter coming off a groin problem. But “The Leg” was almost perfect in his camp attempts, only missing one 60-yard attempt before nailing a second try. And Chris Jones also seemed to be over his own injury problem from last year in his admittedly limited punting in camp.
More important, there have been some real hints that McCarthy favors going on it on fourth down. It’s nice to have effective kickers when they are really seen as a last resort. Hopefully the days of getting on the plus side of the 50 only to settle for a long field goal attempt are a thing of the past.
Those are just the highlights. The secondary and offensive tackle are the only real concerns that emerged, and those were mostly because of health problems. If those are resolved by the time games begin, this could be a year when that anticipation turns into true satisfaction.