I, like all devout pessimists, prefer the term “realist,” but not everyone will grant that status. Oddly enough, most optimists are pretty pessimistic about granting a pessimist the “realist” tag.
That said, what follows is my stab at optimism where the 2014 Dallas Cowboys is concerned.
The 2013 Dallas Cowboys averaged 27.4 points per game, putting them in the number five slot out of the 32 NFL teams. They were 16th in yards from scrimmage, 13th in first downs, and third in passing touchdowns.
The most offensive thing about the 2013 Cowboys, however, was their defense. It offended Cowboys fans everywhere, as the team finished dead last in the league in overall defensive ranking. They set team and league records for ineptitude at various points in the season. They were so bad they got Monte Kiffin, the man brought in to instill a vaunted defense, both fired and promoted. (Only Jerry Jones can fully comprehend that one.) They were 32nd in yards allowed, yielding 6,645 yards to invading enemies. They were 32nd in first downs allowed, awarding opponents 388 of those precious commodities.
Bad. Really, really bad.
Here’s the bad news for the 2014 edition of the Boys: The three best players from 2013 are gone. DeMarcus Ware, a future Hall of Famer and the face of the defensive side of the franchise for the past decade, has taken his talents and oft-sore back and shoulder to Denver. 2013 sack leader Jason Hatcher is now a hated Redskin. Sean Lee, the spiritual and physical leader of the defense and its best player, has already been lost for the season (again). What’s more, second round pick defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, the man the team had hoped would help fill the sack gap left by the Hatcher and Ware departures, is injured and out for 8 to 12 weeks.
It is impossible to be worse than worst, but the Cowboys defense might find a way. Never say never.
So, where is the optimism?
Right here, Jack!
The Cowboys’ offense may be the most potent in the entire league. Granted, the 34 year old Romo has to perform at a high level and stay healthy after coming off of offseason back surgery. If he does, and if he is able to perform at the level we are accustomed to seeing, this offense can be scary good.
The Offensive Line
If there is one unit in football that makes every other unit better (or worse), it is the offensive line. Without a good line, the passing game and the running game suffer. Without a good line, time of possession becomes an issue, the defense is over-exposed, and it suffers. Football is war and war is won in the trenches. This Cowboys line features three first round picks. Tyron Smith is still just a kid and already has three solid years under his belt and a shiny new $96 million contract to show for it. He is already heralded as one of the best blindside protectors in the NFL. Center Travis Frederick, last year’s first rounder, was solid in the middle of the line his rookie season and looks to be even better this year. Zack Martin, the 2014 first round selection, is the consensus choice for best lineman in the draft. Doug Free has been serviceable at times and better than solid at others.
Some are saying the Cowboys offensive line could be the best in football this year.
DeMarco Murray has had some injury issues in college and in the pros. But when he has been healthy, he has been really good. He finished the 2013 campaign with 1,121 yards and nine touchdowns. With an improved line opening holes, Murray may be ready to raise the bar this season.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Dez Bryant had 93 catches for 1,233 yards last year. He also scored 13 touchdowns receiving. In 2012, he had 92 receptions for 1,382 yards and 12 TDs. That is called consistency. I look for him to emerge as a top five receiver in 2014. Miles Austin, who was seemingly always hamstrung with hamstring issues, is gone. Terrance Williams, the speedy youngster out of Baylor will be the wideout opposite Dez. In his rookie season, in which he started just eight games, Williams produced admirably, snagging 44 Romo passes for 736 yards and five touchdowns. When you consider the learning curve for the wide receiver position in the NFL, that is better than good.
Dez Bryant recently said that Williams is ready to “ball out” this year. I believe him.
Cole Beasley is a wily, slippery producer in the slot. Dwayne Harris can be electric with the football in his hands.
Then there is Jason Witten. Enough said.
For all the Tony Romo angst, it remains a fact that over the past few seasons, he has the highest fourth quarter QB rating in the NFL. He will eventually own virtually all of the Cowboys passing records.
The notion that you can’t win a Super Bowl with Romo is as silly as the notion that you can win one with Brad Johnson or Trent Dilfer. Oh wait…
The Hope Formula
Despite having a record-setting bad defense, the 2013 Cowboys were playing the last game of the season for the right to go to the playoffs. For the third straight year, they were in a win-and-in position in week 17. For the third straight year, they lost and went home.
How can they possible get over that hump this year?
- The defense cannot be the worst in the league again. They don’t have to be top 10, or top 16. Heck, if they can just nail down a spot somewhere in the 20 – 25 range, that should suffice. That means they will have to mix in a defensive stop here and there and get some turnovers. Rod Marinelli, folks. He is the one that has to get it done with this group of no-names and under-achievers.
- The offense must be among the best in the league. If the Cowboys can be in the top 15 in time of possession, the top five in scoring, and somewhere in the top 10 overall, they could outscore enough opponents to crack the postseason.
- The coaching staff has to emerge as a cohesive unit. Jerry Jones is the only general manager in league history (and possible world history) to fire both of his coordinators and keep them on the staff. If Jason Garrett is just the king of the coaching hill and the key assistants are mostly interested in toppling him and taking his spot, this thing is bound for disaster. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and passing game coordinator Scott Linehan are key to Garrett’s success this season.
- Steal three wins they aren’t supposed to get. The NFC East is matched with the NFC West this season, which will likely be the toughest division in the league. They also get the AFC South. They need to take care of business against the Jaguars of the world and find a way to beat a team like the Seahawks, 49ers, Rams, Saints, Cardinals, etc. Most are predicting the Eagles to win the division and some like them as a favorite to play in the NFC title game. The Cowboys need to split with them and sweep either the Redskins or Giants. They must avoid being swept by any of their NFC East bunk mates.
Sounds like a tall order and it is. It should be. Getting to the postseason is supposed to be hard. It is not, however, unfathomable. Nor is it impossible. It is doable and this bunch can get it done.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cowboys emerge as a surprise entry in the 2014 NFL Playoffs.
Of course, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if they end up with the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, either.
(The trouble with a pessimist is he always types one too many sentences.)