How 'Bout Them Cowboys?
Thank goodness football season is back. If you’re a Dallas Cowboys fan – if you support America – then you’re ready to sign on for the journey as the Cowboys make their historic Super Bowl run yet again. That or they’ll choke in spectacular fashion come December.
Recent history suggests the latter, but it’s hard to deny that the Cowboys have a much better squad heading into 2012 than they did in 2011. Pundits like to argue that Jerry Jones has a death grip on all staff decisions, but it’s clear that Jason Garrett has put his stamp on personnel in the past two off-seasons.
Since taking over, Garrett has cut or chosen not to resign eight starters from the 2010 season (Marc Colombo, Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis, Marion Barber, Roy Williams, Terence Newman, Bradie James and Keith Brooking) in addition to getting rid of other dead weight, including Martellus Bennett (thank), Tashard Choice (you) and Allan Ball (Jesus).
Garrett envisions the Cowboys as a hard-nosed, disciplined team (hence the visits with a Navy SEAL and a U.S. Army general this preseason), and his cuts have been a perfect example of addition by subtraction. But Garrett has tried desperately to add back a few necessary pieces to improve on last year's disappointing .500 season.
If the Giants have taught us anything (both in 2007 and 2011), it’s that football is all about putting yourself in a position to make a run when it counts. The Cowboys have what they need to succeed in 2012, and a Super Bowl run is not out of the question. But will they be able to turn their ability into success? We have the next 17 weeks to find out.
With the preseason now behind us, here are the top 10 predictions for the Dallas Cowboys in 2012.
1. DeMarco Murray will run over the NFL
Admit it: you got chills when Murray broke that 91-yard run against the Rams last year. It's not that he was particularly spectacular on that play (the whole was gigantic), but he looked so impressively big as he sprinted down the field, like a man among boys. After half a season watching Felix Jones trying to tiptoe his way downfield, Murray was a force of nature, combining size, speed and finesse to great success. If you have anything but the highest expectations for Murray this season, obviously you weren't watching last season.
Sure, injury concerns are legitimate, but this is football. Assuming he stays healthy, look for Murray to set the tone for the entire offense. Garrett is a big proponent of controlling the game with the run. With Murray as the no. 1 threat, Dez Bryant can play as the X factor he is rather than the short-yardage route runner he clearly is not.
Where the Cowboys need Murray most is in the end zone, and, for all of his success in 2011, Murray only found the promise land twice. Expect a pro bowl nod for the sophomore if he can get a few touchdowns under his belt as well.
2. Miles Austin will be a nice bench warmer
Austin is an amazing receiver. His ability to separate from defensive backs at the moment after a catch is next to none in the NFL. But the sad fact is that his hammies just aren't up to a 17-week season. His tight hamstrings have been an issue since 2007, and things are clearly getting worse rather than better.
There are no two ways about it: The Cowboys need Miles Austin. They need him desperately. As much fun as it is to get excited about players such as Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley and Andre Holmes in the preseason, there's a reason they call it the preseason. No one really want to see Andre Holmes on the field and Miles Austin on the bench when the Eagles come to town.
Can someone please buy the man some new hamstrings? If not, the Cowboys could be one Kevin Ogletree drop away from making the playoffs.
3. Sean Lee will be the leader the Cowboys have been missing
Everyone likes to pick on Tony Romo for his lack of leadership, and they do have a point. After a big loss to a major rival to determine who makes the playoffs and who plays golf, you never want to hear your starting quarterback say anything even close to, "If this is the worst thing that ever happens to me, well, then, I will have had a pretty good life." Romo is known for shrugging and talking around issues. Sean Lee, on the other hand?
"Sean, what's your definition of leadership?"
"I say there are two phases of leadership: You first have to lead by example; that's by working hard every day, trying to do the right thing every time, whether it's on the field or off the field. Second, once you have experience and once you've been able to have some success, it's stepping up vocally and being able to stand up for your convictions when you don't feel something's right."
Thank you, Sean.
If Sean Lee were not playing football, he likely would be jumping out of helicopters in Pakistan. He plays with exact precision, making him the kind of player that you can always count on. Remind you of anyone? If you're thinking Jason Witten, then please knock on wood, because Lee could be just as good.
4. As will Dez Bryant
If you don’t feel sorry for Dez Bryant, you obviously don’t know his story. This guy's had it rough. I'm not making excuses for his alleged actions this summer, but all the comments calling Bryant a thug are off the mark.
If you watched Wednesday's preseason game against the Dolphins, who was the first guy swarming third-string linebacker Orie Lemon after his pick six? Dez Bryant. He was up in the air, in his face, beaming with excitement for Lemon (even though Lemon might not make the 53-man roster). Can you see Jason Witten doing a back bump with a scrub in a preseason game?
As any good team knows, you need fire and ice. The Cowboys have plenty of ice: Jason Garrett, Jason Witten, Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware. They’re in desperate need of some fire. Rob Ryan was a great addition last season, but Dez Bryant will be a source of enthusiasm for the Cowboys this year.
The kid loves playing football. His immaturity may get him in trouble for sagging pants at NorthPark, but it also imbues him with a sense of pure, childlike joy for the game. As his skills improve on the field (and, by all accounts, he took a big step this off-season), Dez will bring a much-needed swagger to the playing field that will rub off on the rest of the team.
5. Tony Romo will continue to put up unbelievable numbers
If you write about the NFL, here is a simple formula to increase your pageviews by at least 50 percent: mention Tony Romo. If you follow any sort of sports news in the off-season, you know that Romo is mentioned in tons of articles and stuck on many silly lists. Why? Because Dallas is America’s Team and has more fans than any other team in the NFL. QED, Tony Romo gets talked about a lot.
What’s lost in all the chatter is that this guy can play. Thirty-one touchdowns to 10 interceptions last year, with 4,000-plus yards? Yes, please. And the chances that he will do it again are just as good. Sure, Romo may singlehandedly lose a game or two with his Brett Favre-like recklessness. But Romo is a great quarterback. Would the Cowboys rather have Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Tom Brady? Sure. Would they trade Romo for anyone else? Absolutely not.
For all the Romo haters out there in the faceless Interwebs, please take a much-needed dose of Joni Mitchell and calm down. For everyone else, who’s ready to see another impressive season from no. 9?
6. But the Cowboys will still find new ways to choke when it matters most
At some point you have to face reality. The Cowboys are choke artists par excellence. Let’s look back at, oh, the past five years of Cowboys late-season failures:
2007: After posting an amazing 13-3 record behind the arm of a hot new quarterback, the Cowboys skip the wild-card weekend only to get beat unexpectedly by the Giants. The Giants go on to win the Super Bowl. T.O. cries.
2008: After a hard-fought season, the Cowboys simply need to beat the Eagles to make it to the playoffs. Instead, they lose 44-6 in what was easily one of the most pathetic showings in NFL history.
2009: Cowboys make it to the playoffs, cream the Eagles in the wild-card round and get trounced 34-3 by the Vikings. Also one of the most pathetic showings in NFL history.
2010: Is it even worth mentioning? Cowboys make all former choke artists look like mere gag artists.
2011: See 2007 (more or less).
It’s not that the Cowboys lost these games; it’s how they lost the games – in unbelievable, oh-my-god-is-this-really-happening fashion. Everyone agreed they had the tools to win, but they just couldn't pull it together. Will this be the year the Cowboys overcome the curse? Probably not, and you’ll just have to deal with it. At this point, it’s part of being a Cowboys fan.
7. Felix Jones will thrive as a backup/special teamer
Felix Jones is a fine running back. Has he lived up to his expectations as a first-rounder? Absolutely not. Will he be back with the Cowboys next year when his rookie contract expires? Probably so, because who else would want him?
Jones is a role player, and it’s so nice that he has his role back. While serviceable as a starter, Jones is a scat back, a burner, a finesse player. He’s not the guy you want running up the gut 25 times a game. But 10 touches on draw plays? Absolutely.
The real place the Cowboys need Jones is on kickoffs. In football, there’s a fine line between putting your best players on the field and risking injury. With Miles Austin’s crummy hamstrings and no receiver depth, it’s in the the team’s best interest to keep Dez Bryant off punt returns. But if Felix Jones goes down on a kick return? Who cares?
Okay. Jones would be a loss, but the sentiment is correct. With DeMarco Murray solidifying the spot as top dog, Felix the cat can return to doing what he does best.
8. The Cowboys will remain winless against the Eagles
Sometimes a team’s just got your number. During the mid-2000s, no matter how bad they were, the Redskins always seemed to have the Cowboys’ number. In the early 2010s, the Eagles definitely have the Cowboys’ number. Sure, a four-game sample size isn’t very large (the Eagles have won all four); more significant is the way in which the Eagles have beaten the Cowboys since Michael Vick took the helm.
Vick is a boom or bust player, and he has been boom against the Cowboys. Aside from their 2011 record, the Eagles are a quality team. But when the bright lights come on, and the Cowboys ride into town, the Eagles know how to kick it into gear. How else do you explain a 2-4 team trouncing the Cowboys 34-7 last year?
The biggest challenge facing the Cowboys in the 2012 season is the same one they face every year: being a member of the NFC East. Combined, the NFC East has claimed 12 Super Bowl titles. (The next best division? The AFC North, with seven, six of which belong to the Steelers.) If the Cowboys are going to make the playoffs this year, they have to start winning against the Giants and the Eagles. That’s no easy task.
9. The offensive line will once again get Romo hurt
When Romo went down in 2010, the blame fell squarely on one player: fullback Chris Gronkowski (the underperforming brother of Rob Gronkowski). C. Gronk, a rookie at the time, went out for a pass when he should have stayed back in pass protection, giving Michael Boley a shot at Romo.
When you put unproven rookies on the O-line, your quarterback gets hurt. It’s as simple as that.
Fast forward to 2011, when Garrett cut the meat of his line in favor of a major youth movement. Two games in, the 49ers stack the right side of the line, the Cowboys O-line doesn’t recognize the scheme and Romo goes down with a broken rib (and a punctured lung).
In 2012, the picture looks only slightly better. The woefully inadequate Phil Costa is still at center, and two unspectacular guards have been plugged in as stop gaps on each side of him. How they play remains to be seen, but their missing most of the preseason is not a good sign.
Want to keep Romo upright in 2013? Get him a real offensive line.
10. The defense will improve. Right?
The jury is still out on the new-and-improved Cowboys defense. Many familiar faces are back, but the real change is in the secondary. Brandon Carr has had a good preseason, highlighted by two interceptions against Philip Rivers, but the real test will come in less than a week when he has to stop Victor Cruz from salsa dancing in the end zone.
As dramatic as that mini-rivalry is trying to be, soon all eyes will be on a 22-year-old rookie from Shreveport: Morris Claiborne. Claiborne represents the last great hope for the Cowboys defense, a player to lean on and build around. He doesn’t have to be Deion in his first year in the league, but he damn well better be Deion in his second year in the league.
A successful defense hinges on making big plays. Take the Cowboys offense, for example. In 2008 and 2009, the Cowboys were experts at long, methodical marches down the field. Aided by Marion Barber’s plodding running style, the Cowboys would go 70 yards — before turning over the ball and negating the effect of the entire drive.
The 2012 Cowboys defense needs game-changing plays from Claiborne, and, if his highlight reel can be trusted, it's often hard to tell who is the receiver and who is the cornerback when Claiborne is on the field. If he can come through like the Cowboys hope, this defense is posed for, well, not great things, but at least slightly above-average things. If you're a Cowboys fan, that should excite you.
The other improvement comes with the inside linebackers, where an uninjured Bruce Carter should get his first opportunity to shine. If he can contribute three-quarters of what Sean Lean has, this could be an inside linebacking duo to tell your children about as you tuck them into bed. Add DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff to the mix, and you may want to consider adding the Cowboys D to your fantasy team (second half of the second to last round, of course).