The Cowboys have handled the offseason with an optimism that suggests they think they’re closer to 12-4 than 4-12. While this is certainly a risky approach, they might not be that far off.
In 2014, the Cowboys were a questionable call away from playing in the NFC Championship Game. (And to hear them talk privately about that season, they had confidence they could go to Seattle and get the job done there, too.) If not for injuries to their two best players in 2015, they likely would’ve been in playoffs once again. Don’t get me wrong -- this team isn’t perfect and still has plenty of question marks, questions marks they are going about the business of solving this week with the start of OTAs. (Want to know about OTAs at Valley Ranch? Read Fish's exhaustive A-to-Z look inside Valley Ranch here.)
There is still a lot to get excited about. Here are my four reasons the 2016 Cowboys will be even better than the 2014 Cowboys.
4. Coordinator continuity. 2014 was Scott Linehan’s and Rod Marinelli’s first seasons as the offensive and defensive coordinators of Dallas. 2016 will be their third year. Continuity is one of the most overlooked aspects of sports. The fact that these two coaches will have had three full offseason to install their schemes, playbook and philosophies is huge. The majority of the players won’t have to learn all of that stuff. It’s no longer new to them. Everything will get easier and become second nature.
Same thing with the head coach, really. This is his program, and their program. That doesn't mean every single duck is in a row; the gossip that backup guard Ron Leary might prefer a trade and is staying away from OTAs is an issue. But in general? Leave the "hot seat'' foolishness to others; continuity is now something that can separate Dallas from Philly and New York, at least, in the NFC East.
3. The defense is younger, better and more athletic than in 2014. OK, I'll slow down on "better'' just yet. Still ...
Some might look at the difference in turnovers from 2014 to 2015 but a big reason for that is the fact that the 2014 group was playing with leads most of the time and had a dominant offense to take pressure off of them. The 2015 defense didn’t have that benefit.
The current defense features Sean Lee paired up with Rolando McClain, an improved Demarcus Lawrence entering his third year (when DE’s start to hit their stride), a major upgrade at free safety in Byron Jones, a healthy/more confident Morris Claiborne, a healthy Tyrone Crawford at 3-tech full-time and an improvement at 1-tech in Cedric Thornton to open things up for him.
On top of that, the end rotation has enormous potential in Gregory, Mayowa, Irving, Tapper and the rest, as I write here. All of these guys are athletic freaks, specifically Irving. They’re going to surprise a lot of people, I think, if they can live up to even part of their potential.
Randy Gregory isn't in that group yet, for reasons you know all about. But he is working at OTAs this week -- and hopefully can join Tank as part of a productive group.
2. Speaking of the defense playing with a lead, Zeke will play a huge part in that - just like Murray did in 2014. The difference is, Ezekiel Elliott is younger, more durable and at least as good a scheme fit as DeMarco Murray. He’s also just as (if not more) of a complete player with far more upside. Zeke takes pressure off of Romo, gives the team a balance offense, helps control the clock and wears down opposing defenses. All the while, the Cowboys defense is resting on the sideline, staying fresh and well-rested. There is literally no single player in this entire rookie class that would have helped this entire team more than Zeke.
Zeke is practicing, lining up behind the NFL's best O-line, being big-brothered already by Jason Witten ... and while Dez Bryant (foot) isn't practicing yet, we're reporting that he is present at OTAs as of Tuesday.
Zeke will be special in part because he's joining a special group.
1. The No. 1 reason the Cowboys will be better is that Tony Romo’s back is healthy. It will have been nearly two years since his last back injury when he takes his first snap in 2016. People are worried about Romo not staying healthy but as long as his back holds up - which it should after this amount of time and an extra long “offseason” and less than four games worth of hits in 2015. Yes, he has the collarbone injury but that surgery has healed him up so well that he's "full-go'' at this OTAs this week.
Having a better defense and a stronger running game helps take pressure Romo of him as well. One of his biggest challenges -- or maybe it's ours -- is putting up with the nonsense that follows him. One example? Bristol apparently reported that Romo didn't work on Tuesday, when in fact ...
Fake drama isn't needed here. Real drama, football drama, is coming. As I have noted in this space before, the last two 35-year old starting QB’s who were knocked out for a season (Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer) came back to have MVP-caliber seasons. No reason Romo can’t do the same. And if he does? The 2016 Cowboys are a threat to match and exceed the accomplishments of the 2014 Cowboys.