My springtime thesis was a bold one. The Cowboys handled their offseason, their draft, their free agency, with an optimism that suggests they think they’re closer to 12-4 than 4-12. And now we have training camp and a couple of preseason games to make this a summertime thesis:
The 2016 Dallas Cowboys not only will be superior to last year's injury-plagued 4-12 edition (obvious) ... they have a chance to top what the 2014 team accomplished.
But that was then. This is Romo-In-A-Back-Brace now.
Believe me, I knew the limb I was stepping out on in the spring when I wrote this, and as this team gets ready for Thursday's Preseason Game 4 at home against the Texans -- that limb remains. I mean, how good was the 2014 team? Well, 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.)
And I'll always argue this: If not for injuries to their two best players in 2015, they likely would’ve been in playoffs once again.
Make no mistake -- and again, I said this as they went about the business of solving issues with the start of OTAs back in the spring (Want to review those OTAs at Valley Ranch? Read Fish's exhaustive A-to-Z look inside Valley Ranch here) -- there were, and are, flaws.
And yet, my four reasons in the spring for believing the 2016 Cowboys might be even better than the 2014 Cowboys still rang true as if last Thursday afternoon, with the team waiting for kickoff in Preseason Game 3 in Seattle.
Below, what I wrote then, in the spring ... and then, an update to today, including Monday's work inside The Star.
THEN No. 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.
No. 4, UPDATED: There is absolutely a rhythm to how this staff does its job; talk to the players and you hear rave reviews not only for the coordinators but also for position coaches like Gary Brown, Mike Pope and Leon Lett. And do they believe in the head coach?
Review that training-camp closing video from Oxnard and tell me this is anything but a bonded group.
Or, just listen to what Dez Bryant (who has hopefully recovered from a concussion) told our man Fish after the 41-14 preseason win over the Dolphins ...
"The most beautiful thing about this team,'' Dez told Fish, "is that we support each other. Do that, great things can happen. ... No disrespect to the Dolphins, but did you see our sideline? That's planned. We got juice!”
All that unity now must be thrown behind a new starting QB, but Dez, recovering from a concussion was back on the field. Tyrone Crawford (concussion) is working his way back, too. Sean Lee did not participate in the early portion of work at the indoor facility amid reports that he has a mild knee issue.
But Dallas is trying to get healthy ... and does seem bonded.
THEN No. 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.
No. 3 UPDATED: Aw, we've got to tap the brakes on some of that stuff. And completely junk the whole car on some of it, too. The Mo stuff is right. The Tyrone stuff is, too. (Though he'll join Dez as not active tonight with a concussion.). Irving's been a force. It's Terrell McClain and not Rolando McClain offering help. And in total, this has been a ball-hawking group in Oxnard and then in the preseason games, too. (Mo almost had himself two picks in the loss at Seattle. I know: "Almost'' only counts as "almost.'' But still, promising.)
I admit to being hopeful here. Maybe too hopeful. We shall see. For the moment, though, it fits into my thesis that Dallas acted more like a 12-win team than a four-win team as the big defensive signing is the largely-unproven Benson Mayowa and the big defensive draftee was second-round linebacker Jaylon Smith, who is not expected to be healthy enough to help the team this season.
Fish broke the story on Shaneil Jenkins' knee last week, and now he's been waived/injured, along with other young prospects Morris and McKinnon, with Josh Thomas getting moved to IR.
Dallas needs D help. Maybe the waiver wire, on Aug. 30 and on Sept. 3, will provide somebody who can rush the passer.
THEN No. 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.
No. 2 UPDATED: The plan was for Elliott to debut in Seattle after spending most of camp nursing a hamstring tweak. And despite what we hadn't seen ... I remained convinced. And so does the organization. This is a special player who will be part of a special offense.
And then came Thursday in Seattle, and outside of Zeke's ill-advised stroll into a head shop, what a debut it was. Powerfully spectacular.
"As advertised,'' said Jerry Jones.
Oh, and one more thing: You want a Zeke apology for his pot-shop visit? You are in luck. Check out Fish's report here.
THEN No. 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.
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.
No. 1 UPDATED: Ahem.
"Full-go'' continued all spring, and all summer, and was about to extend into the fall for Tony Romo. ... until Thursday.
So many of the Cowboys summer headlines have focused on another QB, rookie Dak Prescott, and deservedly so. But Romo was the guy to start in Seattle, and Romo needs to be the guy who orchestrates and leads a Cowboys team that can win the NFC East and do damage after that ... as long as he's upright.
Said team owner Jerry Jones before the Seattle game, in which on the first series the QB got (in his own words) "crunched'' and "squashed'': "Our immediate future DOES depend on how well Tony Romo plays. Period.''
That was true in 2014. And 2015. It was true before Seattle. It is true after Seattle. Romo's back is "stronger than ever''? I said it before the Seahawks game. Romo said it even afterwards, insisting that surviving this hit is actually a positive sign.
But ... ahem.
He didn't "survive'' the hit. Romo is now in limbo as he rests from a broken bone in his back. Dak must now accelerate his learning curve. He was the first-team QB on Monday, of course, as Dallas goes "Dak To The Future'' (and weighs waiver-wire type ideas along the lines of Mark Sanchez as Prescott's backup.) And so the No. 1 thing that determines Dallas' 2015 fate is still Romo and his health ... And while the goal can still be "to be better than 2014,'' at this moment it makes for a much better goal than it does a thesis statement.