Five keys to the Cowboys' season

SAN ANTONIO - Heading into each season, every team and its fans are full of optimism, and with the exception of teams like Detroit — clubs that are so woefully void of talent that they should be eliminated from playoff contention before Halloween — the parity-driven NFL is more even than ever.

Even bad teams have good players, and with a breakout performance here and there, good health and a little luck, most teams have a chance to compete. That doesn't mean the perceived heavyweights won't end up making the playoffs, but even they have to earn it.

The Cowboys are one of those teams that fall somewhere in the middle of the pack. If things go right, they can earn a playoff spot and compete with some of the better teams in the league; with bad luck, they'll be scouting high draft picks early in December.

So what are the keys to a successful season for the Cowboys?

Offensive line health: There may be no unit in the entire NFL whose good health is more vital to its team. Four of the five starters — LG Kyle Kosier, RG Leonard Davis, RT Marc Colombo and C Andre Gurode — are 30 years old, and LT Flozell Adams is the elder statesman at 34. They have great size, averaging 6-foot-6 and nearly 327 pounds per man, but more than that, they are elite players. Adams is good for a couple of penalties each game, and Kosier doesn't have the marquee name the other four seem to enjoy, but all five are very talented, smart players who work well together. Seen as the weak link in the line, Kosier showed his value last year when he went out with a foot injury, and the team struggled to replace him.

Perhaps as important as their talent is the lack of depth behind them. Through the first week-and-a-half of training camp, some backups, like LT Doug Free and Cory Proctor, have shown considerable improvement over last season, but there's a reason they haven't challenged for starting jobs. With the questions surrounding the wide receivers, the line has to stay healthy and perform at a high level to keep QB Tony Romo in one piece and to open running lanes for RBs Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, as Dallas emphasizes the run even more than in years past.

Jason Witten: One of the elite players in the NFL at his position, Witten has to stay healthy, and has to have a big year. With the absence of a proven deep threat after the offseason dumping of Terrell Owens, Romo's most trusted receiver will be one of the few TEs in the league for whom opposing defenses gameplan extensively. He'll see more double-teams than ever before, at least until Roy Williams, Miles Austin or Martellus Bennett proves so dangerous that Witten can be left in single coverage.

Witten is Romo's favorite target, and teams know it, but that doesn't mean they can stop him. He runs very precise routes and has sensational hands, and is as tough and durable as any player in the league. If Bennett, Williams, Austin or Patrick Crayton has a big year, it will be in part due to the attention opposing defenses focus on Witten, meaning he will have a major impact on the offense even if the ball isn't thrown his way.

Running game: With all due respect to Romo and Witten, it is the running game that will drive the offense in 2009. The trio of Barber, Jones and Choice is young and diverse, and has to be ready to carry the load this season. Last year, defenses had to worry about the deep passing game, because inconsistent as he was, Owens posed that threat of getting behind the defense at any time and making the spectacular long catch. Williams or Austin or perhaps Sam Hurd might develop into that threat, but until that happens, teams are going to stack the line of scrimmage to stop the run.

The difference this year is that the Cowboys won't — at least initially — have the element of surprise offensively. Head coach Wade Phillips has spoken often in training camp about his desire to rely heavily on the running game this year, and there's no reason to believe his comments represent traditional cloak-and-dagger coach deception. First of all, it's not Phillips' style to engage in such trickery, and secondly, it's obvious. The Cowboys have the potential for a dominant running game, and for the offense to be successful, that rushing attack absolutely has to deliver.

Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick: There are two ways to look at the young CBs vying to replace the departed Anthony Henry and Pacman Jones: on one hand, they're both inexperienced — each is entering just his second NFL season — and they both were inconsistent at times last year. On the other hand, they're both extraordinary athletes who have been vastly improved in training camp over this time last year, when they were wide-eyed rookies still trying to adjust to the game at the pro level.

Jenkins and Scandrick benefited greatly last year from the veteran presence around them, as they trained with one of the NFL's elite CBs in Terence Newman and also had veterans Henry and FS Ken Hamlin to learn from. But now the training wheels are off for the youngsters, and the question of which one starts across from Newman is almost irrelevant, since both will play a lot as most teams employ three-WR sets more often than not.

Mat McBriar: Think punters aren't important? McBriar's injury last year showed that's not true. Punters are among those guys who aren't appreciated until they're missing, and in McBriar, the Cowboys have one of the league's best. His booming punts — assuming he can slide them under the massive video board in the team's new stadium — are an underappreciated weapon in the always-important game of field position.

McBriar's impact this season should be even greater. The Cowboys are counting on a strong performance from their defense while the offense irons out the kinks in its post-Owens passing attack, so there very well could be more close games than in recent years. If that's the case, having a weapon like McBriar, who can help win the battle of field position, will be more important than ever.

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