When the Vikings look at the Dallas Cowboys, in many respects they see a mirror image of themselves. Both teams entered the 2010 season with legitimate Super Bowl expectations. The Cowboys began planning for 2010 after the Vikings eliminated them from the playoffs and, after the Vikings fell to New Orleans the following week, Minnesota's planning toward 2010 began.
Both teams fell flat. Dallas lost seven of its first eight games and fired its head coach, Wade Phillips. Like the Vikings, Dallas hired a new coach from within – promoting offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to the head-coaching position – and the team responded. Dallas won five of its final eight games to salvage a 6-10 season, which, like the Vikings, wasn't how anyone envisioned the Cowboys' 2010 season would turn out.
Like the Vikings, there are a lot of new faces replacing veterans who spent a long time with the organization. On the offensive side of the ball, offensive lineman Leonard Davis was sent packing, along with running back Marion Barber and wide receiver Roy Williams. Their cost began to outweigh their benefit to the team and they became salary cap casualties, much like the Vikings opted not to step up to pay players like Sidney Rice, Ray Edwards, Ben Leber or Pat Williams. How Dallas responds will be the big question.
Dallas, despite its struggles last year, still has one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Tony Romo is established as one of the game's top gunslingers, running back Felix Jones is a breakaway threat every time he touches the ball, wide receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are both big-play receivers who can turn a short slant pass into an 80-yard touchdown, and tight end Jason Witten is arguably the most athletic (and most used) player at his position in the league. While the offensive line is the biggest issue heading into the season – two rookies (first-round right tackle Tyron Smith and seventh-round left guard Bill Nagy) are slated to start opening day – the Cowboys have the firepower to compete with anyone and, if needed, get in a scoring shootout in which they find a way to outscore their opponent. Fortunately for them, they don't get in too many of those games because their defense remains one of the more formidable units in the NFC.
The Cowboys have talent at each level of the defense that can dominate a game. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff is an unsung run-stuffer, but is one of the game's stop defensive tackles and can blow up plays despite being constantly double teamed. DeMarcus Ware is a legitimate MVP candidate as a pass-rushing outside linebacker and Anthony Spencer is just as dangerous on the other side. The team has a pair of strong cornerbacks in Terrence Newman and Mike Jenkins (although both have been battling injuries during the preseason) and have a top safety in Gerald Sensabaugh.
In many ways, the roster of the Cowboys has striking similarities to that of the Vikings. Minnesota has similar individual star talents on both sides of the ball – Adrian Peterson, Donovan McNabb, Percy Harvin and Steve Hutchinson on offense and Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, E.J. Henderson, Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield on defense. Individually, they have the playmakers that can make the difference between winning and losing, but star players don't always make a championship team and the Vikings and Cowboys both learned that painful lesson last year.
Just as many outsiders are writing off the Vikings' chances in 2011, claiming the Packers are a near-lock to defend their Super Bowl title in the postseason, the Bears are the defending division champs and Detroit is an up-and-coming franchise that isn't far away, the Cowboys are getting similarly dismissive projections. The Eagles have amassed a "dream team" and the Giants look to be stronger than they were a year ago when injuries derailed their season. Most NFL analysts don't view the Cowboys as a team that can compete with the Eagles and G-Men, which will serve as their motivation – just as the Vikings being dissed in divisional predictions can serve their purposes.
Are the critics right? Are the Vikings and Cowboys two teams with talented individuals, but teams that will struggle to go 8-8? Only time will tell on that question, but as they prepare for the most meaningful game of their respective preseasons, both Minnesota and Dallas enter the game with high hopes of getting the doldrums of the 2010 season out of their psyche and look forward to 2011 with hope and expectations. Tonight's game won't have any impact on the standings, but it may well serve as a gauge to determine how far along both teams are in the recovery process. They are both just one year removed from being division champions and have the majority of those pieces still in place to make another run. While injuries will likely play a big role in the success of lack of success both teams enjoy during the 2011 season, when the Vikings look across the field at the Cowboys, they may well see a similarly built team.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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