That is a bold statement this early in the off season. I know that. At this stage, pretty much any team could make the same claim. But, few teams have gone through more change this off season than America’s Team. Will it be enough to get them over the hump? Time will tell. Consider this a not-too-comprehensive list of the kind of things that the ‘Boys will need to have fall into place for them to avoid another painful off season wondering what might have been. Any one of these issues could be enough to derail their Super Bowl hopes.
The Dallas Cowboys Will Win Super Bowl XLVIII unless…
- Tony Romo doesn’t finish the season. The Cowboys know they need to do a better job of protecting Romo and even drafted a third-round talent in the first round to ensure they improve their offensive line. But, beyond Travis Frederick, they really haven’t changed anything. Right now, Doug “Ole” Free is still at right tackle. Romo has suffered a broken collarbone, broken ribs, and a lacerated spleen the last several seasons primarily because of blown assignments. He’s a warrior and managed to play all 16 games last season despite some painful injuries. It’s become fairly commonplace in the NFL today for QBs to not make it through a season. Dallas has a capable backup in Kyle Orton, but make no mistake that if Romo misses any significant time – hate him or love him – this team is done.
- Monte Kiffin can’t recreate the “Tampa 2″ magic. Our new DC is putting in a simplified version of his 4-3 defense. That is no doubt a positive in light of the learning curve a new system will demand. And, every Cowboy fan that lived through the Rob Ryan era will have a hard time erasing the nightmare of watching a clearly confused defense pre-snap. Simple is certainly better – to a point. At some point in the season, team’s will start to figure a simplified defense out and will figure out how to beat it. Kiffin will have to be able to layer on increasing levels of complexity to avoid predictability and the team will have to be able to follow along.
- DeMarco Murray can’t stay on the field. Last season, this team could not generate any running game and finished 31st in the league. While Romo and his receivers are a talented group, any one-dimensional team becomes infinitely easier to stop. While much of the blame lies with the offensive line, Murray is the featured back and has yet to show he can be healthy for an entire season. When he’s in, he’s the most productive option we have. When he’s not, there is a definite drop off. We know what we have in Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner and hope that Joseph Randle can make a contribution this season, but without a healthy Murray posing a threat and creating a meaningful play action game, the Cowboys won’t go as far as they and their fans would like.
- They can’t figure out how to stop RGIII. The Cowboys were competitive in both games last season against the Redskins but at the end of the day, RGIII and the Redskins emerged victorious. The Cowboys weren’t the only team that struggled to stop Griffin but if he comes back healthy as it appears he will, the Redskins will be the team to beat until someone proves they can stop Superman. Facing the ‘Skins twice as a division opponent requires that Kiffin and his 4-3 put a scheme together that will at least limit the damage RGIII can do. To date, he has torched us – the last game with essentially one leg.
- Chip Kelly turns out to be ‘Harbaugh like’. The Eagles will be better this season and Kelly will provide a much needed change. But, the PAC12 is not the NFL. Most coaches – except Jim Harbaugh – struggle with the transition from college to the NFL. Harbaugh had an immediate impact on the 49ers and got them to the NFC Championship game his first year and the Super Bowl in year 2. But, he had a more talented roster to start with than Kelly and rolled the dice and came up a winner with Kaepernick. Chip may end up being an excellent coach but I think it will be a slower burn. If not, and he turns the Eagles around, the Cowboys and the rest of the NFC East are in for a dog fight.
- The Giants re-establish their defense. The Giants linebacker play last season was pretty weak. Throw in an off year for JPP and their defense consistently under performed. If they are able to improve at linebacker and in a suspect secondary while getting back to the relentless QB rush they had a couple of years ago, and this team will be hard to beat.
- They lose the turnover battle. The Cowboys defense was one of the worst in the league last season in creating turnovers. Each time they take the ball away it not only stops a scoring opportunity for the opposing team but also potentially creates a short field for the offense (or no field when the defense scores their own points). They hired Coach Marinelli this off season to team him with Kiffin but also because he was the architect of a Bears defense that was especially proficient at taking the ball away and getting it in the end zone. The Cowboys defense will need to find a way to emulate that part of the game for the team to reach their ultimate goals. This team has shown it can score points but too often it was a result of playing from behind or in the end wasn’t more points than the opponent. All signs point to a more aggressive, opportunistic defense, but it remains to be seen on the field. Without it, this year could end up looking a lot like the 2012 season.
- They can’t generate a pass rush. Dallas was middle of the pack last season (tied for 20th) with 34 sacks. But, many of those sacks came at less meaningful moments. When the team had to have a sack, they always seemed to be a step or two late. No matter how good a secondary is as a unit, there is only so many seconds they are going to be able to cover NFL caliber receivers. The effectiveness of a secondary goes up exponentially with the help of an effective pass rush. Granted DeMarcus Ware was playing with one arm by the end of the season and the defense was decimated with injuries, but the team will have to generate more pressure to win the close games. Letting DWare and Anthony Spencer pin their ears back and focus on the backfield versus coverage responsibilities will help, but it will also make them more predictable and easier to stop with double teams. The Cowboys will need more production from their interior defensive line and from the linebackers.
- The team can’t stay healthy. This is a talented team, but it is not overly deep at any position. Last season, the team lost major contributors at some of the worst possible times – think of losing your starting center one series into the season opener for starters – and were playing at the end with a rag tag group of defensive players. The Scouting Department did an amazing job once again to allow them to even field a team. It is a long hard season, but they simply will not be able to overcome the number and severity of injuries like they saw in 2012.
- They can’t win in December. This season’s schedule is fairly favorable for the ‘Boys but December is once again brutal. After what should be an easy win on Thanksgiving against the Raiders (if this team ever has such a thing as an easy win), Dallas travels to Chicago, has Green Bay at home, and then travels to Washington in consecutive weeks. I believe they will need to win at least 2 of those games to qualify for the post season – and one of those MUST be the division game against the ‘Skins. If they struggle and don’t find a way to win, they will be home again for January watching the post season. Of course, if they stumble early in the season during the easier stretch, December won’t matter. They must get out of the gate quickly and win 10 games to get into the playoffs in all likelihood.
Today, the Cowboys have as good a chance as any NFL team of winning the Super Bowl. In addition to havng talent, there are so many things that must fall into place in just the right way to end up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February. Any one of the items listed above – and many others – could easily derail this team. It will be a long journey full of challenges and surprises, thrills and disappointments, and cheers and sleepless Sunday nights having to face the haters after a particularly awful loss. First step is to get into the playoffs – hard enough for this team. Then, anything can happen. Go Cowboys!