Not one down has been played for the 2014 Dallas Cowboys. Not one throw, not one catch. Not one tackle, and certainly not one missed tackle or injury.
So, what do we expect from this team? Well, I can only answer for myself. And since the day of the news that Sean Lee was gone for the year, I have been sitting on a 6-10 outcome.
2013 does sit in my head as a show of this team being close. Despite its ridiculous and massive flaws, they were one Kyle Orton drive away from winning the NFC East, hosting a playoff game (against San Francisco) and having a chance to silence the critics in January.
They were that close - even though they were torn apart by injuries, lost two catastrophic disasters late, and were defeated soundly by backup Quarterbacks.
So, by any definition, they were close in 2013.
Now, what does that have to do with 2014?
Well, on one hand, they are still in a division with many flawed teams. Philadelphia has reason to believe they are a cut above the others, but for every issue Dallas has, the Giants and Redskins are in the same boat for sure. The Eagles have considerable personnel issues and between Foles, turnover fortune, schedule strength, and coaches locking down on Chip Kelly for an off-season, I have reason to believe that the darlings of the media are not quite as good as they are being sold.
But, on the other hand, the big subtractions on defense, the minimal cash and asset outlay to fix the defense, a trickier schedule, and the issues the offense has had with actually proving to anyone they can win tough games by themselves leaves me skeptical that they have a ceiling that puts them very high compared to the contenders in the conference.
The one issue that gives me greatest pause, however, has been mentioned numerous times but bears repeating on this the eve of opening day, and that is my lack of faith that Tony Romo will have perfect attendance in 2014. His back surgery, escalating miles on the odometer, and overall diminishing athleticism seem enough to make one of his biggest supporters over the years (me) begin to look elsewhere for the next QB to lead this team in the near future. It may be 2 or 3 years now, but I am more than pessimistic when I hear Romo talk about playing his best football for the next 5 seasons. His best football happened from 2006-2009. We haven't seen his best football in a long time, in my opinion. He is not horrible at all, anymore, but there is reason to believe that we have seen him at his peak.
Beyond that, Jason Garrett is in the final year of his deal. Do I think his job is in jeopardy? Not especially. If he hasn't been fired yet, there is little reason to believe he skates on thin ice at this moment. But, I believe he has cost this team a win or two in each of his 3 full seasons at the helm and there is no reason to believe he is actually improving with his in-game decision making. His inability to manage a situation late in the game has been a consistent department of under-peformance and unless he starts showing signs that he is getting better I see no reason to believe that will change.
Yes, the offensive line looks promising, but I did not feel the offensive line was at fault for much of anything in 2013. In fact, taking a guard/tackle from Notre Dame is a nice depth play, but to expect that he will raise the play of the guards from last season would have to assume that the guard play last year was substandard. I don't believe it was for a moment, so I will admit that the 2012 Cowboys were exposed for having a poor offensive line. But, in 2013, they were at or above league standards of performance.
When they wished to run the ball, they did so with great ease. When they wanted to protect their passer, they did a better than average job. Romo was sacked once every 16.3 passes, when the league surrenders a sack every 14 attempts. Take Peyton Manning out of that mix and you will see that it was quite solid, and overall put the Cowboys at 8th best in sack percentage against.
Will they run? Will they figure out ways to showcase their best weapon, Dez Bryant? I assume Scott Linehan will be a fantastic hire and fix plenty of what ails them. I assume he will move Bryant and figure out ways to use him in a very "Megatron" way. Play design has never been more on display in this league than it seems to be presently, and I believe that Linehan is very strong at his craft. We shall see how that works here.
Meanwhile, the defense is still the defense. Well, in reality, it isn't. DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lee, and Orlando Scandrick will all be subtracted, with Scandrick to return for Game 5.
The offseason was curious. They signed players who were cheap. Across the board. Heck, they didn't even try to keep Ware very enthusiastically with help from Kyle Orton's money. Instead, they cleared out old and replaced with cheap and new. Henry Melton could fill a hole in the middle, but to assume he can approach Hatcher's fantastic 2013 is highly optimistic as he comes of knee surgery and barely played a moment in August. Then, we must figure out how to get George Selvie to duplicate his career year, and hope that DeMarcus Lawrence hits the ground running in the 2nd half of the season to give this thing a chance. And that doesn't even address the linebacking chaos. They are really thin and unproven there, and we are just leaving the station on this train.
Injuries hit every year. Usually in the preseason and in September, and then they begin to stack on top of each other as the season goes on and attrition kicks in. It is a mess and it gets worse and worse as it goes on. This team is thin at so many spots right now that many of its best fans cannot name the front 7 or even come close. If you think the starters in September have limited or checkered resumes, just wait until you see who replaces them in November when the reinforcements are needed.
The Cowboys play the NFC West - the best division in football and a very physical, bruising style of football. 2-2 would be a pretty good haul there (I think either the Rams or Cardinals, but possibly an upset in week 1 with San Francisco). They play the AFC North, where 2-2 seems doable (Jacksonville - but in London - and Houston). They also play the Saints and the Bears, and for me that is 0-2. That leaves the division 6, and I am thinking that means a split with New York and Washington, and likely to be swept by the Eagles for 2-4. Add them up, and I am back to 6-10.
My major issues with the Cowboys are QB health, troubling depth, defense, defense, and more defense. They just don't seem to have the quality that they had even last year as far as top players on the defense you can point to. Instead, we are hoping that Melton, Bruce Carter, and Mo Claiborne can all bounce up at the same time. That is a lot of hope. And hope is a very poor strategy.
I think if everything goes right and Romo plays in 16 games, they can out perform my projections and win 8 or maybe even 9. But, if Romo plays in just 10 games, they could easily drop down to 5-11 or even 4-12.
I expect that 2014 will finally be the end of Jason Garrett, but I don't say that with much confidence, nor do I think it will change much unless Jerry is ready to hire another Parcells-like overlord. And from the sounds of his many interviews, it doesn't seem like he is the least bit interested in that. However, I do confidently say that another off-season of poor decision making and cap management in spring 2014 from the Cowboys has me no longer buying what they are selling. I am fresh out of optimism for this current cast of characters.
Too many holes, too many questions. And certainly not enough answers for me to paint a rosy picture to those who want to know how I see this season going.
I have them safely out of the playoffs and easily in the Top 5-10 in the draft next spring. I think 6-10 is about right and I will happily accept the ridicule if I am off the target.
But, for that to happen, they will have to do something they haven't done in years - out-perform their predictions.
In other words, prove me wrong, Dallas.