Monday, August 01, 2016

Off to Oxnard, 2016

Here it is again. 

For me, this is training camp #19. It is honestly a part of my year that I hope never changes. I do take personal interest in the one question during the state of the team that wants to know if the new Star in Frisco will take us away from our normal field trip to Southern California. It sounds glorious? Well, it is. 2 weeks or so (for radio guys. 3 weeks for the team) in the place where it never gets much above 75 and never gets below 60 for the entire time you are here. You don't sweat much, but you will get sunburn. Beware of that. 

Anyway, each year we are here, you notice and follow the same patterns. Everyone is smiling. Everyone is full of optimism. Everyone is healthy. Everyone is in the best shape of their lives. This is arguably the most followed franchise in the NFL, and it isn't far down the rankings of any franchise in all of sports. There are legions of fans that want to know if there is good news or optimism to report. Have the Cowboys finally stepped through the door as a contender again? 

In late July or early August, when every player is in the healthiest state of their calendar year, the optimism is fantastic. The team looks its strongest. The holes look somewhat manageable. 
Then, Jerry gets up in front of the mass media and talks about the excitement, the preparations that have been made, and the final goal of holding this franchise's 6th Lombardi Trophy at the end of the run. 

It looks great from this spot. It always does. Everything is going to work out. It is August 1st and the optimism could not be higher. 

The only thing to keep someone from marching right in line to receive your Kool-Aid and drink up is to recall the other 18 times you have been here, felt this tractor beam of optimism, and then watched a season where things dissolved into a pile of garbage by October. The facts are pretty staggering. If you, like me, started attending the Cowboys annual optimism camp back in 1998, then you realize that of your previous 18 stops here, just seven (39%) resulted in playoff football on any level. You realize just four have resulted four (22%) have been NFC East Divisional titles. From there, I have witnessed nine playoff games, in which two (11%) of those special years - 2009 vs Philadelphia and 2014 vs Detroit - did the team do so much as win a wildcard playoff game. And at no point in those 18 previous seasons have they even secured a spot in the final four (0%), let alone a Super Bowl (0%). 

Now, this is an arbitrary sample size, for sure. Had I been born sooner and arrived in Dallas to cover the NFL sooner, perhaps I would tell you about my trips to three Super Bowls in four years, but I was only in college for those moments and watching them on television like so many of you. 

But, I am 44 years old now and have been covering this team since I turned 26. I have sat on this tennis court in Oxnard, in tents in Wichita Falls, or in the press box in San Antonio from the end of July until the middle of August, every year since Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman won another title for the Bulls in 1998. It would be their last, and that franchise's run since is only slightly better than the Cowboys. 

The point is, given the historical odds are better that they miss the playoffs (61%), don't win the division (78%), and certainly don't win a playoff game (89%), you could surmise the odds of winning it all in the post Aikman/Emmitt/Irvin era is roughly impossible (100%). 

That is no fun. We don't arrive at Cowboys camp as Debbie Downer. This is the time to dream and wonder what is around the next corner. For all of your pessimism, Bob, let's remember that 2014 was one of the most pessimistic training camps of them all. 

2014 is the greatest thing to happen around here and the worst thing, all at the same time. It showed that you never know what joys can occur when you least suspect it (the 2014 training camp was amazingly depressing). It also showed how starved this franchise is for a little success because the number of times that year has been referenced as some sort of  "Football Valhalla" is truly staggering. You would think the accomplishments would rival the 1985 Bears based on the hype, only to look closer and see it was a wildcard win against the Lions.  

But, that is what feeds the optimism.  And we can always use some of that to prepare for a new journey.

Unfortunately, the optimism is still caught on some major speed bumps: 

1) - The team is still as tied to the health of Tony Romo as they have ever been. Now, I will grant anyone the truth that Romo is a hot button issue that nobody can agree on until it is too late. I will also grant anyone the premise that I have been on the side of massive concern since the Cowboys had to play the 2013 final game (win and you win the division and go to the playoffs) against the Eagles without him. That was the game that started the back surgeries, which was the most problematic concern with the great QB's body (let's all recall the flying knee to his back on Monday Night Football in 2014) until his collarbone snapped twice in 2015. Did his collarbone endure more stress because he was always turning to protect his back? Was he rushed back before he was healthy? Will this new Mumford procedure be the fix? Questions abound. And, for some unknown reason, the Cowboys did not flinch and go target a better solution at backup QB for 2016. They may end up being in fine shape for down the road if Dak Prescott can be developed, but if QB1 drops in 2016, they are still seemingly as screwed as could be. I don't think Kellen Moore can win games in the big leagues, and neither does anyone who was locked in last December. Was he better than Matt Cassel or Brandon Weeden? If so, it is too fractional to get excited about. I don't know why they didn't get short-term Romo insurance, but it never came close to happening. 

2) - Additionally, the front office certainly did not throw resources at their problems on the defensive front. Even in that 2014, the team could not generate enough pass rush presence to take over games defensively late. That is why they drafted Randy Gregory and signed Greg Hardy last offseason. Adding those two to a full season of DeMarcus Lawrence seemed destined to fix the pass rush and the defense in general. Unfortunately, Gregory and Lawrence are suspended, Hardy has been locked out of the facility forever, and the rest of the names on board are not going to grab headlines. There appears to be some real quality with Cedric Thornton, Maliek Collins, Charles Tapper, and Benson Mayowa joining this group up front, but it will be a much quieter hype explosion until they prove their worth. 

3) - Jason Garrett is still the head coach here. I like Jason Garrett. I do. And, I don't want to belabor this one, but aside from Marvin Lewis (who has a similarly odd front office situation), there are almost no modern coaches who have the length on their leash that Garrett has received in terms of time to put results on the board. He now starts his 6th full season and if I thought he had more power to run things like a proper coach should, I would be more annoyed by seeing how great other coaching hires have worked while the Cowboys keep signing up for another year of this. Unfortunately, the Cowboys coach might only be able to do so much with most of his decisions made for him, and therefore being mad at Garrett for looking powerless is likely barking at the moon. That said, I have seen enough. 1-11 without Tony Romo last year was just another example of many that this head coach could be improved upon. There are times where the coach has to make the difference for a team, and they never did that last year at all. 

4) - We have no idea who the linebackers are. I love the Jaylon Smith possibilities, but with Rolando McClain out of here (I believe he has played his final snaps as a Cowboy) and with Smith a virtual long-shot to play in 2016, the Cowboys are weak at pass rush and then weak at linebacker behind it. If the plan is to have any faith in the front seven whatsoever, then they need massive years from Sean Lee and Tyrone Crawford. Both are full of that ability, but it all starts with their bodies being right and durable this season which has been an issue with both on plenty of occasions. As for linebacker, Lee, Anthony Hitchens, and who knows will be the starters. And we know linebacker is a spot that requires weekly car accident-level crashes, and therefore your starters are going to change on a regular basis, so you better have 4-5 quality LBs. The Cowboys seem to have one or two. 

That said, there are some very exciting things to focus upon. Shall I detail them? Let's: 

1) - The Cowboys should have the 2016 NFL Rookie of the Year. Ezekiel Elliott should be great and special and fun. He really can do it all and you would be foolish to not want all of that. I have spent months debating the wisdom of upgrading a portion of the team that was never broken and dispelling this absurd myth that Elliott will improve the defense substantially, but at the end of the proverbial day, they should have someone special at RB. In fact, you could argue that he should be much better than DeMarco Murray, to be honest. It should give everyone pause that they invested in a position that is most likely to suffer injury, but if he stays healthy, they should have a difference maker in place and you can never have too many of those. 

2) - Byron Jones will play Free Safety. I cannot express how great this should be. They now will have an "above-average" free safety for their Cover 3 and Cover 1 defenses and that is such a rarity for this franchise that the full effects will shock the fan base. I am very excited about this development. 

3) - Dez Bryant and Tony Romo are believed to be fully healthy. If they are and return to what they were, then the fireworks should continue on schedule. They were unstoppable - especially against man coverage - and found a way to work so many situations into their favor. There is no reason why this offense shouldn't be more dynamic because of the coverage Dez demands, and with Tony's decision making and accuracy at the top of his career, this means that no secondary will be safe once they start sneaking guys up to stop the run. This assembling of talent on the offense has massive promise, so now that it is all here together, it is time to start seeing production shoot up immediately. 

4) - Orlando Scandrick is back, too! You don't know what you got until its gone, and no team should be trying to play without a slot corner in today's NFL. The Cowboys did last year and that explains why Byron Jones couldn't replace JJ Wilcox at free safety until now. Scandrick being able to get on the inside and mix it up with those pivot routes and pick plays at the line of scrimmage make everything fall into place. I think this is a much bigger development than most. 

5) - Cedric Thornton, Benson Mayowa, and Alfred Morris are each very good football players that should help. In fact, the Morris signing made me think even more they didn't need a RB that high in the draft, but I digress (at least they have great injury cover if anything happens to Zeke). Thornton is going to be a very big addition inside and will help dramatically against the run and with taking control of that huddle. I really am excited about these three veteran moves.

Let's be honest. Fully healthy and present (not suspended), there is plenty to get excited about. The issues rest in being leveraged in guys who may have health considerations (or suspension considerations) and then not having a quality replacement behind them. One injury situation at QB1, Middle Linebacker, or Dez Bryant and they will have a massive catastrophe again. But, if the attrition of the NFL year begins to chip in....well, you watched 2015. You know.

We are playing football again. The Cowboys have done what they have chosen to do, and now we see if they got it right. This is a great time of year. No damage has been felt. Well, apart from the self-inflicted suspensions.

But, enough about all of that. It is time to see what happens. There will be many twists and turns that cannot be predicted. There are heroes that will emerge that nobody knows.

Time to find out what is around the next corner.

As the great Bart Scott would say, "Can't Wait!"

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