After a long summer of no football and no writing from yours truly, this start to a new week also represents the start to a new season for the Dallas Cowboys. That means it is time for me to jump back onto this laptop and provide some thoughts as I begin my 20th season covering this storied franchise, live from the tennis courts under the bright California sun.
The overall mood Sunday when Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Jason Garrett were paraded in front of the huge group of media was that what you would expect. They were coming off a 13-3 season with a young team that would seem to have its best football in front of it. They lost in the playoffs to Green Bay, but it doesn't take complex mental gymnastics to convince yourself that the Cowboys were the better team and were simply undone by a singular performance that would be difficult to duplicate. They certainly don't need to feel like they can't compete with the best teams in the NFC. Needless to say, there is optimism for 2017.
To keep with a tradition that began years ago, however, let's go over the inventory of those first 19 seasons -- since 1998 -- that also started with varied optimism-filled openings of Cowboys camps where everyone was full of smiles and belief that maybe this could be the year:
Nineteen seasons, just eight (42%) resulted in playoff football on any level. You realize just five (26%) have been NFC East divisional titles. From there, in ten playoff games over 19 years, two (11%) of those special years -- 2009 vs Philadelphia and 2014 vs Detroit -- did the team do so much as win a wild-card playoff game. And at no point in those 19 previous seasons have they even secured a spot in the final four (0%), let alone a Super Bowl (0%).
There is no doubt that had I started this job a few years earlier, we could dress up those numbers, but the fact remains that for two complete decades this franchise has run up the hill quite a few times without actually reaching the top. That is perhaps why optimism from the brass of this franchise is generally met with cynicism from the public who just want you to show them the results.
Perhaps, that is why Sunday in the annual "State of the Cowboys" address, we did not spend very much time on where this franchise is headed following its big 2016. Or, more likely, the media wasn't too interested in talking about whether the No. 1 seed can be secured again because the off-field reputation of the Cowboys for getting in as much or more trouble as pretty much anyone in the entire industry continues to march on.
Perhaps you are plenty aware of the fact that since the Cowboys have last played football, they have suffered yet another Randy Gregory suspension and a David Irving suspension. Added to that are news items that include Nolan Carroll DWI charges, a bizarre Damien Wilson aggravated assault arrest that seems likely to result in a league suspension, and a few notable Ezekiel Elliott news items that may also come with yet another Cowboys suspension on the horizon.
The media wanted to ask questions about these topics that they knew would go nowhere. The Cowboys wanted to filibuster about these questions in the ways they have become experts in answering without saying much. Jones, Jones, and Garrett took turns reminding us that nobody is perfect (true) and that all teams have problems (true) and that the offseason is a difficult time because the players are free with plenty of time on their hands (true). They did not seem too worried with their suspension totals outpacing the rest of the league on a pretty annual basis, nor did they seem too interested in any pointed comments directed at the offenders.
There was normal talk about being a team of great character and built on the foundation of seeking the right types of players from the head coach, but there was also the understood arrangement where he does not have total control of his roster. Those sitting next to him on the podium seem to have a different idea of how they build a 53-man roster. And to be fair, a 29-19 record over the last 3 years (even with the disastrous 4-12 in 2015 factored in) seems to indicate they are doing a fine job building that roster.
So, that is the one side of the story. The story of how the Cowboys are willing to assume character risks without apology and to always point you back to Charles Haley and Michael Irvin (as they did yet again Sunday) for proof that they have a strong and successful basis for this logic as it pertains to Super Bowl victories.
And then, there is the other side of the story. The part about how I believe they are poised to take another step forward and seem to me to have as good a chance to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl as any team in the running. Sure, they have flaws. So does every good team in the NFC. I like the strategy to populate this questionable defense with plenty of young, high-end talent. I think it might come up well for them, especially with this repeatable and sustainable machine they have assembled on offense. At least, that is what I think right now on July 24th.
Every season, we demonstrate with amazing clarity that nobody knows anything. Not the media, not the fans, and no, not the people who run these teams, either. The best example to how this all works is just marching things back 12 months.
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.
That proved somewhat prophetic and somewhat clueless. Dak Prescott got the call and seized the moment like few in the history of the league ever have as rookies. Not fourth-round rookies, but rookies of any caliber. For him to do what he did in 2016 from the 135th pick in the draft is finding a gold brick in your backyard. Amazing.
In one year's time, this entire franchise went from being built on the problematic back of Tony Romo to him being off the roster. In that same year, Prescott went from a third-string QB who will not take a snap until 2018 to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season.
We truly know nothing.
The Eagles look better, the Giants look menacing, and the Redskins look a bit weaker to me right now.
The Cowboys may receive another suspension or two and who knows how health will smile upon them. But, unlike their follow-up to 2014, I don't believe this season will be a massive regression. I believe in what they have built and I believe they are entering the prime of the careers of many of their players -- most of whom have been homegrown talent from repeated strong drafts as of late.
More than anything, I am just thrilled to be back at the doorstep of football season. The Cowboys are always fascinating to cover and I am sure this season will be no exception. I will begin tackling strategic and tactical topics several times a week starting immediately.
Things will happen at these training camp practices that will matter. Kellen Moore breaking his ankle last August 2nd sent so many different scenarios into orbit. Dak Prescott had to move up to No. 2 and start getting significant action in preseason games from Day 1. Then, Tony Romo was hurt and Prescott moved up again. Before we knew it, the Cowboys were 13-2 and preparing to host the NFC playoffs at home.
It all came crashing down with one magnificent Aaron Rodgers throw last January. It happens. It is the agony of defeat.
But, today the next journey truly begins. Whether this one ends up in Minneapolis on Feb. 4, 2018, for Super Bowl LII is anyone's guess.