IRVING, Texas – In a league with as much parity and publicity as the NFL, expectations go with the territory. It's a league where reaching the playoffs is a realistic expectation for nearly every team when the season starts.
With favorable results, those expectations climb higher – the pressure of delivering on that potential kicks in. That's perfectly clear in Dallas, where the expectations are once again high for the Cowboys after a 12-4 season and a playoff trip.
In anticipation of Organized Team Activities starting up next week, this fact sparked a discussion among the staff of DallasCowboys.com – who is entering the 2015 with the most pressure, the highest expectations on him?
The quick answer is Tony Romo. Given the nature of the game and the demands of the position, the franchise quarterback is bound to play under immense pressure – after all, he's got the ball in his hands on every snap.
Leaving Romo off the list, then, there's plenty of room for debate. Who's facing the most pressure if the Cowboys are going to maintain their momentum from 2014?
Bryan Broaddus: It is not often a talent such as Greg Hardy ever makes it to free agency, but through some off the field issues, he was available and after extensive research by the club they were able to come to an agreement on a one-year deal. As we sit today, Hardy will miss 10 games of the 2015 season, which is a massive amount -- but with the opportunity to appeal there is a good chance I believe that number will be reduced to six games. If my assessment is correct, Hardy will have 10 games to not only show the Cowboys, but the league, that he deserves to continue to be paid as one of the elite pass rushers in the league. If Hardy succeeds, he will get his money with a longer-term deal – if not, his career will most likely be at a serious crossroads where teams could shy away from him. No matter how many games Greg Hardy plays, the pressure to perform will be intense because his football life could depend on it.
David Helman:There's a wide variety of acceptable answers to this question, but I keep coming back to one guy who's going to be facing the weight of high scrutiny and high expectations in 2015 – Sean Lee. For roughly a year now, Lee's presence has loomed over the Dallas defense due to the simple fact that he hasn't been there. He tore his ACL on the first day of spring in 2014, and for every good play the defense made without him, the logical thought was 'How much better could this group be with Lee?' Now, Lee is fully healthy, and he's moving into one of the most important positions in Rod Marinelli's scheme as the weak side linebacker. He'll be protected from blockers, which should hopefully free him up to make tackles and interceptions. All of this is assuming he stays healthy, of course – which is no guarantee whatsoever. Lee has only played in 17 of the Cowboys' last 48 regular season games due to various injuries, including missing every single moment of last year's playoff run. If that's not enough, he's also playing on a contract extension that's worth a whopping $42 million overall. Lee has the talent to take this defense to another level, and the salary he's earning dictates that the Cowboys can't afford to lose him again. There's no shortage of pressure for him to perform.
Nick Eatman: A lot of these players have some pressure on them, and of course, no one has more than Tony Romo. But when I think of the word "pressure," it makes me think of the guys who have something big to lose. That's why Dez Bryant would be my answer. Dez is clearly the most talented player on this team. Quarterbacks aside, he's the most valuable player on this team because of his passion. When he comes to practice, he brings 100 percent emotion and adrenaline and that trickles down to the team. This year, there's a chance he plays this season without a long-term deal. With any contract year, pressure is magnified. This is the biggest contract he's ever going to get and his first, and probably last chance for a huge payday. As great as he's been, Dez has to bring it again in 2015. When you're trying to prove you are the best receiver in the NFL, that's pressure that is hard to ignore. So while the other answers are all legit, I see Dez Bryant as the Cowboys player facing the most pressure.
Rob Phillips: There's no question DeMarco Murray and his 1,845 rushing yards cast a shadow on the entire group this offseason. And it seems like Stephen Jones has mentioned LeGarrette Blount as many times as any of the Cowboys' current running backs. Why? Because Blount signed with the Patriots in the middle of the season last November and became their go-to rusher during their Super Bowl run. The Patriots' example perfectly supports Jones' stance that "player acquisition is 365 days a year," meaning the Cowboys will similarly keep an eye out on the waiver wire for help at the position. The club says it has confidence in the talents of Darren McFadden, Joseph Randle, Ryan Williams and Lance Dunbar. I believe that, but the front office is also sending a smart, subtle message: They established something special with the run game last year, and they expect that production to continue in 2015 with whoever has the rock. Right now, McFadden and Randle figure to have the edge.