IRVING, Texas – Time's up. No more training camp or scrimmages. No more practices against another team. No more preseason games. Just three more practices, and then the Dallas Cowboys will run smack dab into the defending Super Bowl champion New York Football Giants, 7:30 p.m. (CT) Wednesday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., the entire proceedings of the NFL's 2012 season opener being televised nationally on NBC.
So time to decide.
Who are these Dallas Cowboys?
What are these Dallas Cowboys?
How good, or bad for that matter, will they be?
Let's start right here. The Cowboys finished 8-8 last year, a victory over the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants short of winning the NFC East, just in case anyone has forgotten that in the agony of this long offseason and the trials and tribulations – and injuries – of training camp.
Last year at this time 9-7 was the 2011 prediction. Missed by one game, and certainly could go through that 16-game schedule to find that one needed victory to be head on. Then again, guessing you're noting there is a game they very well could have lost to finish 7-9. So 8-8 it was, no matter how you slice it, saying they lost five games after leading in the fourth quarter or saying they won four games coming from behind in the fourth quarter.
So let's start right here, knowing what we know from the 2011 season. Quarterback Tony Romo was sacked a career-high 36 times. The Cowboys scored a franchise record-low five touchdowns rushing, and as I've repeatedly pointed out, the Cowboys have never finished better than .500 when rushing for no more than 10 touchdowns in a season (10 times). Never.
The offensive line was mostly a mess, playing with essentially a one-footed right guard, a 20-year old right tackle, a first-time starting center, a cast of characters at left guard and an underachieving left tackle.
The starting wide receivers alternately nursed injuries and the running back, on his way to a Rookie of the Year season, landed on IR during his seventh start.
OK, the defense gave up at least 31 points in four of those eight losses, and as linebacker Sean Lee likes to point out, was never consistent. Not from game to game or quarter to quarter, and especially not in fourth quarters, when the Cowboys gave up 103 points – 30 percent of their total points (347). The cornerbacks struggled in coverage. They lacked consistent pressure on quarterbacks. Some guy named Eli Manning torched them for more than 30 points in each of two games (68 total), completing 51 of 80 passes for 746 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. If we factored that into a QB rating, it would be 109.7. That's hard to beat.
This is, too. In those two games against the Giants, the Cowboys yielded 11 completions of at least 20 yards, and four of those were for 74 yards, 64, 47 and 44, not exactly your garden variety completions.
Yet, despite all this, and let's lop in a first-year (first-time ever) head coach and a new defensive coordinator, neither with the aid of an offseason locked out, still, somehow, someway, these Cowboys finished 8-8.
So my question to you is this: With all you've seen so far, with the offseason additions the Cowboys have made, and really, when you think about it, suffering only one significant subtraction, are they better today than they were in a year ago of yesterdays?
This defense has to be better, right, with Brandon Carr on one corner, Morris Claiborne on the other and, if ready, a healthy Mike Jenkins as the fourth guy instead of Frank Walker? Geesh, hands down.
Are the Cowboys better off with Bruce Carter playing inside linebacker next to Sean Lee, who, by the way, was starting for the first full season in the NFL last year, and now backed by Dan Connor, than they were with 36-year-old Keith Brooking 30-year-old Bradie James? Of course.
Are the Cowboys better off, and here, let's go Republican conservative here and say at least as good, with Barry Church starting at safety next to Gerald Sensabaugh than that mess of Abe Elam, Alan Ball and Ken Hamlin having started there the past three seasons? Absolutely?
What if DeMarco Murray starts over an entire season instead of just the seven games he did last year? What if Felix Jones isn't playing with a shoulder in need of surgery? What if Lawrence Vickers isn't in and out of the lineup at fullback as was Tony Fiammetta (appeared in 10 games, just six starts)?
And isn't it certainly possible this offensive line, with the addition of Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, along with Phil Costa now having a seasoned year at center under his belt and the now 21-year-old Tyrone Smith at left tackle, is at worst at least as good as last year's unit that somehow paved the way for Murray to rush for 897 yards in just those seven starts and for Tony Romo to throw for 4,184 yards and 31 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions (102.5 rating, second highest in club history)? You bet.
So taking all that into account, suggesting this team could go 10-6 doesn't mean I just fell off the cantaloupe cart, does it? Don't you think it should?
Now, the Cowboys are not without their worries. The projected starting five on the offensive line has not taken one snap together with pads on since training camp began. Not good. So how long before that group develops some cohesion? So yes, a worry.
What have the Cowboys done to improve their pass rush, even though they did finish tied for seventh last year with 42 sacks? Almost the same cast, with the addition of Carter/Connor, third-round draft choice Tyrone Crawford and the possible contributions of fourth-round pick Kyle Wilber, who last seen was still wearing a cast on his hand. Can someone other than DeMarcus Ware produce more than Anthony Spencer's six sacks from last season? Better hope so.
And it's never good when health issues have landed two of your former Pro Bowl players, Jason Witten and Jay Ratliff, in limbo for at least Wednesday's season opener.
But hey, the Giants have issues, too, you know, likely ones you're not aware of, though. They still are not sure who is starting on the corner opposite Corey Webster since Terrell Thomas (knee) likely will be a candidate for the newly-formed temporary injured reserve and Prince Amukamara still is recovering from a sprained ankle in Week 2 of the preseason, just now getting out of a protective boot. And this wasn't exactly a position of strength for the Giants last year.
At this point, with Chris Canty on PUP for the first six weeks, and unsure of the injury status for Shaun Rogers (if he makes the 53) and Marvin Austin, likely starting next to Linval Joseph at defensive tackle is Rocky Bernard, a guys who last started in 2008. Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks played a few series this past Wednesday night for the first time since breaking his fifth metatarsal back in May. Safety Tyler Sash has been placed on reserve/suspended. And no one seems sure if starting left tackle Will Beatty (back) will be back in time for the opener.
See what I mean?
Now you likely are wont to say, but man, that Cowboys schedule is a lot tougher than last year. Maybe, but I know this: Last year the Cowboys played six games against playoff teams, including three against the two Super Bowl combatants, and nine against teams finishing at least 8-8. This year the Cowboys are scheduled to play seven games against playoff teams from last year and 10 versus teams finishing at least .500 last year.
So about the same, though teams are never guaranteed to be a reflection of their past selves since at least five different teams have qualified for the playoffs from one year to the next since 1996, and on average six. And guess what? Those 9-7 Giants from last year basically have the same schedule as the Cowboys, with the exception they have to play Green Bay instead of Chicago and San Francisco instead of Seattle. Good luck with all that
So 10-6, and I'm sticking to it.
What you guys think?