Sullivan: Given Cowboys Defense, Hard To Be Optimistic

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The author of "America's Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys," Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.

My reputation these last five-plus years covering this team is pretty well known. I can be, to a fault, overly optimistic. It's in my nature. Nothing is impossible – a bounce here and there, a little magic in the air and maybe a favor or two from the football gods.

I was crucified last season for predicting 12-4 when in reality, honestly, the Cowboys were four snaps of the football from being just that. Some may feel that's a preposterous statement, and that's fair. For a second straight season there was a historic, record-setting number of injuries on the defense, too. Maybe I just can't admit to being wrong, but that team was closer than anyone really talks about to winning 10 or 11 games. Green Bay and Detroit appeared automatic wins late in the second half.

Saw a statistic in the Football Outsiders Almanac that kind of summed it all up. Since 1999, NFL home teams are 511-3 when leading by at least 23 points. Two of those three losses have come via the Cowboys under Jason Garrett: in 2011 against the Lions and the Packers last season. Thing is, for me, the Detroit game in 2013 is still a worse loss than both of those.

Should've, could've, would've.

Know what, though? I'm been doing this for three years now. One guy referred to me as "Apolo-baldy" (always apologizing for the team we can only assume) last season, and yeah, have to plead guilty there.

I'm leaving for Oxnard tomorrow and this is the time of the year where most fans are optimistic. Every team has hope, even the Jacksonvilles and Oaklands of the world. That's what being a fan is all about. Hope springs eternal.

So, I've been asked a couple of dozen times these last few weeks about the Cowboys chances, and for the most part, I kind of shrug, offer a best-case scenario, talk about the offensive line, which could, should be dominant, and that the offense in general, if Tony Romo stays upright for 16 games, should rank among the league's elite, top-5 without question.

And the special teams are solid; was a top-10 unit last season by just about all accounts, which is the first time that has been the case in recent memory. Dwayne Harris is superb, one of those guys that just keeps making plays, and Dan Bailey takes the stress out of watching field-goal attempts. Another plus.

The last few months I've been telling people that the defense can't be worse than last season. That's just not possible. There I am again with my optimism.

Until this very time and place, I have not given a prediction on the 2014 Dallas Cowboys. There's really not a rush either, since the opener is still a month away, and we still have four what will be mostly excruciating preseason games ahead, but you know what? (And this is completely burying the lead here, like beneath the crust and mantle.)

I'm not optimistic about this football team. Least not in the 10, 11 wins ballpark. It's certainly doable, every team has a "if everything goes right" ceiling, but it's just that not much has gone right these last four years.

Never mind the bevy of injuries and frustration from recent seasons. Let's just take the last three months. Every defensive player the team wanted to take in the first round is selected before its pick, and unable to move up, the Cowboys grab offensive lineman Zack Martin.

Now, make no mistake, Martin has exceeded one and all's expectations. He's one of those rare players that will never really be a rookie. This is not a knock on Martin in the least, think he's going to be a Pro Bowl selection sooner rather than later, but this team didn't need an offensive lineman. I mean, every team can always use a stud up front, but as I said back in April, every single draft pick should have been a defensive player. Every single one.

Then, desperate for a pass rusher, the Cowboys are more or less forced to trade their third-round pick to move up in the second for DeMarcus Lawrence. Huge price, but the kid was expected to make an immediate impact, lead the team in sacks even, which in and of itself says a lot about where this defense is. When was the last time an NFL team was hopeful, dependent really on a second-round draft pick leading the team in sacks? Maybe never.

Sure enough, Lawrence was injured early in camp and he's out until, well, who knows? They say 8-to-12 weeks, meaning October or November, but he's going to return as a rookie minus training camp work and preseason games and basically starting from scratch. Can't imagine him making an impact this season of any kind.

This was a defense that needed immediate, Day 1 contributions from the rookie class. That doesn't look promising. Perhaps a rotation guy or two, but that's it.

Sean Lee, the team's premier playmaker, is lost for the season. Morris Claiborne is hurt again, and at this point, it's just frustrating beyond explanation. And it wasn't just the Cowboys who thought he was the best defensive player in the 2012 NFL Draft. It was half the teams in the league. This wasn't a roll of the dice or Jerry Jones playing the craps table. This kid was a sure thing, much in the mold of All-Pro Patrick Peterson, an LSU teammate drafted a season previous.

Seems like half the defense is already injured, although there is definitely, without question, more depth on the line. Still, who is sacking the quarterback, who is intercepting passes, who is making those game-changing plays? Maybe Bruce Carter, but he hasn't proven himself yet. Brandon Carr?

Know what the reality is here and now? Orlando Scandrick is this team's best defensive player. Most reliable, too. Scandrick is vastly underappreciated, and I'm a huge fan, have been for some time, but think about that: A 5-foot-10 slot corner is this defense's top player.

Only twice previously in franchise history have the Cowboys gone five straight seasons without making the playoffs, from 1960-65 as an expansion team, and 1986-90, a stretch during which Tom Landry lost his job, Jerry Jones bought the team, and he and Jimmy Johnson basically started completely over.

If the Cowboys fail to reach the playoffs this season, this, of course, would be the third such instance of a five-year drought. One has to ponder how the team ended up here, especially with a franchise quarterback in the prime of his career. Those don't come around all that often. For the Cowboys, entering their 55th season, there have been just five such players: Don Meredith, Roger Staubach, Danny White, Troy Aikman and Romo.

Oh, we haven't mentioned Romo's back yet, huh? For the record, shockingly yes, I'm more optimistic on that front (or back) than most.

Hopefully I'm wrong about this team. Hopefully I'm having a moment. Maybe after a few days out in Oxnard, our Apolo-baldy will return, optimistic as ever. Maybe four weeks from now I'm yelling from the roof of AT&T Stadium that the 2014 Dallas Cowboys are going to make the playoffs, win 10 games and surprise us all.

Maybe there's a little magic in the air and maybe the football gods are feeling generous.

Maybe.

Then again …

Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at jsullivan@dallascowboys.net.

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