Writer's Blocks: Coping With 2018's Unknowns


FRISCO, Texas – Many years ago, at a fictional film festival, the great Steve Zissou said something that really resonates with me in September of 2018.

"I'm right on the edge. I don't know what comes next."

Of course, Zissou – who is actually Bill Murray – was embarking on a completely different adventure than the Dallas Cowboys in the underrated film "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou."

But the similarities are striking if you really investigate. Zissou was at a personal and professional crossroads after a massive setback, and he didn't know what to expect going forward. And doesn't that sound like this Dallas Cowboys team?

The season has arrived, and with it comes an endless variety of possibilities. The youth movement is in full effect at The Star, as evidenced by the decision to cut one of this team's few remaining 30-year-olds in Dan Bailey. There's talent everywhere, but not a lot of experience to go with it.

The Cowboys have All-Pros all over the roster, an experienced quarterback and an emerging defense. They're also heading into the season without a proven, bonafide playmaker at wide receiver and tight end, not to mention a secondary with little in the way of experience.

Can anyone really say they know what to expect from this team?

There's plenty of reason for optimism. With Ezekiel Elliott available and looking better than ever, and the Dallas defense playing dominantly in the preseason, this team might be on the verge of a breakout similar to 2016, when it romped to a 13-3 record.

If the offensive line can't stay healthy, the receivers don't step up or the defense fails to carry the preseason success into September, it's very easy to imagine another dismal January in Dallas, with no playoffs.

So that's where I'm at. I can imagine a lot of different outcomes, all across the spectrum – and that's exciting. After a 2017 season that was decidedly not-fun, for a variety of reasons, I think this one has the potential to be exactly the opposite. Some new stars are going to be born, and some new history is going to be created. I don't know if that will culminate in another playoff trip, but I think we're going to have fun finding out.

Steve Zissou's crossroads sent him on an epic adventure that landed him at another award show several months later. Here's hoping the Cowboys' journey is similar.

Now that I'm done making an absurd Wes Anderson analogy in a football column, here's some other stuff I'm thinking about heading into Week 1.

1. I don't blame the Cowboys for not acquiring Earl Thomas, to be honest. Despite last week's Khalil Mack trade, it's typically hard to acquire another team's All-Pro player in the NFL. The Seahawks wanted a high price for Thomas – who is about to turn 30 and wants a gigantic contract. The second-round pick the Cowboys refused to forfeit turned into Connor Williams, who I think is going to be a hell of a player.

What I can blame the Cowboys for, however, is simply not prioritizing the safety position in general. I'm a broken record at this point, but the sense of urgency at the position just hasn't been enough.

That goes back to the spring, when Tyrann Mathieu supposedly didn't fit what they were looking for, and the summer, when the same could be said for Kenny Vaccaro and Tre Boston – who were both unemployed for what felt like an eternity. The Cowboys were convinced those veteran options weren't what they needed – and maybe they're right.

But as we head into Week 1, it's hard to be thrilled with the alternatives. Xavier Woods – who has himself never started an NFL game at safety – is on the shelf with a hamstring injury and isn't expected to play against the Panthers. Kavon Frazier has shown promise in the opportunities offered to him, but he is dealing with a shoulder injury and has also never started a game.

The other two options behind Jeff Heath are Tyree Robinson, who is a rookie, and Ibraheim Campbell, who arrived in town on Sunday.

It's important to note that I am wrong all the time. That happens when your job is to offer your opinions. So if this gameplan works out, I will happily eat my crow. But even without Earl Thomas, the Cowboys had plenty of opportunities to improve their safety situation and chose not to. Here's hoping it doesn't come back to haunt them.

2. At this point, there's 500 places you can go to get insight into the Cowboys' decision to cut Dan Bailey. We've covered it ad nauseam, so I'll refrain from repeating myself.

I do want to talk about the flip side of this situation – which is the newly-appointed Brett Maher.

It's easy to focus on Bailey, given his Pro Bowl status and his seven-year history of delivering in the clutch. But I think it's only fair to point out that this is the culmination of a boatload of hard work on Maher's part. The guy has been trying to break into the NFL since 2013. He has been cut by four different NFL clubs – including the Cowboys, who brought him to camp as a rookie. He has spent time in Canada, bouncing around between three different CFL clubs during a four-year stretch.

Maher has clearly worked hard toward this, and all he's done this summer is show up to work every day and nail every kick the Cowboys have asked him to.

I get that it's a bummer for fans when an established and beloved player moves on. But it doesn't feel fair to criticize a guy for doing his job – and doing it well. By all means, second-guess the Cowboys' decision making if you want to, but don't hate on a guy for achieving his dream.

3. I'm so intrigued by the way the Cowboys and Giants have linked themselves by their draft strategies.

Two years apart, the two division rivals were in similar situations and made identical choices. Rather than rebuild a roster around a highly-touted quarterback, both clubs opted to draft an all-world running back who could hopefully give them a shot in the arm.

It has worked well for the Cowboys – albeit in an unexpected way. The original intent was to draft Ezekiel Elliott to pair with a 36-year-old Tony Romo, with the expectation that the dynamic young back could help carry the aging quarterback to a championship. The Cowboys already had a stocked offensive line and an All-Pro receiver, and they figured adding Zeke to the mix could pay off in a big way.

We know what happened next. Zeke and Romo never played in a regular season game together, and the Cowboys' dominant run game helped ease Dak Prescott into a stardom all his own. It might not have followed the script, but I don't think the Cowboys regret how this has panned out.

And yet, I can't help wondering how this is going to work for New York, as the Giants get set to unveil Saquon Barkley this weekend.

Unlike Romo, who was playing at an MVP level – when healthy – toward the end of his career, Eli Manning has not looked like a Super Bowl MVP in some time. His quarterback rating has fallen three years in a row, as have his yards per attempt and his touchdown totals. He'll also turn 38 in January – which is rarified air for NFL quarterbacks.

Obviously, Barkley is going to help with all of this. He should immediately make life easier on Manning, and he will force defenses to account for him – which will be tough when playing an offense that also features Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. The Giants' much-maligned offensive line should also be better, after adding Nate Solder and Will Hernandez to the mix.

Is that going to make a big enough difference to lift a 3-13 roster into Super Bowl contention, though? It had better be – because that's the gamble. As far as I can tell, the Giants are banking on Barkley to provide them a couple more years of contention before Manning calls it a career. I'm just not sure they have enough pieces in place to pull that off, and that's where I wonder about the long-term vision.

4. Keep in mind also: the drafting position.

The Cowboys drafted Elliott No. 4 overall, after Jared Goff and Carson Wentz had already gone off the board. What's more: the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles paid a fortune to trade into those spots, which means the Cowboys likely never had much of a chance to move up for a quarterback.

The Giants drafted No. 2 overall, just one spot after Cleveland made Baker Mayfield the No. 1 overall pick. Right after they took Barkley, their crosstown rivals, the New York Jets, selected Sam Darnold with the No. 3 pick. The Giants could have had their pick of Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen or any other quarterback that suited their fancy. Much like the Cowboys, they went for the quick fix.

To be fair, it's probably going to work in the short term. It's easy to imagine Barkley pushing for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and it won't be surprising if the Giants bounce back from their dismal 2017 season.

In the long term, though? If Eli Manning is retired in two years and Josh Rosen is developing into an All-Pro talent? Will it still feel like such a good call?

5. Allow me to do that utterly shameless thing where I promote something I already said:

The first regular season game of the year kicks off tonight. It has been 146 days since the Cowboys released Dez Bryant, and he is still not on an NFL roster. It's honestly shocking.

We know Dez has had interest in the last few months. Reports indicated that the Ravens wanted to sign him back in the spring, but he didn't want to sign a multi-year deal. There was also the highly publicized visit to Cleveland, where Dez made a heck of a cameo on "Hard Knocks." The mercurial receiver has also intimated that he has several other opportunities we don't know about.

With games starting this weekend, though, I can't fathom how that hasn't translated to a contract. Even if he has dropped off, there's got to be a team out there he can help.

It gives me no choice to believe that Dez is unsigned because he wants to be unsigned.

I think he's biding his time. If he waits until an injury strikes, he could potentially improve his leverage. A team without a capable wide receiver might be willing to agree to his terms if it has no other options. Remember what the Cowboys did in 2015, when they lost Dez and Tony Romo in back-to-back weeks? They made desperate trades to acquire Brice Butler and Matt Cassel, just to give themselves a chance.

I could see something like that happening with Dez. By mid-October, someone will have a need and they'll call him. Hopefully he answers the phone, because I'd really like to watch him play football in 2018.

6. I don't know if this qualifies as next-level analysis, but I want to write it down for the record:

Ezekiel Elliott is going to be good this year. Like, really good.

This is a feeling I've had for a while now, and it has steadily built over the course of the last month. Obviously, Elliott has been good throughout his NFL career. He's compiled a healthy 2,739 yards and 22 touchdowns in just 26 career games.

But I think this year is going to be better. Faced with a total overhaul at wide receiver and tight end, it needs to be. Elliott is quite literally the only proven playmaker on this offense, and it's going to be on him to make things go until someone else can step up.

To his credit, he looks like he knows it. Elliott was never "fat," as people liked to speculate last fall – but it's very obvious that he is currently in the best shape of his career. He looks lean, powerful and ready for a tremendous workload.

On top of that, he looks as versatile as he ever has. The coaching staff moved him around the formation during training camp, sending him out wide and throwing him the ball out of the backfield. Zeke has never had more than 32 receptions in a season, and I think he's going to shatter that mark in 2018.

Don't just take my word for it – Zeke himself sounds confident as hell. On Wednesday, he said he's going to play with a chip on his shoulder, and that he wants to prove himself as the best back in the league.

Asked if he runs better with a chip on his shoulder, he smiled wide: "We'll see."

7. I didn't make picks last year, but I enjoy looking stupid so I'm going to do it again this season, starting with tonight:

Falcons (+1) over EAGLES

Steelers (-3.5) over BROWNS

Bengals (+3) over COLTS

Titans (-1.5) over DOLPHINS

49ers (+6.5) over VIKINGS

Texans (+6.5) over PATRIOTS

SAINTS (-9.5) over Buccaneers

GIANTS (+3) over Jaguars

RAVENS (-7.5) over Bills

CHARGERS (-3.5) over Chiefs

Seahawks (+3) over Broncos

Redskins (+1) over CARDINALS

PACKERS (-7.5) over Bears

LIONS (-6.5) over Jets

Rams (-4) over RAIDERS