The Cowboys have followed a similar track through the last few seasons.
Impressive wins are mixed with gut-wrenching defeats while key players go down with injuries over the course of a season that ends with a loss to the eventual NFC East champion on Sunday night in Week 17. Last year’s edition made it to that final game despite a defense that existed in name only, but went down to the Eagles with quarterback Tony Romo watching from the sideline because of a back injury.
Things don’t look all that different this season. The offense still looks capable of posting big numbers while the defense looks incapable of preventing them, which makes it easy to feel like we’re about to see more of the same from Dallas.
Romo will always have his detractors thanks to his long history of saving his worst throw of the day for the biggest moment in the game, but it’s hard to see how the Cowboys win games, let alone remain alive in the playoff race into the final game of the regular season, if not for his abilities.
His back surgery is a concern, although the fact that he was able to take part in some of the offseason program is a good sign for the year to come. With Dez Bryant and Jason Witten back to catch passes and DeMarco Murray running the ball, Romo’s got the supporting cast he needs to thrive as well.
He also has a pretty good offensive line in front of him. They picked Zach Martin in the first round and he’ll join left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick, two other recent first-rounders, as the anchors of one of the better blocking units in the league.
You can pretty much pick any spot on the Cowboys defense as a starting point for a discussion of the team’s weaknesses. We’ll break ground on a defensive line that will need Anthony Spencer and Henry Melton to make complete comebacks from serious leg injuries if they are going to stand a chance of stopping the opposition. Without them, it will be up to George Selvie, Jeremy Mincey, rookie DeMarcus Lawrence and the power of prayer.
Linebacker doesn’t look much better in the wake of another injury for the talented but all too injury prone Sean Lee. Lee did a little bit of everything for the Cowboys, who will now have to rely on the likes of Justin Durant, Bruce Carter and Kyle Wilber for playmaking.
The secondary picture isn’t quite as bleak thanks to the presence of cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick. The Cowboys are putting a lot of faith in J.J. Wilcox breaking through at one safety spot, but Barry Church doesn’t offer much at the other spot. Things would look better if cornerback Morris Claiborne lived up to his status as a first-round pick, but he hasn’t shown much signs of that through his first two seasons.
Overall, it looks a lot like last year’s defense minus the top three players from last year. That isn’t good.
Defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher joined Lee as the best players on last year’s defense, but the Cowboys cut Ware and let Hatcher walk to Washington because they didn’t have their cap in good enough order to keep them. Both are closer to the end of the road than the beginning, but the loss of talent will be noticeable.
Wide receiver Miles Austin was ditched as part of the effort to get that cap in order. It’s been a while since Austin was healthy and productive, making it an easy choice for Dallas with Terrance Williams heading into his second season.
The Cowboys also made their annual tweaks to the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was bumped to a different role and Rod Marinelli will take over as coordinator while Scott Linehan takes the offensive play calling reins from Bill Callahan. It’s more business as usual for the Cowboys under head coach Jason Garrett, whose repeated playoff near-misses have not blown back on him to this point.
It remains unclear whether or not the Cowboys will be making a change at backup quarterback. Kyle Orton has not reported for any work this offseason, leaving Brandon Weeden as the No. 2 unless he changes his mind about retiring. With a serious hit to his wallet looming if he does retire, it’s best not to close the book on Orton just yet.
The Cowboys traded for troubled linebacker Rolando McClain, but no one has been able to rely on him for anything other than the occasional mug shot during his NFL career.
Spencer, Mincey, Lawrence and Selvie will be battling for snaps at defensive end with the final results likely coming down to how well Spencer is feeling and how quickly Lawrence can pick up the NFL game.
Given the state of the defense, it is hard to feel confident about the Cowboys’ chances of making the playoffs. You could have said the exact same thing last year, though, and the Cowboys were alive until Orton threw an interception with 1:49 to play in Week 17.
If defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli can get something out of the defense, the offense should be good enough to compete with anyone and the NFC East has lacked a breakout team for the last few years. The Eagles look like the best shot to be that team this year, but it’s hard to count anyone out after watching so many battles of attrition in the regular season.
Games against the 49ers, Seahawks, Cardinals and Saints won’t offer a chance to fatten the record outside of the division, so the Cowboys’ chances will likely hinge on how they handle things in their own yard. Their shortcomings will make that difficult, but history tells us that it isn’t impossible.