The 2015-16 version of the Dallas Cowboys are about to be unveiled. The stage will be set as America’s Team will be showcased in prime time before a national television audience on NBC’s Sunday Night Football tonight. AT&T Stadium will be nothing short of a Texas-sized circus.
An offseason that brought many changes with additions and losses of players through free agency, the draft, trades, and undrafted signings has altered the Dallas team. The team’s offense, defense, and special teams will all feature new faces at key spots and those new faces will largely determine how successful the team is this year. While the Cowboys’ biggest loss is NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray, who is now wearing green and white in Philadelphia, other players will be missed. Dallas also lost their punt and kickoff return ace in Dwayne Harris who also contributed as a receiver. Offensive tackle Jeremy Parnell who was a valuable reserve for an offensive line that was regarded as the best in the NFL last season is now in Jacksonville. Also lost in free agency were linebacker Bruce Carter and defensive lineman Henry Melton. Both were important contributors to last year’s 12-4 team that won the NFC East and a playoff game, each for the first time in five years. Murray is the biggest loss out of this bunch as his franchise rushing record of 1,845 yards will be missed. Murray also ran for 13 touchdowns and had 57 receptions for 416 yards last season.
This year’s running game appears as it will operate by committee unless someone emerges with consistent productivity. Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, and Lance Dunbar all bring different strengths and styles to the position. Randle, a third-year back out of Oklahoma State, brings speed but lacks experience. He has been serviceable in spot duty over his first two years but needs to fulfill his blocking assignments better. Two legal incidents including a shoplifting charge last year following the Cowboys’ upset win in Seattle have raised questions about his character. McFadden, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2006 and 2007, played seven injury-riddled seasons in Oakland where he managed to post only one 1,000-yard rushing season, that being in 2010 when he ran for 1,157 yards on 223 carries. Even then he ran for only seven touchdowns while also missing three games. Dunbar has amassed only 324 yards on 80 carries with no touchdowns in his three-year career. While each of these backs are different, they each can contribute. If McFadden can avoid the toe and chronic foot injuries that have plagued his career, he could be productive for Dallas while Randle will have to stay out of off-the-field trouble and be more consistent. Dunbar’s challenge will be to take advantage of his opportunities and be reliable as a pass catcher and blocker out of the backfield. Waiting in the wings in the backfield is Christine Michael who the Cowboys just signed this past week from Seattle. Michael saw only limited action in his two years as a Seahawk but was on Seattle’s Super Bowl XLVIII championship team. In time, Michael could make a contribution this season and have a chance to show more. If nothing else, he gives the Cowboys some depth at running back.
Michael is not the only new face in Dallas as team owner/president/general manager Jerry Jones made many moves this season along with son Stephen, the Cowboys Chief Operations Officer, and Jason Garrett, his head coach. The defensive front seven was heavily addressed with re-signing players like defensive end Jeremy Mincey and inking defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford to a five-year extension worth $45 million. On top of this, they drafted defensive end Randy Gregory out of Nebraska to add aggressive punch to their pass rush and added depth at linebacker by drafting Damien Wilson out of Minnesota and signing Andrew Gatchcar. Also strengthening the linebackers will be the return of Sean Lee who missed all of 2014 due to knee surgery for a torn
ACL. Lee is a heady and aggressive player who brings smarts and leadership to the team. The secondary, a sore part for years in Dallas, should also be better for Dallas this year with the addition of first-round draft pick Byron Jones at cornerback. The return of Morris Claiborne, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2012, and the signing of third-year pro Corey White should also strengthen the secondary.
The chemistry that these new faces generates for Dallas combined with how productive they are will largely determine where the Cowboys go this season. Dallas advanced to the NFC divisional playoffs last season where they played a classic game with the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. The Cowboys were in position to score a go-ahead touchdown late when an apparent catch by Dez Bryant inside the Packers’ five-yard line on fourth-and-two was overturned following a challenge by the Packers. Green Bay took over and moved the ball on the ensuing drive which enabled them to run out the clock en-route to a 26-21 win.
While there has been much movement with the team’s roster since the end of last season, Dallas still has their core in place minus Murray. Tony Romo enters his 13th season and is the unquestioned starter at quarterback. The veteran signal caller is entering his ninth season as the full-time starter and already holds the Cowboys all-time records for touchdown passes (242), passing yards (33,270), and 300-yard passing games (45). Bryant, in his sixth season, is an elite wide receiver and signed a five-year contract extension back in July worth $70 million. Terrance Williams is a speedy wide
receiver who is an excellent complement to Bryant. Then there is the old reliable tight end in Jason Witten. Witten, who is the Cowboys all-time leader in receptions with 943, is one of the most sure-handed tight ends to ever play the game and is also a quality blocker. Cole Beasley is in his fourth season and is a threat as a slot receiver with sure hands for the underneath routes. Fullback Tyler Clutts is about as rugged as they come and gives the Cowboys blocking and receiving out of the backfield.
All these skills players function behind an offensive line that is big, strong, athletic, and cohesive. The group features three first round draft picks chosen by Dallas between 2011 and 2014 in left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, and right guard Zack Martin. Smith is one of the best tackles in the game and does a super job protecting Romo’s blindside. Doug Free is the other tackle while Ronald Leary rounds out the unit at left guard. Dallas also signed La’el Collins, a 6-foot-4 315-pound guard who was considered to be a first-round draft pick this past spring before being passed on. Collins was still available after the draft and Dallas signed him to add depth to an already bruising line. Should the line continue to dominate this year, Dallas will find life easier in transitioning their running game. If all the pieces come into place, the Cowboys could contend for Super Bowl L.
Dallas has a competitive schedule that will provide plenty of challenges. While they are capable of winning the division, it won’t be a cake walk. The new-look Philadelphia Eagles under the creative up temp pace of Chip Kelly will be the chief competition for Dallas within the NFC East. The re-tooled New York Giants should be better this year after two bad seasons and they always are in games with Eli Manning. A year of seasoning for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. following his rookie exploits from 2014 – when he set Giants’ franchise rookie records with 91 catches for 1,305 yards – will help him move forward. Beckham also scored 12 touchdowns in just 12 games last season after missing the first four games due to injury. Washington’s instability at quarterback with the recent naming of backup Kirk Cousins as the starter for the season over Robert Griffin III makes them an unknown going into the season.
The two games between the Cowboys and Eagles this season should have a strong impact on the division race. If Sam Bradford
emerges in Kelly’s up temp attack and Murray continues to be among the league’s most productive rushers, Philadelphia could be a playoff team and more. Outside the division, Dallas plays the AFC East and the NFC South this season. They have home games against the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots as well as the New York Jets. A trip to Miami occurs the week before Thanksgiving and a game in frigid Buffalo is set for Dec. 27. The challenges don’t stop there as Dallas will also play home games against Atlanta, Seattle, and Carolina while facing road contests at New Orleans. Tampa Bay, and Green Bay.
Dallas is on the cusp of emerging and having a stellar season. The players are in place and the core is experienced with plenty of young talent ready to make an already good team even better. Romo is on the verge of becoming one of the elite quarterbacks in the game today. For him and the team to take that next step, they will have to execute in their favor in the late stages of games to put teams away as well as make the critical plays in pressure moments of close games. With veterans like Smith, Witten, Bryant, and Free the pieces are in place for Dallas to contend for a Championship in Super Bowl L.