The questions for the 2016 Dallas Cowboys were supposed to be on defense. With defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy
Gregory along with linebacker Rolando McClain all facing at least four-game suspensions due to violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, the unit projected to have some weak links. Lawrence and Gregory are each suspended the first four games while McClain is suspended the first 10 games. This is the second straight year that McClain has been suspended as he missed the first four games of the 2015 regular season, also due to substance abuse violations.
While the defense will have to weather the storm with some new faces acquired from the draft and free agency, the offense has a glaring absence. Tony Romo. Again.
Romo suffered a compression fracture of his L1 vertebra in a preseason loss at Seattle on Aug. 25. It is the fourth time in his career that he has sustained a back injury and it is the second straight year that the veteran pro bowl quarterback will miss multiple games with an extended absence. Romo will be out anywhere from 6 to 10 weeks from the time of the injury. Romo missed 12 games in 2015 due to two fractures of his left (non-throwing shoulder) clavicle, an injury he has sustained three times in his career dating back to 2010.
The Cowboys now turn to Dak Prescott, a rookie fourth-round draft pick out of Mississippi State. Prescott was impressive in the preseason during which he went 39-for-50 for 454 yards, 5 touchdowns, and no interceptions. His quarterback rating was 137.8. He also showed his versatility by carrying the ball seven times for 53 yards and scoring two touchdowns.
While Prescott will be making his first NFL start against a bitter division rival in the New York Giants, he will be doing so with the advantage that he has been able to prepare as the starter for the last couple of weeks as opposed to coming off the bench abruptly during a game. He will also have the guidance of Romo and the coaches as these two teams meet in the season opener for the fourth time in the last five years.
Dallas has had the upper hand recently, winning the season opener in 2012, ’13, and ’15. The Cowboys have also won six of the last eight meetings in the series. Furthermore, Dallas has won all eight week 1 meetings between these two NFC East rivals. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the most wins without a loss against a particular team in season-opening games in NFL history.
While most teams can turn to a capable backup quarterback who has won some games when their starter goes down, this is not as easy for the Cowboys. Romo means more to Dallas than perhaps any other quarterback in the league today. Since Romo became the starting quarterback during the 2006 season, the Cowboys are a dismal 7-18 without him and 80-53 with him, including the playoffs.
For Dallas to contend this season they will have to buck the trend that has seen a slew of backup quarterbacks fall short in holding down the fort in Romo’s absence. Romo’s backups have included Brad Johnson who went 1-2 in 2008 while Romo nursed a broken finger. Jon Kitna (4-5), Kyle Orton (0-1), Stephen McGee (1-0), Brandon Weeden (0-3), Matt Cassel (1-6), and Kellen Moore (0-2), are other reserves who have not been able to propel the Cowboys into postseason play after Romo went down. Although Johnson and Kitna were respectable players, they were near the end of their careers while backing up Romo in Dallas.
So as the 2016 season opens, the Cowboys are looking for Prescott to string together some wins while Romo heals. While Prescott turned some heads in the preseason, he will have to show that he can carry it over into the regular season against the opponents’ front line players who he did not always see in the preseason.
Easing Prescott’s transition to pro starter will be a talented supporting cast along with an offensive line that features three pro bowlers and is regarded as the best in the league today. Pro bowl left tackle Tyron Smith leads the group up front. Veteran tight end Jason Witten can be any quarterback’s best friend as a security blanket and he is as sure handed as they come. Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant is all the way back from a broken foot he suffered in the season opener a year ago while Terrance Williams is a great complement on the other side. Slot man Cole Beasley works the underneath routes.
Then there is the running game. Prized rookie Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth overall pick in last spring’s draft from Ohio State, is
expected to make an immediate impact and help Dallas regain the offensive balance they had two years ago when DeMarco Murray lead the league in rushing and set a Cowboys’ single season rushing record. Dallas also signed free agent Alfred Morris away from division rival Washington to provide depth. Utility back Lance Dunbar is also back from a season-ending knee injury last year and rookie Darius Jackson has shown promise as a runner. Darren McFadden, who churned out over 1,000 yards last season, starts the season on the Reserve/Non Football Injury list due to a broken elbow he suffered in the offseason. He will miss the first six weeks of the season before he is eligible to return to the active roster.
Prescott’s athleticism will be an asset as long as he does not try to rely on that to do too much. If he can move the Cowboys on offense by making good decisions with the football, Dallas has a chance to stay afloat until Romo is able to return.
While the defense will have some voids at the start of the season, they will be banking on some new faces to generate a pass rush. Cedric Thornton and Terrell McClain were signed in the offseason to bolster the line and will help inside along with veteran defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford and rookie Maliek Collins. David Irving and Benson Mayowa will likely be the defensive ends until Lawrence and Gregory return from their suspensions. Rookie Charles Tapper is also in the mix at defensive end.
Veteran Sean Lee – although returning from a knee injury – is a leader at linebacker and is flanked by Anthony Hitchens and Justin Durant who is in his second tour with the Cowboys. Rookie Jaylon Smith is a high risk/reward player who probably will not see the field this year after suffering nerve damage to his knee in a bowl game on January 1 when he tore both his ACL and LCL. Kyle Wilber, Damien Wilson, Mark Nzeocha and Andrew Gachcar will back up the linebackers.
The defense will receive a boost this season with the return of veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick. The ninth-year veteran missed all of last season with a knee injury. Safety Barry Church is one of the team captains and is joined by second-year safety Byron Jones who is a budding star. Cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr will both see time while rookie corner Anthony Brown adds depth.
The specialists for Dallas are sound and battle tested. Kicker Dan Bailey is one of the best in the league while punter Chris Jones is solid. Second-year player Lucky Whitehead brings speed on kickoffs and punt returns. L.P. LaDouceur, a 12-year veteran, handles the long snapping duties.
The Cowboys will have to steady the ship over the first six or seven games of the season until Romo can likely return. Smart and steady play by Prescott combined with impact running by Elliott will be a likely formula for Dallas to remain in contention while Romo heals. The schedule is favorable for the Cowboys to win games while Romo is out provided they protect the football and create balance on offense. The second half of the season will be tougher with divisional road games at New York and Philadelphia along with visits to Pittsburgh and Minnesota.
The fortunes of Dallas will ultimately be determined by how much Romo will play this season and if they can generate a pass rush consistently. The Cowboys registered 31 sacks last year and that number will need to grow if they are to reach the postseason and advance from there. Although he is in the twilight of his career, Romo is still among the top competitors in the game today. How well Dallas protects him and the ability of Romo to avoid hits and sacks will go a long ways to determining how far the Cowboys go this season. When healthy Dallas has the tools to contend for a Super Bowl Championship.