Thursday, August 21, 2008

Premature Evaluations 2008: Dallas Cowboys

The heartthrob quarterback who wheels pop stars and comes up short in the playoffs? The mentally unstable wide receiver whose talent is matched only by his ego’s propensity for self destruction? The former NFL exile brought back to seek redemption? Now THESE guys deserve a television show. There might not be a team with more drama and intrigue surrounding individual team members than the Cowboys, which probably explains HBO’s decision to shift the focus of their “Hard Knocks” series away from the Kansas City Chiefs (there is not a Q rating low enough to describe the Croyle/Huard quarterback competition) to America’s team. Because really, how can you not want to watch this team work? Whether you’re rooting for them or against them, you can’t say that you love NFL football and not be drawn to this house built upon the sand? In many ways, these guys are the anti-Pats, right down to their coach, who recently told us all to “get our ring fingers ready.” Even if they’re “the bad guys,” the Cowboys seem hell bent on embracing their role by embracing the fact that they are a team of personalities. That’s what separates them from their (now) equally talented New England counterparts, who thrive on masking personality behind collective identity. It’s also what may eventually tear the whole system apart.


From a talent perspective, however, this team is scary. The offensive firepower is well known, but it warrants mentioning. Terrell Owens is coming off of a monster year in which he both excelled on the field and seemed to, dare I say…grow as a person? Forget the age thing for a second; T.O. put up the fifth most receiving yards and the third most touchdowns in the league among receivers, and he did it with only 81 receptions (at least 12 fewer than anyone ahead of him in terms of yardage). Meanwhile, Jason Witten emerged as the league’s new premier tight end (don’t worry, Antonio Gates will get a shot at his former title). Big, fast, and with as dependable a set of hands as any one working the middle of the field in the NFL, Witten presents a matchup nightmare for any opponent. Then there’s Marion the Barbarian, who split time and still managed to put up 10 TDs and 4.8 yards a carry, and will now get a shot as a feature back. Dude runs like he loves pain, and they had to invent a new rule to keep him from hurting people (upon hearing that he could no longer stiff arm hard to the face, his response was “what about the throat”…

...awesome.). Running the whole show is Tony Romo. It’s popular to doubt the kid, largely because he’s a good looking guy who frequents the celebrity scene, but Tom Brady gets away with that kind of stuff all the time. The fact of the matter is that Romo threw the second most TDs in the league last season, and had the second highest YPA among NFL QBs. Combining improvisational mobility with a knack for running through his many reads, Romo only figures to improve this year, with Patrick Crayton gaining another year of experience and the enigmatic Felix Jones coming in as a rookie with scary speed and well known pass catching ability.

But it’s the defense that makes this year’s incarnation of the Cowboys a thing of beauty. Last year, all the nastiness in the world up front couldn’t make up for a secondary that bent far too often. This year, crazy uncle Jerry thought he’d fix that. CB Terrence Newman has always been an elite talent, but this year he’s joined by rookie Mike Jenkins, a ball hawk who attacks passes and will take some pressure off of the frequently abused S Roy Williams. Oh, and then there’s that Adam Jones kid. Having left behind Tennessee, his nickname, and, hopefully, his penchant for getting into trouble, Jones is all upside for the Cowboys, as they may have picked up a Pro Bowl talent for scraps. The preseason shows ring rust, but let’s give him until the season before we start spreading rumors of his demise, shall we? Up front, things are as evil as always thanks to Demarcus Ware, Bobby Carpenter, and Marcus Spears, and thanks to the addition of LB Zach Thomas, this team may give the Vikings a run for their money as the best run stopping unit in the league.

But, like I said, all of this is dependant on things falling into place for the individuals involved. I say I hate them, but the Patriots have a system in place that has them ready to overcome the failings of any one person (Brady aside). For the Cowboys, things could all go south quickly and decisively. One T.O. blowup, one return of Pacman, one injury up front on defense, one Jessica Romo misadventure, and the ensuing media frenzy and tension could swallow the team whole. And that’s what makes it fun. Wade didn’t just proclaim his team’s Super Bowl ambitions because they’re good enough to come through on them; he did it to let everyone know that no matter what else this team is going to have a face and a swagger. The Giants brought nothing but that kind of swagger to last year’s playoffs, and look what happened there. Is it crazy to think that a team with twice as much talent, at least on paper, can’t do the same? Or is it a fever dream to think that people can work together while still living apart, becoming a part of something greater while still being themselves? This team has the players to dominate the opposition on any given Sunday, and the personalities to implode a cohesive unit with the same immediacy. Whatever the answer is to the big question Dallas poses, it’s going to make for compelling TV. Get your popcorn ready, indeed.

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