The NFL football season, certainly when compared to MLB, NBA, and NHL schedules, always seems so fleeting. After (often literally) surviving a 4-5-game preseason gauntlet, 32 NFL teams have a meager 16-game regular season schedule in which to successfully trigger their playoff dreams. That feeling fades just as quickly once these gladiators start competing.
Reality suddenly slows against the onslaught of weekly fan anticipation, much in the same way the speed of the game eventually slows for rookie players improving on play execution. Precious few games suddenly project much larger frames.
The NFL season has arrived at long last, and network television prognosticators have unveiled many a season-long forecast. Most fantasy football teams have been drafted . . . with some last-minute leaguers still being crafted. Bets have been placed, some for week one and others for when it is all said and done.
Getting to the starting gate, however, is anything but easy and filled, from end to end, with plenty of debate.
The Dallas Cowboys and their fans were exposed to an offseason that was undesirably eventful and a preseason that was unexpectedly painful.
“America’s Team” ended their 2017-2018 campaign flat as a pancake with syrup leaking off the plate in every direction. “Jerry’s Kids,” said all the right things and gave Cowboys Nation every reason to expect some level of future course correction.
Saying and doing, of course, diverge when it comes to proving. They did their thing in the spring to prevent their summer from being a bummer. They engaged in some addition and subtraction towards greater (and longer-term) satisfaction.
Teach What You Preach
One of the offseason coaching changes that were made is risky, while others were well-played.
Kellen Moore (player-turned-replacement for long-time quarterbacks coach, Wade Wilson) will hopefully be more than a mini, creatively-challenged Linehan. Fans would be rather pleased if Moore could apply greater pain to opponents with his brain and help Dak Prescott do greater harm against those opponents with his arm.
Sanjay Lal, the new receivers coach, by reputation alone, seems almost beyond reproach. Cowboys receivers should expect to excel and have a ball with Lal.
Paul Alexander, the offensive line coach replacement for Frank Pollak, should not be viewed as a mere change of stripes from one Cincinnati Bengal brother to another. While Pollak is a believer in Bill Callahan’s zone blocking, Alexander adheres to multiple choice, employing a mix of zone, power, and traps, to (once again) get “The Great Wall Of Dallas” rocking.
Kris Richard, the former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator, was perhaps the best coaching move of the offseason. The Cowboys’ new defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator was vital towards fostering Seattle’s infamous “Legion of Boom.” Since their own (release and retirement-driven) demise, Richard needed a new set of moldable-and-capable secondary guys. Such a change in philosophy only helps in the weekly effort to spell an offense’s doom.
While there were other training trade-ins (tight ends coach Doug Nussmeier and special teams coordinator Keith O’Quinn), if these specific coaches can teach what they preach, the Cowboys returning to the playoffs may not be a reach.
(Some) Movement Towards Personal Improvement
Some current players seem to have overcome their poor health spell, and most pre-draft moves with incoming personnel appear to have worked out well. Time will tell if still, other player plans begin to smell.
Dez Bryant was removed from the team like a stubborn clog from a collection of delicate pipes. Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett, to their credit, decided to rip off that band-aid and finally force themselves to fortify their offensive flanks from elsewhere, no matter the potential gripes.
And yet, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett, at one point appeared to be talking out of both sides of their collective mouth when they tried to coax Sammy Watkins into relocating. If fans were apoplectic over the possibility of Dez still receiving $12.5M per year, then discovering that Dallas offered the “one year clear of hardly healthy” Watkins $48M over three years was certainly not going to make Cowboys Nation cheer.
Nearly two years removed from myriad back problems and a 4-game PED suspension, defensive end DeMarcus “Tank” Lawrence received the franchise tag when long-term contract efforts began to lag. Perhaps following another solid, injury-free season, a big agreement could be in the bag.
Defensive end David “Dino” Irving signed his own one-year deal, but the talented defender will begin his second straight season on a 4-game suspension of his very own invention. While he freely admitted his punishment stemmed from smoking Mary Jane, he decried the NFL’s pharmaceutical hypocrisy and over-medicated stain. His timing was anything but ideal and he wisely chose not to appeal.
Speaking of extremely talented tokers who double as maturity chokers . Dallas was granted permission by the league office to activate defensive end Randy Gregory from the NFI (Non-Football Injury) list. Seemingly against all odds, Gregory, with plenty of monitoring, support, and ownership of his mind-numbing situation, has arisen from a certain graveyard of professional sports clods. That Randy might actually start Dallas’ first game of the season (following solid showings in the exhibitions) remains a shock to Cowboys Nation.
Gregory was not the only defender activated, defensive tackle Maliek Collins was pulled off the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list in training camp. Between Lawrence, Irving, Gregory, and Collins, fans are imagining a defensive line that could leave their offensive counterparts feeling regularly dominated.
Free Agency Vacancy
Free agency took its customary bite with all but a handful of the Cowboys’ losses. Keith “Serviceable Fullback” Smith, Kyle “Career Special Teamer” Wilber, Jonathan “(Still A) Traveling Man” Cooper, and Bene “Basically Buried On The Bench” Benwikere are perhaps not out of mind but certainly out of sight.
Anthony “Humpty” Hitchens saw his cha-ching chances of remaining with Dallas dashed and with the Chiefs he cashed. His leadership and underrated skills may dearly be missed if he who replaces him does not get more of the pass-coverage gist.
Brice “If I’m Not Starting, I’m Not Going Back” Butler had little choice (upon seeing Terrance Williams re-up) but to flock to the Cardinals, where an alleged greater opportunity will either enhance or silence his voice.
Alfred “A-Train” Morris was a consummate professional in patiently accepting any scraps while refusing to fall prey to frustration traps. The Cowboys chose not to resign him, but his old coach Kyle Shanahan came calling before his career could potentially grow dim.
Benson “(Too Much Of A) Situational Solution” Mayowa and Byron “Swing Tackle / Tyron Smith Spackle” Bell also seemed destined to depart for lack of more ability to play a bigger part.
With those same vacancies created by free agency, the Cowboys (save for their Watkins whiff) would apply some measured urgency. Dallas would sign former Super Bowl starter and free agent defensive end Kony Ealy to a one-year agreement, but he would not survive competition from the Cowboys’ encouraging youth movement.
When Tyron Smith said “I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve been in a while,” fans felt encouraged to turn up their expectation dial. Dallas knew better and signed Super Bowl-experienced offensive tackle Cameron Fleming away from the Patriots to help ensure the Cowboys’ offensive line does not crumble for a second consecutive season.
The Cowboys also signed former 49ers offensive guard Marcus Martin, but a torn ligament (sustained against his former team in a preseason game) forced Dallas to place Martin on season-ending injured reserve, leaving the Cowboys’ o-line depth still smartin’.
Jaylon Smith sidestepped any further drop-foot support and with his preseason play, seemed to confirm suspicions that he has regained “more than enough” lateral movement. His cheetah-like closing speed and the ability to safely contort has begun to return, giving the team hope. Dallas knew better and signed linebacker Joe Thomas away from the Packers just in case Smith’s best foot forward unexpectedly fails in space.
Improving Your Craft Through The Draft
Draft day rolled around and the Cowboys seemed to be on solid ground. Before the ink could dry on their first-round selection card, team leader and tight end extraordinaire Jason Witten suddenly (to Cowboys Nation) decided to indulge a different kind of game day career, making Dallas’ job additionally hard.
The Cowboys have become one of the better teams at improving their craft through the draft. The rigors of training camp and preseason, however, would surely expose their selections as seaworthy sailors or shaky swimmers in need of a raft. And yet, months later, the Cowboys have a well-rounded draft day bunch. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, offensive guard Connor Williams, wide receiver Michael Gallup, defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr., and tight end Dalton Schultz all appear capable of injecting Dallas with a promising performance fix.
As the preseason drew to a close, the Cowboys joined the rest of the league with a last-minute mod of their practice squad, arranging their signees for a nice group pose. They had defensive end, Charles Tapper, wide receivers Lance Lenoir and Dres Anderson, running back Jordan Chunn, offensive tackle Jake Campos, cornerback Donovan Olumba, and linebacker Kyle Queiro, as well as former 2016 sixth-round pick Darius Jackson (a talented ball carrier and special teamer poached by the Packers after Dallas brought him back).
Short Shots And Hot Spots
While Dallas exited their preseason 0-4, the team showed enough quality starting talent to fend off whatever regular season challenges may be in store. However, if these Cowboys are forced to rely on too many of their seconds or thirds string players…there simply are no words.
Speechless is one way to describe Cowboys Nation at learning that Pro Bowl placekicker dandy Dan Bailey would no longer be makin’ ‘em daily. In yet another sign Garrett understands what is on the line this season, he would sidestep to CFL journeyman Brett Maher as the next person to drive the kicking car. While Bailey may, indeed, be suffering some kicking incontinence (from the effects of a lingering-year-old injury, a slowing success rate, or some creaky confidence), fans will soon learn if ditching the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history is tantamount to treason.
The Cowboys wisely wasted no time in using their secondary surplus to pry offensive guard Parker Ehinger from the Chiefs in exchange for undrafted rookie cornerback Charvarius Ward. Ignoring the now-critical depth issues along the Great Wall would have been a mistake even Jerry Jones could not afford. Just as the Cowboys were breaking in their o-line band-aid, Ehinger suffered a season-ending knee injury that ruined what was a well-timed trade.
Dallas immediately brought back offensive guard Kadeem Edwards, whom they hope will take his new opportunity to heart and help stop the Great Wall from falling further backward.
Yes, the MASH unit mayhem just keeps on coming with cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and safety Kavon Frazier both listed as questionable. And with safety Xavier Woods already ruled out, fans just want to scream and shout “Earl Thomas!” The Seahawks continue to insist on first-round butter and when they turned down the Cowboys’ recently-improved offer, the Seahawks did not stutter.
Also, remember Cowboys Nation was up in a nasty lather over Rico “Royally Goofed” Gathers just days ago. Most fans were convinced his doorway to the 53-man roster was all-but-shut after he got caught with a “Dallas Dooby” or “Cowboys Cannabis” which should have gotten the raw but talented Rico instantly cut. If only there were no other players over which fans are now screaming “NOOOOOOOO!”
Will They Or Won’t They?
The Dallas Cowboys are set to converge on Carolina’s Bank of America Stadium for an NFC South start to their season. The Panthers seek to be brutal hosts, making a potential road win for Dallas that much more pleasing.
Going up against 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton is always dangerous. Give him time and he has the arm to slice up your secondary, even with his average accuracy. If “Marinelli’s Men” take away his targets, will he use his size and mobility to make his attackers far from merry?
While Carolina has a relatively ho-hum group of receivers, their All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen and journeyman deep threat Torrey Smith remain stand-out retrievers.
The Panthers’ second-year stud at running back, Christian McCaffrey, is similar to Reggie Bush, a multipurpose, offensive pain in the tush. Will the Cowboys remain on guard against such a dynamic receiver, rusher, and returner? Will Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith be up to the task of washing out this burner?
While Carolina does not sport the same Super Bowl 50 defense from a few years ago, will they still prove quite the punishing foe? Luke Kuechly is the tip of their spear, but will Shaq Thompson, and Dontari Poe be ready to strike between-the-tackles fear? Luckily for Dallas, Thomas Davis is suspended for the contest.
“Linehan’s Clan” has an opportunity against a hungry Panther’s defense, but only if the Cowboys’ offense chooses to dispense with their predictability.
The Great Wall Of Dallas is only as good as its weakest link, and when just one talented brick in that wall breaks, the results totally stink. Travis “Fredbeard” Frederick remains on the 53-man roster, but his condition will not improve anytime soon, so the Cowboys will have no chance with a performance impostor. Can backup center Joe Looney play out of his mind like a complete goon?
A determined Ezekiel Elliott may still raise everyone’s hair, but will Dak and Dallas’ revamped receivers have to go too heavily through the air to get a victory over there?
We shall see. We always do.
You can chat with or follow Eric on twitter @emscharf