Cowboys Step One: Win the Division
The countdown has begun to the Cowboys first regular season game on Sunday night, Sept. 13 against the NY Giants at AT&T Stadium. Anticipation is even higher than usual this year (and that’s saying something) after the Boys stunned everyone last season by amassing a 12-4 record and winning the NFC East and a playoff game, something that has been in short supply around here lately. So what can we expect from Tony Romo and the gang in 2015? Will they build on their momentum or take a step back? Do they have a legit shot this year at winning the NFC and making it to their first Super Bowl since the original Toy Story was crushing it at the box office and Seinfeld was dominating our non high-def TV’s?
To get to back to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA (where they played last night) and be part of the 50th Super Bowl they’ll have to have a lot of things fall right for them, but then again so will any team that manages to run the gauntlet that is the NFL regular season and playoffs. But it starts with winning the division again, and the NFC East looks to be the same two-team battle between the Cowboys and the Philadelphia Ducks, er I mean Eagles.
The questions surrounding the Cowboys start and end with their running game, and in particular how they will replace DeMarco Murray’s 1,845 rushing yards. Murray, of course, has taken his talents to the City of Brotherly Shove this season, and joins new Eagles QB Sam Bradford in Chip Kelly’s redesigned backfield. But if the Cowboys have a big ol’ question mark surrounding their running game, Eagles fans certainly have to be wondering what they can truly expect out of Bradford, who’s missed 15 games due to injuries over the past three seasons.
The difference between the two questions marks? The Cowboys don’t know what their running game can produce even if all three backs currently on the roster stay healthy, whereas Bradford has “first pick over-all” talent. Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar all received playing time for the Cowboys in last night’s preseason loss to the 49ers, combining for 34 rushing yards on 10 carries and six receiving yards on three catches – hardly numbers that inspire – and none have proven they can be a “lead back” type player in the NFL. Bradford on the other hand, is playing with that proverbial “chip” on his shoulder, and wants to show the world he was worth that number one pick in the 2010 draft. He’s looked sharp in the Eagles training camp and preseason, just as he did last year in St. Louis before a torn ACL sidelined him for the final nine games. If (and again it’s a big if) he can stay injury free, I expect big numbers from him this year in Kelly’s fast-paced offense.
Now back to DeMarco for sec. While I’ll be the first to say I can’t see him being the same workhouse throughout all five years of his current Eagles’ contract, and I would have let him walk for the numbers he signed to with Philadelphia just as Jerry and Stephen Jones did, he could very well be the difference maker for the Eagles this year when it comes to reclaiming the NFC East crown. Admittedly he ran behind what many consider the best offensive line in the league last year, but Philly’s boys up front are no joke either. Murray should have no issues finding holes plenty big enough for him to pop through and I don’t expect much of a production drop off from him. (Side note: If my name was Jones I would have signed Dez Bryant to his new contract early on and then franchised Murray keeping him in the silver and blue for at least one more year).
Another part of Murray’s game that is often overlooked is his superb blocking, especially when it comes to picking up blitzes (which ultimately can keep your QB on the field). While everyone questions Bradford’s ability to play in all 16 games, let’s not forget what worry number one, two and three was for the Cowboys heading into last season – keeping Romo and his twice surgically repaired back in the upright position. Murray had as much to do as the big boys on the line when it came to keeping Romo healthy all season, and if the current trio of “pick-a back” can’t at least replicate to some degree Murray’s effectiveness, we may be looking at a Brandon Weeden run offense for at least part of this season…and who can feel good about that? (26 career TDs and 28 Ints).
It’s pretty obvious I think the Eagles and Cowboys are at the top of the NFC East class. But I will say this about the NY Giants – they have the best receiving duo in the conference with Odell Beckham Jr. and a healthy again Victor Cruz (sorry Dez and Cole), and a quarterback in Eli Manning that seems to have found his game again last year (63.1% completion, 4410 passing yards and 30 TDs to 14 Ints). They also have a coach in Tom Coughlin that somehow inspires his troops every 4 years like clock-work (they won the Super Bowl in 2007 and 2010). So while I wouldn’t bet the house on the Giants making the playoffs this year (division crown or wild card), I wouldn’t bet against it either. So buckle up Cowboys fans – it should be a fun ride this year with all the normal twists and turns and story line shockers of a normal NFL season in Big D. But like any marathon it all begins with a first step – and the first step on the road to Santa Clara is winning the division once again.