It's that time of year again.
Fans of the NBA and NHL are in the middle of cheering for their team’s playoff lives; fans of the MLB are just getting settled into another great season of baseball; meanwhile, fans of the NFL are miserably and impatiently counting down the days until next season.
It is in this period of football fan purgatory (Hell is, of course, the day after the Super Bowl, and Heaven is the beginning of the new season) that fans are left with nothing else to do but to speculate on what the coming season holds.
Even some players get in on the action, with Detroit Lions’ running back Kevin Smith predicting on Friday that his Lions would follow up their perfectly imperfect season (0-16) with their first trip to the postseason since 1999.
Indeed, this is the time of year when preseason expectations are brought to the forefront, and the bars on all 32 teams are officially set.
But expectations are a funny and fickle thing. Oftentimes, the bar is set unreasonably and unrealistically high, and when expectations are met or exceeded, they change.
If a fan was expecting their team to squeak into the playoffs, and their team does, then they will start to expect a playoff win. If they expected one or two playoff wins, then they will suddenly expect a Lombardi Trophy.
And for a fan of a Super Bowl winner who expected and predicted that win? They want two.
With all of that in mind, I offer to you my expectations for my team, the Dallas Cowboys. Of course, these expectations are subject to change.
Setting the Bar
The Cowboys are a franchise that has quickly earned the reputation as one of the most underachieving teams in the league. In the past three seasons, a lot has been expected of the Cowboys, but little has been delivered.
In fact, the Cowboys have been nothing but frustrating for more than a decade.
Since winning the Super Bowl in the 1995 season, the Cowboys have had only four 10-plus win seasons and have won only one playoff game. In that same 13 year stretch, they have had one season where they accumulated more than 10 wins in the regular season.
That season was in 2007, when the Cowboys won 13 games en route to a first round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Despite the season ending when the Cowboys lost a heartbreaking game to their division rivals—and eventual Super Bowl champion—New York Giants, the overall successful season fueled some serious Cowboys love.
The Cowboys became the new popular pick to be the Super Bowl XLIII champions. I was one of the fools that caught the “Cowboys Super Bowl Fever” and helped set those lofty expectations, but I will not make that mistake again.
If the Cowboys have not shown that they can be a true contender in the past 13 years, there should be absolutely no reason to expect them to be true contenders in 2009.
The Cowboys are a very talented, but inconsistent, team that is just as likely to hoist the Lombardi as they are to spend January sitting at home watching the playoffs.
I do not believe either of those two scenarios will pan out next season, however.
I expect the Cowboys to make the playoffs, finish in the top two of the NFC East, and win at least one playoff game. Anything less than that is a season failure and probably leads to organizational changes, and anything more than that is icing on the cake.
Why the Cowboys Fall Short of Expectations
To understand how the Cowboys could fall short of their expectations in 2009, one needs to look no further than last season.
Here was a team coming off of their best regular season in over a decade, was receiving accolades that they probably did not yet deserve, and then after getting off to a red hot start, their wheels just flew off.
There have been several scapegoats—Terrell Owens, Tony Romo, Jason Garrett, and the “injury bug” to name a few—but the reality is that it took a collection of efforts to screw up what could have been a great football team.
If those same problems rear their ugly heads again next season, the Cowboys could be staring at yet another disappointing year.
In particular, the two biggest problems with the Cowboys last season, and the two biggest potential roadblocks for them next season, are as follows:
1. Lack of Team Cohesion
Some will maintain that this problem has been “fixed” with the departures of Owens, Adam “Pacman” Jones, and Tank Johnson. With those players on the way out, coupled with high character free agency additions such as Keith Brooking and Igor Olshansky, the Cowboys seem to be moving in the right direction.
Still, the Cowboys’ might not yet be out of the dark.
From all accounts, Tank Johnson appeared to be a fine locker room guy, despite his past legal issues. His problems were on the football field, where he just did not live up to his hype. Pacman, although a slight—OK, major—distraction in his time wearing the star, was either injured or suspended when the Cowboys were playing some of their worst football.
Terrell Owens is a different story. I was, and still am, of the opinion that Owens got a bad shake last year. Yes he is a cocky, abrasive, and polarizing player, but relative to his first two stops in the NFL, he was an angel with the Cowboys—and he was entertaining to boot.
Still, whether he was or was not a problem in Dallas, concerns about team cohesiveness still remain.
If Owens was in fact a divisive force in the locker-room, how will his departure affect those that are still with the team? If there is still a faction of Owens supporters and Owens detractors, it is possible that the Cowboys could see a negative reaction similar to what we saw a couple of years ago in Philadelphia.
If Owens was not a divisive force in the locker-room, then the Cowboys could have an even bigger problem on their hands. There were Cowboys players and personnel leaking information to the media regarding Owens and the drama that seemingly always surrounded him.
If these leaks were giving out this information to try and rid the Cowboys of their “problem,” then that is one thing. But if they were leaking false information or were just trying to stir up drama, then they were the Cowboys’ real Achilles' heel.
No matter what their motive was for leaking the harmful information, that has got to stop next season. The Cowboys attract enough negative attention as it is. There is no need to add to that attention by sharing locker room problems that should remain in-house.
The Cowboys players and personnel do not have to like each other, but they do have to respect each other. Last year, that did not seem to be the case.
2. Poor Offensive Scheme
This may seem to be singling out Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett, and, in a way, it is. Garrett received a big payday to stay with the Cowboys after their tremendous 2007 season, but has yet to live up to that payday.
This could be attributed to a number of things: the departure of Tony Sparano, the turmoil surrounding the team, the injury bug, or just plain poor execution.
No matter what the cause, it needs to be corrected for the Cowboys to rebound in 2009. Last season, Garrett’s offense was under constant scrutiny, and for good reason.
Tony Romo and Terrell Owens both questioned the system, and opposing Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis claimed that the offense was so predictable that he knew what play the Cowboys would run before they ran it.
In the Cowboys' heyday, they could afford to run a vanilla offense. That was what made them so good. The opposing team oftentimes knew what they were about to run, but they could not stop it.
But Tony Romo is not Troy Aikman, Roy Williams is not Michael Irvin, and the Cowboys’ promising three headed running attack still do not add up to make Emmitt Smith.
The Cowboys have got to be more creative if they want to have an explosive offense again.
If Garrett does not earn his paycheck next year, then their season will end in disappointment yet again.
Why the Cowboys Exceed Expectations
Unfortunately, the Cowboys surpassing expectations set for them is not as easy as me (or you) willing it to happen. If that were the case, Jerry Jones would have more than three rings on his fingers.
A lot of things have to go right for a team to put themselves in position to make the playoffs, and even more has to go right for them to do damage once they get there.
Outside of the typical “work hard and execute” instructions for how to succeed in the NFL, however, there are a couple of keys to a solid Cowboys season in 2009:
1. Continued Improvement on Defense
One of the most exciting things about this team is their steady improvement on defense. Outside of the two long running plays in the Baltimore game and the embarrassing final effort in Week 17 against the Eagles, the Cowboys' defense looked better in the second half of last season than they have looked since the early ‘90s.
Although there are still question marks in the secondary, particularly the two safety positions, the Cowboys’ front seven is still positioned to be one of the best in the league.
With DeMarcus Ware coming into his prime and Anthony Spencer looking better every game, Dallas should wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks in the coming season, and in years to come.
If the Cowboys can just manage to get a few turnovers to go with their smothering defense, then look out!
Last season, the Cowboys had the league’s eighth best defense in terms of yardage surrendered, but finished 20th in scoring defense. This was partly because their offense oftentimes gave them miserable field position through stalled drives or turnovers, but it was also aided by the Cowboys’ lack of ability to gain turnovers themselves.
The Cowboys finished 20th in the league in turnovers forced, and 30th in interceptions. If there was a stat for dropped interceptions last season, I am almost 100 percent certain that the Cowboys would have led the league.
With continued pressure from the Cowboys front seven, some added work on the jug machines for the secondary, and maybe just a sprinkle or two of good fortune here and there, the Dallas defense has the potential to be a special one next year.
2. Roy Williams Succeeds in His New Role
While Tony Romo is the absolute most valuable piece to the Cowboys’ offensive puzzle, Roy Williams’ importance cannot be underestimated.
If the Cowboys hope to get back to the playoffs—and do some damage while they are there—then they will need to fix their offense, and if they hope to fix their offense, Williams is going to have to become a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
Although Dallas boasts one of the finest tight end duos in the league with Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett, the depth at wide receiver is going to be quite shallow next season, and that is putting it kindly.
Williams has never been a dominant No. 1 receiver, with only one 1,000-plus yard season to his resume. Patrick Crayton, although a nice receiver that can make some big plays, is a middle of the road number two receiver at best.
Miles Austin, Sam Hurd, and Isaiah Stanback have all shown nice flashes, but none of them have shown that they can be a consistent and reliable threat throughout the course of a 16-game season.
This means the Cowboys are going to have to rely on their running game more than they have in years past. Unless some of these receivers step it up to a previously unseen level when the season gets under way, the high flying pass attack is no longer going to work for this team.
The Cowboys have three different running backs who all showed signs of brilliance last season. If they can remain healthy, then they can resemble the New York Giants’ great running trio of the past couple of seasons.
However, without Williams stepping into and owning his new role, defenses will be able to shut down the running game, and the offense will sputter.
Time will tell what will happen with this latest Dallas Cowboys team.
Will they exceed their preseason expectations and bring home a Dallas Cowboys record-tying sixth Lombardi Trophy, fall short of expectations as they spend another playoff season playing golf, or will they simply meet expectations as they join a handful of other contenders who get close but get no cigar.
Nobody knows for sure just yet, but the answers start coming in 126 more days.