Have 36 weeks already gone by since the Dallas Cowboys lost yet another do-or-die Week 17 divisional showdown to fall to 8-8 at the conclusion of the 2013 NFL regular season? With the 2014 campaign getting underway in a few days, we present to you 10 predictions related to America's Team.
1. Tony Romo will have the best season of his career
With three recent first-round picks—Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zach Martin, all of whom are 23 years old—the offensive line is jacked. In fact, it might be the best overall line in the league. Those guys will protect Romo, who will also be lucky enough to have Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Terrance Williams catching passes and DeMarco Murray in the backfield. Bryant, Witten and Murray were all Pro Bowlers in 2013.
|NFL yards-per-attempt leaders, 2013|
|1. DeMarco Murray||5.2|
|2. LeSean McCoy||5.1|
|3. Jamaal Charles||5.0|
|4. LeGarrette Blount||5.0|
|5. C.J. Spiller||4.6|
|Min. 150 carries (Pro Football Reference)|
I know, Romo's twice-operated-on back is a potential problem, and he's no spring chicken at 34, but we've seen quarterbacks dominate well beyond that point. Romo got a late start to his career and has only recently mastered his game. Now, with those weapons, look for a huge season.
2. The defense will finish dead last in terms of points and yards allowed
Last season, because they had a lot of takeaways, the Cowboys gave up the third-highest yardage total in NFL history but managed to surrender fewer points than six other teams. This year, with Sean Lee out, Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware gone and Orlando Scandrick suspended for the month of September, there's a very good chance this D will somehow become even worse.
|Dallas Cowboys: Top defensive grades, 2013|
|1. Jason Hatcher||DT||20.9||Gone|
|2. DeMarcus Ware||DE||11.6||Gone|
|3. Sean Lee||MLB||9.7||Out for season|
|4. Orlando Scandrick||CB||3.4||Suspended 4 games|
|Pro Football Focus|
They've quite simply been torn apart far too much to avoid becoming an even larger laughingstock in 2014.
3. Michael Sam will spend the majority of the season on the 53-man roster
If indeed they sign Sam to the practice squad this week, the Cowboys will have themselves a talented pass-rusher from a major conference with the ability to wreak havoc at the NFL level. With Ware gone and rookie DeMarcus Lawrence on the short-term injured reserve, and with Jerry Jones and Co. always seeking some extra attention, Sam is an ideal fit not only for the practice squad but for the 53-man roster.
Eventually, a spot should open up and Sam will have an opportunity. Don't be surprised if that happens before the end of October in Big D. And don't be surprised if the kid comes through in a major way.
4. DeMarco Murray's numbers will drop off
That's not to say that Murray won't be able to once again average north of five yards per carry while making a tremendous impact on this offense, but we don't trust him to stay healthy for all 16 games and we're envisioning a situation in which the Cowboys will be forced to throw it quite frequently in order to keep up.
Throw in that the 'Boys really seem to believe Lance Dunbar can be relied upon to take major reps, and there's a strong possibility Murray falls short of the 1,100-yard mark that he was able to reach in 2013.
5. Orlando Scandrick will reclaim his starting spot from Morris Claiborne
We don't trust Morris Claiborne in terms of technique, productivity or even durability. The 2012 first-round pick just missed yet another full preseason, which doesn't bode well for his chances of proving that he isn't quickly becoming a bust.
|Morris Claiborne's many injuries|
|Wrist surgery||March 2012||Missed OTAs|
|Right MCL sprain||August 2012||Missed large chunk of camp|
|Concussion||December 2012||Missed Week 15 vs. Steelers|
|Left knee sprain||August 2013||Missed entire preseason|
|Hamstring||November 2013||Missed six games|
|Left shoulder||May 2014||Missed start of OTAs|
|Pinkie||May 2014||Missed start of OTAs|
|Right knee tendinitis||August 2014||Missed entire preseason|
Claiborne starts while Scandrick's suspended, but it was obvious last season that Scandrick was the better player in every respect. Watch for Claiborne to struggle early—especially during that Week 4 Sunday nighter against the Saints—before giving the job back in October.
6. Terrance Williams will put up 1,000 yards
Bryant keeps getting better. He, Witten and Murray are attention hogs, and Miles Austin is gone. Williams, who was a third-round pick last year, put up 736 yards despite starting only eight games as a rookie. Now, the Baylor product will start from the get-go.
With favorable coverage and a ton of support throughout his sophomore season, Williams is likely to explode in 2014.
7. Dwayne Harris will have a Pro Bowl season on special teams
At the age of 26, you get the feeling Harris is primed to have a massive fourth NFL season. Last year, he ranked in the top five on both punt and kick returns, but he only took one to the house. Harris, who actually excels in all facets of special teams, has had some big returns this preseason.
And if Dallas is going to give up as many points as most expect this season, the East Carolina product can expect to have plenty of opportunities to break free in 2014.
8. George Selvie will lead the team in sacks
By default? Henry Melton keys inside, Anthony Spencer still isn't healthy, Ware and Hatcher are gone, and Kyle Wilber might not be ready to become a pass-rushing demon just yet. Hell, he might not even start.
Last season, Selvie was second on the team with seven sacks, sandwiched by Hatcher and Ware. With DeMarcus Lawrence and DeVonte Holloman both also out of the picture, Selvie is the obvious candidate to win the team sack title. Amazing how drastically this unit has changed in a year, because he was still a scrub off the street last August.
9. Dallas will finish dead last in the division for the first time since 2002
In the span since that last-place finish, the Cowboys have rarely been good but have never really been bad. But that might be about to change. It's extremely hard to be perfectly average (8-8) three years in a row, which is why the Cowboys are likely going to gain or lose steam in 2014.
|Brad Gagnon's NFC East prediction, 2014|
|1. Philadelphia Eagles||11-5||+100|
|2. Washington Redskins||9-7||+25|
|3. New York Giants||6-10||-70|
|4. Dallas Cowboys||5-11||-110|
And based on what's happening with the defense, the trajectory in Dallas indicates they're doing to see that win total drop, maybe in extreme fashion. The team has had its hands tied in free agency for several years now and hasn't been able to make up for it in the draft. With the rest of the division seemingly getting better, that's a problem.
10. Jason Garrett will be fired before we ring in 2015
I know Jones continues to show an inexplicable amount of support for Garrett, but the head coach's contract expires at the conclusion of this season, and we still don't buy for a second that this front office will offer him a new deal if indeed the Cowboys fail to put together a winning record for a fifth consecutive season.
If the 'Boys can't finally get over the hump but remain competitive despite the injuries and the depletion of the defense, then this'll at least be up for debate. But there's a strong chance they'll fall on their face, in which case it'll be time for a fresh start.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFC East for Bleacher Report since 2012.