One year ago, as the Dallas Cowboys were putting together their most successful season since they last won the Super Bowl in 1995, it became apparent that a modern-day edition of the team's famous Triplets had emerged.
Quarterback Tony Romo was the league's highest-rated and most accurate passer while also leading the NFL in yards per attempt.
Running back DeMarco Murray was the league's leading rusher by a 484-yard margin, which was enough to earn him the Offensive Player of the Year award.
And wide receiver Dez Bryant led the NFL with 16 touchdown catches, which got him a first-team All-Pro nod at the age of 26.
Three offensive Pro Bowlers at the height of their respective careers. During the highest-scoring era in NFL history, that's a hell of a thing.
But now, just two weeks into the 2015 regular season, the Cowboys face what, on the surface, would appear to be an impossible challenge. For the foreseeable future, the modern-day Triplets are gone.
Murray, of course, left as a free agent in the offseason. And then Bryant suffered a major foot injury in Week 1 before Romo broke his left clavicle Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
That potentially crushing injury to Romo, which was confirmed by the Cowboys on Sunday, could keep the 35-year-old pivot out of the lineup for as many as eight weeks, per Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.
For what it's worth, Romo missed 10 weeks with the same injury in 2010, but the initial estimates were closer to the eight-week range, and Romo's recovery went slower than expected. But the Cowboys were also quite lousy that season and didn't have much incentive to rush Romo back.
Those expecting the Cowboys' season to follow a similar path without Romo this year aren't crazy, especially considering that backup Brandon Weeden and/or whomever they bring in as reinforcement under center will have to get by without Bryant—who appears as though he'll be out at least six weeks, per ESPN's Ed Werder, but as many as 12, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport—and the departed Murray.
However, the circumstances are quite different this time around.
In 2010, the Cowboys were 1-4 when they lost Romo in late October. At the same point, the Eagles and Washington Redskins were both 4-3 and the New York Giants were in the process of beating Dallas to move to 5-2.
Dallas had dug a hole against all three of its NFC East rivals, and the season was a month older than it is right now.
And although the Cowboys are more shorthanded than ever right now, it's early enough, and the NFC East is weak enough, that this team might just be able to survive being without both Romo and Bryant for most, if not all, of the first half of the 2015 season.
Yes, the division is a mess.
Without those Triplets, and despite being flagged for an absolutely ridiculous 18 penalties, the Cowboys dominated a supposedly good Philadelphia team in its home opener Sunday, holding Chip Kelly's "high-powered offense" to just three points pre-garbage time in a 20-10 victory. Werder noted the Cowboys won, despite facing obstacles:
Ed Werder @Edwerderespn
So #Cowboys win at #Eagles without Dez, without Romo for a half and with franchise-record 18 penalties2015-9-20 23:38:53
And just last week, they were victorious against a Giants team that continues to trip over itself every chance it gets. That happened again in Week 2, and now both the Eagles and Giants are 0-2, two games back of the first-place, unbeaten Cowboys.
That's as much pad as you could possibly ask for two weeks into a season.
Sure, the Redskins are off to a 1-1 start, but nobody expects a Washington team quarterbacked by turnover machine Kirk Cousins to contend this season, and we're not about to crown Jay Gruden for an early-season home victory over a St. Louis Rams team that hasn't posted a winning record since 2003 and doesn't really compete unless the Seattle Seahawks are in town.
The talent-starved, controversy-riddled 'Skins have still lost 26 of their last 34 games and will inevitably fade as the schedule darkens. The Eagles, who have been inexplicably gutted on offense the past two years by their football mad scientist of a head coach, are reeling with their next two games looming on the road. And the Giants, who continue to be without star receiver Victor Cruz, have to go to Buffalo and Philly in the next four weeks.
|The woes of the NFC East|
|Team||Record||Current slump*||Other issues|
|Cowboys||2-0||N/A||Romo and Bryant out with injuries|
|Redskins||1-1||Have lost 8 of 10||Kirk Cousins is the starting QB|
|Giants||0-2||3 straight losses||Haven't been to playoffs since 2011|
|Eagles||0-2||Have lost 5 of 6||Offense coming off worst game since 2013|
|* Dating back to 2014 (Pro Football Reference)|
Nobody is running away with this thing.
In fact, when you consider how flawed the Cowboys' rivals are, as well as the fact they'll inevitably beat up on each other in head-to-head matchups, the Cowboys could probably afford to lose five consecutive games over the upcoming six-week period. And during this time in which they're expected to be without both Romo and Bryant (they have a fortuitously timed bye in Week 6), they could still find themselves within a game or two of first place with a 2-5 record entering Week 9.
And even if they don't have either star at that point, at least they'll be through a tough part of the schedule (Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots, New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks) as they prepare to host the Eagles in Week 9. And beyond that game, only two of their final eight opponents had winning records in 2014.
Consider, too, that the 2010 Cowboys didn't have a lot of defensive support for an offense that lacked Romo. In fact, it gave up the second-highest point total in football (27.3) while ranking in the bottom 10 in total D.
This 2015 defense is different. It shut down Kelly's high-paced attack Sunday, holding the Eagles to their lowest point total in a 26-game stretch dating back to November 2013. It surrendered just one touchdown in each of its first two games (Philly's late score Sunday meant nothing), and it had three takeaways against the Eagles.
Linebacker Sean Lee is healthy again and off to a Pro Bowl-caliber start after a monster game Sunday in Philly, while Lee's second-year cohort, Anthony Hitchens, appears to be in the process of becoming a star himself. And in two weeks, they'll get star-caliber front-seven defenders Rolando McClain and Greg Hardy back from four-game suspensions. ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon placed the spotlight on Lee's exceptional performance:
Tim MacMahon @espn_macmahon
Sean Lee: 13 tackles (2 TFL), INT in end zone. We'd be raving about him for the next week if not for Tony Romo's injury.2015-9-20 23:31:20
At that point, the defense will be an absolute strength. Combine that with a stacked offensive line that made Murray look like Eric Dickerson last year and it shouldn't be hard for the Cowboys to remain competitive, despite their high-profile injuries, especially in that sorry division.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.