At the end of the 2014 NFL season there was little discussion about whether or not the Dallas Cowboys could and would repeat as the champions of the NFC East. The team took the Green Bay Packers to task in their playoff game, and were one play away from beating the Pack to move on and face the Seattle Seahawks, who they had beaten earlier that year in Seattle.
Then the offseason hit, and the Philadelphia Eagles went to town and made move after move that no one saw coming. This included (but was not limited to) poaching NFL Offensive Player of the Year, DeMarco Murray, from the Cowboys. Based on all the moves, it was hard to not look at the Eagles as a bigger threat than they were the year before. It was also hard for a lot of people not to look at the lack of moves and the significant losses sustained by the Cowboys and think that the team would not be back in the postseason at the end of the 2015 season.
Then came the NFL Draft. While the Cowboys did not get the running back many experts were sure they needed to be competitive, the team did land two first round talents in corner/safety Byron Jones and linebacker/defensive end Randy Gregory. With defense being the Achilles heel of the Cowboys last season, the team added two potential starters, with Gregory being the potential steal of the draft as he was evaluated as a top ten talent.
Adding in a proven veteran like Greg Hardy has also brought some punch to one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL last season, but Hardy is still awaiting the verdict of his appeal to a 10-game suspension. So for the meantime, we’ll ignore him as a contributor, but do keep him in mind if the suspension is reduced to two games.
Perhaps one of the largest contributions may come from players that were already on the roster. Morris Claiborne was picked sixth overall in 2012 and was injured for most of the 2014 season. Entering the last year of his contract, he has everything to prove if he wants to stay in the NFL in 2016. Sean Lee spent the entire 2014 season on injured reserve after an injury sidelined him in training camp of last year. When on the field, Lee has shown the vision and quickness that would have him make the Pro Bowl, but has been injured too often for there to be any continuity. Having both those players around and healthy for the 2015 season, coupled with the recent draft and free-agent acquisitions may be more than enough to turn the Cowboys into an elite defensive unit. But let’s not forget the other side of the ball.
One of the reasons the Dallas’ defense was as “good” as they were last year is because the offense protected them. I am in no way discounting the loss of DeMarco Murray, but the addition of La’el Collins out of LSU makes things very interesting for the Cowboys. First of all, Collins was ranked by many to be the best offensive lineman in the draft. To add him into the mix of lineman that saw three of five starters go to the Pro Bowl is pretty amazing (and sort of ridiculous).
While new running back Darren McFadden is not even a poor man’s Murray, he will be running behind the best offensive line in the NFL, and that helps a lot. The addition of Collins means that Dallas has the ability to trade either tackle Doug Free or guard Ronald Leary. My guess would be that Free is the guy that gets traded as Collins makes more sense as a tackle, and Free takes up more cap space. Perhaps a team like the Buffalo Bills that could use some line help, and has an extra back (Fred Jackson), might be willing to make a swap there. Even if Collins doesn’t start, Dallas is going to continue to run the ball, eat up the clock and try to make things easier on their defense by giving them time to rest and provide good field position from which to work.
Outside of Murray the offense didn’t lose anyone of note. That entire starting line-up that ranked seventh in the league in yards, and fifth in points in 2014 returns. Oh, and they also finished tied for second, converting on 47 percent of third downs. There is also some hope that Tony Romo could be better this year, as he had to take a pain killer before each game due to stiffness in his back. An offseason of rest should help him come back after the best statistical year of his playing life.
I try to be reasonable with my fandemonium, I’d go insane if I didn’t. In looking over a very tough Dallas Cowboys schedule, the team can go 10–6. Given a lucky break or two that could be 12–4 as it was last season, but it could be 8–8 with a few bad bounces as well. But 10–6 seems realistic. The thing about what the Eagles have done is that it’s very boom or bust. A new quarterback, running back, and starting wide receiver, none of whom have played together in the Chip Kelly system before. It could be too many moving pieces to make it successful. Of course if it all clicks, it could be lighting in a bottle. Murray also put a lot of miles on his tires last season, and no back in history has ever rushed the ball as much as Murray did and come back the next year and did as well.
So in my expert opinion, the answer is “yes.” Yes, the Dallas Cowboys have done enough to retain their division crown atop the NFC East. Yes, they will beat the Eagles and be a team others have to worry about in the postseason. Yes, Jerry Jones will make even more money. And yes, the Dallas Cowboys will continue to be the team I put my support behind, for better or worse. How bout dem Cowboys?!