First To Last & Back Again

Dez Bryant Jason Garrett

The 2014 NFL season for the Dallas Cowboys was preempted by three consecutive 8-8 seasons. The team was mired in mediocrity and expected to do nothing but continue along that same path. But 2014 was an unexpected success for the franchise as it won 12 games and the NFC East title. Running back DeMarco Murray won Offensive Player of the Year, and the team won its first playoff game in five years.

The happiness was short-lived as that unexpected success was followed by regression, injury and heartbreak. Murray left for a division rival. The defense wasn’t nearly as good as it was the season before, but more importantly, injuries befell the most important players on the roster; namely quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant.

Romo played in just four contests. The team went 3-1 in those games. Bryant played in just nine and was not nearly the player everyone expected him to be when he was on the field.  Without his Pro Bowl quarterback throwing him the ball, Bryant was no longer the unstoppable force he had become.

Dallas went a putrid 4-12 (1-11 without Romo behind center) on the year and finished in last place in the division, completing the first-to-worst swap that is so rare in most sports but happens so often in football. Now, with that foible in their rear view mirror and a top draft pick on their depth chart, the Cowboys are ready to attempt something even rarer: going from first to worst and back to first again.

It isn’t out of the realm of possibility this could happen for Dallas. After all, this division is no longer the pride and joy of the NFC that it once was. All it took was nine wins to grab the crown last year, and none of the four teams in the East seems precipitously better…with the possible exception of these Cowboys.

Dallas should be much better just because of dumb luck to begin with. Luck falls both directions, and if any team had it’s share of bad luck last year it’s the Dallas Cowboys. Romo has to be healthier this season than he was in 2015. That alone will add a number of wins to the team’s ledger. The same goes for Bryant, and that healthy pair will do wonders for the likes of rookie running back Ezekiel Elliot, as will the best offensive line in the league.

The Cowboys are far from guaranteed to make huge strides. They still have a weakness on the outside even when Bryant is in the game. Terrance Williams has never developed into that real second threat fans were hoping for. The defense could also be very, very shaky in 2016. But that’s just the thing. Who in the NFC East has a comfortably better resume than that? Washington could be prepping for its own regression this year; Philadelphia is in the midst of a rebuild; and New York just spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fix a leaky defense, and all that cash did was bring the leak down from ‘gushing’ to ‘spouting.’

The door is open for the Cowboys to climb all the way back into first place. In fact, it’s so wide open, they already have the best odds of any East team to win the NFC championship.

Ed Note: We would like to give a big welcome to our new writer Joe Messineo. Joe will be adding input all season long.