Twenty years have passed since the Cowboys last raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy. They have had only nine winning seasons since, with a 158–146 regular-season record and a 3–8 postseason mark. Yet, Jerry Jones has never lost faith.
This year begins no differently, although the Cowboys owner actually has reason to believe. The team has turned the momentum from last season into real, live Super Bowl hopes. The Cowboys saw a healthy Tony Romo for the first time in three offseasons. They welcome back the same offensive and defensive coordinators for the first time in four years. The league’s best offensive line returns intact. They helped their defense with some offseason additions. “I like the future of this team,” Jones says.
There’s nothing like the present, though.
The Cowboys believe as long as they have Romo, they have a chance. Romo underwent two back surgeries in two years, and last season he missed a game with two fractures in his transverse process. But he entered the offseason fully healed. Despite throwing for only 3,705 yards, Romo had one of the best seasons of his career with a 12–3 record, 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He led the league in completion percentage (69.9), yards per attempt (8.5), passer rating (113.2) and game-winning drives (five), putting his name in the MVP conversation. The Cowboys insist that Romo, 35, has a few good years left. They sought to upgrade their backup quarterback situation, but it appears Brandon Weeden will once again be the No. 2 signal caller.
The Cowboys took pressure off Romo last season by running the ball 508 times (vs. 506 pass plays). They’ll continue that approach in 2015, even though the league’s leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, left for Philadelphia in free agency. The only change likely comes in how many carries the rushing leader gets. Running back-by-committee appears likely with Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, Lance Dunbar and Ryan Williams competing for roster spots, playing time and carries. Randle showed signs last season as Murray’s primary backup, averaging 6.7 yards per carry, but he had only 51 attempts. McFadden, the No. 4 overall pick in 2008, gets a new start with a new team after seven injury-plagued seasons in Oakland. He played a full 16-game season for the first time in his career in 2014.
Jason Witten, 33, made his 10th Pro Bowl in 2014. Now in his 13th season, he shows no signs of slowing down. Witten remains Romo’s security blanket, and the tight end ranked second on the team in catches (64) and receiving yards (703) last season.
Dez Bryant became one of the top receivers in the NFL last season, earning All-Pro honors with 88 catches for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Cowboys applied the franchise tag to Bryant in the offseason, and the two parties have been unable to hash out a long-term contract. Bryant has hinted at the possibility of holding out, even if this means missing regular season games. If it remains unresolved by the time training camp opens, Bryant’s contract situation will no doubt be a hot topic and it remains to be seen if this will develop into a team-wide distraction.
Outside of Bryant,Terrance Williams had stretches where he disappeared, but he averaged 16.8 yards per catch and caught eight touchdowns. Romo trusted Cole Beasley as much as Bryant on third down, and Beasley won the job as the third receiver and a new payday at the end of the season.
Having used three first-round picks on offensive linemen since 2011, the Cowboys have built arguably the league’s best line. Zack Martin, who had never played guard until the Cowboys moved him there after drafting him 16th overall last year, earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie. He was joined by former first-rounders Travis Frederick (center) and Tyron Smith (left tackle) in the all-star game. The Cowboys kept their line intact by re-signing right tackle Doug Free to a three-year, $15 million deal and left guard Ron Leary to a one-year, $585,000 deal. They drafted Chaz Green in the third round to replace swing tackle Jermey Parnell and signed La’el Collins as a free agent after the projected first-rounder went undrafted due to some legal issues.
The Cowboys’ biggest offseason move was the signing of defensive end Greg Hardy. Dallas had only 28 sacks last season; Hardy had double-digit sacks in 2012 and ’13 but played only one game last season before going on the commissioner’s exempt list. Hardy's original 10-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the league was reduced to four games upon appeal. The Cowboys also drafted talented pass-rusher Randy Gregory in the second round, as this defense looks to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. DeMarcus Lawrence, who missed nine games with a broken foot as a rookie last season, will start at left end. Jeremy Mincey, Jack Crawford and Ben Gardner, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, will compete for playing time in the team’s rotation. The Cowboys moved Tyrone Crawford from defensive end to the three-technique last season and were happy with the results. He had three sacks and was solid against the run. Nick Hayden re-signed to play the nose. Terrell McClain also will see playing time in the defensive tackle rotation.
Sean Lee has missed 34 games in his five-year career, including all 16 games last season after tearing the ACL in his left knee on the first day of OTAs. Lee, who has two 100-tackle seasons and 11 career interceptions, will move from middle linebacker to the weak side, the most important linebacker position in the Tampa 2. The Cowboys re-signed Rolando McClain to man the middle, but he will miss the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Anthony Hitchens, who started at all three linebacker positions among 11 starts as a rookie, leads the candidates at strong-side linebacker. McClain
The Cowboys tried to shore up their cornerback position before the 2012 season when they signed Brandon Carr and traded up in the draft to select Morris Claiborne. But Carr hasn’t lived up to the contract, and the Cowboys are expected to ask him to take a pay cut, which could lead to his release. Claiborne missed 12 games last season with a ruptured patellar tendon in his left knee. Even when healthy, Claiborne has done nothing to give the Cowboys an indication that he ever will develop into a shutdown corner. Orlando Scandrick has become the team’s most reliable player at the position, but he did not participate in voluntary offseason workouts while seeking a raise. The Cowboys drafted Byron Jones with their first-round pick and expect him to play a big role as a rookie. Starting safeties J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church rarely make game-changing plays but rarely give up big plays and are sure tacklers.
Dan Bailey ranks as the second-most accurate placekicker in NFL history, converting 89.8 percent of his career kicks. He has nine game-winning kicks, including five in overtime, in his career. Dallas re-signed punter Chris Jones, who had a 39.8 net average last season, though Australian Tom Hornsey will compete for the job. The Cowboys will go into training camp looking for return specialists to replace Dwayne Harris.
Jason Garrett kept his job with an unexpected playoff run last season; he’ll be expected to produce even more this season. The Cowboys kept defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and offensive play-caller Scott Linehan. The addition of Hardy should help the pass rush, but a big question remains about how the Cowboys will replace Murray. They should contend for the division title, but the NFC title still might be a few more good players away.