The Cowboys lost Tony Romo. They lost Dez Bryant. They lost Orlando Scandrick. They lost 12 games. The only thing they didn’t lose after last season was their swag.
The Cowboys did little in free agency despite having the franchise’s worst record since 1989. But Romo, Bryant and Scandrick — who missed a combined 35 games — return from injuries, and the Cowboys drafted dynamic running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys’ goal remains the same as every year — win the Super Bowl. That’s something they haven’t done in more than 20 years, recording a 162–158 mark since the 1995 season ended.
The Cowboys need their quarterback to stay on the field to have a chance to break their Super Bowl drought. He played only two full games — both victories — and less than three quarters of two others, twice breaking his left collarbone. Romo, who also broke his collarbone in 2010, underwent preventive surgery on his collarbone in the offseason. The 36-year-old has not played a full, 16-game schedule since 2012. So while Jones frequently talks about a four- to five-year plan for his quarterback, the Cowboys can’t count on Romo to stay in the lineup for an entire season. Yet, they did nothing to shore up the backup spot in free agency. Three reserve QBs combined for a 1–11 record last season, and Kellen Moore returns as the primary backup. The Cowboys drafted Dak Prescott in the fourth round.
The Cowboys missed DeMarco Murray despite Darren McFadden producing the second 1,000-yard season of his career. They discussed a trade with the Eagles to bring back Murray but instead ended up signing free agent Alfred Morris and drafting Elliott with the fourth overall choice. Morris and McFadden were expected to battle for the backup job, but that was before the latter broke his right elbow over Memorial Day weekend. He had surgery on June 14 and there’s a chance he may not be ready to go by Week 1. Lance Dunbar returns as the third-down back after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee in Week 4.
Jason Witten, 34, made it through a number of minor injuries, playing all 16 games for a 12th consecutive season. It was the first time he’s shown signs of wear and tear. Witten continues his role as team leader and the quarterback’s security blanket. Gavin Escobar likely enters his final season in Dallas after not living up to expectations as a second-round pick in 2013. He tore his Achilles tendon in December and likely won’t be ready to start the season.
Nothing went right for Bryant last season. He fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot in the season opener, requiring surgery that sidelined him five games. Bryant admits he never was healthy the rest of the season, though he did play eight more games before going on injured reserve. Bryant needed more offseason surgery but insists he will return to form in 2016. The Cowboys need their top playmaker to do just that after going without a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time since 2011. In Bryant’s absence, Terrance Williams failed to show he could be anything other than a complementary receiver. Cole Beasley solidified his role as the team’s third receiver, but Dallas couldn’t find a reliable fourth receiver.
The offensive line didn’t play as well in 2015 as it did the year before, but this group remains the best in the business. Left tackle Tyron Smith, a three-time Pro Bowl pick, allowed the second-most sacks of his career (eight) and tied for the most holding penalties of his career (three). But arguably no left tackle in the NFL does it better than Smith. Center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin joined Smith in the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive season. Right tackle Doug Free, 32, is the weak link on the line but remains the unit’s leader. The changing of the left guard came in the middle of last season when La’el Collins replaced Ronald Leary in the starting lineup. Collins had an up-and-down rookie season but made enough highlight-reel plays to bring back memories of Larry Allen.
The Cowboys can’t seem to figure out how to sack the quarterback. They had only 31 sacks last season, three more than the previous season. That was after they signed free agent Greg Hardy, who proved not to be worth the risk.
DeMarcus Lawrence, a second-round pick in 2014, was the lone bright spot. He led the Cowboys with eight sacks, seven coming in the final eight games. The rest of the defensive line contributed only 9.5 sacks. But Lawrence and Randy Gregory, a second-round pick in 2015, both will start the season by serving four-game drug suspensions. Defensive end Benson Mayowa, signed as a restricted free agent, had only two sacks in 28 games with the Raiders, but the Cowboys like his upside. Defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford played last season with a shoulder injury and still made five sacks. The Cowboys signed Cedric Thornton to play the nose, but he has only four sacks in 61 career games, so he isn’t likely to help their pass rush. Terrell McClain also will see playing time in the defensive tackle rotation. Draft picks Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper have a chance to compete for playing time.
Sean Lee missed one game due to a concussion and one due to a hamstring but led the team in tackles after moving from middle to weak-side linebacker and earned a Pro Bowl berth. The Cowboys re-signed Rolando McClain (80 tackles in 11 games) to man the middle, but he has been suspended 10 games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, this coming after missing the first four games of the 2015 season for a previous infraction. Anthony Hitchens made starts at all three positions last season, and he and Kyle Wilber, who started six games on the strong side, will compete for the starting job opposite Lee. Damien Wilson, a fourth-round pick in 2015, could earn more playing time this season.
Brandon Carr hasn’t made an interception the past two seasons, but he does stay on the field. That’s something Morris Claiborne and Scandrick haven’t done. Scandrick, who was the team’s co-Defensive MVP in 2014, missed all of last season after tearing two ligaments in his right knee during training camp. He was missed. The Cowboys still hope Claiborne can develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber player. They used the sixth overall pick on him in 2012, but he has not even shown flashes of being worth that. They upgraded the safety position with Byron Jones, a first-round choice last season. Jones won the starting free safety job from J.J. Wilcox at midseason. But Jones’ versatility hurt him, as the Cowboys asked him to play cornerback in four games Claiborne missed. Jones proved better at safety, and the Cowboys hope to find him a home there this season. Barry Church is a sure tackler at strong safety.
Dan Bailey ranks as the most accurate placekicker in NFL history, converting 90.6 percent of his kicks. He finally earned his first Pro Bowl last season. Punter Chris Jones had his best season with a 45.2-yard average and a 42.5 net. The Cowboys still haven’t replaced Dwayne Harris, who left last offseason for the Giants. Dunbar started the season as the kick returner, and, after his injury, Lucky Whitehead took over the job. Whitehead also ended up winning the punt return job from Beasley.
Jason Garrett has a long-term deal, but a 45–43 record, including only one playoff appearance and one playoff win, isn’t good enough in Dallas. While the Cowboys can write off last season to injuries, Jerry Jones expects more this season. They should contend for the NFC East, but they have too many holes to be considered a Super Bowl contender.