NFL Team Previews: Dallas Cowboys

Somewhere along the line the Dallas Cowboys morphed into the Minnesota Vikings—a team that was competitive every year, had seasons where they looked the part of a legitimate Super Bowl threat and were always a good bet to win on a week-to-week basis, but also a team that never translated that into sustained postseason success. The Cowboys have been .500 or better in seven of the last eight years and they’ve won two of the last five NFC East titles, but they’ve also never advanced past the second round of the playoffs since their last Super Bowl year in 1995. Will 2012 be different? TheSportsNotebook breaks down the Cowboys…

OFFENSE: Tony Romo takes a lot of heat for a quarterback who’s got a 66% completion percentage, a 31-10 TD/INT ratio and threw for over 4,100 yards. That comes with the territory as an NFL quarterback—it might not be fair, but at least you’re well paid for the trouble. More disconcerting to the Cowboys is that the heat Romo takes isn’t limited to fans and media. Opposing defenses have little difficulty getting to the quarterback up the middle, thanks to a poor interior of the offensive line. There’s nothing wrong on the edges—Tyron Smith is a terrific 21-year-old left tackle and Doug Free is rock solid on the right side, but when you face defensive lines like the Giants and Eagles, you have to protect up the gut and Dallas can’t do that.

This has further implications for the running game, making it difficult for Demarco Murray or Felix Jones to run between the tackles. The durability of both backs is a question mark, but when healthy they do make a nice combination with Murray taking most of the load and Jones providing an explosive change-of-pace.  The receivers are a similar combo of question marks and potential. If Miles Austin can get back to his 2010 self, if Dez Bryant can put his personal problems behind him and if Jason Witten can get healthy (he’ll miss Wednesday’s opener against the Giants with a knee injury, but it doesn’t look like a long-term problem)then this can be a good group. But the question themselves pose the problem, as does the lack of depth.

DEFENSE: The secondary has been the Cowboy bugaboo for a few years now and they finally went out and got quality fixes on the corners. The team signed Brandon Carr in free agency, a top-caliber corner in his own right and then they used the fifth pick in the draft to take Morris Claiborne out of LSU. Claiborne is in the opening night lineup and I fully expect his impact to be immediate.

When you have two corners who can lock down, you create a lot of freedom for your linebackers and is there any linebacker more dangerous than Demarcus Ware? With 19.5 sacks last year Ware is a good a player—regardless of position—that there is in the sport and his presence overshadows the fact that Anthony Spencer on the other edge is a pretty good football player in his own right. The Cowboys have two Penn State products on the inside in Sean Lee, a top-shelf player, and Dan Connor, who is more pedestrian.

Jay Ratliff holds down the nose and the 31-year-old vet might be a little undersized, but he gets it done. And Jason Hatcher posted 4.5 sacks last year, a nice number for an end in a 3-4 and it marks him as a threat if opposing protection schemes focus too much on Ware and Spence. The weaknesses of this defense are clear—strong safety is horrific and free safety Gerald Sensenbaugh is vulnerable.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 8.5—I’m not sure if I’ll pick the Cowboys to make the playoffs, but I will pick them to win at least nine games and possibly more, so the Over is an easy call here