Dallas As A Dark Horse

Maybe it’s chauvinism. Maybe it’s an overriding sense of optimism that is shared by any football fan as training camp opens (with the possible exceptions of Raiders and Lions fans). But reading the national professional football previews, I couldn’t help noticing that Dallas was a consensus 3rd in NFC East.

 Granted, the NFC East is a tough decision, and no one knows where these teams will ultimately end up, regardless of our succinct insistence otherwise. But 3rd? I should have expected such predictions given the way Dallas ended 2008, but my optimism, I suppose, knows no bounds around this time of year.
Call it a hunch, call it irresponsible, but if there is a time for brash and irresponsible predictions, it’s late-July. So here it goes: Dallas will place second in the NFC East, behind Philadelphia.
Let’s get into some presumptuous thinking. New York has a devastating offensive line, and an even more dominating defensive front. But as far as weapons, they are looking at a fair to significant step down. Plax is gone, as is Amani Toomer, as is Derrick Ward; granted New York still has Ahmad Bradshaw, who figures to replace Ward as the second option behind Brandon Jacobs. But Eli Manning, and the rest of the offense for that matter, will miss the departed receivers. The position is less of a question mark in New York than it is in Dallas, but I would argue not by much.
The bottom line is that New York did not upgrade, really, in any facet. Philadelphia did, adding depth to the secondary, a possibly immediate impact receiver in Jeremy Maclin and two new tackles in Jason Peters and Stacy Andrews, who will anchor the line. They did lose Correll Buckhalter in free agency, but LeSean McCoy could make an immediate impact in his rookie year behind Brian Westbrook.
If either Donovan McNabb or Westbrook goes down, Philadelphia will be hosed; however, assuming that they don’t, the Eagles will probably be the team to beat in the ultra-competitive east.
(You may have noticed I’ve mentioned Washington only once in this piece. This may be arrogant. This may bite me later in the year; ditto for any number of statements I’ve made. But the ‘Skins are relying on a still-unproven quarterback to lead the offense, a quickly aging offensive line to lead the way for him, and a rich defensive tackle to up the level of the entire unit. Clinton Portis is among the class in the league, but we’re still probably looking at an around-.500 club.)
Dallas will enter 2009 as good, if not better, in every facet except for wide receiver. The shift in offensive mindset (see: running the football) will make Dallas, as well as Tony Romo, more consistent, and the defense will be better with Wade Phillips at the helm for the entire season. They certainly showed the capacity to be brilliant after Phillips took over last October; and the secondary, which has been suspect over the last few years, will be better with the maturation of Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins, as well as the addition of Gerald Sensabaugh.
As painful as 2008 was, Dallas has made a shift from top to bottom without losing much talent in the process; from glitz and glamour on offense to (ostensibly) a boring, effective, running-centric attack. And, despite those 44 points in Philly last December, the defense is still really good; this is a defense that boasts arguably the best pass rush in the division and probably one of the top three or four in the game.
Indeed, a piece like this in late-July is a study in reductionism and presumptuousness. It is also, however, a byproduct of giddy anticipation, a beast that always seems to rear its head this time of year at anyone who spends an immoderate amount of time watching football.
That said, let the second guessing begin.
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