Cowboys: Dream/nightmare scenario

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Cowboys in 2012.

Dream scenario (12-4): The issue in Dallas is the extent to which the defense improves. If the improvement remains incremental, they'll lose some games they should win and have to scrap to stay in the division race. But if the defense takes a dramatic step forward in its second year under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne having been brought in to upgrade the secondary, the Cowboys become a Super Bowl contender quite quickly. In the Cowboys' dream scenario, Tony Romo has another big year at quarterback, Miles Austin and DeMarco Murray stay healthy and Dez Bryant takes a big developmental step forward of his own, using his considerable physical ability to dominate matchups in other teams' secondaries and the end zone. The new guys on the offensive line tighten things up in the interior, the move back to right tackle makes Doug Free more comfortable and Tyron Smith transitions seamlessly to left tackle. And in the dream scenario, the improvements in the secondary help the defensive front seven get more pressure on the quarterback, with outside linebacker Anthony Spencer playing the way he did in December 2009 and DeMarcus Ware playing like ... well, like he always does.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): The Cowboys' nightmare scenario, as is the case with anyone's, includes injuries. In this scenario, Austin and Bryant struggle to stay healthy, and the team actually does find itself missing the surprisingly effective replacement Laurent Robinson provided in 2011. Murray also gets banged-up, forcing them to rely again on Felix Jones and little else at running back. Claiborne struggles, as young corners often do, to adjust to the speed and intensity of the NFL game, and Spencer muddles along again, content to be a pretty good but not great player opposite Ware. In the nightmare scenario, Romo has a bad year riddled with turnovers and the kind of inconsistency that gives his critics actual evidence for their criticism, and he raises legitimate questions about how much longer the Cowboys will remain committed to him. The nightmare scenario includes a slow start against a very tough-looking early portion of the schedule and sees the Cowboys succumb to the tension and negativity that's always so quick to cling to them in times of trouble. And no, because you're asking, I don't think that even the nightmare scenario puts Jason Garrett on the hot seat. Jerry Jones loves that guy.