Great Debate: Cowboys to the Super Bowl?

As part of our ongoing "Great Debate" series, ESPN.com's Matt Mosley and ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon were asked to discuss the Dallas Cowboys' chances of reaching the Super Bowl. You might have heard that it's being played at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Will the prospect of becoming the first NFL team to qualify for a hometown Super Bowl give the Cowboys some extra motivation? We're about to find out over the next six months.

Now, let the debate begin:

Mosley: Tim, let's dive right into this thing without exchanging too many pleasantries because the two of us have never exchanged a lot of pleasantries. I wish we'd had this debate before the preseason games, because the Cowboys' first-teamers were embarrassingly non-competitive in matchups with the Chargers and Texans. But since I don't put one ounce of stock into the preseason, I'll argue that the Cowboys will become the first team in NFL history to play host to a Super Bowl in their own stadium. It sort of makes me queasy to espouse that type of optimism for this franchise, but I honestly think they have a lot of the intangibles that are necessary to make this happen.

The most important ingredient is quarterback Tony Romo. I think winning his first playoff game last season against the Eagles was huge for his confidence. I think we both agree that he has the talent to lead a team to the Super Bowl, but he desperately needed to get the Seattle-New York monkey off his back.

In 2009, Romo learned to put his teammates before himself. It was an important lesson for a guy who forged a reputation based on his devil-may-care approach. As backup quarterback Jon Kitna explained it to me last season, Romo realized that decisions he makes on the field affect everyone in the organization. He ended up with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions and was able to strike a nice balance between his improv work and his willingness to throw the ball away. He remembered Bill Parcells bellowing in practice, "The throwaway's a good play!"

Oh wait, I need to take a break and let MacMahon say something.

MacMahon: Glad to see Parcells’ wisdom is still fresh in your mind, Matt. Perhaps you recall his oft-repeated line about putting away the anointing oil in regard to Romo.

You really think one playoff win is proof that Romo is ready to carry the Cowboys to a Super Bowl? What about the next weekend? He failed to get the Cowboys in the end zone during a lopsided loss to the Vikings.

Of course, it’s not all about the quarterback. The Cowboys’ biggest concern appears to be their aging offensive line, which got whipped by the modern-day version of the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters. The Cowboys have to cross their fingers that right tackle Marc Colombo and left guard Kyle Kosier can come back strong from knee injuries that could sideline them for the season opener and beyond.

It would be wrong to rule out Romo as a potential Super Bowl quarterback, but it’s foolish to consider him the favorite in a conference that features a couple of guys who have done it before and have great supporting casts (New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Minnesota’s Brett Favre). Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is also arguably more likely to be a featured attraction at JerryWorld in February.

Perhaps I should pacify the New York branch of your Beast readership by mentioning Eli Manning, who has as many playoff wins on Texas soil as Romo.

Mosley: Tim, we both know that Wade Phillips let that Vikings playoff game get away from him when he opted for a long field goal attempt from a shaky kicker instead of doing the logical thing and going for it on fourth-and-1. And when Flozell Adams suffered an injury in the second quarter, the game was effectively over. But you're correct in saying the offensive line is a major concern. We've learned to appreciate the work of Kosier when he has been out of the lineup and his backup, Montrae Holland, hasn't exactly been a road-grader in the preseason. But wait, I'm arguing against myself.

As crazy as it might sound to longtime Adams apologists such as yourself, Doug Free will be an upgrade at left tackle. He's had a good preseason and the Cowboys' great offensive line coach Hudson Houck, who mentored future Hall of Famer Larry Allen, raves about Free's work on the left side. Once the season gets rolling, perennial Pro Bowlers Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis will return to form.

You talk about the Saints like they're invincible, but I seem to recall the Cowboys going into the Superdome last December and pushing them around. The Saints won a Super Bowl with someone named Jermon Bushrod playing left tackle. The Cowboys might be long in the tooth along the offensive line, but they have better units than the Eagles and Redskins for sure. The Giants have been just as banged up as the Cowboys throughout training camp, so those offensive lines are pretty close.

Last time I checked, Rodgers hadn't won a playoff game, so I'm not sure why every national pundit suddenly has him in front of Romo. And surely Favre's ankle can't hold a lot more lubricant. Without Sidney Rice in the lineup the first half of the season, Favre will be missing a major weapon. If the Cowboys can secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs this time around, I think they'll get a bonus game at their home stadium.

Obviously I'm winning the debate at this point, but I want to give you some more reps. Other than being worried about the offensive line and the talented players on other teams, what's your biggest reason for the Cowboys not going to the Super Bowl?

MacMahon: No wonder you dropped out of Baylor Law School all those years ago. You do a fine job of shooting holes in your own case.

You blame Phillips (1-5 postseason record as a head coach) for making a poor decision in a playoff loss. Does his new contract somehow guarantee that won’t happen again? You mention that the Cowboys had a shaky kicker situation last season. Has that changed? They’re crossing their fingers that David Buehler can get the job done. He’s money on kickoffs and sprints against disappointing draft picks, but he’s never attempted a field goal in the NFL and was erratic at USC.

Of course, you could point out that the Cowboys had no reason to be confident in their short-yardage offense instead of just pointing the finger at Phillips for not going for it on fourth-and-1. After all, your perennial Pro Bowlers couldn’t pave the way for Marion Barber to get a yard on four tries against the Chargers in December. I hate to use actual facts in this debate, but Barber’s conversion percentage on third- and fourth-and-1 ranked among the lowest of backs with at least 10 such opportunities last season.

And you totally lost me with the Flozell Adams turn. You begin by saying how much the Cowboys missed him in the Minnesota massacre and follow it up by declaring that Doug Free is a significant upgrade. Sort of a false start, which is fitting.

Free is certainly an upgrade, but Jared Allen was far from the biggest problem for the Cowboys in the playoff loss. That was Ray Edwards, the Vikings’ other end, who wreaked havoc from the first time that annoying horn blew. Which gets us back to whether Colombo can get completely healthy.

But the biggest reason I’m skeptical about the Cowboys’ Super Bowl aspirations? Because I remember what happened when they were supposed to be Super Bowl front-runners a couple of years ago. I can’t just hop back on the bandwagon. I’ve got to see it to believe it.

Mosley: Tim, that's a fascinating conclusion you've reached. You need to see them reach the Super Bowl before you can be convinced they can get to a Super Bowl. And to compare this current group of players to the '08 "front-runners" is completely unfair. That locker room was home to Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson and Terrell Owens.

With those players "safely" in Cincinnati now, the Cowboys have a completely different team. The arrival of Keith Brooking in '09 via free agency was a huge thing for this team. He's an excellent linebacker, but more important, he's a tremendous leader. He and safety Gerald Sensabaugh were big-time additions to this defense.

The Cowboys had one of the top defenses in the league last season, and they have a chance to be better in 2010. The other three NFC East teams have major questions. And I think the Saints are about to go through a Super Bowl hangover season. Which NFC East team has a better defense than the Cowboys?

Which NFC team has a better quarterback than the Cowboys -- outside of the Saints? You could make an argument for Favre, but all that lubricant in his ankle is going to bring him down at some point. And Rodgers has more pressure on him than Romo, because the Packers have a suspect defense.

You're making a passionate case against the Cowboys going to the Super Bowl, but in your heart of hearts, you know they have an excellent chance. I'm going to give you a shot at a closing argument here. To this point, all of your statements have been summarily defeated by a man with half a law degree. Time to sound the retreat, sir.

MacMahon: The Cowboys’ cheerleading team has clearly lowered their standards to let you join the squad.

I’ll grant you that this is a much more mature team than the band of misfits that melted down in 2008. The Brooking-T.O. swap certainly worked chemistry wonders, and guys such as Romo and Jay Ratliff have grown into good leaders.

The Cowboys should certainly be considered NFC East favorites, having won the division two of the past three seasons and adding Dez Bryant to their talented core. They merit consideration as Super Bowl contenders, but with their difficult schedule, I don’t see the Cowboys claiming home-field advantage. And I wouldn’t bet on them winning a playoff game in Green Bay, Minnesota or New Orleans.

You declare that the Cowboys have an excellent chance to play a home Super Bowl. I’d downgrade that to a decent chance. Go ahead and crack the anointing oil if you wish. I’m keeping the lid on my bottle until February.