East makes Cowboys contenders
IRVING, Texas -- With one postseason win since losing in the divisional round of the 1996 playoffs, the Dallas Cowboys do not have the look of a Super Bowl contender in the NFC.
With three straight 8-8 finishes, the Cowboys do not have the look of a Super Bowl contender in the NFC. With little cap room to make significant changes in 2014, the Cowboys do not have the look of a Super Bowl contender in the NFC. With a defense that was historically bad in 2013, the Cowboys do not look like a Super Bowl contender in the NFC.
But they don't look like a five-win team either.
The Cowboys are just good enough at enough key spots to keep them in contention for a playoff spot in Week 17 of the regular season but not bad enough to qualify for a top-five pick. They will have the 16th or 17th pick in the first round of the May draft, depending on the result of a coin flip at the NFL scouting combine next month.
My theory on the NFL is that every team is designed to go 8-8. With good breaks, teams can go 10-6. With bad breaks, they can finish 6-10. You can make the argument the Cowboys could have won three more games in 2013. They could have beaten the Denver Broncos, who will play in Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday. They should have beaten the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers.
The Houston Texans (2-14) and Redskins (3-13) had the worst records in 2013. They'll have new coaches in 2014 and I don't think anybody would be surprised if they rebounded in 2014. The four-win teams include the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and the Oakland Raiders.
Things might be bad around here, but its not Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland bad.
There is a give-and-take to a season. The really good teams take. The not-so-good teams give. The Cowboys have done their fair share of giving during the past few seasons.
Jason Garrett talks about the players just finding a way to break through to get over that 8-8 hill. There is no magic formula in which we can have some sort of faux debate. The Cowboys need their better players -- Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Sean Lee, Dez Bryant, DeMarcus Ware, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Brandon Carr -- to play better. Much better. They need their role players to play better. Jerry Jones needs to get better players. The coaches have to do a better job of coaching those players.
Playing in the NFC East makes the Cowboys a divisional contender. A year ago, everybody thought the Redskins were ready to run the division, and they finished 3-13. And they don't have a first-round pick this season. Now people want to claim the Philadelphia Eagles are ready to do the same. We'll see.
The Cowboys have been the only team in the NFC East to be in contention for a division title in Week 17 each of the past three seasons. That's not something to applaud, by any stretch, but one more win puts them in position to be in the playoffs. By definition, that means they are closer to a Super Bowl appearance than a five-win season.
Too risky to rely so heavily on Romo
That's not a shot at Romo's ability or his track record. It's just pointing out the risk of relying so heavily on -- and investing so heavily in -- a soon-to-be 34-year-old quarterback with serious back problems.
The Cowboys can downplay Romo's health woes until their faces are as blue as the star on the side of the helmets, but Troy Aikman will tell you that similar back problems ended his career when he was Romo's age.
If Romo can't recover to be an elite quarterback, then the Cowboys have no hope of making a Super Bowl with him as the starter. He has to be not just good, but better than he has ever been for that to be a realistic scenario.
The Cowboys didn't get close to a Super Bowl during Romo's prime, no matter how much Jerry Jones wants to play what-if and reminisce about "moral victories" against teams that advanced to the Super Bowl. You can what-if the majority of the Cowboys' wins, too, and the reality is that Dallas wouldn't have qualified for even the proposed expanded version of the playoff field in any of the past four seasons.
The Cowboys couldn't get over the .500 hump with Romo playing very well, for the most part, over the past three seasons. Sure, he was helped by the improvement of the offensive line and development of Dez Bryant into a Pro Bowl receiver, but the defense has decayed during that time.
Romo will have to earn every penny of the $55 million guaranteed in his contract to have a chance at making a postseason run with a dysfunctional, cap-strapped franchise that has a grand total of one playoff win in the past 17 seasons.
You think it's more likely that Romo peaks in his mid-30s or that he declines after a couple of back surgeries?
There has to be legitimate concern about Romo's ability to withstand the beating a starting quarterback takes in the NFL, even with Dallas' upgraded offensive line protecting him, especially if the Cowboys continue to be so pass-happy.
Take Romo out of the lineup, leave his massive roster counting against the cap and what do you have? It might be a top-five pick that could turn into Romo's replacement.
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