With the sounds of cheering and the shimmer of blue and silver pompoms dancing all around, it is with some trepidation that I approach the podium this week to offer my humble observations on the upcoming NFL season, particularly as it applies to our beloved and revered Dallas Cowboys.
"Super Bowl!" is the exultant shout I keep hearing from area media pundits, both east and west -- and don't they look cute in their new Cowboys cheerleader outfits. Their rationale for a Cowboys Super Bowl season is certainly logical, if somewhat provincial.
After all, they tell us the Cowboys' biggest problem -- quality depth, particularly in the offensive line -- is shared by every other team in the NFL. Thus, they deduce, the Cowboys will somehow prevail while that problem and others eventually eliminate fellow contenders.
This approach is understandable. The Cowboys at center stage in the first Super Bowl played in JerryWorld is just too good a story. It has to happen, and if predicting it helps even a little, well, even your normal cynics are willing to make that sacrifice and take the plunge. Besides, it pleases the masses.
Thus, lackluster preseason aside, the Cowboys have become a trendy pick to be playing Super Bowl XLV in their own backyard come Feb. 6. That lets me out. One thing I've seldom been called is trendy.
As much as I'd love to see the Cowboys back in the Super Bowl, especially this one, I just don't see it happening. Not because they don't have a good football team, but because either a team has to be overwhelmingly dominant once the playoffs start -- not exactly Wade Phillips' best time of year -- or everything has to break right. The Cowboys, I fear, aren't likely to qualify in either category.
It's not that I wouldn't love to follow the herd -- or flock, if you prefer the local vernacular -- and join in the Cowboys revelry. It's just that common sense prevents such an excess of emotion.
I have come to that stance for a simple reason: Those who win and win big in the NFL are generally defined by their ability to handle adversity, in other words, their mental toughness. Please show me the first NFL expert who says he believes this Cowboys team is mentally tough.
That the Cowboys will face adversity, and plenty of it, goes without saying. They are doing that already, giving Phillips an inexhaustible supply of alibis. An extra preseason game; that hated cross-country travel; fatigue (a 5-hour train ride, for heaven's sake); injuries; lack of planning for games; Martellus Bennett. The list goes on and on.
There's a perception that the media picks on poor Coach Wade, and it's probably true. He is an easy target. He can't seem to help himself as he mouths his banalities and clichés and turns defensive at the slightest provocation. But the fact is, there's simply no ignoring Phillips and his leadership weaknesses.
He is the coach, and we can't get around that. He is ultimately responsible for his team's lack of mental toughness, and that, as much as anything, is why all the rosy predictions of a triumphant march to the Super Bowl are little more than wishes in the wind.
But there's yet another subplot in play that goes beyond the waste of a coach. There was a time when most of us believed there was nothing the owner wouldn't do if he thought it would help the Cowboys win: give up his precious authority to Bill Parcells; bring in Terrell Owens; scour the prison system for a decent cornerback; anything.
And yet, in this most important of seasons, with the Super Bowl coming to JerryWorld, in an uncapped NFL year, Jerry Jones is suddenly worrying about nickels and dimes. He has made two very questionable decisions based not on what's best for the Cowboys on the field, but on what's best for his financial bottom line. Cutting Flozell Adams and trading Patrick Crayton were money decisions, not football decisions (not that we ever heard a squawk out of the coach).
You can't tell me that still having big Flo here wouldn't make that offensive line, shredded by injuries, look better right now. And while Crayton was nothing more than a No. 3 receiver at best, he was at least semireliable. His departure leaves the Cowboys with their fingers crossed that Miles Austin isn't a one-hit wonder, that Roy Williams and quarterback Tony Romo will one day find themselves on the same page in the playbook, and that rookie Dez Bryant doesn't suffer too many growing pains. And if one of them falls to injury ... well, let's not even go there right now.
Don't think for a moment that the owner's not-so-subtle message has been missed by the players. If Jones is putting money first and isn't willing to go all-in this season, will they?
Make all the excuses you want for the Cowboys' offense this preseason, but the numbers are ominous. The first-team offense scored a whopping 13 points in 12 possessions. The running game was nonexistent with Marion Barber and Felix Jones combined for 44 yards on 21 carries. Neither ever sniffed the end zone.
Romo ranks somewhere between good and very good on the NFL scale, and he'll be fine right up until the time his head is separated from his body, which, by the looks of the offensive line, could come sooner rather than later.
If the Cowboys are indeed headed to the Super Bowl, it's looking more and more as if Phillips' defense will have to carry them there. I'm not sure it's up to that task just yet.
Finally, the Cowboys face one of the NFL's toughest schedules. Besides the always-tough home-and-home games with NFC East rivals Washington, Philadelphia and the New York Giants, the Cowboys must play at Minnesota, at Green Bay and at Indianapolis, and catch New Orleans at home on Thanksgiving Day. That constitutes a murderers' row in today's NFL.
I'm thinking 10-6 and eking into the playoffs, where they'll barely make a ripple, and that's if Romo somehow remains upright and conscious all season.
Sorry, I'm just not willing to bet on that happening.
Someone made the analogy that it's the Cowboys and the Seven Dwarfs in the NFC this season. Maybe so, but I have a sneaking suspicion one of the little creeps is going to show up with a crowbar and spoil everyone's Super Bowl party.
Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.