- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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I fear this will go on for the entire offseason, but there's a real dichotomy right now in the NFL prediction business with regard to the Dallas Cowboys' prospects for the 2013 season. I have heard and read some who believe they could be one of the worst teams in the league. But while anything's possible, I personally don't see that. As of now, I think they have a strong chance to be the best team in the NFC East. Field Yates seems to be believing along with me in this possibility, though his piece here acknowledges and addresses some critical things that need to go right for the Cowboys to win the division for the first time since 2009.
The three elements Field cites are the ability of the defense to transition to Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2, the performance of the offensive line and quarterback Tony Romo's ability to play up to his contract. All are significant concerns, especially after the line was atrocious in 2012 and Romo threw those three interceptions in the Week 17 division title game in Washington. But I'm zeroing in on the offensive line. I think the defense has the personnel (especially with Sean Lee and Bruce Carter at linebacker) to make Kiffin's defense work. And I don't buy the idea that there's something fundamentally wrong with Romo that will always make him play poorly in big games. I think he's an excellent player who, given enough chances, will come through one of these days. I think talent rises, even if that process can be frustrating and take more time than fans like.
For me, the Cowboys are all about that offensive line and whether it can play beyond its pedigree and expectations. Dallas now has two first-round picks among its offensive line starters, with Tyron Smith at left tackle and Travis Frederick likely the starting center. But they need better guard play from Nate Livings, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Ronald Leary or whoever ends up with those spots, and they need Doug Free to be something more than awful at right tackle. Honestly, if they just get adequate play from those spots, as opposed to the abysmal, turnstile-type performance of 2012, and if Smith and Frederick perform like first-round picks, the offense should work. They do not need to be a great offensive line. They just need to be an acceptable one. Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Miles Austin & Co. can take care of the rest.
I guess I just don't see why so many are convinced the Cowboys are that far off or moving in the wrong direction. Yes, they only won eight games each of the past two seasons. But the division champion in each of those years won nine and 10 games, respectively. The Cowboys don't play in the AFC East or the NFC South, where you need 12 or 13 wins to have a shot at a division title. They play in the NFC East, which has four flawed teams and no dominant one and has had four different champions in the past four years. This division is always up for grabs, and while we're still more than a couple of months away from prediction season, I don't see why anyone would be in a rush to rule out the Cowboys this far in advance. From this vantage point, they seem to have as good a chance as anyone to win the NFC East in 2013. Maybe, depending on the health of Robert Griffin III and his knee, the best.