I love the folks who cover the Dallas Cowboys, because they're all so grouchy about the team. The Cowboys beat remains one of the last great bastions of skepticism in modern sports journalism. You talk to the people who spend their days around the team and you would think there wasn't one decent player on the roster except maybe DeMarcus Ware, and he needs to speak up more. I think it's the way teams should be covered -- relentless doubt and constant questioning of everything the newsmakers are saying. I've long believed that the beat writers who cover a team, since they examine it so closely every day and see all of the warts and flaws, should be the last ones to admit the team is any good.
Jean-Jacques Taylor is not a beat writer. He's the excellent new columnist for ESPNDallas.com. But he's been covering the Cowboys for a very long time, and I don't imagine he'll mind me lumping him in here. Especially in light of the column he has up right now, which says the Cowboys are in "full-fledged rebuilding mode just like the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns." Jacques considers this a good thing, by the way, since it indicates that Jason Garrett is talking sense to Jerry Jones, but he believes it's going to have a seriously adverse effect on the team's chances this season:
No team with championship aspirations enters a season with essentially three rookies in its offensive line.
The Cowboys, as currently constructed, will win six to eight games.
And that's OK because instead of chasing fool's gold, Garrett is actually building a foundation for the future.
For years, Jerry Jones has convinced himself that his Cowboys were a couple of key players away from winning another title when that's never really been the case. It's certainly not true this season.
Finally, someone has convinced Jerry his team isn't nearly as talented as he thinks.
All due respect to Jacques, nobody's "much better" than anybody in the NFL. And I will be surprised if St. Louis, Detroit and Minnesota turn out to be any better than Dallas. I know everybody's got the Rams and Lions down for sleepers, but I need to see it first. The talent on those rosters isn't nearly as proven as the talent on Dallas' roster, and there are more (and more glaring) holes. Minnesota is on the way down, and Donovan McNabb isn't going to be the answer. And as for the other teams on Jacques' list, the Falcons and Bears look like prime regression candidates to me, and it's not as though the Giants are without their own problems.
A team that has Ware, Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Felix Jones, Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer and Mike Jenkins on its roster has no reason to consider itself a "rebuilding" team on the order of a Buffalo or Cleveland. Most of the analysis of the Cowboys as they come off a 6-10 season ignores the number of very good players they still have on their roster and locks in on the fact that the 2010 team fell so far short of expectations. All the defense has to do, under a new coordinator and with many of the same players that rampaged through the final months of 2009, is to move up from the very back to the middle of the pack in order to give the very good offense a chance to win games.
As for the offensive line, all we heard out of Dallas last year was how bad the offensive line was. So they make sweeping changes and now we're supposed to believe it's going to be worse? Sure, starting two rookies and a second-year guy is the kind of thing that sounds alarm bells. But it's not as though Tyron Smith, Bill Nagy and Phil Costa are replacing Russ Grimm, Jackie Slater and Anthony Munoz. There's a chance, given a little time together, they could be better on the line than they were last year. They can't be much worse. The Cowboys scored plenty of points last year behind the old line and with Romo on the shelf for the second half.
In the end, I guess my point is that there's a lot of room in the NFL between "rebuilding" and "Super Bowl champion," and I think the Cowboys right now rest in that space. I think they have a pretty good seat up near the front, too.
It's easy to look at the team you see every day and get caught up in the flaws, but every team has flaws. Six teams will make the playoffs from the NFC, and they won't all be great. Some of them will just be pretty good. Heck, last year, one was downright lousy, and it knocked off the defending champs in the first round.
This isn't a league in which a handful of teams contend and the rest don't. This is a league with ample middle ground from which some teams rise to great heights and others tumble. It happens every year, and we never know which teams will rise from the middle and which will fall. The Cowboys can be wisely future-focused and at the same time contend in 2011. These things are not mutually exclusive. It doesn't all have to be one extreme or the other -- not even with the Cowboys. I don't think they'll win their division and coast into the playoffs without a care, but I think they have enough very good players to make them a contender if they stay healthy and things break their way. The NFL has a lot of teams like that, and there's nothing wrong with being one of them.