Aug 25, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) calls the play with center David Arkin (62) and guard Mackenzy Bernadeau (73) against the St Louis Rams at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE
An in-depth breakdown of all the pressing issues, key storylines and players to watch as America's Team begins the 2012 season.
How many years does Tony Romo have left as a top QB?
KD Drummond: Age-wise, there is some concern over Romo's "window closing"; as that was the hot button phrase from the 2012 offseason. Realistically though, Romo hasn't played that much professional football. Though he's been in the league since 2003, he has only actually played for six seasons; starting in '06.
Remember when most quarterbacks learned from the bench for two or three years? No? I'm that old? Ugh.
Health will be the determining factor in Romo remaining at an elite level for years to come; he simply doesn't have that much mileage on his body. I love Romo's escapability, Houdini-like magic tricks If he can avoid the serious injury (a legitimate question mark), he should remain at a top level for at least the next four; if not longer.
Archie Barberio: Romo enters his sixth season as the full time starter in Dallas. He is 32 years old, but I believe that he is a "young" 32 year old. Romo doesn't have a lot of tread on his tires, but he has taken some brutal shots the past few years as his line deteriorated in front of him.
Basically it comes down to the play of his offensive line. Romo continues to improve every season and is an accurate quarterback who can make every throw. His mobility elevates his game even more, but in order for him to extend his career his offensive line needs to do a better job of protecting him.
If the line improves, I could see Romo playing deep into his career like Brett Favre, if not, then he may only have two or three really good seasons left in him.
Where do you think DeMarcus Ware will rank among the all-time great Cowboys when his career is over?
Tom Ryle: Right there with Bob Lilly and Randy White. He has that huge an impact. It is hard to say who is the best because they played in different eras, but DeMarcus Ware will go down as one of the best edge rushers in NFL history, much less for the Dallas Cowboys.
Drummond: During the 2011 offseason, I organized a Best of the Best Cowboys draft over at Blogging The Boys where four writers had a draft of all time great Cowboys based on their entire careers. Ware went 25th, then proceeded to collect 19.5 sacks. According to Pro-Football-Reference's Approximate Value metric, the Warewolf is currently the 27th best Cowboys player of all-time; primed to enter the Top 20 if he has another typical season.
Ryle: I am worried about the Eagles a little more than the Giants this year. Andy Reid has been put on notice that he has to produce this year, and he is the kind of coach I think gets more dangerous as the temperature of his seat goes up. Talent wise, it is very close.
Eli Manning gives the Giants an edge at quarterback, especially since Michael Vick has a hard time staying healthy. The Eagles conversely have a better running game. Both teams have issues on the offensive line (that seems to be common to all the NFC East teams), and both may have some vulnerability in the secondary. But I think the Giants' secondary issues are worse, and they also seem to have some questions in the linebacker area, so the Eagles are the big challenge this year, in my mind.
Barberio: Yeah I am not too scared of the Redskins, though RGIII does scare me, that team still lacks the offensive talent necessary to place fear into opposing teams.
It's really a simple question for me. The Eagles present the nightmare match up on paper. They have burners at wide receiver who can stretch the field, a dynamic quarterback and the best running back in the NFL. Of course all of that is my opinion. Then you take a look at what they did to an already good defense, adding a linebacker and more depth to their already dangerous defensive line, now you have a defense that is championship quality. The Eagles are going to be a tough team to face come late December.
Don't sleep on the Giants though. It's extremely difficult to repeat in the NFL, but they have the quarterback and defense necessary to do it.
What's the biggest non-divisional game of the Cowboys season? Which one do you have circled on your calendar?
Barberio: It's the game against the Steelers on December 16th. The Cowboys went into Pittsburgh a few years ago and lost a game they should of won, so I still have a bad taste in my mouth about that 2008 game. This game is a rivalry game that doesn't get played enough. Each team has a deep history with each other, but they hardly meetup in the regular season. The Cowboys hate the Steelers and the Steelers hate the Cowboys, so this game will run deep emotionally. If the Cowboys want to make the playoffs, then they need to win the tough games towards the end of their schedule late in the season.
Drummond: A lot of big games this year for the Cowboys; extremely daunting schedule. About a month ago, I was asked to speak on the Cowboys three biggest road tests for the 2012 season. I selected the opener against the Giants, Week Six in Baltimore and Week 11 in Philly. Our season reaches a conclusion with some nice rivalry games; facing both Pittsburgh and New Orleans at Cowboys Stadium before ending the year in Washington. Either of those two home games while fighting for a playoff spot would be a worthy selection.
For some reason though, now I'm really feeling the midseason trek to Atlanta as the litmus test for this team. I'm a big fan of Julio Jones and to think of he and Roddy White matched up against Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne/Mike Jenkins all Sunday night... can you get more primetime than that? Miles Austin and Dez Bryant against Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel? I think this game will go a long way in determining a major part of the NFC playoff picture and therefore comes in as my key, non-divisional game of the season.
Ryle: The biggest non-divisional game is the Seattle Seahawks game. It is pure and simple a must win. The team drops that one, and it is going to be a long, long season. Dallas is behind the power curve because of all the injuries in camp. They have to hit their stride in that game. Even if they win against the Giants, seeing how they do against Seattle is going to tell us more about how ready they are for the season. And if they lose against the G-men, then they have to win this game to have any chance.
Give me a prediction for the 2012 season.
Barberio: Ever since the 2011 season ended I have went on record and said that I could see this team improving two wins to 10-6. The schedule is definitely harder than it was last season, but this is a better football team that focused on improving their biggest weakness, the secondary.
The defense could win them games instead of losing them games this year. This is the best defense that I have seen in Dallas since the Cowboys went 13-3 in 2007. My only concern is the lack of pass rush opposite of DeMarcus Ware. That is a key area to keep your eye on in 2012.
The offense is loaded with superstar talent and a quarterback who can shred opposing defenses, but the health concerns and issues on the offensive line will prevent this team from making a deep playoff run in 2012. If the offensive line improves and stars like DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin can stay healthy, then this team could be very dangerous.
If they manage to get healthy, avoid the injury bug and block for Romo, then this team could make a deep playoff run. Until the Cowboys can prove that to me, then I can't predict them finishing any better than 10-6. I believe that next offseason we will see an offensive line upgrade similar to what we saw with the secondary this offseason. When that happens, I see a team who can contend for a Super Bowl. Prediction: 10-6, one playoff win
Drummond: It's gonna be a tough year, this 2012 season, but there are opportunities for wins. Dallas plays seven games against 2011 playoff entrants. On the flip side, they have six games against QBs with one year or no experience. You don't put a lot of stock in preseason results, but a defense that went four games without giving up a first half touchdown is intriguing. Especially considering the injuries to Ratliff, Hatcher, Spencer, and Ware. Rob Ryan should have a field day if (big if) the bells and whistles he kept under wraps are ingrained into the player's heads.
The offensive line is a work in progress and will take some time to gel. Funny thing is, surveying the league it seems like almost every team has big offensive line issues. What happened in the last few years? Like most, I see this team as improved over the 2011 version, but worried that a tough schedule can keep that improvement from showing up in the final record. The Cowboys suffered more injuries than most teams in the offseason, but didn't lose anyone for the entire year and, in that aspect, enter the regular season healthier than most in the league. Save for a 50/50 Jason Witten and Jay Ratliff, they should start every player they intended to. If they can't go, both will make their return in Week 2 against Seattle. You really can't ask for more than that.
I expect Dallas to start out strong in 2012, with wins in three of the first four. Where that takes the season is a crapshoot. People always want to crap on Romo and the team's December record, but never pay attention to the fact that Dallas faces a difficult December schedule every year; one of the worst. This season: Philly, Cincy, Pittsburgh and New Orleans. How are you not excited to end that stretch 2-2?
I think Dallas is right in the 9-7, 10-6 range. They've played close games pretty even recently, so I'll let the optimist in me say that they divert from the mean and win more than their fair share this season. 10-6, division winner, plus a wild-card weekend home win to boot.
Ryle: Here are three predictions: Someone pulls a hammy, Jerry Jones will say something horribly embarrassing, and someone in the media will talk about Tony Romo's lack of leadership. OK, now, on the whole won/loss thing: I really don't have a clear idea right now, and am not good at this anyway. My heart says 10-6, but my head is going to officially say 9-7. Just a nasty looking schedule, especially the first half of the year, and there have been some issues that have hindered getting the team ready. Like I said above, it really all comes down to the offensive line.