After three preseason games, perhaps it's premature to judge what the Dallas Cowboys are as a football team, but it's clear that they are a talented team that can challenge for a division title. Whether they do or not will depend on a multitude of factors, none bigger than these three:
You have to take the good and the bad with Tony Romo. On one hand, the Cowboys would not have won nearly as many games last year without his brilliant all-around play. On the other, there were the devastating interceptions he threw against the Jets and the Lions that nearly single-handedly lost those games.
Dallas needs to keep him healthy, which starts with the new additions on the offensive line -- Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings. Reviews of the two were mixed in free agency, but they simply must be successful so that Romo does not receive as much pressure from the interior of the offensive line.
If the offensive line protects Romo and gives him time to throw the football, the Cowboys will be a very dangerous team. Romo continues to grow as a quarterback and his understanding of defenses is really starting to elevate his game. When given time, he the accuracy to shred defenses all day long.
Fans can hate him or love him, but he is the key to this team's success.
There have been a variety of injuries this summer to key members of the team, so you have to wonder if this will carry over into the regular season. As of right now, the Cowboys are without their top three options in the passing game: Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten are all nursing injuries.
Without Austin, the Cowboys lack a dynamic playmaker who can create mismatches all over the field. Bryant could become an All-Pro wide receiver if he stays healthy, but that is a big if. Witten, however, would be the biggest loss of all. He has become Tony Romo's security blanket and go to guy when he needs a key play. His status for the season opener is in jeopardy because of a spleen injury, which is very serious.
On defense, Jay Ratliff could be out for up to a month, possibly longer, with a high ankle sprain. Injuries create opportunities for the backup players to shine in a larger role with the team, but it's a concern when that many star players are out of the lineup.
If they can get all of their injured starters back by the early part of the season, the Cowboys will be at least a 10 or 11 win football team. But if they aren't healthy, this could easily become a 7, 8, or 9 win team. An inability to staying healthy could cost this team a playoff berth come January.
Performance Against Division Opponents
This is an area the Cowboys must get better at. I have always been a big believer of building your football team to win your division. If you cannot beat the teams you face twice a year, you will not have a great chance of making the playoffs.
Pass defense was an area that the Cowboys needed to improve on in order to better compete in the NFC East. The Giants and Eagles have dangerous passing attacks which destroyed our secondary the past few years. With the addition of Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys secondary can finally handle the New York and Philadelphia WR's, at least somewhat.
The improved pass coverage should, in theory, create more opportunities for the front seven to create pressure. When you can cover properly, it allows your pass rushers more time to get up the field and get after the quarterback. We will finally see if this upgraded secondary will make DeMarcus Ware and company more dangerous in the sack department.
Last year, the Cowboys went 2-4 in the NFC East, and that isn't going to cut it if they want to make the playoffs in 2012. They have performed very well against the Redskins in recent years, but since 2009, they are 1-5 against the Giants and 3-3 against the Eagles.
After finishing 6-10 in 2010, the Cowboys made a two game improvement in 2011 finishing 8-8. But after a four game win streak in the middle of the season, Dallas went 1-5 down the stretch. Once again, Dallas must prove to the world that they can win in December and January, just like they did in 2009 when they won the division.
The Cowboys will be entering the regular season with a rash of injuries, but this is a much improved football team. But while there is talent all over the roster, there are also depth issues in key ares. Jason Garrett's growth as a coach will also be crucial, but I believe in him and trust that he is putting this franchise back on track.
After watching the team in the pre-season, I think this is at least a 9-7 or 10-6 football team. If the Cowboys manage to get all of their injured players on the field at the same time and stay healthy throughout the season, I see a 11-5 team that can win the NFC East.