Dallas Cowboys: Four optimistic predictions for the 2014 season

On Thursday night, the lights will kick on and illuminate CenturyLink field in Seattle. The rabid 12th Man will erupt with the ferocity of Mount St. Helens as their champions swagger onto the field. The Seattle Seahawks’ quest for another Lombardi Trophy will begin.

The scene will be far different in Arlington, Texas. AT&T Stadium will be flooded with over 80,000 football enthusiasts, most displaying their Dallas Cowboys allegiance with some form of t-shirt or hat or face paint or tattoo. Jerry’s World will hold enough silver and blue stars to fill up a galaxy.

Yet, behind each ode to America’s Team, one is likely to find an apprehensive fan. Dallas is coming off another disappointing 8-8 season. The defense is being widely hailed as one of the worst of all time, without even playing a regular season down.

Though the value of preseason results are difficult to gauge, the Cowboys provided little in the way of hope in their four games. They allowed 56 more points than they scored, the worst differential in the NFL. Unless Jason Garrett is lulling the entire league into a false sense of security with this despicable display of football — if it were Belichick I might not doubt that, but Garrett falls far from “mastermind” status — those numbers are, at the least, troubling.

Jerry’s World will open for business on September 7.

DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin are gone. Regardless of what their on-field value may be now, each man was a veteran and a leader (More so in Ware’s case, but Austin was a Cowboys lifer with two Pro-Bowl seasons to his name.) of his respective unit.

A winning season hinges on the health of Tony Romo and the ability of a shaky defense to do more bending than breaking while causing enough turnovers to pull out the close battles that the offense can’t win on its own.

The season, as has become almost customary now, will be painful and exhausting and exhilarating and infuriating; sometimes all at once.

Still, it seems morbid to focus on the gloom and doom of a season that has yet to begin.

With that in mind, here are five four optimistic, realistic, predictions for the 2014 regular season.

The Cowboys’ new commitment to the run will allow DeMarco Murray to transform into a top-five running back.

Dallas’ identity as a pass-first team will remain intact. The NFL has evolved into an aerial league with the precipitous rise of pass interference and defensive holding penalties, so Garrett and Scott Linehan would be foolish to abandon their teams one true area of expertise, but they would be even more foolish to not let DeMarco Murray run wild whenever given the chance.

Murray has proven, when healthy, that he is one of the best running backs in the league. The third-year man broke out last season, finishing with 1,471 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns in just 14 games.

Murray has career averages of 72.5 rushing yard per game and 4.9 yards per attempt. Since 2011 — Murray’s first season in the NFL — only two other running backs have exceeded those numbers: Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles. He has also proven himself adept as a dual-threat, finishing tied for tenth among running backs last season with 53 receptions. [Only Murray and Reggie Bush made the top-10 while playing less than 15 games.]

The Cowboys have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin are all first round picks. Doug Free is solid at right tackle, although the seventh-year lineman did find himself hilariously outmatched in pass protection by Miami’s Cameron Wake during the third preseason game.

Linehan appears committed to feeding Murray the ball more this season, especially on crucial third-and-shorts. And, while this isn’t exactly a pro for the Cowboys, most of their games will be shootouts, meaning more touches for Murray.

Should the former Oklahoma Sooner avoid the yearly injury bug that seems to plague him (and his supporters), 1,600+ total yards and 13-plus touchdowns are feasible.

Jason Witten will decline, but his protégées will step up

Dallas fans are sick of a certain kind of consistency (three straight 8-8 seasons), but there is one constant they all dearly love: Jason Witten. The 32-year-old tight end has missed just one game in his 11-year career.

Witten has seemingly always been there to bail out whomever the Dallas quarterback at the time is. I wouldn’t be shocked to look back at old photos of Tom Landry hoisting a Lombardi Trophy, only to see Witten miraculously sandwiched in-between Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett.

Witten had an odd season last year. He finished with 851 receiving yards — his lowest total since 2006 — but also hauled in eight touchdowns passes, the second highest single-season total of his illustrious career. The nine-time Pro Bowler finished with four or fewer receptions 10 times, but averaged 7.5 receptions in the other six games he played in. The stats indicate that Witten hasn’t lost it just yet, but he no longer has the ability to bring it every single Sunday.

dallas cowboys

Witten isn’t out of gas yet, but he could use some help.

Witten still has several quality years left in him. He’s a masterful route runner and one of the toughest in the game, regardless of position. However, since the departure of Martellus Bennett, Dallas hasn’t had another true receiving threat at tight end to lighten the All-Pro’s load.

This year, that will change.

Dallas’ 2012 sixth round pick James Hanna and 2013 second round pick Gavin Escobar will lighten the Atlas-like burden Witten has carried for 175 games, dating back to 2003. Each tight end provided flashes of potential this preseason — Hanna finished with eight catches for 62 yards and two touchdowns, while Escobar snagged four balls for 84 yards.

Escobar showed some improvement as a blocker after spending some time bulking up and focusing on his protection skills — a key reason he was unable to stay on the field much during his rookie season. At 6-foot-6, 254 pounds, Escobar can team up with Dez Bryant in the red zone to create matchup issues for the opposing defense and should allow Dallas to experiment more with two tight end packages.

Witten will be there to steady the ship whenever needed, but it’s time for the young bucks to step up and prove to Cowboys fans that there IS life after Witten.

I think they’re finally ready.

Dez Bryant will break Terrell Owens‘ single-season franchise record for receiving touchdowns

Back in 2007, 34-year-old Terrell Owens was still worth the price of admission and an XL bucket of buttery popcorn.

The Cowboys went 13-3 and won the NFC East, but saw their season set aflame as Romo’s final throw of the NFC Divisional Playoffs fluttered into the hands of New York Giants DB R.W. McQuarters. Despite the calamitous defeat, Owens’ performance ranks among the best in Cowboys history.

T.O. finished the 2007 regular season with 81 receptions, 1,355 yards and 15 touchdowns, a new Dallas Cowboys single-season record. While Owens has been busy these past few years speaking of comebacks and attempting to transform his mogul attitude into some sort of business career, a young receiver whose physical gifts closely resemble his own has been inching closer to that receiving touchdown mark.

Dez Bryant has accumulated 25 touchdowns over the past two seasons. The 25-year old is finally beginning to meld the mental with the physical, taking on a leadership role and channeling his ferocious appetite for success into a positive influence.

There are few built like the former Oklahoma State standout. Bryant, listed at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds with a nearly 40-inch vertical jump, is an absolute menace in the red zone.

Last season Bryant was the most productive wide receiver in the red zone in the entire NFL, accounting for 10 touchdowns on 20 targets. Anytime Romo marches past the 20-yard line he should be (and often is) looking Bryant’s way.

Bryant is primed for an All-Pro season.

Bryant is primed for an All-Pro season.

In an offense that will be counted on to produce heaps of points each game — and with Bryant accounting for nearly 28 percent of Dallas’ total receiving targets last season — the fifth year wide receiver will have all the opportunities he can ask for.

With continued improvement and a play style likely to find itself in his favor each game, Bryant will not only surpass Owens’ mark of 15, I believe he will up the ante to 17 or 18.

T.O. better get that popcorn.

Dallas will beat the San Francisco 49ers (and take the all-time series lead)

This game looked far more menacing back in July.

The 49ers slogged through a preseason filled with injuries and off-field distractions and abysmal play. Their preseason was actually (and unfortunately, for 49ers fans) similar to the one experienced by Dallas.

Two under performing offenses, two defenses ravaged by injury and suspension and plenty of questions. With three consecutive NFC Championship appearances under their belt, there isn’t much to pull the alarm over, but that brand of thinking is what gets teams into early trouble all the time.

The 49ers are the superior team; any argument against that simply doesn’t make sense. What the 49ers will be on Sunday is a confident, cocky team that knows it’s better, swaggering into the stadium of a rival to challenge a team widely panned as one of the worst defensive units to ever wander onto an NFL field.

This should play heavily into Dallas’ favor.

San Francisco’s first-string offense didn’t touch the end zone once in seven preseason possessions and the starting defense was exposed by the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers in the second and third games, historically the two most important. The things that make Harbaugh’s squad great just weren’t great this preseason.

The talent is obviously there, but the personnel and the “mojo” isn’t yet. It will be soon, but for Week 1, the Cowboys finally seem to have stumbled upon some luck in receiving the most favorable matchup with the 49ers they could have realistically imagined.

Veteran stars NaVorro Bowman and Glenn Dorsey are both sidelined with injuries. The uber-talented, far-too-tragic Aldon Smith will also be absent, saddled with a nine-game suspension.

In a more recent development, the 49ers may be without the services of defensive lineman Ray McDonald, whose status is in the air after an arrest for domestic violence — a sensitive issue in the NFL after the recent Ray Rice incident and subsequent backlash.

The defense won’t exactly be a pushover — Patrick Willis and Justin Smith and their friends are very unpleasant individuals to come across on a football field — but there are more potential holes to be found and mismatches to be exposed with these player absences.

The game will be close and the 49ers will likely find their offensive rhythm at some point, but Dallas should be energized by a fervid home crowd still delusional with thoughts of a perfect season thanks to booze and hope and $7 hot dogs.

The defense gets one or two key stops when they need it most, the offense has a big day against a weakened defense, Dan Bailey nails a few long field goals and Jerry Jones opens 2014 with a rockin’ party in his own personal palace:

Dallas 33 – San Francisco 28.

All-Time Regular Season Series: 16-16-1