By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
If the Dallas Cowboys don't win the NFL championship February 1 in Tampa, it will be a devastating disappointment impossible to ignore. If they don't at least make it to the title game, it will be an unmitigated disaster improbable to restore.
Anything less and Wade Phillips will be fired, Tony Romo will be dethroned and Jerry Jones will next year be forced to sheepishly slink into his team's new Arlington coliseum amidst unprecedented failure.
It won't happen.
At least, it shouldn't.
When the Cowboys open training camp Friday in Oxnard, California, they'll be perfectly poised to be the best team in the NFC, if not the entire NFL. Coming off a record year with 13 wins and 13 Pro Bowlers, this off-season they've lost no front-line players, added two playmakers on defense (Zach Thomas and Adam Pacman Jones) and a dual threat on offense (Felix Jones). Add to that talent a resolute temperament forged from consecutive excruciating playoff losses, and everyone, it seems, expects the Cowboys to again thrive as America's Team.
Las Vegas oddsmakers have established Dallas as the NFC favorite to play in Super Bowl XLIII. With camp just down the road from Hollywood, HBO will have its Hard Knocks cameras trained on the team in hopes of an intriguing, successful Cowboys season.
It will be the Cowboys' last season in Texas Stadium. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it will also be one of their best.
Before the curtain is lowered, the bar has been raised.
"Yeah," says quarterback Tony Romo, who provided the off-season's only blemish with his woeful warbling at Wrigley Field, "we have a chance to be pretty good."
Heading into camp, the Cowboys are clearly a better football team than the one that trudged off the field after a shocking 21-17 home loss to the New York Giants last January 13.
The same can't be said for Dallas' two chief competitors, the Giants and Green Bay Packers. While the Giants lost four defensive starters from their Super Bowl champion team—including Hall of Famer Michael Strahan—and enter their camp with star receiver Plaxico Burress in a contract dispute, the Packers, you may have heard, have been tossed a hot potato named Brett Favre. But with either their legendary quarterback or a new era led by Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay isn't in Dallas' class.
You know how you know when your football team is in good shape? When your biggest concerns are second-string tight end (Tony Curtis vs. Martellus Bennett), special teams captain (for the departed Keith Davis) and the awkwardness of adding a 70-catch receiver (Terry Glenn) to an offense that last year set a franchise record for points.
Funny, because all this impending success bolts right out of the franchise's darkest ages.
The Cowboys haven't won a playoff game since beating the Minnesota Vikings on December 28, 1996. With losses to the Seattle Seahawks two years ago (in which Romo bungled a field-goal snap) and the Giants (in which Romo was intercepted in the end zone in the final minute), it marks the longest post-season drought in team history.
That, of course, doesn't sit well with Dallas' legion of front-runnin' fans. Or Jerry Jones, who, sensing both the urgency and the opportunity, shelled out more than $70 million this off-season in guaranteed salaries to add Thomas, acquire Adam Jones and retain offensive lineman Flozell Adams, cornerback Terence Newman, running back Marion Barber, receiver Terrell Owens and safety Ken Hamlin. And that doesn't include a sweetened deal that kept in place highly coveted offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
Two years ago in Oxnard, Cowboys' head coach Bill Parcells waddled around in a T-shirt emblazoned with the poker phrase "All in!" He had no idea.
"We have every reason to believe we can be as good, or better, than last year," Jerry Jones says. "I'm very excited about what this team is capable of accomplishing."
Me too. But then again, I predicted undefeated seasons for Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac.
Let's look for weaknesses, shall we?
On offense, Romo returns for only his second full season as the starting quarterback. His Pro Bowl weapons include Owens, Jason Witten and Barber, who takes over as the every-down back for underwhelming Julius Jones, gone to Seattle via free agency.
The danger with Barber, given his savage running style, is durability. That's why the Cowboys used their first draft pick on Arkansas back Felix Jones, who, ideally, will get 10-12 touches per game. The offensive line returns all five starters, anchored by Adams.
Defensively, this should be Dallas' best unit since the group that ranked No. 1 in 1992.
DeMarcus Ware is an elite pass rusher. Thomas is an instinctive playmaker as an inside linebacker. Run-stuffing lineman Tank Johnson will benefit from a full training camp. And the secondary—featuring Newman, Adam Jones and Anthony Henry at corners and Hamlin and Roy Williams at safety—is the best in football. Just in case, the Cowboys used their second draft pick on cornerback Mike Jenkins.
Williams, changing uniform numbers from 31 to 38 after an abysmal season in which he somehow made his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl, won't be on the field as much. But, with the return of secondary coach Dave Campo, his decreased quantity should net increased quality.
And the kicking game? Mat McBriar remains one of the best punters in the league, and last year kicker Nick Folk proved the steal of the draft, making 26 of 31 field goals and the Pro Bowl as a sixth-rounder.
I'm not telling former mayor Laura Miller to dust off her old premature parade plans. Actually, yes I am.
There are hangnail concerns, such as Brad Johnson—yikes—as the backup quarterback. But short of a certain buxom blonde with the attention-junkie father kidnapping Romo to Cabo, there are only two people capable of derailing the Cowboys' Super Bowl train:
Though Glenn had as many surgeries on his right knee last season as he did catches (two), the Cowboys need his speed in the passing game. You don't trust Miles Austin or Sam Hurd long-term, and Patrick Crayton revealed his limitations against the Giants with untimely drops and half-assed routes. Glenn wants to come back, but so far has refused to sign a $500,000 injury waiver offered by Dallas. The market isn't demanding 34-year-old receivers with wobbly wheels, and the Cowboys realize Glenn could be the final link. It'll get done.
While Adam Jones should give the Cowboys a ball-hawking cornerback and game-breaking kick returner, Pacman Jones is volatile enough to wreck a locker room. The Cowboys have endured, and now embraced, Owens and Johnson and, realizing his next screw-up will be his last, Adam will likely be a Cow-Boy Scout. He's dropped his nickname, adopted Deion Sanders' old No. 21 and is so far, so good in his attempt to persuade NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to fully reinstate him before the September 7 opener against the Cleveland Browns.
"God brought Adam to the Cowboys," Sanders says. "Because right here, right now, this is the perfect situation."
No ifs, ands...or busts.