Here we are, two days before the Cowboys kick off 2016 against the Giants on Sunday afternoon, and it's impossible to know how to feel.
Sure, the offensive unit that will line up against the G-Men looked explosive throughout the preseason, and will have full-strength Dez Bryant for the first time since last year's season opener. It will feature first rounder Ezekiel Elliott, maybe the most NFL-ready college running back since Adrian Peterson. But that lineup won't have the once-thought indispensable Tony Romo.
The defense too, presents whiffs of both hope and despair. The secondary will be lot better with Orlando Scandrick back in the fold and the continued development of jack-of-all-trades Byron Jones, but the pass rush, at least for the first four games, should be a disaster.
Whatever happens, football is back, and that's a good thing. Here's what to watch as the journey to next February's Super Bowl in Houston begins.
1. Who starts at quarterback in week three? — If it's rookie Dak Prescott, that's a good thing and the Cowboys are likely in good shape to at least survive until Romo's return. If it's newly signed journeyman backup Mark Sanchez the team is in trouble. Prescott has been one of the NFL's best players during the preseason, moving the Cowboys offense every time it has the ball and creating touchdowns with his arms and feet. The Cowboys have kept Prescott comfortable by allowing him to operate primarily out of the shotgun, just like he did in college at Mississippi State. The problem is that opposing defenses have kept him pretty comfortable, too. Sunday, Prescott will finally see a real NFL defensive scheme in all it's complexity. If he's up to the challenge and can play competently, the Cowboys are good enough to be a playoff team with or without Romo. If the coaching staff gets upset and pulls the plug after week two, it may be another lost season for the guys with the stars on their helmets. Sanchez doesn't know the Cowboys scheme, and just isn't very good.
2. How hurt is Tony Romo? — This week, the Cowboys made the decision not to place Romo on injured reserve. Had he gone on IR Romo would've been required to miss the first eight weeks of the season. Seemingly the Cowboys believe he could be back before the season's halfway point. If Romo makes it back for week five rather than week nine, it could be a big boost to the team. Even if does, though, the looming specter of his re-injuring a back he's broken three times in the last four years looms.
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3. Will Dez Bryant live up to his contract? — Last summer, just before training camp, Bryant signed a $70 million contract that pays him like what he is, one of the two or three best receivers in the NFL. After Bryant broke his foot in week one last year, the Cowboys offense never recovered. Missing Romo is one thing, but missing Bryant, the Cowboys only threat on the outside in 2015, basically immobilized the offense for large chunks of the season. Prescott and Bryant have built a connection over the summer. When in doubt, Prescott can chuck it to Bryant and hope for the best, at least.
4. Who will step up as Bryant's primary support? — Our previous question leads to this one. Bryant needs help to thrive. In order to make the catches and runs across the middle that make him so explosive, Bryant needs a complementary piece to stretch the defense on the outside. Since the middle of the 2014 season, that hasn't been Terrance Williams, the Cowboys' incumbent receiver. During the preseason Brice Butler has shown signs that, finally having gone through a full camp with the Cowboys, he may be ready to be the Alvin Harper to Bryant's Michael Irvin.
5. Who will get to the quarterback? — The Cowboys' primary pass rushers, Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, are both serving suspensions for marijuana use. Lawrence is set to miss four games and Gregory will miss at least that many, pending further NFL investigation. In their absence, Benson Mayowa and Charles Tapper, both rookies, were expected to pick up some of the slack, but Tapper is likely to miss Sunday's game with a back injury. The Cowboys' secondary is good, but somebody is going to have to be able to get to Eli Manning if the defense ever wants to get off the field. The best hope for the defense is seemingly Elliott and the Cowboys league-best offensive line controlling the clock like the team was able to do in 2014 with DeMarco Murray. Any NFL defense is capable of playing well in short bursts, so it's up to the offense to make sure their counterparts aren't on the field too often.
6. Can Ezekiel Elliott handle the NFL? — So far this off-season, Elliott has been spotted by TMZ in a Seattle marijuana dispensary, been worried about passing a drug test and gotten involved in a big legal mess with an ex-girlfriend during his 21st birthday party. Elliott hasn't failed a drug test, but the NFL would care if he did, even if no one else does. For Elliott to be the team's bell cow, he's got to stay on the field, no matter how often he needs to go sweat in the sauna.