Now that the roster for the 2011 Dallas Cowboys is virtually complete it is finally possible to start thinking about how good the team can be. One of the big arguments being made against the team is that the majority of the roster is unchanged from last season. But that doesn't begin to tell the story of this team. Anyone who watched the team last year knows that 2010 was basically two seasons rolled into one. There was the Wade Phillips season and the Jason Garrett season. The second half of last season showed that there is enough talent on the roster to compete with any team in the league.
There will be changes at both one starting safety position with Abram Elam taking over for Alan Ball. That is an obvious upgrade. Sean Lee may wrestle the starting role away from Keith Brooking while Brooking tries to regain his health. On offense the #3 receiver spot is still unsettled but it appears that Kevin Ogletree is doing his best to win the job. Many believe that the team will be better off without Roy Williams but his size gave an advantage in the red zone that is hard to match. Montrae Holland is penciled in at right guard but there is still a chance that the Cowboys could sign a free agent there or that David Arkin could take the job. And Tyron Smith will be the new starter at right tackle.
So there are changes but not the type of wholesale roster turnover you would normally see from a team coming off of a 6-10 record. But with Jason Garrett running the show it appears that he has a coaching style that will get the most out of his talented players. And the new defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, is bringing a new attacking style and a new attitude to the defensive side of the ball. Changing your defensive scheme is not just a small tweak so you can't just look at the players but you also have to consider the tactics.
Tony Romo is the X factor in all of this. Sure, the team won some games with Jon Kitna and even Stephen McGee. But the playmaking ability of Tony Romo makes the offense exponentially better. If the offensive line can gel quickly and give Romo time there are a lot of weapons for opposing defenses to handle. Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Felix Jones are four skill position players that can scare a defense as individuals let alone as a collective group. But it will all depend on how good the offensive line plays this season. If the line is even decent then you can expect the offense to be high scoring.
Rob Ryan's defense is going to attack and confuse the opposing offense. The Cowboys will no longer line up a basic front and simply react to the offense. The defense will be aggressive and make big plays but probably also give up some big plays. But you can expect more sacks and turnovers and probably more defensive scores. I have no doubt that the defense will be improved this season.
On special teams the big difference may be the kicker. David Buehler is in an intense battle right now for the starting kicker role with Dan Bailey from Oklahoma State. We all saw last season how erratic Buehler can be. He can make kicks under pressure and even hit game winners with the pressure on but he can also miss an extra point to help lose a game. I'll take consistency over the big leg any day. I just hope that the coaches go with the kicker who proves to be the most consistent during the preseason.
So the big question is whether the Cowboys can make the playoffs this season. I think they absolutely have the talent to do it. But the biggest question mark for me will be the play of the offensive line. I believe the defense will be good enough to take the Cowboys deep into the playoffs based on scheme alone. But you have to score points to win and the Cowboys won't go very far if Tony Romo is running for his life every play.
The Cowboys have four preseason games to get the reconstructed offensive line to gel. To me that will be the most interesting thing to watch as the preseason progresses. Hopefully we will see them improve as the preseason goes on. By the end of the next four weeks we should have a very good idea of just how good the Cowboys can be this year.