It is finally here. The 2011 season kicks off for the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night against the Jets. The Cowboys will have to battle the Jets and a very highly charged crowd thanks to the September 11 ceremonies prior to the game. It is already a tall task to ask the young offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys to take on Rex Ryan's complex defense. Now they can add extreme crowd noise to the list of things to overcome for the Cowboys.
If you break this game down into a position by position battle it appears that the Cowboys are over-matched. But I think that simply matching player for player to analyze a game simplifies things too much. There are some intangible factors that are difficult to account for in any NFL game.
I'll start with the traditional look at things. The Cowboys offensive line has to be one of the biggest concerns heading into the game. Clearly they will be under fire as Rex Ryan will undoubtedly throw everything but the kitchen sink at them to try to cause confusion. But what it being discounted here is what a good game plan can do to an overly aggressive defense. Running the ball effectively will keep the defense honest. And the screen game that Jason Garrett plans to use regularly this year helps keep a team honest on defense because they can't simply let loose and go straight after the quarterback on passing downs. If Tyron Smith is able to play I feel like the offensive line can do a good enough job to give the Cowboys a chance to win.
On defense for the Cowboys there are major concerns. The run defense has been terrible all preseason long. I'm hoping the return of Marcus Spears will help solidify the run defense, but I'm not sure he'll be enough to be the difference maker. The other concern has to be the starting cornerbacks. Mike Jenkins appears ready to go after hyper-extending his knee on Wednesday. But Terence Newman is out. Fortunately for the Cowboys the Jets are a run first team. But you can expect them to take more shots down the field knowing that the Cowboys secondary is vulnerable to the big play. While Mark Sanchez gets a lot of press because he starts for a New York team he really isn't a player to fear. I think the key to the entire game is the ability of the Cowboys to effectively stop the running attack of the Jets.
On special teams David Buehler should eliminate any possible kick returns for the Jets. And the Cowboys have possible the best punter in the NFL in Matt McBriar. The concern on special teams is whether Dan Bailey will be able to handle the pressure of kicking at the NFL level. He did a good job in the preseason but kicking on the road with the crowd in a frenzy will be a new world for him. At least the Cowboys can fall back on the wildly inconsistent Buehler if Bailey completely loses his nerve. Don't discount the game changing ability of Dez Bryant on punt returns. I don't think the Cowboys will hesitate to use him on a punt return or two if he can be a difference maker.
What excites me about the Cowboys chances more than anything is the atmosphere that Jason Garrett has created with the team. Don't forget how the Cowboys were able to win seemingly unwinnable games last season with Jon Kitna and even Stephen McGee playing quarterback. And even when they did lose with Garrett running the show the games were very close. Coaching can make a big difference in the NFL. Hey, Bill Parcells went 10-6 with Quincy Carter and a terrible roster and qualified for the playoffs in 2003. Coaching can make all the difference in the world.
And for that reason I am picking the Cowboys to pull of a shocker on Sunday. I think Jason Garrett will try to control the clock with a heavy dose of running and a short passing attack. By controlling the ball Garrett can help hide the defensive flaws that still exist while the players continue to learn Rob Ryan's scheme. As long as the Cowboys avoid more than one or two turnovers they should be able to keep the game close. And I think the Cowboys will pull it out 20-17 in a very close, back-and-forth game. Call me a homer or overly optimistic if you want, but there is something special about Jason Garrett as a head coach that I think a lot of people are about the learn.