Today's absurd prediction:
The Cowboys will start the season strong, but fall just short of the playoffs.
There are a lot of big questions facing the Cowboys, and I think most of the answers are okay. Tony Romo has had plenty of time to get his mind off of his miserable holding job, and I think the celebrity lifestyle will actually prove be good for his psyche. The depth is good all around, which means injuries shouldn't get in the way.
Coaching Changes: C+
Wade Phillips has NFL experience and a good pedigree (his father, Bum Phillips, was also a coach). He ran a 3-4 in San Diego just like he will in Dallas, and he brought over his former secondary coach, Brian Stewart, to be his defensive coordinator. This tells me that the Cowboys' defense will not face much of a transition struggle. New offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is widely seen as one of the brightest young minds in the coaching ranks. He backed up Troy Aikman in the 90's, and seems a good fit in Dallas. So why a C+? Because this situation won't be good for long. Garrett was initially interviewed for the head coaching job. He was hired to a to-be-named position pending other interviews. It's understandable that Jerry Jones would want to wait a bit to throw him to the lions as a head coach, he'd only been a QB coach before. But Jones loves this guy, and he will be promoted to head coach as long as he doesn't flounder as a coordinator. That makes Phillips, who turns 60 next Thursday, a bit of a lame duck. Also, I'm not entirely sold on Garrett. He was the quarterbacks coach in Miami. Where, for the past few years, quarterbacks have gone to disappoint. It's a lose-lose. Either Garrett is everything they've hoped, and they struggle to figure out how to fire Phillips, or Garrett disappoints, and they're back to square one.
They did some brilliant dealing to land the guy they wanted in Anthony Spencer and secure a 1st-rounder next year. I don't see Spencer as being a superstar-in-the-making, but he should fit well. I like the picks of James Marten and Doug Free to add depth and a future at tackle. Isaiah Stanback at QB seems like a waste of a 4th-rounder, and K Nick Folk will be the latest to try to break the trend of disappointing kickers in Dallas.
Player Movement: B-
It's a little surprising that an entirely new coaching staff isn't making more changes to the lineup. Perhaps this is a sign of how well Dallas' personnel fits with Phillips' philosophies. Or maybe he's deluding himself. Brad Johnson makes a much better backup/mentor for Tony Romo than Drew Bledsoe would have, so those moves make perfect sense, although I am worried by Johnson's statements that he wishes to start. He's 38, turning 39 early in the season, and he's coming off of a terrible season. If there was ever a time to accept a backup/mentor role, it's now. The ‘Boys made their best offseason move in picking up safety Ken Hamlin. They needed another good safety opposite Roy Williams, and Hamlin's presence will improve the entire defense. Suddenly this is a very good secondary. They paid far too much for T Leonard Davis, who they appear to be moving to guard, according to Yahoo!'s depth chart. That move only makes things worse for Alan Faneca's contract negotiations in Pittsburgh.
One more time, beating up on the NFC North is fun. It's slightly worse than Philly's schedule in that they have to play at Chicago, but getting to play St. Louis and Carolina instead of Seattle and New Orleans evens up the grades again. The difficult games are spread out nicely over the schedule and they have a late bye, which is a blessing.
The fact is, the OC and DC have never held those roles before in the NFL and that inexperience may hurt in some games. It seems that with some new coaching staffs, they struggle early but finish out the season strong (think Nick Saban's Dolphins in his first year). Others make waves early, but teams start to figure them out and there's a second-half letdown. The Marion Barber-Julius Jones situation could get ugly too. Jerry Jones likes Barber. Parcells liked Barber. Jones is still listed as #1 on the depth chart, but that's only until a formal announcement to the contrary is made. There could be some locker room strife there. I feel like I'm missing something... oh. T.O. How the heck will Terrell Owens handle his new staff? And more importantly, how will they handle him? Will Garrett's schemes get him the ball enough? Will Wade Phillips find a way to earn Owens' respect in a way that greats like Bill Parcells and Andy Reid couldn't?
The Record: 9-7
A weak divisional record will cost them a trip to the playoffs, as Phillips won't be ready for the animosity in the NFC East matchups, five of which happen after the bye (the other is the opener at home vs. the Giants, which should be the easiest). This defense is scary and has a good shot at cracking the top 5, but there are questions all over the offense, from the coordinator to each of the skill positions. (Okay, Jason Witten's solid at TE. That's it.) That spells inconsistency, which is why I think this team will be disappointed when a loss in week 17 at Washington gives the Redskins a tiebreaker that puts them in the playoffs and leaves Dallas out.