Last season didn’t go as planned for the Cowboys, who won just four games after a 12-4 record and division title in 2014. The bulk of the difference can be attributed to a collarbone injury that left QB Tony Romo out of action for the majority of the season, starting just four games. The team got poor quarterback play from a variety of quarterbacks in Romo’s absence, leading to the disappointing season. If Romo can stay on the field this season, you can expect an improvement for the Cowboys.
In his four starts, Romo completed 68% of his passes and threw for 884 yards and 5 touchdowns, in addition to 7 interceptions. Backup QBs Matt Cassell, Brandon Weeden and Kellen Moore combined to throw 11 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in their 12 starts. Due to a foot injury limiting him to 11 starts, WR Dez Bryant had just 31 receptions for 401 yards and 3 touchdowns. Veteran TE Jason Witten was the team’s leading receiver, catching 77 passes for 713 yards and 3 touchdowns. Bryant’s injury allowed other receivers to step up their games, with WRs Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams taking advantage of it to the tune of 52 catches apiece, with Beasley gaining 536 yards and 5 touchdowns, while Williams had 840 yards and 3 touhdowns on his 52 receptions. RB Darren McFadden was the team’s leading rusher, with 239 rushes for 1,089 yards and 3 touchdowns in 10 starts; he also added 40 receptions for 328 yards through the air. Defensively the team was average, finishing just below the league average with 374 points allowed and finishing tied for the second-fewest interceptions, with 8.
The health of Romo and Bryant is obviously important to the Cowboys’ offensive gameplan. After selecting QB Dak Prescott in this year’s draft, the team seems to have a better backup quarterback situation if Romo does go down with injury. Prescott has shown some positive signs in the preseason, but as a rookie you don’t know how he would handle real game situations if called upon if Romo is sidelined. RB Ezekiel Elliott, the team’s first-round draft pick, is expected to split carries fairly evenly with McFadden — at least to start the season, but if one back has a strong showing early on, he could end up getting the majority of the work in the running game.
Division rivalries lead off the Cowboys’ schedule, with the Giants coming to Arlington in Week 1, followed by a road game at the reigning NFC East champion Redskins in Week 2. Weeks 5 and 6 have the Cowboys hosting the Bengals, then traveling to Green Bay to take on the Packers leading into a Week 7 bye. After the bye, the Eagles come to town for a Sunday night game in Week 8. A visit to the Steelers is on the docket for Week 10. The Cowboys head to Minnesota to take on the NFC North champion Vikings in Week 13, then visit the Giants to complete that season series. The season wraps up with a Monday night home game against the Lions in Week 16, followed by a road game at the Eagles in Week 17. Assuming a healthy season for Romo, it shouldn’t be hard for the Cowboys to win more than four games this season, especially if Elliott can break out in his rookie season, but with a pretty tough schedule facing them, I don’t see the Cowboys winning more than about 6 games this season.
Update: And two days after I post this saying Romo’s health is important to the team’s success, news comes out that he reportedly fractured a vertebrae in Thursday’s preseason game and could miss at least six weeks and as many as 10. If that is the case, he will likely be out until after the team’s Week 7 bye. Prescott has looked good in the preseason so far, but he’s a rookie so it’s not a guarantee that he’ll keep it up in the regular season. It looks like the Cowboys will start he season with rookies in key offensive positions — quarterback and running back, along with Bryant at receiver. I originally projected a six-win season, which is now probably optimistic for what they’ll actually get if the reports are true and Romo does miss about half the season — or more.