Football

NFC East preview: Dallas Cowboys seem primed to make long-awaited return to Super Bowl

First in an eight-part series previewing all 32 NFL teams by division ahead of training camp, which begins this month

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. makes a one-handed catch for a touchdown against Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr on Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J.
New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. makes a one-handed catch for a touchdown against Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr on Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. AP

The hype is back in Big D.

And this time, it’s justified.

Some two decades since the Cowboys’ last visit to the Super Bowl, they have as good a chance as any team in the NFC to finally get back to the big game.

Their quarterback, Tony Romo, was the league’s highest-rated quarterback in 2014. They went 12-4 last year, and had Dez Bryant held on to a would-be touchdown catch for a split-second longer, probably would have been in the NFC Championship Game.

Speaking of Bryant, he’s happy after receiving a five-year, $70 million contract extension this month.

They have a dominant offensive line, a retooled defense and an underrated coach in Jason Garrett.

And even more important: Their rivals in the NFC East have largely been treading water, if not taking a step back.

The maligned Robert Griffin III is still the starter in Washington. The Giants’ best defensive player, Jason Pierre-Paul, lost a finger in a South Florida fireworks accident. And Eagles coach Chip Kelly might have to stave off a mutiny if he makes any more significant roster moves.

So … how about them Cowboys?

DALLAS COWBOYS

▪ 2014 record: 12-4 (first in NFC East).

▪ Coach: Jason Garrett (fifth season).

▪ Training camp: July 29 (River Ridge Playing Fields; Oxnard, California).

▪ Major additions: DE Greg Hardy, CB Byron Jones, RB Darren McFadden.

▪ Key losses: LB Bruce Carter, LB Justin Durant, RB DeMarco Murray.

▪ Outlook: It’s now NFL conventional wisdom that running backs, no matter how productive, are expendable. Consider the Cowboys the ultimate test case. DeMarco Murray broke the Cowboys’ single-season rushing record last year — overtaking Emmitt Smith, the most accomplished running back in NFL history — and yet the salary-cap-strapped Cowboys let him walk. What’s more, they’ll replace him with Darren McFadden, Joseph Randle — and a lot of hope. But they also took the league’s best offensive line and added La’el Collins, perhaps the most coveted rookie free agent ever.

NEW YORK GIANTS

▪ 2014 record: 6-10 (third in NFC East).

▪ Coach: Tom Coughlin (12th season).

▪ Training camp: July 30 (Timex Performance Center; East Rutherford, New Jersey).

▪ Major additions: DT Kenrick Ellis, DE George Selvie, RB Shane Vereen.

▪ Key losses: CB Zack Bowman, S Antrel Rolle, OL J.D. Walton.

▪ Outlook: What remains of Tom Coughlin’s career might be in the hands of a player 46 years his junior. The good news: those hands, belonging to Odell Beckham Jr., might the surest in football. Beckham had the catch of the season, a one-handed touchdown that words can’t do justice, en route to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2014. But Coughlin needs more of that — much more. If so, it would mean Eli Manning plays even better than he did in 2014, when the two-time Super Bowl champion threw for 4,410 yards and 30 touchdowns. Also, the league’s 29th-ranked defense has been overhauled.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

▪ 2014 record: 10-6 (second in NFC East).

▪ Coach: Chip Kelly (third season).

▪ Training camp: Aug. 1 (NovaCare Complex; Philadelphia).

▪ Major additions: LB Kiko Alonso, QB Sam Bradford, RB DeMarco Murray.

▪ Key losses: QB Nick Foles, OL Evan Mathis, RB LeSean McCoy.

▪ Outlook: So what, exactly is Chip Kelly doing — except for purging most everybody who was on the roster before his hire date? Kelly seems determined to prove that scheme trumps personnel. Nine of the 22 players who started Week 1 last season for the Eagles are gone, including their star running back, their No. 1 receiver, and three-fourths of their secondary. But no move was bigger than the blockbuster quarterback swap with the Rams, sending Nick Foles to St. Louis for Sam Bradford. The Eagles’ introductory meeting at training camp might take all night.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

▪ 2014 record: 4-12 (fourth in NFC East).

▪ Coach: Jay Gruden (second season).

▪ Training camp: July 29 (Bon Secours Training Center; Richmond, Virginia).

▪ Major additions: S Jeron Johnson, DT Terrance Knighton, G Brandon Scherff.

▪ Key losses: S Ryan Clark, LB Brian Orakpo, OT Tyler Polumbus.

▪ Outlook: As corrosive as the Jay Gruden-Robert Griffin III dynamic was last season, it takes a village to go 4-12. The defense didn’t do its part, ranking 29th in points allowed (27.4 per game) and 26th in yards per play (5.8). To its credit, Washington attacked that weakness, bringing in two of the best free agent defensive tackles (Terrance Knighton and Stephen Paea), a starting-caliber corner (Chris Culliver) and a veteran safety (Jeron Johnson). None of those players, however, are difference-makers. But there were plenty such defenders on the board when Washington picked at No. 5 in the NFL Draft. Instead, the Redskins reached for a guard in Brandon Scherff, who will touch the ball only if something goes dreadfully wrong.

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