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|Scary thought for Cowboys opponents: Tony Romo has yet to reach his full potential.|
"America's Team" is in the spotlight again. Except that spotlight looks a lot like a bullseye.
Expectations are out of sight for the Cowboys, who finished 13-3 in 2007, matched a franchise record for victories, finished first in the NFC East, earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and then lost their first playoff game to the Giants.
Dallas has not won a playoff game in a dozen years. Only five others -- Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Houston and Kansas City -- have gone as long without a playoff victory.
The Cowboys are two teams in one. They're the solid team that returns 20 starters and appears to have upgraded at the other two spots, and they're the team holding outspoken personalities Terrell Owens, Tank Johnson and Adam 'Pacman' Jones that was remarkably quiet throughout training camp.
They also have a coach, Wade Phillips, who doesn't act like it but is under enormous pressure, both from the expectations and the knowledge that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is a head coach in waiting.
Quarterback Tony Romo, last year's top-rated passer in the NFC, still should be improving; this will be just his third season as a starter.
The new starters are running back Marion Barber, who led the Cowboys in rushing last season even though he started only one game, and linebacker Zach Thomas, who came from the Dolphins. Rookie Felix Jones' speed should be a terrific complement to Barber's power.
One problem area could be the failure to upgrade the second wideout position, where Patrick Crayton remains the starter, but the Cowboys expect tight end Jason Witten, who caught 96 passes last year, to continue to take some of the defensive attention away from Owens.
The 3-4 defense, which relies more on movement and schemes under Phillips than it did under Bill Parcells, who favored a power defense, should be improved.
Overall, this is still a young team that has faltered down the stretch and in the playoffs. Over the last decade, the Cowboys have a winning record in every month but December. It used to be that Dallas grew stronger after its 10-day post-Thanksgiving break, but lately the time off has not been kind to the Cowboys. Over the last five years, the Cowboys' winning percentage was .636 through Thanksgiving and .429 after Thanksgiving.
On the hot seat
Coach Wade Phillips. When you're the conference favorite, you have a head coach in waiting on your staff and you're getting ready to move into the most lavish new stadium in the world, you are pretty much on notice. It's time to win. Now.
Defensive end Chris Canty is in his contract year, and you have to believe the Cowboys expect more from him than the seven career sacks he has produced in three previous seasons. He has been a solid starter, but nothing special so far.
Hard road to hoe
More is expected of Dallas in the post-Thanksgiving stretch than the Cowboys have given the last few years, and this year the spotlight will be on the offense. Their four December games are all against strong defensive teams -- Steelers, Giants, Ravens, Eagles.
Cowboys will be better than you think if ...
Tony Romo continues to ascend and Terrell Owens continues to produce at an age (35 in December) at which wide receivers usually decline.
Cowboys will be worse than you think if ...
Running back Marion Barber is not as effective in the starter role as he was in the change-of-pace role. Dallas wants a strong running game so the pressure doesn't all fall on Romo.