By Steve Silverman
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When the Dallas Cowboys get into the grind of training camp, the pain of losing to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs will be in the back of their minds.
The Cowboys overcame all expectations after Tony Romo went down last summer with another serious injury and cruised to a 13-3 record, a brilliant showing by just about any measure.
The loss of Romo set the stage for the emergence of Dak Prescott at quarterback.
Not only did Prescott step in and become an effective leader, he did it in a way that set the Cowboys up at the position for probably a very long time. As incredible as he was in 2016 — 3,667 yards and a remarkable 23-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio — it was Prescott’s work ethic every day in practice that convinced owner Jerry Jones, head coach Jason Garrett and the rest of the Cowboys’ staff that he could be a heck of a lot more than a one-year wonder.
Largely as a result of Prescott’s ascension, the Cowboys are now considered a Super Bowl favorite in the NFC. Throw in the potential of second-year running back Ezekiel Elliott and it’s hard to not put Dallas right up there with the best the conference has to offer.
However, a football team is made up of a lot more than simply a quarterback and running back. The Cowboys are likely to have several issues, and while most of them are on the defensive side of the ball — I’ll get into them a bit later — there are a few issues on offense.
Though Prescott was seemingly perfect last season, the big issue going forward is whether or not he can overcome the type of adversity that plagues all young quarterbacks at some point. Prescott threw just four picks in 2016 and his miscues overall were limited, but he is a human being and no one is immune to making mistakes.
Prescott will have a bad game or two, and he will have to show he can respond to various situations he has yet to have to deal with. How will Prescott play if he has to play through a nagging injury or if, say, he has a three-interception game that contributes to a loss?
That work ethic and character I mentioned before seems to suggest he’ll handle the pitfalls that will come his way, but he is going to have to prove it as defenses get a better read on what it takes to slow him down.
The same could also hold true for Elliott. Although he will likely have another strong season, can we say with certainty that he’ll again rush for 1,631 yards and 15 TDs? Would it be fair to consider a 1,200-1,300-yard season a disappointment?
Not only does the former Ohio State star have the instincts, athletic ability, and hunger to crease opposing defenses and put the ball in the end zone, he has a wonderful offensive line to run behind to help him get there. The retirement of offensive tackle Doug Free will not help the Cowboys’ situation, but it shouldn’t change Elliott’s production too much.
The big problem for the Cowboys is on defense, where they have lost five starters from a unit that ranked 14th in yards allowed last season.
The line suffered a huge blow this week when it was announced that David Irving will miss the first four games of the season as a result of a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
The Cowboys knew back in May that Irving would face some kind of punishment for reportedly taking a banned over-the-counter substance.
Irving was at times a game-changing force in 2016, especially when it came to pressuring opposing quarterbacks. He played less than half of the team’s regular-season snaps, yet had four sacks, five tackles for loss, 26 QB pressures, five passes defended, and four forced fumbles.
As a result of Irving’s ban, the Cowboys will have to muddle through the first month and hope rookie Taco Charlton provides some relief.
The linebacking crew is also a major question mark. Sean Lee is the real deal on the weak side after registering 145 tackles, including 12 behind the line of scrimmage, last season. However, what’s important to note here is he played in 15 games, just the second time in six pro seasons that he has taken part in that many. Lee, who has had injury problems in the past, will have to prove he can stay upright and in the lineup in 2017.
Jaylon Smith, who is coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss his rookie season, will be counted on to man the middle linebacker spot. Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson will fight it out on the strong side, and both have much to prove.
The secondary was not great last season and cornerback Orlando Scandrick is the only proven returning starter. The Cowboys have said goodbye to Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox during the offseason.
Dallas is counting on defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to turn the unit around, and he has a couple of rookies in Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis to mold. Strong safety Jeff Heath and free safety Byron Jones are also likely to start. Heath has been a special teams demon, but that may not help him when he is the last line of defense against receivers like the Giants’ Odell Beckham, Jr. and Brandon Marshall.
This Cowboys defense is questionable at best, and that should play into the hands of the Giants and the rest of the NFC East.
If the Dallas defense fails to do its job effectively, the pressure on Prescott and the offense will go up exponentially.
The Cowboys may be summer-time darlings in the NFC, but reality is likely to hit them in the face at some point, perhaps a lot earlier than a lot of people think.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @Profootballboy