By Curt Macysyn
The easiest narrative to explain the opening night match-up of the New York Giants versus the Dallas Cowboys would be to point out the obvious; these are two franchises heading in opposite directions. The Cowboys are fully expected to challenge for the division championship, while the New York Giants continue to be a work in progress. Exactly how far apart these franchises are will be determined on the field at AT&T Stadium on September 13th.
Surprisingly, Dallas was the NFC east champion last season, as the Cowboys sported a stellar 12-4 record with a squad that featured eight Pro Bowl players, including three offensive linemen. Most preseason prognosticators thought the Philadelphia Eagles would run away from the pack in the division last year, but the Cowboys played consistent football throughout the campaign and pushed the Green Bay Packers to the limit before losing 26-21 at Lambeau Field in the divisional round of the playoffs. On the other hand, New York scuffled its way to a 6-10 mark and finished in third place in the division. It was the third straight season that the G-men missed the NFL playoffs, as the team also endured a seven-game losing streak in 2014.
Murray Go Round
How good was DeMarco Murray last season? The durable Cowboys’ running back won the 2014 NFL rushing title by almost 500 yards over second-place Le’Veon Bell. Murray carried the ball almost 400 times in 2014, and he caught 57 passes to boot. Unfortunately for Dallas, in the NFL salary cap era, the ‘Boys had to decide whether to keep Murray or star receiver Dez Bryant, and Murray surprisingly ended up with division-rival Philadelphia.
The Cowboys are hoping that oft-injured Darren McFadden can stay on the field again in 2015, after playing 16 game for the first time in his career with the Oakland Raiders last season. McFadden’s production will hopefully increase from the 3.4 yards per carry from last year, as he will be running behind a solid offensive line that includes Pro Bowlers Travis Frederick (center), Tyron Smith (tackle) and Zack Martin (guard). The Cowboys will also give more touches to third-year man Joseph Randle, who sported a gaudy 6.7 yards per carry last season and may end up as the starter, at least against the Giants.
The passing attack features veteran quarterback Tony Romo, who threw 34 touchdown passes last year with only nine interceptions. The much-maligned signal caller had a 113.2 quarterback rating, which was tops in the league. Dez Bryant continues to lead the receiving corps for Dallas, as the mercurial pass catcher had 16 touchdown receptions last season. Number 88 caught 88 passes in 16 games with Big D.
Tight end Jason Witten caught 64 passes with five touchdowns from the tight end position. Witten usually saves his best performances for New York, so the Giants better be aware of where number 82 lines up. The Cowboys are also expecting greater production from youngsters Gavin Escobar (9 catches) and Terrence Williams (37 catches) this year.
Thankfully for New York, newly signed defensive end Greg Hardy will likely be serving the first game of a four-game suspension for violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Otherwise, rookie left tackle’ Ereck Flower’s first NFL assignment would have been against one of the league’s best pass rushers. Hardy was brought in, despite his checkered past, to bolster an anemic pass rush that only accounted for 27 sacks last season.
Dallas rolled the dice on bringing in another player with character questions in 2015 second-round draft pick Randy Gregory. The former Nebraska Cornhusker has three sacks already in the preseason, and he will likely work on the left side with Jerome Mincey sliding over into the right side in Hardy’s absence.
Middle linebacker Rolando McClain will also be serving a four-game suspension and will not face the G-men either. Luckily, the Cowboys get linebacker Sean Lee back from a knee injury that kept him sidelined for the entire 2014 campaign, and he will provide a veteran presence, with Anthony Hitchens taking over for McClain in the middle.
Dallas still has a strong secondary, despite losing veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick for the season with a knee injury in practice last month. For now, Tyler Patmon will replace Scandrick in the starting line-up, but the team also has veteran Morris Claiborne and rookie first-round draft pick Byron Jones to rely upon. Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox man the safety positions, with Jones also seeing double-duty at that position as well.
Players to Watch
Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com reports, “There has been plenty of speculation about what direction [the Cowboys’] offensive staff might go when it comes to playing these running backs. As much as I have been pushing for Darren McFadden to get that starting nod, I have a feeling that it will be Joseph Randle to get that opportunity until he proves he cannot handle it.” With the Giants’ porous run defense, the Cowboys may look to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible, thus giving Randle plenty of touches to prove his worth. Keep in mind that the third-year running back from Oklahoma State averaged 6.7 yards per carry last season.
With Greg Hardy serving an NFL suspension, the anemic Cowboys’ pass rush could be manageable for the Giants’ offensive line. Jerome Mincey led the team with six sacks last season, and he will go opposite rookie Ereck Flowers in this contest. If Flowers can negate Mincey, then Eli Manning may be able to use the vertical passing game to keep the Giants in a high scoring contest. If not, then it may be a long night for Big Blue.
With so many players on the mend, and missing valuable practice time, it would be hard to imagine that the Giants can come out and play a crisp and clean game. In addition, there has not been enough improvement on the defensive side of the ball to think that they can dominate the best offensive line in the NFL. With that said, opening days, especially in Dallas, have been traditionally high scoring affairs, and New York could win a shoot out, since two of the Cowboys’ best defenders will be suspended for this contest.
Follow me on Twitter @CurtMac23 for all the latest Giants’ talk.
Curt Macysyn has been covering the New York Football Giants for the past two seasons for Examiner.com. Born and raised in northern New Jersey, Curt has followed and covered the New York Metropolitan sports scene for 35 years. He attended Seton Hall Prep School in South Orange, NJ and is a graduate of Rutgers University, New Brunswick. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.