Cowboys 2010: Super Bowl at home or year is wasted

August 24, 2010

The Dallas Cowboys have a simple mandate this season: Play at home in February.

The Super Bowl is coming to Cowboys Stadium and landlord Jerry Jones is counting on his team being there.

Sure, the Cowboys haven't made the Super Bowl in 15 years, the longest dry spell in franchise history. And no team has played in the Super Bowl in its home stadium.

But those kinds of challenges fuel Jones - especially since he has a team capable of pulling it off.

With Tony Romo and Miles Austin leading the offense, and DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff powering the defense, Dallas goes into this season as a legitimate contender.

The Cowboys were within two wins of the Super Bowl last season. The impressive part is how they did it.

On the verge of another disastrous December that likely would've cost coach Wade Phillips his job, Dallas went to New Orleans on a raucous Saturday night and handed the Saints their first loss after a 13-0 start. Then the defense posted back-to-back shutouts for the first time in franchise history, making the Cowboys 11-5 and division champs.

They opened the playoffs at home, in their fancy new stadium, and stomped the rival Eagles for their first postseason win since 1996. A week later in Minnesota, the offensive line collapsed and the season went with it. The disappointment was easy for fans to overcome because they sensed that for the first time since the days of Troy Aikman handing off to Emmitt Smith and throwing slants to Michael Irvin, Dallas might be a contender for several years.

The buzzword is ''continuity.'' The Cowboys return 20 of 22 starters, with both newcomers having been groomed to take over. Romo, Austin, Ware, Ratliff and others are still in the prime of their careers, most secured with long-term contracts. The coaching staff returns pretty much intact, too; instead of a pink slip, Phillips got an extension.

A lot still has to fall into place to reach the Super Bowl. But, ''they're certainly capable of it,'' said Aikman, the Hall of Fame quarterback turned top analyst for Fox.

''They're probably as talented and as deep as anybody in the league right now,'' he said.

They're also downplaying their status.

Unlike recent Cowboys teams that embraced high expectations, these guys are cautiously optimistic. They know they should be good, but the core players - the guys who set the tone - have been through enough flameouts to take a wait-and-see approach.

''You can't just look at the bigger picture down the road,'' tight end Jason Witten said. ''Obviously there's never been a home team to play in the Super Bowl, and we understand that. But that's a long time away and a lot has to happen in between.''

Walking off the practice field last week, a fan screamed to Phillips, ''Are we going to the Super Bowl?''

''Yeah, sure,'' he answered with all the enthusiasm of someone who'd been asked whether his wisdom teeth had been removed.

Why so grim, coach? Why not use the chance to be the home-team Super Bowl as a rallying point?

''Well, if we were rallying for the Super Bowl, maybe,'' Phillips said. ''But your goals are to win. That will take you where you want to be. It can be a factor later on, certainly. I don't think right now is the time to rally around that.''

There are other things to rally around.

For the offense, it's maximizing drives. Dallas gained the most yards in franchise history last season, yet scored less than the previous year, when it missed the playoffs. The offense dazzled between the 20s but bogged down the closer it got to the end zone.

Critics say offensive coordinator Jason Garrett should've done a better job using running backs Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Others note that Witten had only two touchdown catches. How about more lobs to 6-foot-6 Martellus Bennett or 6-foot-3 Roy Williams? Point is, there are plenty of options, including first-round pick Dez Bryant.

A possible cause for concern is the offensive line.

Doug Free replaced Flozell Adams at left tackle, but the big news is right tackle Marc Colombo and left guard Kyle Kosier hurting their knees last week. Colombo is expected back by the opener; Kosier could miss three games.

The defense came on strong last season once outside linebacker Anthony Spencer started getting to the quarterback. After no sacks through 10 games, he had eight over the final eight games, counting the playoffs. His emergence means offenses have to worry about more than just Ware on one side and Ratliff up the middle.

Alan Ball is the new starter at free safety, replacing Ken Hamlin in a secondary featuring a pair of Pro Bowl cornerbacks, Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman.

So what's the defense's rallying point? Takeaways. Dallas had 21 last season, among the lowest in the NFL.

''We're always working on getting our offense back the ball,'' Ware said. ''But we've also got to score some more. Coach Wade told us there's a 76 percent chance of winning if the defense scores one time. That's good odds to me.''

The rallying point on special teams is field goals.

Dallas endured Nick Folk's wayward kicks most of last season, then Shaun Suisham's. Now they're hoping kickoff specialist David Buehler can handle double duty.

Buehler worked all offseason with Chris Boniol, a Super Bowl-winning kicker with Dallas in the '90s, and is 6 of 7 this preseason. He'll probably have the job in September, but expect Jones to keep handy the phone numbers of unemployed veterans.

After all, there's a Super Bowl to be won. At home.