Dallas Cowboys 2011 Season Preview: Looking For Return To Playoffs

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 27: Quarterback Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys motions during a time out in the pre-season game against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field on August 27, 2011 in Minneapolis, MN. (Photo by Adam Bettcher /Getty Images)

SB Nation is previewing the 2011 season for all 32 teams and up today is the Dallas Cowboys. Check out all of our 2011 NFL season previews.

The 2011 NFL season is almost here which means it's time to preview every team's chances this year. SB Nation's Blogging The Boys gives us the scoop on the Dallas Cowboys

Record Prediction

If it's true that "it's not how you start, it's how you finish," then there's reason for optimism about the 2011 Cowboys. Last year's team finished 5-3 under new coach Jason Garrett down the stretch in the last eight regular season after starting the season 1-7. And the three losses down the stretch came by a combined seven points.  
 
The Pythagorean formula, which uses points scored and points allowed to measure team strength, projects 9.2 wins for the Cowboys based on their last eight games of 2010. Going strictly by wins over the same period, the Cowboys could be a 10-6 team in 2011. Football Outsiders are less optimistic and project 7.5 wins for the 2011 Cowboys.  
 
Aggregated, all three methods suggest that based on their 2010 record, the Cowboys should be a break even or slightly better team, and that is probably not unrealistic given last year's performance and a new coaching regime. Anything higher than that is probably a bonus at this point in time, but if the Cowboys could start strong, and head into the early bye week with a 3-1 or at least a 2-2 record, there's one thing Cowboys fans have learned last year: anything is possible down the stretch.

Best Game On The Schedule

Sunday Night, October 30th, 2011 @ The Philadelphia Eagles 
 
The Cowboys have won five of the last seven meetings between the two rivals, and this offseason did nothing to cool the flames that emit from the two fan bases. While the Giants appear to be the main rivalry for the players in recent years, nothing this past off-season infuriated Cowboys fans more than the 'Air of Arrival' that the Eagles fans strut around with recently. The Eagles undoubtedly won the off season championship belt and their fans have soaked in its glory, probably because they don't know what it feels like to win the post season title. The Eagles bested Jerry Jones in the pursuit of 30 year old free agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, and also inked the defensive end some wanted in Dallas (Cullen Jenkins). They bolstered their team with several other top targeted free agents while the Cowboys only made small additions to go along with keeping their in house targets (save for Stephen Bowen).  
 
While the Eagles have enjoyed all of the media attention, the Cowboys have flown under the radar.  The roles of the teams seem to be reversed from recent seasons. The Eagles have all the answers, the Cowboys have all the questions... but that's all preseason talk. Once the lights come on anything can and normally does happen. Nothing will feel more vindicating than a beat down of the NFC East paper champs live on national TV, and the thirst for that will make it must see television for Cowboys fans. The two teams have engaged in some historic night time tilts over the last decade, and this could easily be the most watched game of the NFL regular season if the Cowboys have early season fortune.

Player Who Will Take A Step Back This Year

Tight end Jason Witten is a player who we probably shouldn't expect the same production out of. Not that his talent is regressing by any stretch of the imagination. It's that in a prolific offense with a myriad of weapons, the tight end simply won't be targeted the way he has been over the last four seasons. The Senator has amassed over 90 catches in three of the last four seasons, however the team hasn't had two wideouts as talented as Austin and Bryant since Owens and Glenn topped the depth chart. Witten's blocking ability is unquestioned and will be extremely helpful. Regardless of the preseason accolades heaped on rookie tackle Tyron Smith, he will be given a lot of help by the Cowboys That means we could see Witten sent on less routes, similar to what was witnessed with Doug Free at the beginning of 2010. Witten's numbers could easily dip down to 60-70 catches for 600-800 yards, as he returns to the role of security blanket as opposed to first or second option.

Breakout Player Candidates

Everyone is expecting Dez Bryant's physical prowess to be on display this season. In his second year, the 1st round wide receiver is guaranteed the No. 2 receiver spot and he won't disappoint. But look for Felix Jones to have a break out year. He has yet to surpass 1,000 yards rushing, yet this will also be his first season as a starter. Also improving as a receiver - add a mobile and young offensive line on screen passes and to open running lanes - and I don't have to go out on a ledge to predict at least 1,500 total yards from Felix the Cat in 2011. The young offensive line for the Cowboys, likely with two rookies and one second-year UDFA in the starting lineup, will also surprise a lot of people.

On the defensive side of the ball, knowing how often Rob Ryan utilizes defensive backs in his blitz packages could lead to Orlando Scandrick leading the league in sacks by a defensive back. He just signed a new contract and should have a break out year in a scheme that will utilize his athleticism and toughness. The same could be said about Abram Elam, who will be starting at safety in his first year in Dallas, but his experience with Rob Ryan's schemes should help him make big plays in coverage, while blitzing, and against the run...something sorely lacking from the Cowboys secondary in 2010. Second year middle linebacker Sean Lee has shown his football instincts in the preseason and has already learned how to read and react to plays like a pro. Expect to see him get more reps at weak inside linebacker, eventually earning the starting role over Keith Brooking. Josh Brent on the defensive line, backing up Jay Ratliff at nose tackle, is a more prototypical 2-gap nose tackle and has been solid during his second NFL offseason. I expect to see Rob Ryan use Brent often in his defensive line rotations.

Best Cowboys Player Others Haven't Heard Of

Best player on your team others have never heard of: Although its very difficult for any Cowboys player to go under the radar--even guys who shouldn't get any attention show up on ESPN's scroll--there is one guy who I think has managed, as much as is possible, to buck that trend. In the midst of a radical offseason offensive line overhaul in which Dallas went from one of the oldest to one of the youngest lines in the league, the one greybeard they needed to retain was guard Kyle Kosier
 
Since signing with the Cowboys in 2006 as an unsung and largely unremarked-upon free agent pickup, Kosier has been the steadiest, if not the most dominant, member of Dallas' offensive line. The Cowboys have gone 44-22 in the games he has started and 6-10 in the games he has missed. Moreover, they made the playoffs in all three seasons in which he started a full 16 games and missed them in the two years in which missed games due to injury. 
 
Kosier offers a prototype of the kind of lineman Jason Garrett favors--smart, mobile, tough--and will serve as mentor to a stable of youngsters with a similar profile, especially first-rounder Tyron Smith. Does he make highlight blocks or run his mouth? No. But, he'll use leverage and good feet (which he still has at the age of 33, unlike his more immobile ex-linemates) to make good blocks consistently. Most Cowboys fans aren't sure how to pronounce his last name; fans of other teams think of his as a stopgap--and that's just the way the quiet Kosier wants it. In fact, he's probably not happy that I've singled him out here...

Fantasy Football Outlook

The Cowboys enjoy a wealth of offensive options, which makes them a prime target for Fantasy Football GM's everywhere.  Quarterback Tony Romo returns from his injury and the early preseason returns indicate he might be making the transition from a good quarterback to an elite one. Romo already has stats that work out to an average of 271 yards and two touchdowns per contest, a 22 points per game average in standard scoring leagues. Romo should approach 4,300 yards and 30 touchdowns, in line with his healthy season totals. Romo's a potential top three quarterback in fantasy. His play will be improved, but the numbers will be masked by the emergence of Felix Jones as a low-end RB1 threat.

Jones' preseason performance indicates he's ready for a heavy workload, the caution is that we haven't had a chance to see how much action DeMarco Murray will see as a third down back.  That will potentially take away from Felix's 48 receptions of 2010. Running wise though, Felix's touches will increase, and he should approach 1,600 total yards from scrimmage. Touchdowns for Felix are extremely hard to judge, and that is why he is on the bottom end of the top 20 for backs. An eight touchdown production shoots him into the sleeper category.

Third-tier wide receiver Miles Austin should see his numbers jump with Romo's return. Their rapport could see Austin going off for between 1,300 and 1,600 yards and 8-11 scores. Opposite Austin is emerging superstar Dez Bryant. Bryant has the talent to easily surpass 1,000 yards and is a touchdown waiting to happen. I think Bryant may be getting overdrafted a bit though, and would be cautious to consider him in the top four tiers.

The threat I'm down on is tight end Jason Witten. The Cowboys now have two dynamic receiving threats on the outside for the first time since Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn were in the fold in ‘06. Witten had 64 catches for less than 800 yards that season. Add in that Romo was already targeting Witten less and less (his numbers spiked with Kitna at the helm), and he is probably being overdrafted as the second tight end taken.

DeMarco Murray is a priority Felix Jones handcuff, and stands on his own as a late round sleeper.  I wouldn't recommend drafting any of the other wideouts or tight ends. The offense is so explosive though, any injury should send you directly to the waiver wire for Kevin Ogletree, Martellus Bennett and possibly even John Phillips.

Best Media Personality In Dallas

For Dallas Cowboys fans, local media can be frustrating and discouraging. Most focus on the negatives and as more and more Cowboys beat writers take off for ESPN Dallas, it seems that a tendency to focus on the drama and outrageous nature that can exist around the Cowboys takes precedence over actual analysis and reporting. There a few gems in the crowd however (Brian Broaddus is a great scouting resource at ESPN) yet there is no singular personality that is more likable, more approachable or more enthusiastic than Bob Sturm.

Sturm is the co-host on BaD Radio on KTCK 1310 The Ticket and for many years had his own sports blog as well. He brings a fresh approach to covering the Cowboys on local talk radio and while there will always be bits to be played up, his tendency to stay grounded and actually focus on the football is refreshing from a fan's standpoint. He also is leading the way in the local media in the use of advanced football statistics, as he breaks down each Cowboys game in incredible detail both on his blog and at the Dallas Morning News. He in knowledgeable and is an unabashed fan of not just football but all sports, making him perhaps the most well-liked media personality in the D/FW area.

Best Player(s) To Follow On Twitter

Victor Butler (@Victor_Butler57) for a couple reasons. it would appear that Victor Butler is in line to be a sub-package star in Rob Ryan's new defense. Keeping an eye on an upcoming sack monster is always a good idea, and Victor Butler is a willing Twitter participant. Butler's tweets include numerous fan appreciation responses, as well as some humorous quips from his every day life. He's quickly taking on the role of the defense's back up quarterback, the fan's favorite fill-in. It appears he loves the interaction. His latest tweet at the time of penning this? "We don't want fans, we want believers.... RT with hashtag #ibelieve ..... #Cowboys #cowboysnation..."

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