It’s been 20 long years since the Dallas Cowboys won the last of their three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s following the 1995 season. An entire generation has grown up never knowing the Cowboys to be winners. But there is a belief inside and outside the organization that the Cowboys are on the brink of reclaiming that championship pedigree. What must happen for them to become super again in 2015? Here are five keys to the season:
1. Staying healthy, especially Tony Romo
The Cowboys believe they have what it takes to win a title this year. They have upgraded the roster, especially on defense. Dez Bryant is happy and signed to a long-term deal. And quarterback Tony Romo is the healthiest he has been in three years. The biggest concern they have going into the season is avoiding injuries. Can they keep Romo healthy? He is 35 years old. Will linebacker Sean Lee hold up for a full season for the first time in his career?
2. Replacing DeMarco Murray
No matter what the Cowboys say, it won’t be easy to replace DeMarco Murray and his 1,845 rushing yards. Joseph Randle is a more natural runner, but he remains unproven as a lead back for one game, let alone 16. It will almost certainly be a committee affair with Lance Dunbar and Darren McFadden shouldering some of the load. But both come with injury questions. The Cowboys were successful last season because they made opponents respect the run. They will have to prove they can do so again.
3. Can the defense survive without Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain?
The Cowboys love the upgrades they made on defense. The addition of Greg Hardy has given them a feared pass rusher. The combination of Sean Lee and Rolando McClain gives the Cowboys their best duo of playmaking linebackers in years. The problem is the Cowboys won’t get to reap the benefit of Hardy and McClain until the fifth game of the year. Both have been suspended by the NFL for the first four games, so the defense will need to hold up until they return. Jeremy Mincey will start at right end, but look for rookie Randy Gregory to handle some pass rush duties for Hardy. Anthony Hitchens will replace McClain at middle linebacker for the first four games. He is solid, but he is no McClain.
4. Where will Byron Jones play?
The answer is a little big of everywhere. Jones is arguably the most overshadowed first-round pick to come to the Cowboys in a long time because of all the questions surrounding Hardy, Gregory and guard La’el Collins. But the rookie from Connecticut will have a significant role from the outset as a part-time cornerback, safety and a member of the dime defense. Jones’ size allows him to cover tight ends, and his athleticism allows him to match up with big receivers on the outside.
5. Will the Cowboys live up to the hype?
Jason Garrett has instilled in the Cowboys that they can’t pick up where they left off last season. They must make the journey all over again. That’s all well and good, but if the Cowboys don’t go further than they did in 2014 and make a serious run to the Super Bowl, this season will be deemed a huge disappointment. Not since the team won its last Super Bowl in 1995 have the Cowboys followed a double-digit-win season with a successful campaign the following year. In fact, each time they have failed to make the playoffs. Can the Cowboys reverse the curse?