A year ago at this time, I wrote that the Dallas Cowboys didn’t have a prayer of a chance to have a successful season or save coach Jason Garrett’s job.
Not after three 8-8 seasons, the absence of any play-making talent on defense and an aging quarterback coming off potentially career-threatening back surgery.
Owner Jerry Jones jokingly greeted me upon my arrival at training camp with “you need prayer yourself, get on your knees.”
Of course, that was before the Cowboys shocked the NFL with a 12-4 record, the NFC East title and their second playoff win in 17 years before losing to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional playoffs.
Who knew DeMarco Murray was going to lead the league in rushing with a team-record 1,845 yards?
Who knew Tony Romo would respond from back surgery with the best season of his career?
Who knew the team’s maligned defense would play above its head for much of the season?
Certainly not Jones. He even admitted that the Cowboys were heading into the season with their backs against the wall.
Well, after last year’s surprising breakthrough campaign, there’s no understating the team’s expectations for the 2015 campaign, which begins Tuesday when the team reports to training camp in Oxnard, Calif.
By all accounts, the Cowboys are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Despite the loss of Murray to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency, the Cowboys remain the team to beat in the NFC East and rank just behind the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers as the best bets to represent the conference in the Super Bowl.
There is certainly no lacking for confidence inside the organization that the Cowboys are finally ready to live up to their championship pedigree.
It’s been 20 years since the Cowboys’ won the last of their three Super Bowl titles of the 1990s, the fifth in franchise history, with a 1970s payback victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers following the 1995 season.
Romo was just 15 years old, likely in the midst of a modest three-sport high school career in Burlington, Wis., and idolizing Brett Favre rather than his Cowboys predecessor Troy Aikman.
Receiver Dez Bryant, the team’s best player, was age 6, probably riding his bike all over Lufkin with no thoughts of throwing up the X.
But they are ready to embrace history and take their rightful place among Cowboys legends.
Romo started things off in April when he voluntarily invoked the Super Bowl dream at the end of an acceptance speech for the Nancy Lieberman Lifetime Achievement Award.
“This award is very meaningful to me, mostly because I get to be associated with this and to be associated with Nancy. It’s incredible and I really appreciate you, and we’re going to win a Super Bowl next year. Thank you.”
Bryant followed suit upon the signing of his five-year, $70 million contract extension.
“Now that we’ve got the deal done, I can only imagine what’s fixing to go down this season,” Bryant told the team’s website. “We’re Super Bowl ready.”
Jones even got into the act, telling Bryant “Let’s win five Super Bowls in a row,” on a jubilant, congratulatory phone call.
The goal is evident.
Nobody is denying it or shying away from it.
A highly successful off-season in which the Cowboys accomplished nearly all their goals for improvement — save the acquisition of superstar running back Adrian Peterson — has them even more emboldened.
The top priority was retaining Bryant and making him happy. He means so much to everything they do on offense. Having him on the field for the start of training camp after an off-season of contract discontent was a triumph in itself.
Romo had his first healthy off-season in three years and will head into training camp 100 percent for the first time since 2012.
The best offensive line in the NFL got even better with the addition of La’el Collins, an undrafted rookie free agent with first-round talent who could start at left guard.
The defense should be better because of the return of linebacker Sean Lee from injury and the acquisitions of defensive end Greg Hardy, defensive end Randy Gregory and cornerback Byron Jones in the draft and free agency.
The Cowboys got a win when Hardy’s NFL suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy was reduced from 10 to four games.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne, who has been a disappointment since coming to the team with the sixth overall pick in 2012, is also a source of optimism because of a successful return from knee surgery that might allow the Cowboys to play Jones at safety.
“It’s all about the production on the field,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said in affirming the team’s highly productive off-season. “We obviously feel like we got a lot accomplished. We theoretically got done what we felt like we needed to do to make our team better and take the next step. Now we’ll see if it happens.”
Nobody is praying this year.
The Cowboys are firm believers that they can make a run to the Super Bowl.
Clarence E. Hill Jr., 817-390-7760