COMMENTARY | Of all the buzzwords that get thrown around in today's media, "contender" seems to be the one that generates the most debate. It's usually a reference to whether or not a team has the tools in place to qualify for the Super Bowl.
While I can appreciate a good, quality discussion regarding various franchises and their current position in the NFL food chain, I've never been one for blanket statements. Put bluntly, there is no such thing as a Super Bowl contender. At least not until the playoffs, whereupon every team that has earned a playoff berth is in contention to claim the Lombardi Trophy.
But let's not let semantics (or self-contradictions) stand in the way of our purpose here. After all, it wasn't long ago that many media pundits considered the Dallas Cowboys to be, in fact, Super Bowl contenders. They were often paired as the NFC equivalent of the San Diego Chargers, destined with preseason hype to storm the conference and reach the Super Bowl before even so much as earning a first down.
You may remember the hype following the Cowboys' 2007 campaign in which they finished 13-3. Invariably, such a performance led to a lot of experts picking them to win the Super Bowl the following year. But alas, Disappointing Dallas emerged and failed to even qualify for the playoffs, finishing with a 9-7 record.
That four-game turnaround adequately describes this franchise over the last several years. They always seem to put together hot streaks that sucker everyone into getting romantic about Tony Romo and company, only to fizzle out into eventual mediocrity.
Which is where they reside now. After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, back-to-back Week 17 play-in games and back-to-back unsurprising letdowns, the Cowboys are the definition of a mediocre franchise. But can one draft class change all of that?
The short answer, of course, is yes. The needs and weaknesses of this team are easy to define and it just so happens that the 2013 draft is full of players that can address them. But it's important to realize that you can't just plug in rookies and expect to immediately fix your problems, especially along the defensive and offensive lines. It takes time for that nucleus to form.
Even so, it's not unthinkable to believe that their first few picks couldn't have an immediate impact. Depth along the defensive line is a major concern considering this is a transition year. There are plenty of personnel questions, like who will be the 1-technique? Who will be the 3-technique? Will Jay Ratliff be cut? How will DeMarcus Ware perform as a defensive end, especially after two offseason surgeries? Will they be able to retain Anthony Spencer?
Then there's the offensive line which had too many penalties, not enough running lanes and absolutely no consistency in pass protection. The big question here is will the Cowboys restructure Doug Free's contract or simply cut him and hope to find his replacement?
It's unrealistic to suggest that they will be able to address all of these problems in one offseason. But as far as contending goes, a quick look at the NFC East might give momentum to the theory that the Cowboys are the most "Super Bowl ready" team in this division.
The Philadelphia Eagles are entering a new era under Chip Kelly. As of now, it's unclear if their franchise quarterback is on the roster. Or if Kelly's system will work on the professional level or how long it will take to implement.
The Washington Redskins have their franchise quarterback. Unfortunately, his status for the 2013 season is somewhat murky. The prevailing thought is that he could be ready for Week 1. But at what expense? I'd be surprised if they rushed him back. Furthermore, he wasn't even their most surprising rookie. That honor belongs to one Alfred Morris, who finished the season with 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns. The chances of him being able to repeat that performance certainly aren't great.
Then there's the two-time Super Bowl MVP, Eli Manning, and the New York Giants. It's hard to say which version will show up: the one that sputters into the playoffs and eventually wins the Super Bowl. Or the one that sputters into the offseason, one win shy of a playoff berth.
The Cowboys have plenty of issues but you have to like their chances with a healthy team and a simplified defense. The transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 should be relatively painless. If they can find some consistency on the offensive side of the ball and some resiliency on the defensive side, then you have to believe that they're one good draft class away from being the team to beat in the NFC East.
There's another fun buzzword: resiliency. I saw a little of that out of the Cowboys last year. Almost enough to make me respect them. Super Bowl contenders or not, it's hard to suppress my desires to hype this team up to our usual unattainable preseason expectations. But it's only February so adjust your enthusiasm accordingly.
Justin Bonnema is a freelance writer and a featured columnist covering the NFL and fantasy football.
Follow him on Twitter: @justinbonnema
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