What could have been is becoming the modern-day rallying cry for the Dallas Cowboys.
There's a steady debate on just how talented Jason Garrett's team truly is. But there's no arguing the inconsistency that surrounds the club and it extends back further than just a few seasons.
But the past is the past and these days, the Pokes are a 22-26 football team over the last three seasons since finishing 11-5 and winning the NFC East in 2009. Still, hope springs eternal for every team in the offseason.
And the Dallas Cowboys will be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009…
If: The Cowboys properly adjust to their new defensive system under veteran coordinator Monte Kiffin. Pro Bowlers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer shift to defensive end in Kiffin's 4-3 alignment. This marks the third time in four seasons that Dallas will have a new defensive philosophy as Kiffin takes over for Rob Ryan, who had the job the previous two seasons. And it wasn't long ago that head coach Wade Phillips was doing double duty with the Cowboys.
And: The game plan in Big D starts and ends with a "Big D" in DeMarco Murray (thought I was going to say Dez Bryant, huh?). When available, the former University of Oklahoma product has made his mark. But only the Cardinals ran for fewer yards than the Cowboys in 2012 and that "D" for Murray must start standing for dependability. With more support from the running game, quarterback Tony Romo wouldn't be forced to carry the offensive load. Last season, the Dallas signal-caller threw for 4,903 yards and 28 scores, but tied for the NFL lead with 19 interceptions.
But: Romo and the entire team in general have to be able to put a solid season together from start to finish. Over the last two years, slow starts have been followed by stretch runs that have teased their fans leading up until the final Sunday or two. In 2011, the Cowboys opened 7-4 only to lose four of the final five games to finish 8-8. A year ago, a surprising 3-5 start was followed by a 5-3 finish. But two of those three losses came in the final two weeks of the season.
So what do you think? Obviously there's been no real dominant team in the NFC East as of late but that hasn't stopped the Cowboys from being mediocre or worst each of the last three seasons. If recent history holds up, it's Dallas' turn once again to grab a division title. But what if the Pokes miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year?
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country, can be heard on Yahoo! Sports Radio and many other networks and was blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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