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As “America’s team,” the Dallas Cowboys have long been accustomed to the glare of the national spotlight.
Though Super Bowl expectations, a cast of big-name players with checkered pasts and the filming of a reality show about the team made that spotlight as bright as ever coming into this season, the Cowboys appear determined to keep their focus on the football field.
After a relatively calm offseason given the circumstances, the Cowboys look to take their first step toward a third consecutive playoff berth - and a more successful finish - as they visit the Cleveland Browns in each team’s season opener Sunday.
Dallas has a long list of potential distractions. Wide receiver Terrell Owens is no stranger to drama, quarterback Tony Romo has become a tabloid staple and offseason acquisition Adam “Pacman” Jones is returning to the NFL after a 17-month suspension for his connection in a shooting at a Las Vegas strip club in 2007 - his sixth arrest since he was drafted in 2005.
All that, combined with the fact that the team was the focus of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” reality show during training camp, seemed like the perfect storm for a tumultuous offseason. But the Cowboys have more important things on their mind after matching a franchise record with 13 wins last season, only to lose their sixth straight playoff game 21-17 at home against the division rival and eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
“That’s just the mentality of this team this year,” said Owens, who was fifth in the league with 1,355 receiving yards and third with 15 touchdowns last season. “We obviously didn’t finish the season the way we wanted to last year. This is another opportunity, another year, to erase those negative thoughts.”
The team credits coach Wade Phillips for its ability to ignore the distractions and concentrate on football.
“He said it the first day, ‘It’s going to be a little bit of a circus with a lot going on. But check your egos at the door, come in here and come to work,’” said tight end Jason Witten, one of 13 Pro Bowl selections back from last year.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well it has gone. … For the most part, everybody knows what we have going, the perception of who we are. We’re eager to get out on the field.”
That’s where the Cowboys shined last season, particularly on offense. Dallas ranked third in the league with 365.7 total yards per game, and second with 455 points scored en route to the top seed in the NFC.
The defense didn’t disappoint either, holding opponents to an average of 307.6 yards, ninth-fewest in the NFL.
Those numbers, however, do little to console a Dallas team that’s tied an NFL record by losing six straight playoff games dating to 1996. This year’s Cowboys are confident they’ll have another opportunity to snap that skid this winter.
“We feel like we are that good and we belong in those games,” said Romo, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who was third in the league with 4,211 passing yards and second with 36 touchdowns in 2007. “We belong in those situations and we are going to try to put ourselves in that situation for the next decade. And if we can, we’ll eventually break through.”
That quest starts against the Browns, who like the Cowboys, are hoping to bounce back from a bitter end to the 2007 season. After going 4-12 in 2006, Cleveland broke through for 10 wins last year - the team’s highest total since it went 11-5 in 1994 - but failed to make the playoffs in the competitive AFC.
“We are disappointed that we didn’t reach the playoffs, however, we had a good year,” coach Romeo Crennel said after the team beat San Francisco 20-7 in the season finale. “We’ve learned a lot, grown a lot and look forward to continuing to build on what we’ve accomplished this season.”
Also like Dallas, Crennel’s club did most of its damage on offense, ranking eighth in total yards (351.3) and points (402) behind a breakout season from quarterback Derek Anderson, who passed for 3,787 yards and 29 TDs.
Anderson suffered a concussion Aug. 18, but returned to practice Monday and is expected to start the opener. He’ll likely have one of his favorite targets back in the lineup as well, as receiver Braylon Edwards also returned to practice Monday after missing three weeks with a severely cut foot.
Edwards caught 80 passes for 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
While the return of some high profile players should help Cleveland’s offense, the Browns hope to get a similar boost from some new additions on defense after ranking 30th by giving up 359.6 yards per game in 2007. The team addressed that weakness by adding nose tackle Shaun Rogers and defensive tackle Corey Williams in the offseason.
“Everyone is excited that they’re here,” said linebacker Willie McGinest, who plans to retire following this season - his 15th in the league. “We know what they can do. They’re very high-level players and should complement the guys that are already here.”
McGinest hopes that improvement on defense can push the Browns over the hump and into the postseason.
“I think it’s doable,” he said. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We don’t want to be a team that’s talking playoffs and all this and we come out and get our butts kicked. It’s the one-game-at-a-time, one-week-at-a-time approach.
“Of course we have goals. We want to win our division. We want to go to the playoffs. Everybody knows that. But we’re not going to be talking about all that stuff. Our goal is to beat Dallas on Sept. 7. Right now, that’s it.”
Cleveland lost its last game against Dallas 19-12 on the road Sept. 19, 2004 - the teams’ first meeting in nearly 10 years.