Shutdown Countdown: How bad might it get for the Dallas Cowboys?

(Yahoo Sports)
(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

If you're upset with the Cowboys' placement at No. 24, just know that placing them even lower was considered.

Ultimately, it's tough to rank a team coming off an 8-8 season lower than this, but there are a lot of warning signs that this is going to be a very ugly year in Dallas.

The defense was bad last season, and arguably the three best players are gone. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware was cut. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher signed with Washington. Linebacker Sean Lee is already out for the year with a torn ACL suffered in an offseason practice. You take a defense that gave up at least 30 points seven times last season, remove those three players, and it's hard to see how it doesn't get worse.

Tony Romo (AP)
Tony Romo (AP)

The offense was able to carry the team to an 8-8 finish last year, but there's some uncertainty there too. Tony Romo is 34 coming off back surgery. DeMarco Murray had a great 2013 but a year ago people were knocking him for durability issues. Jason Witten is probably a Hall of Famer, but at 32 he has to slow down eventually too. The line is very good, Dez Bryant is one of the best receivers in the NFL, but to need this to be an offense that can score 439 points again, which was fifth most in the NFL last season, is scary. And the Cowboys might need them to score that and then some.

Freely spending has caught up to the Cowboys, who were fairly quiet in free agency. They've been painfully close to playoff berths the last couple years, only to come up just short. They might not come close at all this year.

2013 review in less than 25 words: The Cowboys almost won the NFC East, but Dallas lost to Philadelphia in Week 17 to cap an 8-8 season with no postseason.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Ware might be losing a step and Hatcher might never replicate his impressive 2013 season, but they're better than what the Cowboys have now. If you throw Lee, a tremendous linebacker who has had some awful injury luck, into the mix then there's little question the roster is worse. The Cowboys need to hope that some of the young players on the roster make tremendous strides this season.

Best offseason acquisition: There weren't many and I'm not giving Brandon Weeden this prize, so it has to be Henry Melton. A year ago the Bears gave the franchise tag to Melton, a disruptive defensive tackle. He played in just three games last year due to a torn ACL, and signed an incentive-laden one-year deal with Dallas that contains a three-year team option. If Melton is healthy, he'll be a very nice addition to the Cowboys' defense. Then it would become an interesting question on whether to exercise a pretty expensive option.

Achilles heel: It's hard to pick just one area of the defense for this. The line has such little depth that Jeremy Mincey, who was cut by the talent-poor Jaguars last December and cleared waivers before signing with Denver, might end up starting. The linebackers are led by Bruce Carter, who is coming off a disappointing season, and Justin Durant, a natural outside linebacker who might need to replace Lee in the middle. The secondary has Brandon Carr, who hasn't lived up to his huge free-agent contract signed in 2012, and Morris Claiborne, a former sixth overall pick who is becoming perilously close to being labeled as a massive bust. It would take a lot of career years to turn the defense into a productive unit.

Position in flux: Considering Romo is coming off back surgery, the backup quarterback position in Dallas is a little more important than usual. And Kyle Orton has made it a question mark. Orton has shown no signs that he's going to come to training camp. He reportedly wants to retire. If he does, the Cowboys rightfully want most of his signing bonus back. So there's a stalemate. If Orton doesn't report, Weeden is next in line. Weeden is a former first-round pick and was Cleveland's opening-day starter last year, so it's not a hopeless situation. Still, he has struggled in the NFL. The Cowboys need to hope Romo just stays healthy, so they don't have to worry about what's behind him at all this season. 

Terrance Williams (USA Today Sports Images)
Terrance Williams (USA Today Sports Images)

Ready to break out: Maybe it's too late to jump on the Terrance Williams bandwagon. The second-year receiver had 736 yards and five touchdowns, and averaged an impressive 16.7 yards per catch last year. The third-round pick out of Baylor looked very comfortable on an NFL field. Now with Miles Austin officially out of the picture and Williams as the clear No. 2 after Bryant, Williams should have a fine season in a very good passing offense. Bryant and WItten get most of the defense's attention, allowing Williams some room to operate. There's no reason he can't be a 1,000-yard receiver this year. 

Stat fact: Dallas is the third team in NFL history to post three straight 8-8 seasons, joining Green Bay (1983-85) and Houston/Tennessee (1996-98). In 1999, after the third 8-8 season, Tennessee went 13-3 and won the AFC. The Packers went 4-12 in 1986. So, if you want to be extremely optimistic or pessimistic on the 2014 Cowboys, you have a precedent to point to.

Schedule degree of difficulty: Dallas has the 18th toughest schedule, based on 2013 records. We'll know a lot about the Cowboys early on. Look at these first six games: vs. San Francisco, at Tennessee, at St. Louis, vs. New Orleans, vs. Houston, at Seattle. Pretty tough stretch to start.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: Since they did go 8-8 with a similar roster last year, it's not inconceivable that the Cowboys could be in that range again. And, if the Eagles don't make the leap everyone anticipates (let's remember, they needed to beat a 8-7 Cowboys team in Week 17 just to make the playoffs), maybe the Cowboys can stick around in that division race. That probably depends on Romo staying healthy and having another fine year, and the offensive talent is in place for that to happen, and a strong offensive line could keep him upright. 

And here’s the nightmare scenario: If the offense slips a little, it'll be bad. Remember, Dallas scored 439 points last year and that was only good enough for 8-8. And the defense appears to be worse this year. The last time the Cowboys lost more than 11 games was Jimmy Johnson's first year as coach, in 1989. If the defense is as bad as it looks, and the offense slips a little, losing more than 11 games isn't out of the question.

The crystal ball says: No matter how many times I look at the defense, the only way I see major turnaround is if Rod Marinelli's schemes just click. And he is a very talented defensive coordinator, so maybe. Or if youngsters like Claiborne, linebacker DeVonte Holloman, safety J.J. Wilcox and rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence all break out this year. But there's just not a lot of blue-chip players on that defense. And I worry about Romo, who is coming off another very good season but has a lot of health questions now. I have nothing against Dallas. The league is more interesting when the Cowboys are good (and goodness gracious, we're going to be seeing a lot of them on prime time no matter if they're great or horrendous). I just see this as the year things bottom out in Big D. I think I might look back at the end of the season and see that the preseason ranking was too high.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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