This Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys open up their 2016 season against the division rival New York Giants. While the game is just the first of 16 to be played, the final result will have a much bigger impact than just one game in the standings.
Of course, being a divisional home game raises the stakes Sunday as it is already. Especially with a road game against the defending NFC East champions looming for week two. The absolute last thing the team needs is to fall behind 0-2 with both losses within the division.
But I truly believe the importance of this game goes beyond the standings, or the remaining schedule. It goes beyond the mantra of “just another game.” The way this team plays and the outcome of Sunday’s game will have a direct impact on how the Cowboys can put the “ghost” of Tony Romo to bed, at least for the time being.
1-11 Without Tony Romo.
We all know these stats.
We all know that last year, once Romo went down, this team stumbled along to a putrid 4-12 record. We all know how awful the offense looked in Green Bay when led by Matt Cassel and given ample opportunities to take over the game. We all remember the struggles of Brandon Weeden and Kellen Moore, and the heartbreaking overtime losses which punctuated the disastrous season.
But the players know all of this too.
And no matter how strong the leadership may be within the locker room from veterans like Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, or from head coach Jason Garrett, a loss Sunday could possibly trigger all too many bad memories and send this team down the same, miserable path.
A loss Sunday, whether close and heartbreaking or never in doubt, could make the Cowboys think “here we go again,” questioning their own talent, their own ability, and their own quarterback in Dak Prescott.
We all believe this team will be different, though.
For starters, this team is healthy. Sure Tony Romo is once again missing, but the other key pieces which were either hobbled or absent last season are back and ready to go.
Dez Bryant, Orlando Scandrick, and Tyrone Crawford not only bolster the team’s lineup when available but also strengthen the locker room. These three returning to dominance will help the Cowboys stay afloat, regardless of the outcome of game one.
Key newcomers also bring with them an added chance to survive without Romo.
Ezekiel Elliott looks like the real deal, powering through some of the most respected defenders in the entire NFL during his limited preseason action. Dak Prescott brings arm strength, athleticism, and excitement which none of the former three backups brought.
Defensively, Morris Claiborne looks like a new player and safety Byron Jones is cementing himself as one of the best and most reliable in the league.
And on top of all of this, the Cowboys still feature the most dominant unit in all of football, their offensive line.
What scares me, and may scare a lot of Cowboys fans however, is that we all thought last year’s team was just as fit to survive without their leader, but failed to do so.
It may just be week one, but this game will tell us a lot about the psyche and mental toughness of the 2016 Dallas Cowboys.