By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 2010; 11:57 PM
ARLINGTON, TEX. - It all is set up so wonderfully for the Dallas Cowboys, with the Super Bowl scheduled to be played in their palatial second-year stadium in February and a team that looks like it just might be capable of being on the field that evening.
But living up to the outsized expectations that accompany the Cowboys into virtually every season has been problematic for the franchise in its recent past. Last season concluded on a disappointing note even after the club ended its long drought without a postseason victory.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wasn't taking a big-picture view after his team wrapped up its preseason here last Thursday night with a triumph over the Miami Dolphins. Instead, he limited his focus to his club's readiness for its regular season opener Sunday night against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.
"I know that we've put the work in," Jones said as he stood in a corridor outside the home locker room at Cowboys Stadium. "I know that our team will be ready to play when we get up there. . . . We're going to go into the Redskins game about as healthy as you could hope or expect out of a training camp, a five-week training camp."
Many regard the Cowboys as the team to beat in the NFC East after they won the division last season and beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the opening round of the playoffs. That was the Cowboys' first postseason triumph since Dec. 28, 1996. But the Cowboys followed that with a dud in Minneapolis, losing to the Minnesota Vikings, 34-3, in an NFC semifinal.
As the new season nears, the Cowboys say their performance against the Vikings in the playoffs should continue to serve as motivation for a better outcome this time around.
"It goes back to that Minnesota game, when that finished last year and the feeling we kind of had at the end of that game," tight end Jason Witten said in the locker room after the preseason finale. "The work has been put in by a lot of guys, coaches and players, to give ourselves a chance."
So now the question has become not whether Coach Wade Phillips and quarterback Tony Romo can get the Cowboys a postseason win, but whether they can deliver more than that. Phillips faced speculation all of last season that Jones might fire him if he didn't secure a playoff victory. Phillips is back, but now the next step is for the Cowboys to move closer to recapturing the glory days when they won three Super Bowls for Jones between the 1992 and '95 seasons.
Romo toned down the risk-taking in his game last season and was a dependable quarterback, with 26 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions during the regular season. He had three turnovers in the season-ending playoff loss to the Vikings, though. Now that he has reached age 30 and is entering his fourth full season as an NFL starter, his task will be finding the right balance between avoiding mistakes and seeking the occasional spectacular play, and maintaining that balance in the biggest games.
There is some question about the quality of the protection that Romo will get from his offensive line.
The Cowboys released veteran left tackle Flozell Adams in the offseason. Doug Free takes over as the starter at that position. Witten and wide receiver Miles Austin, who is coming off a breakthrough season in which he had 1,320 receiving yards, remain as Romo's top targets. The Cowboys may have received a major break when Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant fell to them with the 24th overall selection in the NFL draft in April.
Bryant was ruled ineligible for most of his final season in college after lying to an NCAA investigator about his contact with former NFL cornerback Deion Sanders. He also was involved in a controversy when it was reported that Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland had asked Bryant during a pre-draft interview whether Bryant's mother was a prostitute. Ireland apologized, and the two shook hands and spoke on the field before last Thursday's preseason game.
The Cowboys' biggest worry about Bryant is that he missed the entire preseason with a high-ankle sprain suffered in training camp. His first snap in an NFL game will come under the bright lights of the nationally televised opener against the Redskins.
"I don't think it will be hard at all," Bryant said. "It'll motivate me. It'll make me want to come out and just play to the best of my abilities."
One potential problem area in a season with such lofty aspirations is that the Cowboys are entrusting their field goal duties to second-year place kicker David Buehler, their kickoff specialist only last season as a rookie. So it was a welcome sight for the Cowboys when Buehler calmly connected on a game-winning field goal in the final seconds of the last preseason game.
"That was worth the ballgame to us to see him step up there and make those kicks. So we've got us a kicker."
The pressure could be far more intense if Buehler faces another kick Sunday night with a regular season game on the line. But Buehler shrugged off that suggestion.
"The way I approached the game is the way I approach a regular season game," Buehler said. "My job is on the line and I have to come through in the clutch and make kicks."
The offense sputtered at times during the preseason, but Witten said the problems can be fixed with some attention to detail and "basic execution." The Cowboys are more than ready to begin playing the games that count, he said.
"We've put in a lot of hard work in the last month and a half," Witten said. "I feel like we're a confident group. . . . So now it's time to go to work. That's what we do all this training for, to get to this time of the year. We're all anxious for it."