Cowboys are ahead of some top NFC contenders heading into break

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

FRISCO, Texas – The Seattle Seahawks have made headlines for reported locker room discord. The New York Giants have the Odell Beckham Jr. contract negotiations hanging overhead. Even the fully loaded Atlanta Falcons have their own brand of problems – like replacing the NFL’s best offensive coordinator while simultaneously getting over that Super Bowl breakdown.

In this vein, the Dallas Cowboys are laying in the weeds. Not quite the hammerlock Super Bowl favorite like the New England Patriots, but looking more and more capable of being the NFC’s title favorite.

Dak Prescott and head coach Jason Garrett appear to be on good terms at minicamp this week. (AP)

That’s not to say there aren’t problems, mind you. The defense has questions all over the place despite an infusion of talent in the draft. Quarterback Dak Prescott has a whole new set of expectations and the offensive line is being fine-tuned. And running back Ezekiel Elliott, well, his offseason has been one of maintenance (a car accident, a less-than-smart tug on a woman’s shirt, a lingering domestic violence investigation, etc.). Beneath all that, the Cowboys achieved a fairly calm offseason. No contract issues. Little controversy. And maybe most important of all: near 100 percent attendance in the team’s offseason program, which in today’s NFL, is a very big deal.

In some ways, the quiet line Dallas has been walking has been a dream. After a litany of offseasons packed with questions about Tony Romo’s health or replacing DeMarco Murray or years of some disjointed Dez Bryant issue, there has been a palpable change in tune with this franchise. One that features a consistent storyline. Specifically, the transition of aging leadership to a group of players who will comprise the franchise core into the next decade.

By all accounts, Dallas will head into the offseason break having accomplished exactly what it wanted this offseason – closing the transition into the hands of Prescott; keeping Elliott from being suspended (or something worse); and getting everyone to show up for nine weeks and lay a foundation of chemistry. All of that while largely avoiding drama. Apart from a few small lumps in the batter, the recipe will likely produce the NFC’s Super Bowl favorite when training camp begins in July. So long as nobody screws it up when the team’s month-long break begins on Friday.

“Ownership, Jason [Garrett] – that’s really what we’re trying to get done,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said of the fairly calm offseason. “I really credit the culture we have here, because it’s really driven by the players and their wanting to buy in to what we’re doing. … [We could] spend a lot of time talking about what we’re going to do. I think we spend most of our time working towards what we want to do and that’s a good start.”

The specific definition of what Dallas is working toward is fairly simple. An edition that is measured and consistent – a tandem approach that has rarely stuck in decades of Jerry Jones ownership. But that’s what this offseason has supplied, with leadership that is straddling two worlds and finding some kind of new chemistry. In one, guys like tight end Jason Witten and linebacker Sean Lee are the veteran pillars rebalancing a leadership void left behind by Tony Romo. In another, Prescott and Elliott are the next cornerstones who will define the franchise from 2017 forward. And somewhere in the middle of those two worlds is Bryant, who is a little of both, with enough experience to lead anyone in the locker room, but also enough youth to still be a long-term piece of the puzzle. If there is a group of guys who will make or break all of this, it’s that five. That five and an offensive line that should still be the NFL’s bar-setter as a unit.

Richard Sherman is no longer on the trading block for the Seahawks. It was unclear why he was there in the first place. (AP)

That’s not to discount the rest of the NFC – which has a number of teams with as much (or more) talent from top to bottom. But the problems approaching each aren’t small. The lingering discord (despite players insisting it’s overblown) can’t be downplayed in Seattle, which had an oddly awkward offseason for a team that is still built to contend. There are those in the franchise who are scratching their heads over what exactly happened with Marshawn Lynch, a departure that doesn’t happen without some yet-to-be-explained subtext. The Seahawks’ best cornerback and locker room cornerstone, Richard Sherman, doesn’t just end up on the trading block for no reason. And the contract gripes of a few players are still a thing in Seattle.

Atlanta? We have no idea how well the offense – or quarterback Matt Ryan – is going to function without Kyle Shanahan. Considering how far he brought the quarterback position for the Falcons last season, his loss is immense (and vastly underplayed). And there’s no telling how the team will respond to the Super Bowl loss, which will continue to be a question throughout 2017. Go ask the Carolina Panthers when people stopped asking about the Super Bowl hangover. They haven’t. And they won’t when it comes to Atlanta.

Dallas will benefit from that. It will also benefit from Romo having another legitimate star-making job in television. Not to mention the lack of sticky contract talks lying in wait for training camp. Even the schedule gives Dallas a blessing, by virtue of a Hall of Fame game that will bless the Cowboys with a fifth preseason game that is planned to be almost entirely devoted to rookies and players in their second and third seasons. That extra week of preseason practice means more snaps for Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Ryan Switzer, Jaylon Smith and Rico Gathers – all who could play significant roles next season.

“[The Hall of Fame game] is a benefit,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “Especially when you’ve got a lot of young players there. You go in, you get them more drill work, maybe more reps, another extra game of football to evaluate guys. We’ve got a good, healthy roster.”

And now Dallas is headed toward a good, healthy month off – and all of the hand-wringing that comes with it. Inevitably, missteps happen in that void. The kind that have defined this franchise in recent years. The kind that Dallas has largely avoided this offseason. What waits on the other side is a training camp that should greet Dallas as the NFC’s favorite. If only the Cowboys can stay the course and make it one more month.

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