By Matthew Postins
The Dallas Cowboys are preparing to open the 2014 NFL season by hosting the San Francisco 49ers at AT&T Stadium. Here are the five story lines to watch entering the game.
Ray McDonald. This has nothing to do with the Cowboys, of course. McDonald was arrested on suspicion of felony domestic violence related to an incident with his fiancée just a couple of days ago. This comes just a few days after the NFL announced stiffer penalties for those that commit these crimes, starting with a six-game suspension for a first offense. The question is McDonald’s availability for Sunday’s game. It’s hard to imagine the NFL would act that fast. The league’s history is to wait until all of the evidence is in. San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh went on San Francisco radio on Tuesday and called domestic violence “unacceptable.” Would he and team administration find it unacceptable enough to suspend McDonald on their own? If they do, combined with the suspension of defensive end Aldon Smith and the absence of linebacker Navarro Bowman due to injury, San Francisco’s defense would be quite diminished.
Dallas’ motley defensive line. You can argue that every level of the Cowboys’ defense has its issues. But in the Cover 2 the defensive line sets the tone for pressure throughout the defense. The Cowboys kept a whopping 11 defensive linemen on their 53-man roster after final cuts, they traded for another defensive lineman shortly after cuts and they’re practically begging the NFL to make a decision on Josh Brent’s reinstatement. Two of those linemen — Demarcus Lawrence and Anthony Spencer — won’t be on the field for Week 1 due to injury. Oh, and did we mention that the offseason’s top free agent signing, defensive tackle Henry Melton, didn’t play a bit this preseason? Yeah it’s a bona fide mess. And that mess is expected to get pressure on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and limit the effectiveness of running back Frank Gore? The words good luck comes to mind. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will have to get real creative.
Dez and his deal. The Cowboys and Dez Bryant’s agent have just a few days to come to a deal on a contract extension. Bryant has made it clear he doesn’t wish to negotiate during the season, so once the ball is kicked on Sunday afternoon, theoretically, talks will come to a halt. The question that owner and general manager Jerry Jones dealt with on his radio show on Tuesday was whether the two parties not reaching a deal could be a distraction in the season. Jones said no. Bryant says he doesn’t want to talk about a deal during the season to avoid distraction. Everyone sounds real mature right now. But only time will tell if it has any impact on Bryant’s play if a deal isn’t reached by Sunday.
Tony Romo’s readiness. That will be all the talk when Romo meets with the media later this week. Is Romo ready from an overall physical preparedness standpoint? One of the real questions I’ve had this offseason, as the Cowboys have gradually ramped Romo up, is his core strength and his stamina. With a back injury that limits your weight room work. It also limits your cardio. Romo has played three-quarters of football this preseason. Romo should be sharp to start the game. But is he ready to play all four quarters? Romo says he is. But only Sunday’s game will show us for certain.
Are the Cowboys really going to run the football? That’s the timeless question under head coach Jason Garrett, as the ratio between run and pass has widened the past three years. The Cowboys did a good job of establishing the run in the first two preseason games. But in Game 3, the dress rehearsal game, the Cowboys threw 18 times and ran it 11 times. So was that an effort to get Tony Romo more pass attempts or a sign of things to come? The game will dictate some of this, of course. But watch what the ratio in the first half for indications of whether the Cowboys really are serious about the run — finally.