Football is back.
Well, sort of. The first official game of the preseason, the Hall of Fame Game, is on tonight featuring two intriguing teams: the Cincinnati Bengals and the Dallas Cowboys. Preseason games don't count for much and are traditionally unreliable indicators as to the success of the team (the Indianapolis Colts, for example, rarely finish with a win), not to mention that the starters on each team usually play one series in the first preseason game. It is at least refreshing for the sports fan to see football finally back on television--after all, it is the most popular sport in the United States--and it gives fantasy football players some information on potential sleepers and handcuffs for the coming season. The game gives football pundits--and non-football pundits like me--the opportunity to wax poetic about the prospects of these two teams in the forthcoming season.
I mentioned that both the Bengals and the Cowboys are intriguing teams and they are for roughly the same reason: both teams have roughly the same team that they had last year and the major difference in both teams from last year is that they added help at the wide receiver position. The Bengals late addition of Terrell Owens and the earlier free-agent signing of the oft injured yet talented Antonio Bryant--both a much needed upgrade after the recent departure of TJ Houshmandzadeh and the death of rising but troubled receiver Chris Henry, last season.
The Cowboys drafted help in Dez Bryant, the highest valued wide receiver, skill-wise, in the draft who fell drastically in the draft after the media overhyped Bryant as having off-field problems (Seriously? Having dinner with Deion Sanders is comprable to, oh, I don't know, the proclivity to steal?). But this is not the intriguing part.
Next we move to the hype on each team, which is the intriguing part. Despite winning the AFC North last year, one of the toughest leagues in football considering the reputation of both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens defense, and having a top 5defense, the Bengals are receiving virtually no hype as a potential playoff team. The Cowboys, like the Bengals won their division and had a top 10 defense. Yet, despite having the same team and a similar situation to the Bengals, the Cowboys have been hyped as a potential Super Bowl team.
Why the Cowboys are a Super Bowl contender and the Bengals are not does not make much sense to me, at all. This isn't to say that the Bengals are a Super Bowl contender. They are not. However, the Cowboys shouldn't be either. In last year's divisional game, they were crushed by a Minnesota Viking defense that is essentially unchanged in the front four and in linebacker personnel, but has improved its secondary for its 2010 campaign. Same for the Saints, the defending Super Bowl champions, whose main losses are Mike Bell and Scott Fujita, which isn't much, though Fujita was an anchor in the defense. Moreover, the Cowboys have won a single playoff game in the past 13 years, and that win came this year over the Eagles in the 2009 Wild Card game, but calling them a Super Bowl contender in virtue of winning one playoff game is giving the Cowboys too much credit.
Perhaps the difference in hype can be explained by strength of division? The Bengals are in an incredibly top heavy division with the Steelers and Ravens, making it a tossup between these three teams with the lowly Browns expected to bring up the rear as they continue to rebuild. Moreover, if we assume the Bengals do make it out as a division winner, they have potentially tougher competition in the playoffs, having to contend with any of the following media darlings: Jets, Patriots, Dolphins, Colts, Texans and Chargers, in addition to probably another team from their own division. A tough road to hoe, no doubt. On the other hand, the Cowboys are in a much weaker NFC East than in years past. The Giants have, at best, an unreliable and unproven defense and the offense was fairly inconsistent last year; The Eagles have an unproven quarterback, while the Redskins have a new coach, a new defensive scheme, and the Eagles' old quarterback.
This division isn't a cakewalk. The Eagles, despite having an unproven quarterback, will give them fits and are still a division contender, the Redskins will be better than expected, and the Giants, I suspect, will right the ship and put together a competitive team. The falloff was in part due to key injuries on the defensive line and with those guys back, Big Blue will be a much improved team. However, assuming that the Cowboys do make it out, the NFC is tougher than it has been in the past five years: the Packers, Vikings, Saints and Falcons are clearly the other favorites of "the insiders", and the 49ers and Cardinals out in the NFC West look to surprise some people. With the Cowboys history of lackluster performances in the playoffs, it seems realistic that they will not make it out of the conference, just like the Bengals.
Statistically speaking, the Cowboys had a significantly better offense last year than the Bengals, and one can expect more of the same, what with the difference in defenses faced intra-division. However, the Bengals have adressed their issues on offense as mentioned above, and it appears that they have increased their potential for a great, competitive offense. I'll talk more about the likelihood of this in a moment, but I'll turn now to the Cowboys.
The Cowboy offense is enigmatic over the course of the past few years with roughly the same personnel, looking unstoppable and terrible week to week. They appeared to have become a more consistent offense last season, thereby providing a foundation on which to build hype. However, this to me, is an illusion. The Cowboys had 5 games in which the scored ten points or less, including an embarrassing loss to the Vikings scoring only three points. This seems to be a significant number of games in which the offense was a no-show. Whatever the difference in hype could be, I cannot find it and I'd be incredibly surprised if either team made it to the Super Bowl.
For the Bengals, the team will succeed if the passing game improves and Cedric Benson puts together another great season. Both of these things are connected. If the passing game improves, then the defense will have to respect the pass, thereby unable to stack the box to defend the run. With the addition of Owens and Bryant to compliment Chad Ochocinco (I can't believe I just typed that), this will likely occur. The rest is up to Carson Palmer, an extremely accurate passer with a big arm, to get them the ball.
Benson has been inconsistent throughout his career and it is unclear if his play last season was a fluke or the start of a trend. If he does fall off, as he is wont to do, Bernard Scott is an excellent and productive back that could step in and deliver.
The Cowboys success is dependent upon consistent play from their defense and for the offense to continue to produce. The defense gave up 250 points last season, which is an 111 point difference in the points scored by their offense, however, had eleven games in which they gave up 17 points or more, which leaves the game up to the offense, and if they are off that game, they will more than likely lose. They outscored their opponents more often last season, but there is no guarantee that will happen this season.