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Zeke looking like a version of his college-freshman self is one reason to drink the silver-and-blue Kool-Aid this year. Courtesy Facebook

Somehow it still feels like we’re only a few months into it and yet, simultaneously, that we’re reliving no less than the third consecutive year of 2021, but whether you swear the Fourth of July was just last weekend or you’re absolutely sure it’s at least October 2025, we have officially made it! Lo and behold, ladies and gentlemen (and gender-nonconforming folks of all persuasions), it is finally football season! That’s right. Liberally apply that precious salve that comes to soothe the sudden rug-burn inflammation of the mind that accompanies the chaos abruptly borne from school being back in session, the 95-degree evening soccer or flag-football practices, and various family meetings. That much-longed-for weekly distraction from parental and vocational responsibilities is at last here to save you from life’s far more important obligations.

However, your Dallas Cowboys have quickly run out of time to bask in the comfy warm space that exists between training camp — when all things are looking up, you’re positive your team has certainly improved, and when the season’s possibilities are endless — and the first real game, when all of that bullishness can come crashing down, forcing you to realize your team probably sucks again. By the time many read this, that fall could have already happened. Dallas draws TB12 and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road in the nationally televised Thursday Night Football game to open the season this week. You won’t find a truer test of how well your offseason work has paid off (or hasn’t) than that.

Any sane betting person would have marked an L next to this game when the schedule came out regardless of how well you might think the Cowboys have improved, so if Dallas limps back home with a loss on Friday, it shouldn’t really impact your evaluation of the team going forward, especially now considering right guard Zack Martin, the only player on the Cowboys roster to crack the NFL Top 100 list, will be watching Thursday’s game from home while nursing a breakthrough COVID case instead of being on the field. Fine. Fully expect the ’Boys to open the season 0-1. But now that there’s an extra regular season game, we can just pretend it doesn’t exist and look toward a usual 16-game season’s worth of contests left to play, and I believe there’s plenty to retain some of that preseason bullishness over.

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I know what you’re thinking, and I think it, too. Here we go again. For the 26th year in a row, we’re all gonna line up, take a long refreshing pull from the annually dispensed silver-and-blue Kool-Aid, and get hyped for this team to finally return to some semblance of their previous glory — a glory that existed so long ago, a large swathe of their fanbase wasn’t even alive — only to end the season bemoaning the mediocrity that has come to define this franchise for all of the 21st century.

Yet, like many previous years, there’s plenty to drink up from that sweet, sweet preseason sugar water. Chiefly, the Cowboys get their MVP-caliber quarterback back under center. After finally signing a record-breaking deal over the summer, No. 4 is back, his ankle looks good, and he seems to have put his tweaked throwing shoulder injury behind him. In front of him, Prescott also gets back his two Pro Bowl-worthy tackles who missed all of 2020. Martin will be back Week 2, so going forward, Prescott should have the best protection he’s had in two years. On the outside, he’s armed with probably the second-best wide receiver trio in the league (that Brown-Evans-Godwin combo in Tampa likely just tops them) with Amari Cooper, second-year standout CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup in a contract year, not to mention matchup nightmare TE Blake Jarwin coming back from an ACL injury that kept him out of all but one game last year. In the backfield, running back Zeke Elliott looks as lithe as he was as a freshman at Ohio State, and the speed with a burst he’s lacked the last couple of years looks like it could be back. This offense should have no trouble being among the very best in football.

But what about the defense, you ask? Here things get a bit dicier, but again, there’s plenty of sweetness to savor from your blue Solo™ cup. Admittedly, though, when you finish 31st overall as a unit last year, there’s really nowhere to go but up. New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has brought in a simplified scheme compared to the confusing mess Mike Nolan was trotting out last year, which should at the very least help his players know where to line up (anything but a guarantee a year ago). In addition, he’s filled the roster with the length and speed he reportedly covets and which he used to help make Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary so famous during the mid-teens. Add in a linebacking core with unprecedented depth, led by a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate in first-round pick Micah Parsons, and a beefier yet quicker line, and you might just raise this defense to middle-of-the-pack, a range that can be worked with if you’ve got postseason aspirations.

Perhaps the thing most working in the Cowboys’ favor this year is the ding-dong division in which they play. The Washington Football Team (a once-hilarious name that has actually grown on me to the point that I hope they never change it) has a monster defense, but their lack of offensive weapons and a very up-and-down quarterback in the 87-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick should make them manageable. New York and Philly will probably make a little jump from last year, but their QB situations are worse than Football Team’s, which neutralizes any other improvements they’ve made.

All told, with a middle-of-the-road schedule, even considering the likely 0-1 start, I can see Dallas handily winning the NFC East with a 10-7 record. Now, whether they fall into historical habits and suffer a first-round bounce at the hands of a Wild Card team or do something they haven’t done in a quarter century and make it to the conference final, I don’t know if I’ve quite swallowed enough of the Jerry Jonestown special to get a feel for. Let me see if I can get a drop or two more out of my cup.

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