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I’m ready to take one in the chest again. Looking for this year’s Cowboys to wash the taste of this terrible play out of my mouth. Photo courtesy of TheBigLead.com

The start of football season could not have come at a better time. With the Rangers next door disappointingly faltering away a division lead they’ve held since April, the pennant race so tight, and chances for the first hometown playoff baseball game since 2016 swirling the drain, local sports fans need something to feel optimistic about again. For good or ill, I’m going to try to give it to them in the form of Cowboys hype.

It’s been nearly eight months, but the image of a lone Ezekiel Elliott getting absolutely atomized by a 300-pound lineman at midfield in one of the most perplexing plays I’ve ever seen still lingers fresh in my mind. It’s as vivid as if I’d absorbed the full-run linebacker hit into my very own chest, surely rendering the heart inside the consistency of room-temperature jelly. This play ended the 2022 Cowboys’ season and would not only be Elliott’s last snap on the team (he recently signed to back up the RB1 in New England) but also would be the last called by former wunderkind coordinator Kellen Moore, now in San Diego. After the fog of “What just happened?” following the play faded, I was simply left with a feeling of a lost opportunity. I have it still.

I truly felt like after their second consecutive 12-win season, a Top 5 offense, and a league best defense, things were starting to come together and Dallas might finally break through the Divisional Round ceiling. It’s only the latest in a long (and ever lengthening) list of Cowboys lost opportunities. If anything, lost opportunity is the defining characteristic of Cowboys football for nearly three decades.

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So how is it that, with such a bitter taste still defiling my mouth, I have optimism heading into the 2023 season? In short, I’m a fool.

In addition to that, however, are plenty of reasons to believe that — and I am fully aware of the Atlas-ian heavy lifting this word is doing — if the Cowboys can live up to their potential, that Divisional Round ceiling has as good a chance of coming down as ever.

Chiefly, this offseason strategy has been different than in years past. The front office seems to believe this is an all-in year and have addressed personnel accordingly. Not by recklessly throwing money at big-budget flash free agents but by deftly trading economical midround draft capital for proven veterans with the additions of corner Stephon Gilmore and wideout Brandin Cooks. The draft this spring supplemented more to fill needs at defensive tackle and tight end with the strongest man in the draft in Mazi Smith and a Jason Witten starter kit in tight end Luke Schoonmaker. Head Coach Mike McCarthy also seems to sense the extra urgency this year as he has taken over play-calling from the departed Moore. Another failure this season surely means his exit, and he’s taking more control of his destiny as such.

The biggest reason the Cowboys might have their best shot in years may actually have nothing to do with them but their competitors. With perennial Cowboy killer Aaron Rodgers jumping to the Jets in the AFC and G.O.A.T. Tom Brady finally re-retiring (for now), the NFC is practically starved for elite quarterback play. Despite the fact that I feel like an all-time offensive line and outstanding defensive play made him look better than he might actually be, the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts is probably the only signal caller who could reasonably be argued to be better than Dallas’ No. 4. Save the Brock Purdy stanning for someone who watches less football, like your casual sports talk radio enthusiast co-worker and apparently ESPN analysts. Purdy is only the next Gardner Minshew or Nick Foles. I have full faith the former Mr. Irrelevant will eventually be revealed to also be wearing no clothes, though San Francisco is admittedly still good enough around him that it probably won’t matter. Regardless, Dallas is at worst Top 3 in the conference, and I like their chances against Philthy straight up.

Give me Dallas to have a third consecutive 12-win season and make the playoffs. Whether that’s enough to dethrone Philadelphia for the NFC East crown is another thing, which will likely go a long way toward determining whether this year’s silver and blue are for real or destined for more disappointment. A first-round bye would be a huge boon.

What might be this season’s Elliott-atomizing play that haunts me all next offseason as yet another anticipated opportunity gets squandered? It’s hard to predict, but with the quality of the team the Cowboys have built and the historically weak competition in their conference, if that soon-to-be haunting play doesn’t happen in an NFC championship game or — dare I say it? — a Super Bowl, I’ve already admitted that I’m a fool.

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