For the second consecutive season, the Cowboys, a team widely considered one with Super Bowl potential, let down their fans and fantasy owners down the stretch in 2008. After a 2007 season, in which they lost two of their final three regular-season games and their wild-card playoff game, Dallas didn't even reach the postseason in 2008, going 6-7 after a 3-0 start.
Injuries were partly to blame. Star quarterback Tony Romo missed three games with a broken finger, starting running back Marion Barber saw his yards-per-carry average dip from 4.8 to 3.7 because of a dislocated toe, backup running back Felix Jones was limited to six games before landing on injured reserve with a torn ligament in his foot and tight end Jason Witten battled a broken rib, though he didn't miss any game action. Then, of course, there was the drama that always surrounds Terrell Owens, who remained remarkably healthy, not to mention the disaster that was the team's secondary.
So what was the true reason behind the letdown? Cowboys management, apparently, believed it was distractions like Owens, who was released with safety Roy L. Williams (not to be confused with the receiver with the same name, who remains) after the season. With Owens gone, the Cowboys evidently feel they're free from controversy, but with Owens went a large chunk of their offensive production. Now the question becomes can the 2009 Cowboys match the 38 touchdowns Owens amassed in 47 games in his three years in Dallas?
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: The Cowboys have surprisingly few true "battles" heading into training camp, though that hardly means there aren't any offensive spots in which players could make charges toward. Tight end is one such position. Despite the presence of Witten, backup Martellus Bennett could establish himself as a reliable future fill-in. In a six-game span midway through 2008, Bennett caught 12 passes, six of which went for touchdowns, demonstrating he is a reliable weapon in the passing game should anything happen to Witten. Running back is another such spot. Tashard Choice might make a push for more calls after amassing 325 yards and two touchdowns in four games last September while both Barber and Jones were nursing injuries. It's not unthinkable, in fact, that Choice could establish himself as Barber's primary backup if Jones proves during the preseason or early regular season that he's as brittle as his absences in 2008 hinted at.
Fitting in: Again, there is not a heck of a lot that stands out, and the primary story might be how the Cowboys aim to replace one of the most important players they lost, Owens. Patrick Crayton becomes the de facto No. 2 receiver, bumping former No. 2 Roy E. Williams up into the leading role, but Crayton (and Williams, for that matter) has a lot to prove after disappointing in past opportunities. Minimal competition for his job might make Crayton a more attractive fantasy choice in the preseason's early going, but it could just as easily be said that it's to his detriment that he won't be constantly motivated to step up his game.
After watching 40-year-old Brad Johnson scuffle through three starts last season, with a 50.5 passer rating, two touchdowns and five interceptions in relief of an injured Romo, the Cowboys smartly upgraded their reserve corps with the addition of Jon Kitna. No, Kitna won't stand a chance at a 5,000-yard season, especially not kicking off the year as the backup, but he would be an instant fantasy pickup in the event of catastrophic injury to Romo.
On the line: This is an absolutely beastly unit. The team's projected starters average 6-foot-6 and nearly 330 pounds, and that's great news for this team because in the wake of Owens' departure, chances are the Cowboys will focus a bit more on the run than usual. Dallas' offensive line helped its backs to a 4.3 yards-per-carry average in 2008, 10th in the NFL. That number becomes all the more impressive when you consider that the team's No. 3 man on the depth chart in the preseason (Choice) averaged 5.1 in limited action. Whoever gets the bulk of the carries will rack up yardage behind this bunch, keeping Barber a first-round candidate, but more importantly making Jones a potential weekly flex-play and Choice a deep sleeper, if he's ever given another chance to start.
The bottom line
There remains a fair share of talent on this roster, assuming it gets better luck in the health department this time around. Romo has the skills to be a top 5 fantasy player at his position, Barber has top-10 potential among running backs and Jones might be one of the most underrated backups in the league from a talent perspective. Williams, too, is a receiver with the ability, and now the opportunity, to contend for top-10 status, but those statements all could be construed as typical Cowboys optimism. Similar things could have been said about the 2008 team, and we know how that turned out.
Romo will be the player most under the spotlight. His critics have begun to question his ability to be a game-changer, calling him a "choke artist" for past late-season meltdowns. Owens' departure will have no greater effect on anyone but the quarterback, meaning Romo could stand to develop chemistry with Williams, not to mention get Witten back to his 2007 status. There's little doubt this is a playoff-contending team chock-full of fantasy standouts, but will it actually reach the elite level or merely get close?
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.