Cowboys high hopes amidst watchful eyes

Every professional sports league has them - franchises that seem to garner more attention than the rest of the league combined.

In Major League Baseball it's the New York Yankees, despite some tough competition from Wisconsin the Pittsburgh Steelers are the toast of the NFL, in the NBA the Los Angeles Lakers steal the limelight, in the NHL the reliable old Detroit Red Wings seem to always be in the mix, even across the Atlantic the media is enamored by one club in particular, Manchester United - yet these organizations promote a culture of winning so rich, triumph is a part of tradition.

Not always is the mass obsession with championship caliber teams, however, - there would be too much nobility in awarding success such an honor - there are many instances the media's focus is on franchises that haven't been good for so long, defeat is sadly a reality fans accept at the start of every season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Knicks would know a thing or two about such scrutiny, despite not bringing a title to their respective cities in over three decades. Yet for all the attention either of these perennial losers receives it pales in comparison to the microscope "America's Team" has to endure year-after-year - the Dallas Cowboys.

With head coach Jason Garrett off the hook for last year's disappointing campaign after taking over for Wade Phillips halfway through the season, 2011 will be his time to prove to so many who have been touting him as the heir apparent to the helm since he joined the organization in 2007 that he is worthy of the accolades - otherwise he will end up like his predecessor sooner than one may think.

Owner Jerry Jones is a man who prides himself on being the best - his multibillion dollar stadium is a testament to his dedication towards excellence - yet his franchise hasn't been able to replicate his desires in quite some time. With four playoff appearances in the past 12 years, it hasn't been the standard many associate with Dallas, especially considering not a single playoff game has been won since the 1996 Wild Card game.

Of course, an injury to quarterback Tony Romo derailed an already tumultuous 2010 season, but his return is expected to vault the 'Boys back to the top of the NFC East, only now it may be a more difficult task than in the past.

All the off-season hoopla revolved around the exploits of divisional rivals in Philadelphia and the flashy free-agent signings, while the New York Giants look to be focused in what could possibly be Tom Coughlin's last season as the bench boss despite signing a two-year extension.

As the competition appears to have gotten tougher, Dallas is in an awkward position with little identity as many key contributors are no longer on the roster - namely receiver Roy Williams and running back Marion Barber - while old faces will assume new roles. The need to find itself quickly before the pressure begins to mount is crucial, as things can unravel in a hurry - something last year's squad may know a thing or two about.

Indications that there is concern in "Big D" are already apparent as the preseason unveiled some flaws in the Cowboys.

Despite opening up the exhibition season with a victory secured on a last second two-point conversation, the second preseason matchup - fittingly broadcast on national television on NBC's Sunday Night Football - was a disastrous affair. Even if the 20-7 result counts for nothing, the feeling around the clubhouse following the game wasn't one of reluctant toleration but of discontent - a far cry from what has been displayed by the team in recent years.

It could be Garrett trying to let his players know that losing won't be accepted and performing anything short of expectations will not go unnoticed, yet without a game of any consequence to really weigh on this could be a message lost in the wind.

Whether the former interim coach now entering his first full season as the mastermind of "America's Team" can get his troops to turn it around may rest upon his ability to get the defense straight. After bolstering one of the stronger defensive units during the successful regular season runs in the Philips era, 2010 marked the year the Cowboys were 31st in opponent's points- per-game.

Even if its division rivals seem better poised to make a Super Bowl push, Dallas will still be looked upon as a contender - much like every season - regardless of what recent struggles may suggest.

Is it fair to the players and coaching staff? Probably not. But with all the fame and notoriety that comes with being a Cowboy, ridiculously high hopes and critical scrutiny are always present.