Thursday, February 11, 2010

It's realistic Cowboys could become first to play at home in Super Bowl

By Tim Cowlishaw
The Dallas Morning News

At some point, the streak of Super Bowls played at neutral sites is going to end. Can it happen in 2011? Are the oddsmakers in Las Vegas on to something?

I saw one Vegas book that lists the Cowboys as 12-1 to win the first Super Bowl ever played in Cowboys Stadium. Another from the Mirage has the Cowboys at 7-1 behind only the Indianapolis Colts at 5-1.

Are the Cowboys as close to their first Super Bowl in 15 seasons as they appeared the night they whipped the Saints in the Superdome? Or did the 34-3 beating in Minnesota expose Dallas' flaws?

For three reasons, I think Dallas has a real chance to be playing in Arlington next February. That's either an NFL nightmare if you think in terms of Super Bowls belonging to neutral sites or an NFL dream come true if you think in terms of the gaudy TV ratings the Cowboys generate.

What's truly amazing about this 12-month journey the Cowboys are about to try to undertake is that it has never before been completed.

Of the 44 Super Bowls, 38 were played at some team's home field or, in one case, hometown (Houston's Rice Stadium).

Dallas is not the first playoff team to have a home Super Bowl in its sights a year later. The Dolphins had the same opportunity this season. They didn't reach the playoffs, but Miami has made the postseason four times in which their home field was the Super Bowl site.

Mostly, the Dolphins have been victims of bad timing. They hosted Super Bowls V and X. They played in Super Bowls VI, VII and VIII.

The Atlanta Falcons (oddly enough) are the only team ever coming off a Super Bowl trip to have that host opportunity dangling in front of them the next season.

They went 5-11.

But Atlanta and a Dolphins team that went 11-3 in 1974 are the only teams that produced better records in the season prior to Super Bowls coming to their stadium than the Cowboys' 11-5 record in 2009.

Many pieces seem to be in place for Dallas.

The uncapped 2010 season helps in some ways. The Cowboys, as a team that made it to the conference semifinals, are limited in free agents they can pursue. But the pickings are slim, anyway.

The rule that turned so many unrestricted free agents into restricted players keeps wide receiver Miles Austin in that group. The Cowboys nearly lost him to the Jets a year ago. They aren't letting anyone grab their go-to wide receiver this off-season.

The lack of real movement around the conference should help the Cowboys. Teams will undergo less change this off-season than any time since the arrival of real free agency more than 15 years ago. Only the draft will produce major alterations, and the Cowboys' competition won't be picking that much higher than they are.

If you're looking for the negatives, well, those exist, too. I think Wade Phillips wanted to prove something this year. In a sense, he did, at least in terms of winning the East and finishing a season with a decent December.

Do you really view him as the kind of creative coach that can get his team to a Super Bowl like Sean Payton?

I don't either, but then, Ken Whisenhunt and Tom Coughlin won the NFC the two previous years, and I don't know that they are any more ahead of their time than Phillips.

Questions remain as to how much of a load running back Felix Jones can carry. We know how explosive he is. There are no doubts about that. But can he be the 1,200-yard back this team would love for him to become as we monitor Marion Barber's decline?

That's uncertain.

And I don't think the Saints are going away. No one really thinks Brett Favre is going away either, which keeps Minnesota in the mix. Winning the East is still the kind of thing that will likely go to the final week of the season.

So there's work to be done, but everyone understands that. The Super Bowl journey is that way for every team.

And some day, maybe soon, 100 million people will watch a Super Bowl with a true home team.

The Cowboys' chances of being that team in 2010?

Let's put the number at 30 percent. No need to curb your enthusiasm on that figure. It's pretty . . . pretty . . . pretty good.