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What a difference a year makes.

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Around this time last year, we stepped off the plan in Los Angeles to make our way down the Pacific Coast Highway to Oxnard, and wondered aloud just how bad the 2014 season might be.

After all, the Cowboys were coming off their 3rd straight 8-8 season, on the heels of yet another December collapse, and one that included a crushing loss in a defacto Division Title Game against the hated Eagles in the final week of the season.

A 34-year-old Tony Romo, recovering from offseason surgery, was thought to be just as likely to throw out his back as he was to throw a 50-yard bomb to Dez Bryant. And the defense, coming off a record-setting season in terms of futility, had already lost it’s best player in Sean Lee to a knee injury. It was hard to wonder how the team could even GET to 8-8, much less improve upon it.

That couldn’t be further from the feel in camp this time around.

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The weather is still beautiful in California. A crisp 60-ish degrees in the morning that transitions into the comfortable mid-70s as the clouds roll in in the afternoon. The beach is still pristine as the waves provide a serenity that can’t be found in the hustle of Big D.

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The practice fields are groomed meticulously, and the fan experience is still second to none when it comes to their access to the players on the field. Even Jason Garrett is preaching the same message : lay the foundation for THIS season, be the best version of yourself. But that’s probably where the similarities end.

The concerns about Romo’s back, while always in the back of Cowboys fans’ minds, have largely been quelched; thanks in part to the offensive line assembled to protect him, and part to his play last season, which was likely the finest of his career.

The defense features a trio of young, impact players along the line: Crawford, Lawrence and Gregory and added arguably the most feared pass rusher in football in Greg Hardy. Throw in rookie cornerback Byron Jones, whose athleticism, intelligence and attitude have Cowboys defensive coaches drooling, and there’s plenty reason to believe this defense can deliver the type of game-changing plays that previous versions could not.

All of these reasons and more are why this year in Oxnard feels so different from years past.

Only time will tell what this team is capable of. We all remember 2010, when the team coming off a division title and 12-win season laid an egg out of the gate and lost 6 of their first 7 games. But that team got old quick (4 of the 5 starting O Linemen were at least 33 yrs old) and they were a sieve when it came to protecting their QB. Don’t think we’ll have that problem this year. In truth, the only real question surrounding this team is whether or not this young defense can hold up their end of the bargain, and catch up to an offense that ranked 5th in the league last season.

The pieces appear to be in place, but the biggest hope for Cowboys fans is that this team can make it through the preseason without any significant injuries. If they can do that, for the first time in what seems like a long time, the Cowboys fan can once again start to dream about football in February.

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