Cowboys owner Jerry Jones doesn't want to see his team go 8-8 for a fourth straight season
The Cowboys lost two of the best players off a defense that was one of the worst in NFL history. Their quarterback underwent a second back surgery in eight months. They named a third offensive play-caller and a third defensive coordinator in three years. Their head coach is in the final year of his contract.
Rebuilding? Did someone say rebuilding?
“You don’t rebuild with (Tony) Romo,” owner Jerry Jones says. “The firepower we have on offense and where we are with our running backs and our receivers, you don’t rebuild with an offense that’s got the capability we’ve got.”
The Cowboys’ attack will feature Romo, tight end Jason Witten, receiver Dez Bryant, running back DeMarco Murray and a much-improved offensive line. They give Jones his hope. The Cowboys, however, have retooled their defense out of necessity. They believe that gives them a chance to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Although the Cowboys went only 30–34 combined the past four seasons, they haven’t stopped believing at the team’s Valley Ranch headquarters.
Romo missed the win-or-go-home season finale against the Eagles. But the Cowboys expect their franchise quarterback, whom they guaranteed $55 million before the start of last season, to fully recover from the herniated disc he played through against Washington in Week 16. Dallas still is building its title hopes around Romo, who they consider younger than his 34 years since he didn’t play much his first two seasons. The Cowboys signed Brandon Weeden, the No. 22 overall pick of the Browns two years ago, as a backup plan more than as a developmental prospect since he turns 31 this season.
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Murray finally became the workhorse the Cowboys thought he could be when they drafted him in the third round in 2011. He rushed for the third-most yards in the NFL in the final eight games of last season and finished the year with 1,121 yards and his first Pro Bowl berth. The Cowboys love Lance Dunbar’s explosiveness, but at 5'8", 188, he hasn’t shown he can withstand the punishment of consistent work. He played in only nine games last season because of injuries. The Cowboys drafted Joseph Randle in the fifth round last year to be Murray’s primary backup, but his development was delayed by thumb surgery in the offseason.
Witten, 32, continues to rank as one of the league’s best at his position. The Cowboys used a second-round pick on Gavin Escobar in 2013, but coaches said all season he needed to get bigger and stronger before he could help. James Hanna was used more.
Bryant enters a contract year after catching 93 passes for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns. Dallas selected Terrance Williams in the third round last year, with plans to groom him eventually to start opposite Bryant. That time is now. After Williams caught 44 passes for 736 yards and five touchdowns, the Cowboys felt comfortable in releasing Miles Austin. Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley and 2014 fifth-round draft pick Devin Street will compete for time.
The offensive line was much improved, allowing only 35 sacks and paving the way for a rushing attack that averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Left tackle Tyron Smith became the team’s first Pro Bowl offensive lineman since 2010 and the team rewarded him handsomely with a massive eight-year contract extension that includes $40 million in guaranteed money and locks him up through 2023. The Cowboys shored up the interior by drafting center Travis Frederick in the first round last year, and he became one of the best in the league at his position as a rookie. The Cowboys also were satisfied with the play of left guard Ron Leary in his first season as a starter, and veteran right tackle Doug Free improved from 2012. They expect to replace right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau with versatile 2014 first-round pick Zack Martin.
Dallas released defensive end DeMarcus Ware, the club’s all-time sack leader, because his production no longer matched his salary. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who led the team last season with 11 sacks, left for Washington in free agency. End Anthony Spencer did re-sign with the Cowboys, but he could struggle to regain his form after undergoing microfracture knee surgery. George Selvie, a street free agent signed last July when Spencer first injured his knee, returns at left end after recording seven sacks last season. Free-agent signee Jeremy Mincey and second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence were scheduled to compete for the right end spot, but that was before the rookie broke his foot early in training camp. He is expected to miss the first month of the regular season, at minimum. Newcomer Henry Melton, who had 15.5 sacks in four seasons in Chicago, replaces Hatcher at the three-technique. Nick Hayden, who had 44 tackles and 16 quarterback pressures, returns at the nose, although Tyrone Crawford, who missed last season with a torn Achilles, will compete for the job.
When Sean Lee is healthy, he is one of the top inside linebackers in football. Staying on the field, however, has been a problem, as evidenced by the 18 games he has already missed in his four-year career. Unfortunately, he will only add to this total due to a torn ACL Lee suffered during OTAs in late May. The Cowboys sent a sixth-round pick in next year's draft to Baltimore for linebacker Rolando McClain in hopes of filling Lee's spot. The eighth overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft out of Alabama, McClain has been a disappointment to this point and hasn't played a down since the 2012 season. Released by Oakland last offseason, McClain signed with Baltimore only to announce his retirement a month later. Back in the game, Dallas hopes the best is yet to come from the former unanimous All-American and Butkus Award recipient.
Kyle Wilber started the year at defensive end, but he found a home at strong-side linebacker. The move was necessitated by veteran linebacker Justin Durant’s hamstring injury in a Nov. 10 game. The Cowboys want more production from the weak-side spot, where Bruce Carter was a major disappointment in his third season.
The Cowboys thought they shored up their cornerback position before the 2012 season when they signed free-agent Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50.1 million deal, and traded up in the draft to select Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick. But Carr struggled and Claiborne lost his starting job to nickel back Orlando Scandrick last season. Claiborne has missed seven games in his two seasons because of injuries, and he has failed to show much playmaking ability. He could get a chance to re-establish his status as a starter, however, since Scandrick will have to sit out the first four games due to a violation of the league's policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The Cowboys drafted B.W. Webb in the fourth round last year, but he had a forgettable rookie season. Dallas likes its safeties, believing it has long-term starters in free safety Barry Church and strong safety J.J. Wilcox.
Kicker Dan Bailey has become Mr. Reliable, converting 90.8 percent of his field goals in three seasons with eight game-winners. Chris Jones stayed healthy and completed his first full season as the team’s punter, averaging 44.8 yards on 77 punts with a 39.1 net. Harris has solved the Cowboys’ return game, becoming one of the game’s most dangerous specialists.
Dallas has played for the division title in the final game each of the past three seasons, losing all three win-or-go-home finales to finish 8–8 each time. Jones, the ever-optimistic owner, believes the Cowboys have upgraded their defense enough to make them a contender this season. It’s hard to see on paper. They lost Hatcher and Ware and added Melton via free agency and Lawrence in the draft. Coach Jason Garrett likely will need to reach the playoffs to save his job, and it’s hard to envision this team getting to the postseason.