After an “uncomfortable” offseason, the Cowboys believe they are ready to contend. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and much of the coaching staff paid the price for a third consecutive non-winning season after Jones vowed to make things “uncomfortable” around the team’s Valley Ranch headquarters. Ryan was replaced by Monte Kiffin, the grandfather of the Tampa-2. Former Lions head coach Rod Marinelli, who was with Kiffin on Tony Dungy’s staff in Tampa Bay, was among the new assistants hired as the Cowboys are converting back to the 4-3 scheme.
The Cowboys didn’t have the money under the salary cap to be active in free agency. They instead used the draft to try and help Tony Romo — who signed a six-year, $108 million extension this offseason — become quite comfortable in the pocket. Romo will be asked to do more, including being more involved in the game-planning. “If you told me after our last game that we would get to stand here with the results of this draft, that we would get to stand here with what we have been able to put together with our coaching staff, with what we are doing with Tony — Tony is more involved in the finished product; he is more involved, unequivocally — I’m counting that in,” Jones says. “That ought to produce some success.”
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 8th
Romo is the team’s quarterback of the present and the future after signing a contract that makes him the NFL’s sixth-highest-paid player. Romo is only 17–21 over the past three seasons, has one playoff win his career and, at 33, doesn’t have a lot of time left to get it done. The Cowboys spent the draft trying to create a “Romo-friendly” offense — and that starts with a more productive rushing attack.
The Cowboys set the team record for fewest rushing yards in a 16-game season in 2012. DeMarco Murray has 1,560 career yards, but he has missed nine games with injuries in his two seasons, including six last year with a foot injury. The Cowboys replaced No. 2 running back Felix Jones, a former first-round pick, with fifth-round selection Joseph Randle. Randle’s versatility should make him a solid fit as the team’s third down back. Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar will compete for the No. 3 job.
Dez Bryant, who struggled to stay healthy his first two seasons, came into his own the last half of 2012. Bryant was one of the league’s top receivers over the final eight games, which should have gotten him Pro Bowl honors. Bryant’s focus, route-running and knowledge of the playbook have improved greatly since he entered the league. Hamstring tightness continued to dog Miles Austin, who had only two 100-yard games in 2012. Dwayne Harris stepped up in the final seven games, but the Cowboys still drafted Terrance Williams in the third round. Williams will be groomed as the future replacement for Austin. Dallas thinks highly of Cole Beasley, and it hopes to see more of Danny Coale, who had an injury-plagued first season.
Tight end Jason Witten, 31, remains at the top of his game. The Cowboys believe they might finally have his future replacement — second-round pick Gavin Escobar. James Hanna, whom the Cowboys drafted in the sixth round last year, returns after coming on late last season. The Cowboys, though, are lacking a blocking tight end.
The Cowboys have invested heavily in their offensive line the past two offseasons. They signed Doug Free to a four-year, $32 million deal with $17 million guaranteed before the start of the 2011 season to be their left tackle. He now plays right tackle and didn’t play it very well last season with 13 penalties, including five holds, and seven sacks allowed. They drafted Tyron Smith with a first-round pick in 2011 and gave him a guaranteed four-year, $12.5 million deal. He has become the team’s best lineman and a solid left tackle. This year, the Cowboys spent their first-round pick on a center, Travis Frederick, whom they believe will help give Romo an extra half second.
With the switch to the 4-3, all four linemen have new positions. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are moving from outside linebacker to defensive end. Ware, who had only 2.5 sacks in the final eight games, vows to become an elite pass-rusher again despite his advancing age (31 this summer) and offseason shoulder surgery. Spencer was the team’s best defensive player last year, and the Cowboys opted to franchise him for a second consecutive season to keep him from becoming a free agent. Jay Ratliff is penciled in at the three-technique and Jason Hatcher at the one-technique. Ratliff, who turns 32 this summer, has had declining production because of injuries. He played in only six games last season.
The Cowboys have high hopes for linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, believing they can live up to the high standards the organization has had for the position. But there is a caveat: They have to stay healthy. Both ended last season on injured reserve. Lee, who just signed a six-year, $42 million contract extension, is the middle linebacker in the Cowboys’ 4-3, and Carter is on the weak side. Alex Albright and free agent signee Justin Durant are among the contenders for the strong-side job.
The Cowboys spent a lot on upgrading their cornerback position last offseason. They signed free agent Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50.1 million deal, and they drafted Morris Claiborne in the first round. This year, they drafted B.W. Webb in the fourth round to replace Mike Jenkins, who left in free agency. The safety position is unsettled after the Cowboys released Gerald Sensabaugh. They have faith that Barry Church can return from a torn Achilles tendon, and that Matt Johnson can emerge as a solid contributer. Johnson missed his entire rookie season with hamstring and back injuries. The Cowboys signed Will Allen in free agency, but he has started only 33 games in nine seasons.
The Cowboys have confidence in kicker Dan Bailey, who, in two seasons, already has tied the team record for game-winning kicks with seven. Punter Chris Jones was having a solid first full season when he injured his left (kicking) knee in Week 3. He returns to try to settle a position that has been injury-plagued the past two seasons. Harris became a dangerous punt returner and was solid as a kickoff returner, too.
Final Analysis: 2nd in NFC East
The Cowboys aren’t drastically different from the team that came one game short of winning the NFC East title in 2012. This team can contend if Romo reduces his interceptions (he threw 19 last year), Kiffin can improve the defense (which set a record for most yards allowed in team history) and the team’s key players remain healthy. A division title would no doubt do a lot for coach Jason Garrett’s job security, but Romo and the rest of the Cowboys will continue to be under intense pressure until they win at least one playoff game.
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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
New England (8/30)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)