Training Camp Snapshot: Dallas Cowboys
With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we're taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams.
Is this Jason Garrett's last shot? Though Jerry Jones continues to argue that his head coach is safe from the hot seat, the results say otherwise. Since turning a 2010 interim-coach trial into the head coach job, Garrett has overseen back-to-back eight-win years, both of which culminated in Week 17 losses to bounce the Cowboys from the playoffs.
Another misfire in 2013 won't get it done.
But last season's 8-8 record was not a mirage. The Cowboys featured a middle-of-the-pack offense and a disappointing defense. They needed to win five out of six, including two overtime triumphs, to rally to 8-6 after Week 15, before the bottom fell out in Weeks 16 and 17.
Are there brighter days ahead? Or will this season bring more of the same?
• Biggest storyline: Can Monte Kiffin make a difference on defense?
The Cowboys finished with the league's No. 2 defense in 2009. Since then, it's been a subpar group, with a 24th-place ranking last season helping push Dallas out of the playoffs. Enter the 73-year-old Kiffin, whose first move as defensive coordinator was to shift the Cowboys from their 3-4 look to a 4-3 set. Kiffin's hoping that the front four, led by DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, can generate enough of a push up front to take some heat off a so-so secondary.
One problem surfacing already: depth. The Cowboys lost DE Tyrone Crawford to a torn Achilles on the first day of camp and Spencer needed knee surgery last week after an old injury flared up. Kiffin should have Spencer in the starting lineup for Week 1, but there's little margin for error on the depth chart.
Tony Romo attempted 648 passes last season, more than all but two quarterbacks (Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees topped him). Dallas' underachieving run game deserves some blame for that number, but the defense frequently put Romo in tough spots, especially late in games. Kiffin has to create a better balance for the team in 2013, and a smooth transition into a new scheme will be step one.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Running back.
DeMarco Murray's set in stone as the Cowboys' No. 1 guy, but there should be an entertaining fight throughout camp to fill the No. 2 role. Stepping into the ring are Lance Dunbar (21 carries, 75 yards in 2012), Phillip Tanner (25 carries, 61 yards) and 2013 fifth-round pick Joseph Randle.
It was Randle who was assumed to have the inside track on that gig after the Cowboys drafted him, but the Oklahoma State product missed OTAs and minicamp with a thumb injury. Dunbar stepped up in his absence, putting himself in position to serve as Murray's backup. That role is vitally important because of Murray's injury history -- he was limited to only 10 games last season. Dallas needs a second back to ease Murray's load, as well as to be prepared should the top dog go down again.
• New face, new place: Will Allen, safety.
Allen, formerly of the Bucs and Steelers, signed a one-year deal with Dallas this offseason. He has a grand total of nine starts over the past six seasons -- seven coming in Pittsburgh last year -- but he is penciled in on the Cowboys' first-team defense for now, alongside Barry Church.
That's far from an imposing duo, and the Cowboys really need the Allen-Church combo to outperform expectations. Kiffin runs a Tampa-2 defense, which lays a lot of responsibility on the safeties. That means Allen, who's yet to show himself to be anything other than a serviceable NFL safety, has to significantly raise his level of play.
Allen has not picked off a pass in the regular season since 2005, and he rarely cracked the lineup during his first two years in Pittsburgh (2010-11). For this Dallas defense to thrive, all Allen needs to do is lock down a starting job in camp, then deliver one of the best seasons of his journeyman career.
• Impact rookie: B.W. Webb, CB.
The Cowboys have their starting cornerbacks in Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, with Orlando Scandrick as the slot option. Webb, a fourth-round pick in April, still could force his way onto the field frequently, if he continues to excel as he did during Dallas' earlier workouts.
Webb is on the smaller side, at 5-foot-10, but he's also a reliable performer and impressive athlete -- he started 48 consecutive games for William & Mary and was named the Colonial Athletic Conference's Special Teams Player of the Year in 2012, with a 91-yard punt return TD against Delaware serving as his highlight.
If nothing else, Webb provides a safety net at the cornerback spot, should one of the top three fall.
Best-case scenario, though, Webb proves too talented to keep off the field. Then the Cowboys would find room for him in their nickel and dime packages, and may even give him the occasional shot on the outside to spell Carr or Claiborne.
• Looking at the schedule: It is not an easy road by any stretch of the imagination, but things are set up pretty well, especially early, for the Cowboys to make some noise.
The Cowboys open with four of their first six at home, then finish with two of three in Dallas. The regular-season opener with the Giants is a huge one; its followed by: at Kansas City, vs. St. Louis, at San Diego, then two at home vs. Denver and Washington. Anything less than 4-2 would be a letdown ... and tough to bounce back from, with road trips to Detroit, Chicago, New York, New Orleans and Washington, plus visits from Green Bay and Minnesota over the season's final nine weeks.
There are a lot of teams on this schedule that will test both the Cowboys' defense and offensive line -- the latter of which will be anchored by rookie center Travis Frederick. Starting in Week 1 with that visit from the Giants, teams will bring the heat on Tony Romo, then take to the air against that suspect secondary. Provided Dallas can improve on its 4-4 home record from a year ago, the potential is there to cross that unlucky eight-win mark and close in on double digits. That outlook could change in a hurry, however, if the Cowboys fall in Week 1 against New York or in Week 2 at Kansas City.