In San Antonio, where the Cowboys have wrapped up the first few weeks of training camp at the Alamodome. We like to think of it as an igloo of sorts, an air-conditioned oasis from the triple-digit heat that's turned grass on nearby baseball fields into the color of dirt. Everywhere you look -- playgrounds, golf courses, sidewalks -- there's hardly anyone outside. It seems odd, until you take two steps and start sweating like the guy at Super Bowl XLV who forgot to get the temporary seating approved inside Cowboys Stadium. Aside from ice cream being an acceptable meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner, there's only one other upside to the heat: Shoulder pads dry within 45 minutes of being laid out in the sun, which can often take hours. At least that's what the equipment crew told us; there's no way we're going to watch sweat dry while it pours out of us.
1. Tony Romo seems poised to become the leader everyone always envisioned him being. After suffering a broken collarbone that limited him to just six games last season, Romo isn't merely looking forward to entering his eighth NFL season and sixth as a starter. He's embarking upon what he's calling the "second phase" of his career. "There's no more individual goals," he says. "I'm to the point where it's about winning."
Perhaps no quarterback over the past five years has been more vexing for fans. Romo has all the talent in the world, evident in the way he's been slinging the ball around the Alamodome as if he wasn't hurt last year and there was no lockout this offseason. His footwork is sharp, his passes crisp, and the timing with receivers such as Miles Austin has shown few signs of rust.
Romo, at 31, began redefining his leadership during player-organized workouts this offseason and has continued to blossom in camp. He's more vocal and more authoritative, getting on rookies and asserting himself with a young receiving corps. He credits the transformation less to an epiphany and more to feeling comfortable in the pecking order.
"If you're a freshman or a sophomore in high school and you're starting, it's difficult to get on the seniors -- the people who have been through it and have the skins on the wall," he says. "When you enter that next phase of your career, you've become a senior and you need to bring other guys with you."
What will it take for Romo to completely establish himself in the next phase?
"He's pretty polished," quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson says. "The main thing is we have to get in the playoffs and have some success, that would be the next part of his career. He's doing his part, no question ... It's tough to come in as an undrafted free agent and become the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, that's a big journey right there and he's handled it extremely well."
2. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is the exact opposite of head coach/offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Their duality might be the best thing going for the Cowboys. The differences are seemingly endless. Ryan is large, long-haired, loud-mouthed, fiery and brash. When he's not actually participating in drills, he's often just a few yards away, bent at the waist with hands on knees and watching so intently you'd think the season was on the line. "I don't know if we win the all-hype team, I think that might have gone to somebody else," he said this preseason, no doubt referring to the Eagles' so-called Dream Team, "but we're going to beat their ass when we play them."
Garrett is slender, with close-cropped hair, and professorial. Calm and calculating, he tends to watch from afar, blending into a crowd while soaking everything in. His perfect posture never wavers. Whether on the field or walking through an empty hallway, he carries himself with the gait of a drill sergeant, always on point. Garrett talks with his hands, conveying precision. Ryan talks with his arms and torso, suggesting power. Each coach's personality couldn't be better suited for his side of the ball.
"Rob's defense speaks for itself. He brings a swagger and a confidence. You want to play better for him. It's contagious throughout the team," tight end Jason Witten says. "Then you have Jason being calm, cool and collected, keeping everything in order. It's a great marriage and we get the best of both worlds."
3. Welcome to your new life, Felix Jones. By all accounts, the fourth-year back would prefer not be at the center of any attention. He's shy and soft-spoken. When practice ends, he'll slip out of his jersey and head toward a back exit, making it hard for reporters to spot his number and pull him aside. Avoiding the spotlight, of course, won't be easy now that the Cowboys have parted ways with Marion Barber, setting Jones up to take over as the starting tailback.
Jones has never carried the ball more than 185 times in a season (by comparison, the top 15 most-used backs in 2010 averaged 288 touches), nor has he been asked to shoulder the expectations that come with being a feature back, on the field or off, either in college or the NFL. If Dallas has any shot of being a contender, Jones will have to run like a deer but take a pounding like never before -- from defenses and the press.
Dez Bryant, wide receiver. The Cowboys have been impressed with Dez Bryant, which isn't to say they were worried about the receiver's ability to improve upon his rookie numbers (45 catches for 561 yards and six touchdowns) or come back from the broken right fibula he suffered in December.
You might recall Bryant creating a stir in camp last year when he refused to partake in the time-honored tradition of hazing and didn't carry Roy Williams' shoulder pads. You might've also heard about his recent off-field issues -- widely reported allegations that he owes nearly a million dollars in debt, and his run-in with police this spring over sagging pants that led to his ejection from an upscale Dallas mall. According to other reports, his fines for tardiness last season escalated into six figures.
Can the Cowboys count on him to replace the recently cut Williams? So far, so good.
Perhaps QB coach Wade Wilson had the best insight when talking about Romo's growing confidence. "There's no diva that he feels forced to get the ball to -- to placate the guys and make them happy all the time," Wilson said. "He's a lot more relaxed and doesn't have a diva out here that he's having to deal with. It seems like a closer unit."
So Bryant isn't a diva? Not even the slightest bit?
"He's one of the most improved guys," Wilson says. "He's taken a much more serious approach. He's having fun. He never complains. He's a lot more professional."
Asked what he hoped to achieve his during sophomore season, Bryant said, "I need to be where I'm supposed to be, and doing what I'm supposed to be doing, every day. I want to be accountable to my teammates and the organization."
Only time will tell.
When the Cowboys selected Tyron Smith with the ninth overall pick in this year's draft, it was the first lineman the organization had taken in the first round since 1981. And it's easy to see why. The 6'5", 307-pound behemoth out of USC seemingly dwarfs his comrades on the offensive line, where he's expected to start at right tackle. The most important thing he needs to do? Don't let anyone get a clean shot at Romo like the one Giants linebacker Michael Boley took last October, when he drove Romo into the ground and broke his collarbone.
The Cowboys were 1-7 when Garrett was named interim head coach last year, and 5-3 afterward -- a turnaround that helped land him the permanent job and proved that Dallas, despite losing its starting quarterback and struggling mightily on defense, had enough talent to win. There's reason for optimism following the first losing season in six years, even in a division that's stacked with the reloaded Eagles and a Giants team that has a chip on its shoulder after winning 10 games and missing the playoffs in 2010.
Aside from opening the season on the road against the Jets -- a much-anticipated showdown between defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his brother Rex -- the first few weeks are favorable (49ers">49ers, Redskins and Lions). They're just three of the nine games the Cowboys have against teams that finished 2010 with a losing record. Also working in their favor, they'll only face four playoff teams from a year ago, one of them being the Seahawks, who were only a game better in the win column than Dallas.
In Week 6 the Cowboys travel to New England, but they're coming off a bye week and could pull out a win. Two weeks later they're in Philadelphia, constituting the toughest stretch until the final four weeks, when they play the Giants at home, the Buccaneers on the road, the Eagles at home and the Giants on the road.