How safe is the job of Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett?
Will a slow start to the 2014 season be the final straw for owner Jerry Jones?
How healthy is Tony Romo? Will he be 100 percent by Week 1?
Those are only a few questions that need to be addressed when discussing the 2014 version of the Cowboys, a franchise that expects to be in the hunt for a Super Bowl every season no matter what the circumstances.
Garrett is treading on thin ice with three straight 8-8 seasons and has just a 29-27 mark since taking over in 2010. Garrett knows there's a lot of pressure as head coach of "America's Team," but the Cowboys haven't done anything substantially successful in almost two decades.
With just one playoff win since 1997, the Cowboys enter the new campaign confident they can match up with any team in the NFC East and make a run toward the playoffs for the first time since 2009, the last time Dallas posted double digits in wins (11-5).
The Cowboys had a chance to win the NFC East in 2013, but lost their season finale to Philadelphia at home. Backup quarterback Kyle Orton, who's no longer with the team, threw a costly interception in the closing moments of what was an exciting game with Romo out because of a back ailment.
It will be an uphill climb for the Cowboys with the schedule they're up against with matchups versus San Francisco, New Orleans and Seattle by Week 6. Mix in the rest of the NFC East and it could be a long and grinding season, one that may end up with coaches and players losing jobs.
If the Cowboys can tighten one of the league's worst defenses from 2013, then maybe they'll have a chance at battling Philadelphia, New York or Washington for NFC East supremacy. The Cowboys were historically awful on defense last year, finishing last in yards allowed (415.3), 30th against the pass (286.8), 27th against the rush (128.5) and 26th in points allowed (27.0).
Dallas lost one-time face of the defense in hybrid linebacker DeMarcus Ware to Denver and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher to Washington. Starting cornerback Orlando Scandrick has been suspended for the first four games of the 2014 NFL season for violation of the performance-enhancing drugs policy. Scandrick will be eligible to return for the team's Week 5 matchup against the Texans.
Cowboys smart and talented middle linebacker Sean Lee is done for the season with a torn ACL suffered during an organized team activity session. The Cowboys have very faint hopes that Lee could return prior to the conclusion of the 2014 campaign, but it doesn't look good.
"Sean has had to deal with injuries throughout college and also here in the NFL," said Garrett. "He really does everything he can to get himself ready to play. Unfortunately he had to deal with a few of those things, but he's as mentally tough as an individual as I've ever been around. Whatever the circumstances are he always puts his best foot forward and strives to be his best. I don't anticipate this being any different."
Romo, who signed a huge contract in 2013, always strives to play his best and often times gets criticized for all the wrong reasons. That's the life of a Cowboys quarterback. Romo, of course, has been taking it slow this offseason after undergoing back surgery, but should be at full strength when it's time to roll. He has been participating in practice and the preseason, and even wore a different jersey to fool the coaches so he could call plays.
Garrett liked the way he has looked in practice.
"He just looked like himself more to me, the expressions on his face," Garrett said. "He didn't look quite like he was working through something."
Romo threw for 3,828 yards with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 15 games this past season.
2013 RECORD: 8-8 (2nd in NFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009 (lost to Minnesota Vikings Divisional Round)
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Jason Garrett (29-27, fifth season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Callahan (third second with Cowboys, season as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rod Marinelli (second season with Cowboys, first as DC)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Brandon Weeden (from Browns), G Uche Nwaneri (from Jaguars), DE Jeremy Mincey (from Broncos), DT Henry Melton (from Bears), DT Terrell McClain (from Texans), ILB Rolando McClain (free agent)
KEY DEPARTURES: DT Jason Hatcher (to Redskins), QB Kyle Orton (free agent), WR Miles Austin (to Browns), G Brian Waters (free agent), C Phil Costa (retired), DE DeMarcus Ware (to Broncos), DE Everette Brown (to Redskins), OLB Ernie Sims (free agent).
QB: Romo (3,828 yards, 31 TD, 10 INT) is entering his 12th season with the Cowboys and has thrown 25 or more touchdown passes in three straight and six of the past seven seasons. Romo, though, has been sacked way too often the last three years, going down 35 times in 2013, 36 in 2012 and 36 in 2011. Dallas was 14th in the NFL in passing yards last season with 247.1.
The Cowboys will be in a world of hurt if Romo goes down again and were rumored to be interested in the state of Texas savior Johnny Manziel in the draft. Instead, Dallas no longer has Orton and added former Browns QB Brandon Weeden. Weeden's two years in Cleveland were a bust and he played in only eight games last season. They signed QB Caleb Hanie for depth.
GRADE: B+ (with a healthy Romo)
RB: The Cowboys have DeMarco Murray in the backfield, and that's pretty much it. Murray (1,121 yards, 9 TD) had a career year last season and played in 14 games. Murray will be backed up by Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar. Ryan Williams was signed in May and has only played five games in the NFL since being selected in the second round by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2011 draft.
For how well Murray played last season, the Cowboys were only 24th in rushing yards per game (94.0). Murray, who made his first Pro Bowl squad in 2013, posted three 100-yard games and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. His 217 touches were the most in his career and he's looking forward to another productive season in this system. He also likes what he sees from the offensive line.
"It's great," Murray said. "Like I said, those guys work extremely hard. Those five guys, we're excited to have each and every last one of them. They all bring a different thing to the table. Great group of guys, love running behind them, love spending time with them. You get a feel for each other."
Murray finished 10th in the league in rushing yards last year, and was the only back with fewer than 250 rushing attempts.
WR: While Murray set career highs in receptions (53) and receiving yards (350) last season, the receiving load belongs to star wideout Dez Bryant. Bryant (1,233 yards, 13 TD) posted his second straight 1,000-yard receiving season and grabbed a career-best 93 passes for a career-high 13 TDs. He has recorded 90-plus catches in back-to-back campaigns and sometimes let's his frustrations overflow with sideline temper tantrums. Bryant has appeared in all 16 games the last two seasons and is hoping to improve even more in 2014.
"Truthfully, to be honest, I feel like, man, I'm still rising. I learn new things and things just become easier by the day," Bryant said. "To me, it's almost kind of scary to me just because of the fact of how much I love the game -- not only myself, I want my teammates to be great. The way that I feel, I don't hesitate to share that with my teammates. And I'm going to continue to keep doing that and see where we go from there."
For how talented and dangerous Bryant is, opposing defenses tend to forget about Terrance Williams (736 yards, 5 TD) and Cole Beasley (368 yards, 2 TD). Miles Austin is in Cleveland, so Williams and Beasley will see more targets.
TE: Tight end Jason Witten can still cause problems in the twilight of his career and is entering his 12th season with the Cowboys. Witten (851 yards, 8 TD) has been the picture of durability and hasn't missed a game in the previous 10 years and has been out just once back in 2003, his rookie campaign. Witten has four 1,000-yard seasons in his career and is Romo's favorite target. Until he proves his days are over, Witten is still arguably one of the best tight ends in the game. He also serves as a mentor to the younger players with his work ethic and dedication. Witten is a vital piece to an offensive line that must step up in 2014.
"This is the best offensive line we've had in a long time," Witten said. "I think that gives you a lot of confidence. They were the hardest working group on the team. So any time you have that, you feel confident when you go out to practice; because when you're able to protect and run behind those big guys and they're as good as they are, I think we all get confidence from that."
OL: Besides the defense, pass protection was an issue for the Cowboys last season. The line played well in the run game, but when Jones has more than $100 million invested in Romo protection is key.
Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith is the brightest spot across the line and veteran right tackle Doug Free could always use some work. Rookie Zack Martin was drafted in May out of Notre Dame and can play both guard and tackle spots. He does have short arms, which makes it better for him to stay inside. Martin will most likely start at right guard, while center Travis Frederick and left guard Mackenzy Bernadeau will play alongside him. Ronald Leary will be fighting for a spot inside, too Witten helps out in blocking as well and likes what he sees offensively,especially from the rookie Martin.
"I think this has the potential to be a really, really good offense," Witten said. "I think there's a great mindset. Obviously, our running game came back last year. We did a really good job. I think there's a lot you can build off that. The good teams are able to run when they want to run, and everything else plays off of that.
"Last year's over. You've got to reestablish that. Bringing in Zack, he's obviously played really well and kind of embraced this opportunity. Very mature, and I think he'll make us a lot better football team.'
DL: The Cowboys struggled stopping opposing offenses last season and it could get even worse with Ware and Hatcher gone. They made some minor moves to shore up the unit and drafted defensive end Demarcus Lawrence out of Boise State, defensive tackle Ken Bishop from Northern Illinois and defensive end Ben Gardner out of Stanford. Lawrence, though, suffered a broken foot in July and will miss the start of the season.
Dallas, which allowed 6,645 total yards last season, hopes the addition of Henry Melton at defensive tackle will help. Melton played in just three games last season for the Chicago Bears and spent the first four years of his career with the team. Melton is expected to plug holes with Nick Hayden, while George Selvie (45 tackles, 7 sacks) will start at left defensive end despite a dinged shoulder from the preseason. Selvie was second on the team in sacks last season behind the 11 from Hatcher.
Jeremy Mincey will be gunning for a starting end spot with Tyrone Crawford and played in 10 games last season with both Jacksonville and Denver. Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye was signed in May, but landed on the active/non-football illness list. Defensive end Anthony Spencer was placed on the active/physically unable to perform list in July with a knee issue. He played in just one game last season and was drafted by Dallas in 2007.
LB: With Lee (99 tackles, 4 INT) gone for the season, Justin Durant (24 tackles) has big shoes to fill in the middle. Durant joined the Cowboys in 2013 and played in 10 games. Rolando McClain was signed this offseason to compete for a job, but it's unknown if there's any tread left on the tires. McClain has had his fair share of off-the-field issues and was given a chance to redeem himself by Jones. The former Alabama star linebacker had his rights acquired in a trade with Baltimore and hasn't played in the NFL since November of 2012.
"I just had a lot of outside distractions, and if you can't be 100 percent at your job, you're not going to be your best at it ... plain and simple," McClain said. "My thing, I had to eliminate those distractions, understand football is my job, my livelihood. When you're away from the game, you realize how much you miss it, so now you take advantage of the opportunity you're given and do the best you can do."
Bruce Carter (96 tackles, 2 sacks) will start at the WILL spot and Kyle Wilber (44 tackles, 2 sacks) should have the right side nailed down. Outside linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Will Smith were drafted in May and will have to soak up as much information as possible to make an impact in the future.
DB: Free safety Barry Church (135 tackles, INT) led the team in stops last season. It's usually a bad thing when a defensive back leads the team in tackles because it generally means the first two lines of defense aren't doing their job. Left cornerback Brandon Carr (71 tackles, 3 INT) was second behind Lee in interceptions with three, while right corner Scandrick (64 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) put the Cowboys in a bind with a four-game suspension to start the season.
"I know I'm responsible for what goes in my body," Scandrick said. "This is a very humbling experience. I'm very sorry. I apologize to the Jones family. I'm very sorry to my teammates, I'm very sorry to the fans of the Cowboy Nation and I'm very sorry to my family."
The Cowboys made a move to fill the open space in the secondary and traded for cornerback Justin Green in a deal with the Patriots, who received defensive tackle Ben Bass in return. Green spent most of the season on New England's practice squad and will battle with Morris Claiborne, Sterling Moore, B.W. Webb and rookie Terrance Mitchell until Scandrick returns in Week 5. Mitchell was drafted from Oregon.
J.J. Wilcox (38 tackles) is slated to start at strong safety. Ahmad Dixon was drafted in May out of Baylor.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Dwayne Harris appears to have the return job locked up and averaged 30.6 yards on 28 kickoff returns last season and 12.8 yards on 20 punt returns. Williams saw action in the return game, but it appears he will mainly focus on being the team's No. 2 receiver behind Bryant.
Kicker Dan Bailey made 28-of-30 field goals in 2013 and hit 6-of-7 from 50- plus yards and all 10 of his attempts between 40 and 49 yards. He made all 49 of his PAT tries.
Punter Chris Jones averaged 45.0 yards per punt, totaling 3,467 yards on 77 attempts in 16 games. He landed 30 punts inside the 20-yard line. L.P. Ladouceur is the Cowboys' long snapper.
COACHING: Garrett should have a short leash no matter what Jones says because you know he'll be brewing inside if his prized commodity struggles out of the gates.
Callahan if offensive coordinator in name only as passing coordinator Scott Linehan draws up the plays. Meanwhile, bringing in Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator last year was a bad choice as evidenced by the team's results and Rod Marinelli is a student of Kiffin's. There's no question the defense must play better and that will be hard without Ware, Hatcher and Lee. At least the secondary has some talent.
THE SKINNY: The Dallas fan base has been clamoring for some talented players in order to see the beloved Cowboys back in the playoffs. Sadly, it appears the Cowboys will most likely win about seven to eight games at best. A record two games below .500 won't get you into the playoffs unless, of course, this is the NBA's Eastern Conference.
Anyway, Romo and the offense kept the team in some close games last season and that won't hold up much longer with a stale defense. Romo's back and Garrett's job security are the hottest topics heading into the first of 17 weeks of a roller coaster ride. A third-place finish in the NFC East is what's expected.