- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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A list of things that could make or break the Cowboys as Super Bowl contenders:
Old offensive line: This ranks as the team's primary concern. Doug Free, the new face among the starting five, is the least of the line’s problems. He’ll be fine at left tackle. There is reason to be concerned about the four returning starters, all of whom are at least 31 years old. Center Andre Gurode and right guard Leonard Davis went to the Pro Bowl last season, but folks who watched the film don’t believe they earned those trips. Left guard Kyle Kosier and right tackle Marc Colombo are recovering from knee injuries that could sideline them for the season opener and beyond. We saw what happens when the offensive line doesn’t perform well in the playoff loss to Minnesota.
Breakout stars keep building: Receiver Miles Austin and cornerback Mike Jenkins went from backups to Pro Bowlers in one season. Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, a first-year starter, was arguably the Cowboys’ best defensive player in the second half of the season. Those three should be major pieces of the Cowboys’ foundation for the foreseeable future. Their challenge is to continue improving instead of being satisfied after breakout seasons.
Depending on David Buehler: Uncertainty at kicker can affect an entire team’s confidence and the coaching staff’s strategy. The Cowboys believe in Buehler after an outstanding training camp and preseason, but he understands he has to prove himself on a weekly basis. Buehler, who might have the league’s strongest legs, was erratic on field goals at USC and passed over when the Cowboys had to replace the faltering Nick Folk last season. However, he’s made tremendous progress while working with ex-Cowboys kicker Chris Boniol, who reworked Buehler’s technique and mental approach. The Cowboys will keep Boniol on the coaching staff, maximizing Buehler’s chance to succeed.
Turnover totals: Tony Romo made protecting the ball a priority and drastically reduced his turnovers last season. He has to do it again. The Dallas defense put an emphasis on taking the ball away … but still ranked near the bottom of the league in forced turnovers (21). The hope is that replacing Ken Hamlin with Alan Ball, a converted cornerback with much better range and coverage ability, will give Wade Phillips more freedom from a scheme standpoint and help the defense gets its hands on the ball more often. It also should help that strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh won’t have to wear a cast all season.
Dynamic weapons’ durability: Running back Felix Jones and rookie receiver Dez Bryant are home run threats every time they get the ball. But they’re also prime candidates for the injury report. Jones’ career average of 6.5 yards per carry is impressive, but his best-known statistic is his 20 games missed due to toe, hamstring and knee injuries the past two seasons. Bryant’s talent was the buzz of training camp’s first week, but he missed the rest of camp and all of preseason with a high ankle sprain. He also missed a handful of offseason practices with a sore hamstring. Jones and Bryant can be game-breaking complements to Pro Bowlers Miles Austin and Jason Witten if they can stay healthy. That’s a big if.
Tony Romo’s red zone targets: The Cowboys were middle-of-the-pack in points despite ranking second in yards last season in large part because of Romo’s red zone struggles. His red zone passer rating (81.5) ranked near the bottom of the league’s starting quarterbacks. The Cowboys have to get their tight ends more involved when they’re trying to finish drives. There is no way that Witten and Martellus Bennett should ever combine for only two touchdowns in a season. Bennett must earn the trust of his quarterback and offensive coordinator; it’s on Jason Garrett to get Witten more involved in the red zone. Patrick Crayton was one of Romo’s most reliable red zone weapons, second in terms of inside-the-20 touchdowns to only Roy Williams last season, believe it or not. Bryant, who dominates in jump-ball situations, has the potential to be a major difference-maker.
Running back rotation: Who cares who starts? It’s about how the carries are split. It appears that Marion Barber and Jones will share the bulk of the workload, perhaps evenly, with Tashard Choice picking up the scraps again. They want to get Jones the ball as much as possible without wearing him down. The Cowboys can’t be hesitant to make a change if warranted. Choice has proved that he can be an effective NFL back. If Barber gets banged up again or isn’t effective, he should swap roles with Choice and become the third-down back.
DeMarcus Ware’s dominance: If 11 sacks is a down year, you’re a dominant pass-rusher. Ware set the standard with his 20-sack season in 2008. He might never hit that milestone again, but he should get back to at least the midteens. He battled through all sorts of injuries last season. He’s healthy now, and opposing offenses have to account for Spencer on the other side instead of just worrying about Ware with their pass-protection scheme.
Healthy Jay Ratliff: The one-of-a-kind nose tackle was an All-Pro despite playing with two elbows that needed offseason surgery to remove bone spurs. How good can he be with two healthy arms? Ratliff already made a ridiculous number of plays for a dude who gets double-teamed most snaps -- six sacks, eight tackles for losses, 33 quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries last season. Ratliff has played through pain and been extremely durable for an undersized nose tackle, missing only one game during his three seasons as a starter. That has to continue. Rookie backup Josh Brent has potential, but that's a huge drop-off.
Can Cowboys handle the hype? We saw the Cowboys go from preseason Super Bowl favorite to postseason spectator in 2008, when egos ran rampant at Valley Ranch. Some of the most prominent egos have relocated to Cincinnati, and the remaining Cowboys claim they learned from that debacle. The additions of business-first veterans such as Keith Brooking made a huge difference. So did Tony Romo’s development as a leader.