NFC East: Will Allen

IRVING, Texas -- Jerry Jones is the eternal optimist, as we all know.

The Dallas Cowboys defense will be without DeMarcus Ware (offseason release), Jason Hatcher (free-agent defection) and Sean Lee (torn anterior cruciate ligament), but the owner and general manager sees a defense that will be better in 2014 than it was in 2013 when it finished last in the league in yards allowed.

Jones
Jones
Why?

"Because we were so bad last year, there's no place but up," Jones said.

So there is that. The Cowboys made modest moves in free agency with the signings of Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Amobi Okoye. They re-signed Anthony Spencer, who is not likely to be ready to start training camp as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery. They drafted DeMarcus Lawrence in the second round.

Mostly they are hoping for serious improvement from within.

The Cowboys finished 19th overall in defense in 2012. Injuries ravaged the defense by the end of the season, but that did not save Rob Ryan's job.

Last year the Cowboys made a scheme change, switching from the 3-4 under Ryan to the 4-3 scheme under Monte Kiffin. They did not make serious personnel additions (Will Allen, Justin Durant) and were hoping not only for improvement from within but scheme flexibility from players drafted to play in Bill Parcells' or Wade Phillips' 3-4.

It seemed as if the Cowboys thought 2013 would be better because it could not be worse than it was at the end of 2012, but Jones disagreed with the assessment.

"I can say it this year, we are better right now," Jones said. "And I think better on the field. We're certainly better on paper than we were at the end of the season last year. Not on paper at the beginning of the season last year, but on paper right now relative to how we ended up last year."

Free-agency primer: Cowboys

March, 7, 2014
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer, Brian Waters, Danny McCray, Ernie Sims, Jarius Wynn

Where they stand: After finishing with the worst-ranked defense in the NFL in 2013, the Cowboys need help everywhere, but mostly on the defensive line. The need could be even greater if the Cowboys are unable to come up with a new deal for DeMarcus Ware, who is set to make $12.25 million in 2014 and count $16.003 million against the cap. Coming off an 11-sack season, Hatcher is likely to command more money from another team that will make it unlikely for the Cowboys to match, but they will not close the door on keeping him. Spencer is rehabbing from knee surgery and could be had on a short-term deal that will not involve a lot of money. The rest of their free agents are more fill-in types who will be allowed to test the market if not allowed to leave altogether.

What to expect: Not much. Last year the Cowboys added safety Will Allen and linebacker Justin Durant in free agency on short-term, low-money deals. The approach will be more that way than setting the market on a player as they did in 2012 for cornerback Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million). Executive vice president Stephen Jones said the Cowboys can be "efficient" spenders in free agency. The Cowboys will have to create space under the cap to sign players to modest deals. The best bet is for them to look for low-cost help on players on the line looking to rebound from down years or injuries. They also could look at safety, though Jerry Jones said at the NFL scouting combine that they liked their young safeties such as J.J. Wilcox. Whatever money the Cowboys do have is more likely to be set aside for Tyron Smith and/or Dez Bryant.

Age not a factor for Cowboys

February, 4, 2014
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Dallas CowboysAP Photo/Tim SharpThe Cowboys have a good core of veterans such as Jason Witten, Tony Romo and Doug Free, but they lack quality backups.


After a third consecutive 8-8 season, you have to say age isn't a factor with the Dallas Cowboys.

The average age for the Cowboys in 2013 was 26.1, and that two veterans who didn't finish the season in Will Allen (31) and Brian Waters (36). In 2012, the Cowboys' average age was 25.9.

Coaching and a lack of quality depth hurt the Cowboys in most cases the last two seasons. You can blame Tony Romo's late interception against Washington in the 2012 regular-season finale or Kyle Orton's pick in the 2013 finale against Philadelphia as other issues.

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Whose health is most key to the Cowboys' success?

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    59%
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    6%
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    27%
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    7%
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    1%

Discuss (Total votes: 8,610)

But don't say the Cowboys were an old team.

If anything, the Cowboys should rebuild around some young pieces which include Sean Lee, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, DeMarco Murray, Orlando Scandrick, Dan Bailey and Barry Church.

Core veterans in their 30s such as Romo, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Witten, and other quality vets in their late 20s like Brandon Carr and Doug Free, are worth keeping around.

Finding quality backups is the key for 2014. When you have guys such as Corvey Irvin, Frank Kearse, Jarius Wynn and Everette Brown as backups along the defensive line, it doesn't bode well for success.

The Cowboys have to fix their issues with finding undrafted players who can't play consistently, which was the case with safety Jeff Heath, at key backup positions.

Drafting quality players in the middle rounds should also help the Cowboys. It was something Todd Archer pointed out but the reality is age isn't and shouldn't be a factor for this team.

You can worry about Romo and his age -- 34 when 2014 regular season starts -- and health, recovering from back surgery, but the quarterback has young players to help him move the offense.

Coaching is a problem at Valley Ranch. The Cowboys currently have three -- head coach Jason Garrett, offensive line coach Bill Callahan, and new play caller Scott Linehan -- who have been head coaches and play callers.

Too many cooks in the kitchen? Team officials will say no.

But can these coaches, offense and defense, get the young core of this team to the next level?

If they can't, the numbers of not reaching the postseason will move to five years and counting.

Cowboys hope for another takeaway feast

November, 20, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- Only three teams have more takeaways than the Dallas Cowboys this season. The Seattle Seahawks have 26, the Kansas City Chiefs have 24 and the Carolina Panthers have 23.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Carr, Eli Manning
AP Photo/James D. SmithBrandon Carr was responsible for the game-clinching interception in the Cowboys' opener against the Giants, who turned the ball over six times.
In the midst of a horrible statistical season defensively, the Cowboys have forced 22 turnovers in their first 10 games.

The Cowboys got it all started the right way in their season opener against the New York Giants with six.

The Cowboys had three takeaways on the Giants’ first 10 snaps. DeMarcus Ware had an interception of Eli Manning on the first play. Barry Church forced a fumble on the sixth play and Will Allen intercepted Manning on the 10th.

On the second play of the second half, Church returned a fumble 27 yards for a touchdown. Later the Cowboys scooped up a muffed punt, and in the fourth quarter Brandon Carr iced the win with a 49-yard interception return for a score.

It was the 24th time the Cowboys forced six or more turnovers in a game in team history and the first time they had as many as six since Dec. 14, 2003, against the Washington Redskins.

Manning threw 15 interceptions in New York’s first six games -- all losses -- and he has been intercepted just twice since. He has only three touchdown passes in the Giants’ four-game winning streak.

The Cowboys get to see Manning again Sunday at MetLife Stadium for the rematch. Is it fair to expect a similar turnover game? Probably not.

"You always feel confident," coach Jason Garrett said. "That’s always a point of emphasis for us, to take the ball away. Just because we did it before that doesn’t give us an advantage of doing it now. You have to go out there and do the things necessary to get the takeaways. Typically it has a lot to do with executing and beating your guy and making plays on the football."

Some of the Giants look at the season-opening loss to the Cowboys as one they let slip away, despite the six turnovers. The Cowboys felt the same in the first regular-season game at AT&T Stadium in 2009. Tony Romo was intercepted three times and Felix Jones had a fumble, but with 3:46 to play they had a 31-30 lead and the defense could not make a stop.

Lawrence Tynes kicked a 37-yard field goal on the final play to beat the Cowboys, 33-31.

Cowboys release safety Will Allen

October, 8, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys released veteran safety Will Allen on Tuesday.

Allen started the first two games of the season before he was replaced by rookie J.J. Wilcox prior to the Sept. 22 win against the St. Louis Rams. In the season opener against the New York Giants, Allen was credited with 17 tackles, two pass deflections and an interception.

The Cowboys have not decided how to fill the roster spot.

Allen was signed to a one-year deal worth $840,000, the veteran minimum salary. He received a signing bonus of $65,000, and $555,000 of his base salary was guaranteed. Allen played for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and special-teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia in Tampa Bay and was viewed as a solid locker-room presence.

The Cowboys have four safeties on the roster: Barry Church, Wilcox, Danny McCray and undrafted rookie Jeff Heath. Church suffered a broken nose in Sunday's loss to the Denver Broncos but will not miss a game.
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys are on the verge of their first major defensive change of the 2013 season: benching veteran safety Will Allen in favor of rookie J.J. Wilcox.

Wilcox
The move isn't official, but Wilcox, a third-round pick out of Georgia Southern, received some first-team snaps in practice Thursday, and if he does get the start Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, it comes at a perfect time.

Over the next five weeks, the Cowboys face some quarterbacks, starting with Sam Bradford, who have the potential to stretch the defenses with deep passes and lead offenses capable of putting up points.

Entering Thursday, St. Louis, San Diego, Denver, Washington and Philadelphia -- Dallas' next five opponents -- rank in the top 10 in touchdown passes and had each thrown for more than 550 yards through two games.

Pro Football Focus ranked Allen 55th among NFL safeties. Over the first two weeks, he's allowed two touchdown passes, including a 70-yarder in the opener to Victor Cruz of the New York Giants, and gave up four receptions for 62 yards in the Week 2 loss to the Chiefs. Allen does have one interception, though he dropped another potential pick against the Chiefs.

The Cowboys signed Allen to a one-year deal, thinking he would provide a calming veteran presence to pair up with Barry Church. After two weeks, PFF has Church as the second-ranked player at his position.

But the issues with Allen have the Cowboys concerned enough to turn to a rookie.

One member of the Cowboys organization said this about Wilcox: "Athletic, physical, good downhill player with very good ball skills who is a good tackler."

In the preseason, Wilcox led the Cowboys with 20 total tackles, had one interception and two pass breakups. For years, Dallas has searched the draft for a safety, only to encounter disappointment.

In 2012, the Cowboys selected Matt Johnson in the fourth round, but injuries have prevented him from playing in a regular-season game. In 2010, the Cowboys drafted a raw Akwasi Owusu-Ansah in the fourth round, but he never started an NFL game. In 2009, Michael Hamlin was drafted in the fifth round. He, too, never started a NFL game.

The Cowboys are raising expectations for their veterans -- and will sit them if they play poorly. Bringing Allen off the bench, if that's the case Sunday, is a statement to the rest of the group that coach Jason Garrett is serious about playing younger talented players.

Given the opponents Dallas faces in the next five weeks, the defense can't afford to give up big plays, or come out on the short end of a shootout if the secondary has issues. The Cowboys are trying to fix a small problems before they grow larger -- by moving Allen out and Wilcox in.

Rapid Reaction: Cowboys 36, Giants 31

September, 9, 2013
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- My thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys36-31 win against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium:

What it means for Dallas: The Cowboys finally claimed a victory over the Giants in Arlington after losing the first four in the $1.2 billion stadium. Maybe all they needed was a name change to AT&T Stadium.

The Cowboys have now beaten the Giants in seven straight season openers, including the past two.

Sunday was another strange, thrilling game against their NFC East rivals despite six takeaways and two defensive touchdowns by the Cowboys. Dallas was unable to salt it away until linebacker Sean Lee recovered an onside kick with 10 seconds to play.

Safety Barry Church returned a fumble 27 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, and cornerback Brandon Carr picked off a deflected Eli Manning pass and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown with 1:50 to play to make it 36-24.

Stock watch: Tight end Jason Witten went over 9,000 career receiving yards, and he also caught two touchdown passes in a game for the first time since Dec. 12, 2010, against Philadelphia and only the third time in his career.

Taking it away: Monte Kiffin has preached takeaways since taking over as defensive coordinator, and there was no better way to start the season than how the Cowboys defense did in the first quarter.

On the first play, DeMarcus Ware recorded an interception for the first time since 2006 that set up a field goal. On the second drive, Church ripped the ball free from running back David Wilson at the Dallas 10 for a George Selvie fumble recovery. On the third drive, safety Will Allen had his first interception since 2005.

The Cowboys did not record three takeaways in any game last season and last had three in a quarter on Nov. 13, 2011, against Buffalo (fourth quarter).

About that running game: The Cowboys spent the offseason talking about running the ball more and running the ball better in 2013 after a horrid 2012.

It’s not that the Cowboys ran the ball poorly against the Giants; it’s just that they didn’t run it very much. In the first half, Romo threw the ball 33 times and the Cowboys had 12 rushes. For the game, the Cowboys ran it 23 times for 87 yards and DeMarco Murray had 86 yards on 20 carries, but they couldn’t close out the game on their own. Last season, the Cowboys had seven games in which they ran it more than 22 times.

What’s next: The Cowboys play at Kansas City next Sunday for the first time since 2009.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- If there was one positive outcome from the Dallas Cowboys’ offense turning the ball over six times on Saturday it was that the defense held its own.

Three of the six turnovers came in Dallas’ territory -- Dwayne Harris' fumbled punt on the first series of the game and Kyle Orton's two interceptions. The Cowboys allowed only six points on those three takeaways. Arizona turned a Dez Bryant fumble into a field goal as well.

After what looked like a strong three-and-out to open the game, Harris’ miscue gave the Cardinals the ball at the Dallas 22. Arizona would get to the Dallas 7, but Carson Palmer’s third-down throw to Alfonso Smith was off.

What’s the message in the huddle?

“Let’s get the ball back,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “Let’s find a way to get the ball back, find a way to knock the ball out, get a turn over, not allow any points to be put on the board. Three points is good. That’s a win in some sense, but we’ve got to pride ourselves in getting the ball out and I think we could’ve done a better job of that, especially the first unit.”

The second- and third-team defenses also came up with some positive sudden-change work.

“To me, it’s just like getting a turnover, holding them to field goals,” safety Will Allen said. “That’s taking points away from the offense and that’s almost like a huge swing in games. It changes the momentum for us and gives the offense a chance to come down and make the game closer.”


GLENDALE, Ariz., -- The Cowboys came out of Saturday's preseason game with the Arizona Cardinals relatively clean from a health standpoint.

Safety Will Allen took a shot to the ribs but said after the game that he is fine and he would have continued playing if this had been a regular-season game.

"Just a little rib shot," Allen told ESPNDallas' Todd Archer. "Nothing too major."

The Cowboys had a healthy scratch in tackle Jermey Parnell, who missed some time early in training camp with a strained hamstring. Parnell returned to practice late last week, but the Cowboys inserted Demetress Bell at right tackle and Darrion Weems as the left tackle.

Also, cornerback Morris Claiborne missed the game with a sore knee. Claiborne, however, expects to start running this week when the Cowboys return to Irving, Texas, on Monday.

"I feel a lot better," he said. "I haven't run on it yet, but I'm banking on returning."

Outside linebacker Ernie Sims missed Saturday's game with a groin injury. But, like Claiborne, he expects to return to the practice fields this week.

"I'm going next week when we get back to Dallas," Sims said. "If this were a regular-season game, I would play."

The following players also didn't play because of injuries: Jay Ratliff, Sean Lissemore, Alex Albright, Matt Johnson, Toby Jackson, Eric Frampton, Nate Livings, Ronald Leary, Ryan Cook, Ray Dominguez and Cole Beasley.

J.J. Wilcox wasn't with the team because of the passing of his mother.

Cowboys practice report: Day 16

August, 13, 2013
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OXNARD, Calif. -- A feisty practice from start to finish.
  • DeMarco Murray and Sean Lee love barking at each other. During a run play, the two got tangled up, and Lee and Murray yelled at each other. Jason Hatcher went over to play peacemaker. Later, Lee was upset at Terrance Williams for a low block and yelled a few bad words at the rookie. Murray and Will Allen also needed to be separated after a run up the middle.
  • Allen knocked down a high pass to Jason Witten down the field. Allen put a nice shot on Witten, who lost the ball as he crashed to the ground. He was fine despite being slow to get up.
  • Orlando Scandrick should have picked off a Tony Romo pass, but it bounced out of his hands for a pass breakup. Scandrick is good at reading quarterbacks but just doesn't always finish the play in terms of creating a turnover.
  • Jermey Parnell participated in team drills and worked with the second team at right tackle for the first time in nearly two weeks. Parnell was very aggressive, something the coaches like because after he gets out of his stance, he attacks the defender. He also displayed some athletic ability on sweeps. Parnell did a nice job of getting to the second level for a block on a nice run by Joseph Randle.
  • Rookie linebacker DeVonte Holloman had an interception in team drills and two more in the one-on-one drills.
  • B.W. Webb got some work in the nickel package and is getting better in pass coverage. He's also fielding punts well. After a muff in Oakland last week, Webb caught several punts without any issues on the scout team.
  • Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli was upset at the third-team defensive line. Several times he went onto the fields and had some choice words.
  • As Romo avoided pressure, he connected with Dez Bryant, who made a nifty one-handed catch. During the two-minute drill, Miles Austin made a nice open-field grab on a Romo pass.
  • Former Cowboy and 2013 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinee Larry Allen and former Cowboys offensive line coach Hudson Houck attended practice. Allen said Houck should be in the Hall of Fame.
  • Actress Kate Bosworth and actor Chace Crawford attended practice.

What to watch: Cowboys safeties

August, 4, 2013
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Oh yes, I will be watching tonight's Hall of Fame game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins. Nothing beats this annual early-August feeling. Thrilled at 8 p.m. that football is back, bored out of your mind by 8:30 because preseason NFL games are some of the most unwatchable things in all of sports.

And because this is an "extra" preseason game -- i.e., the Cowboys still have the normal four scheduled in addition to this one -- it's not going to be a star-studded affair. Tony Romo's not going to play, and I'd be surprised to see many (if any) Cowboys starters at all, let alone for more than a series or two.

But that doesn't mean there aren't reasons to watch, and one of the things on which I'll be keeping a close eye is the safety position for Dallas. My guess is that rookie J.J. Wilcox and second-year man Matt Johnson will get most of the reps at safety tonight, and those are two very interesting guys for Dallas this year. With Barry Church locked in at one of the starting safety spots and veteran Will Allen looking like the favorite to open the season at the other, the question becomes about depth and the future at the position. Coaches say it's tough to evaluate safeties until you see them in the preseason games, because the hitting is such a big part of their jobs and they don't do much (if any) of that in practice. So tonight could offer a chance to see Wilcox and Johnson do some things they haven't yet been able to show.

Calvin Watkins reports from Oxnard that Wilcox has looked good:
He's the personal protector on the punt unit, the only rookie on the special teams and he's making plays on the ball at safety. Against the run, Wilcox continues to display toughness and isn't afraid of contact. When receivers and tight ends run around after catching a pass, Wilcox is bringing them down.

Which all sounds great, especially for a guy who was picked in the third round as something of a project. If Wilcox comes quickly, he could offer depth and maybe even a better option as a starter at some point this season or going into next.

As for Johnson, the fourth-round pick from 2012 who missed his rookie season due to injuries but has drawn raves from the coaching staff for his playmaking abilities, this preseason offers a chance to show some things. The team brought in Allen for insurance and for veteran leadership, but they certainly wouldn't mind if Johnson (or Wilcox) played well enough to steal the starting job from him in this camp. Johnson was the one about whom everyone was excited a year ago. He'd likely enjoy a chance to outshine Wilcox, who's been getting so much of the positive attention in this year's camp.

Camp Confidential: Dallas Cowboys

July, 25, 2013
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OXNARD, Calif. -- The feeling Tony Romo had early in his career when he was just trying to make the Dallas Cowboys' roster is the same one he feels today as he chases a Super Bowl.

“For me, I tell this to some buddies and high school kids a lot of the time, it’s all relative to the way you look at it,” Romo said. “They’ll be like, ‘Wow, you play in the NFL or whatever.’ The same feeling I get going out on a Sunday is the same feeling a high school kid gets going out on a Friday night. They’re excited. They’re energetic. They’ve put in a lot of time and effort. It means a lot to them. It means everything to them. To me, that aspect of it doesn’t change, no matter where you’re at. Sometimes your surroundings change a little bit. Sometimes the just desperate feeling of trying to make the team; that doesn’t change now. It’s just a different goal. Now it’s not trying to make the team. Now it’s trying to win a championship. Now it’s trying to get better so we can take the next step. Now it’s just that feeling that you have. But it’s still that desperate kind of act of wanting to take that next step. There’s just another step always. It’s going to be the same thing even after we get that job done.”

Despite missing the playoffs the past three seasons and losing Week 17 de facto NFC East title games in each of the past two seasons to the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, the Cowboys rewarded Romo with a six-year contract extension this offseason worth $108 million, including $55 million guaranteed.

They also guaranteed Romo more say in the offense.

At 33, Romo is the oldest Cowboy and is entering his seventh full season as the starting quarterback. He has seen all that a quarterback can see from opposing defenses and in the offseason was able to communicate his ideas to coach Jason Garrett, offensive coordinator Bill Callahan and the rest of the staff.

Once the season starts, Romo will spend time with the coaches during the week going over the game plan.

“I think anytime the more you are involved, I think there is no question the more comfortable you are with anything,” Romo said. “I think that just goes with the territory. You gain a lot over the years with experience. You understand a lot offensively. You start to understand what has made us successful. You understand what can make our lives easier, what can make my job easier, and you just go hammer things out."

Last year when Romo asked for a certain play or two in the game plan, it might not get called for a few games. That won’t be the case this year with Romo putting in that “Peyton Manning time” owner and general manager Jerry Jones alluded to in the offseason.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Tony Romo will have a greater responsibility this season as he will have an active role in the Cowboys' offensive game planning.
“What I want to do as a head coach, what our coaching staff wants to do, is just create more of a forum for him to be able to do that, keep those lines of communication open,” Garrett said. “His job is to play quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. It’s not an easy job. That’s his job. We feel like his involvement will help him do that job better and help our football team even more.”

Perhaps even get the Cowboys back to the playoffs.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Dez Bryant's dominance. No player has caught the eye more in training camp than Bryant, who is entering his fourth season. Over the second half of last season he was one of the best receivers in the NFL with 50 catches for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Since arriving in 2010, Bryant has always been able to make the highlight catch, but he became more reliable in his route-running and decision-making, which helped in his jump in productivity. He even made plays while hurt, displaying toughness by playing the last three games with a broken index finger that required postseason surgery. He has had no problems with the injured finger in camp.

As good as Bryant was, he has his sights on becoming the NFL’s best receiver.

“This is what I truly believe: I always feel like there’s always room to get better,” Bryant said. “I think just by going in, getting everything I already know, cleaning it up, sharpening it up the best way I possibly can and just learning more and more the coaches give me, I feel like I’ll be taking a step each and every day.”

2. Monte Kiffin puts stamp on defense. Kiffin is 73 years old, but he doesn’t act that way. On the first day of training camp, he implored the crowd to get loud to excite his defense. When he has been displeased, he has thrown his hat to the ground. When he’s not happy with himself, he has given himself a slap in the head.

“He’s a fired-up guy,” linebacker Bruce Carter said. “You never know what you’re going to get with Coach Kiff. He brings a lot of excitement to the defensive meeting room. Guys are really adapting to him well.”

A lot of eyebrows were raised when the Cowboys hired Kiffin after his so-so run at USC. Kiffin believes having more time with the players than he had in college will help ease the adjustment from the 3-4 to the 4-3.

The key hire might have been defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. He worked with Kiffin in Tampa Bay and led a turnover-driven defense in Chicago for four years. Kiffin’s knowledge, combined with Marinelli’s expertise, give the Cowboys an edge they did not have the past few years on that side of the ball.

3. Jason Garrett, walk-around coach. Offensive coordinator/assistant head coach Bill Callahan will call plays, freeing up Garrett to handle game situations and the entire team.

When Garrett took the job on a full-time basis in 2011, Jimmy Johnson advised him to work as a “walk-around” head coach, but he held on to the play-calling duties. Whether they were taken away from him or he gave them up is up for debate, but the Cowboys’ hope is Garrett’s coaching ability will be enhanced.

While Jones has backed the coach and talked of a future beyond the final two years of Garrett’s current contract, this is a win-now season for Garrett. He has gone 8-8 in each of his first two full seasons and lost both season finales with playoff spots on the line. Jones’ patience would be put to the test with a fourth straight non-playoff season.

Garrett has been around the NFL a long time as a player and coach and understands the life.

Without having to overlook every nook and cranny of the offense, Garrett has been all over the practice fields in Oxnard, Calif.

“I have always felt that he found a way to see everything,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “He doesn’t miss much; he never has in the past and he won’t in the future. He’s a guy who’s on top of every detail and knows what’s going on. That’s what makes him a great coach, and that’s why we all respond to him.”

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The Cowboys lost five major components of their defense to injuries last year and had DeMarcus Ware playing with one healthy arm, which led to the dismissal of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Lee, Carter, Barry Church, Orlando Scandrick and Ware are healthy now, which will help a defense that has to get better at creating turnovers.

The Cowboys do not seem overly concerned about the long-term effects of early training camp injuries to defensive tackle Jay Ratliff (hamstring) and defensive end Anthony Spencer (knee).

Using frames of references from the defenses Kiffin and Marinelli have run, the Cowboys appear to have the right pieces for the 4-3. The Cowboys view Lee and Carter the way Chicago viewed Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. They look at Ware and Ratliff the way Tampa Bay used to view Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp.

A healthy defense should make Kiffin’s first year a success.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

On a team that has not made the playoffs the past three seasons, the Cowboys’ key pieces still look largely the same: Romo, Jason Witten, Ware, Ratliff and Miles Austin.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsThe Cowboys are counting on veterans, including a healthy DeMarcus Ware, to lead Monte Kiffin's defense this season.
Because of salary-cap constraints and the desire to re-sign Romo, the Cowboys were not able to be major players in free agency. Their biggest pickups were linebacker Justin Durant and safety Will Allen. In the draft, they traded down from the 18th pick to No. 31 to take center Travis Frederick, whom many rated as a third- or even fourth-round pick.

The Cowboys are banking on core players who have won one playoff game and missed the playoffs more than they have made it.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • If there was any worry about Ware’s recovery from offseason shoulder surgery and the move from outside linebacker to defensive end, they were calmed very early. Ware had a three-sack practice on the second day of camp and has given left tackle Tyron Smith fits.
  • While Ware is healthy, his counterpart on the other side is not. Spencer will miss two to four weeks of camp because of knee surgery. Spencer had a breakout year in 2012 with 11 sacks and was added to the Pro Bowl. He missed time in the offseason as well but does not believe it will affect his knowledge of the defense with the move to defensive end.
  • The offensive line was a question last year, and it is a question again this year. Guards Mackenzy Bernadeau (hamstring) and Nate Livings (foot) have not been able to practice. Ronald Leary, who is expected to compete for a starting job, has not practiced because of a calf injury. For a unit in need of continuity, the beginning of camp has not gone well.
  • The loss of defensive end Tyrone Crawford for the season because of a torn Achilles is a big one. The Cowboys wanted the second-year player to be a big part of their rotation at end and tackle this year and possibly be a starter in 2014. Without Crawford, the Cowboys will have to scramble for help, but so far they have not shown any interest in the more veteran names available.
  • The Cowboys will go without a fullback on the 53-man roster when the season opens, relying more on two-tight end formations. In Witten, the Cowboys have one of the best tight ends in the game. They have rookie Gavin Escobar, drafted in the second round, and James Hanna, last year’s sixth-rounder, as the top backups. Escobar has benefited from extra work early in camp and could become a decent intermediate target for Romo.
  • If there is an unknown player to watch as the regular season approaches, it is second-year running back Lance Dunbar. He made the Cowboys last year as an undrafted free agent and saw his role increase a little as the year went on. With Felix Jones now in Philadelphia, Dunbar is the leader to be the true third-down back. Several of the veterans have noticed his speed and quickness and believe he could have a solid season as a pass-catcher.
  • Right tackle Doug Free saw his pay cut in half in the offseason, down to $3.5 million, but he is off to a better start to training camp. Free struggled last year and ended up splitting time late in the season with Jermey Parnell. That has not been the case this summer, and not just because Parnell has been slowed by a hamstring strain. Free has been more firm in the run game and as a pass protector.
  • With so many games decided by a field goal in the NFL, teams need a top-flight kicker. The Cowboys have one in Dan Bailey. He has had eight winning or tying kicks in the last two minutes in his first two seasons.
Washington Redskins

You can add Kirk Cousins to the list of people raving about how well Robert Griffin III's recovery from knee surgery is going, even if that might mean Cousins begins the season as a backup instead of the fill-in starter.

Last week's news about Sam Huff stepping aside has sparked some debate in Washington about what the Redskins' radio broadcast team should look like moving forward.

New York Giants

Justin Tuck says he feels "more alive in a football sense" this year, which sounds nice. Ultimately, June talk won't mean a thing, and whether Tuck can play at a high level this year will have a lot to do with the Giants' success and his own future in New York.

Yes, there has been some interest from the Giants in fullback Vonta Leach. Yes, this likely means they're more concerned about Henry Hynoski's injury than they've admitted. No, I don't think Leach is going to be a Giant. I think he's going to be a Dolphin.

Dallas Cowboys

Will Allen hopes he can bring some of the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive mentality to the Cowboys' defensive backs room.

ESPNDallas.com's position series continues with running back, where DeMarco Murray must stay healthy or Joseph Randle should get a chance to prove whether he's the superior long-term option.

Philadelphia Eagles

If Matt Barkley beats out two more experienced quarterbacks to win the starter's job, it won't be the first time he's ever done that.

Jeremy Maclin's eyes are wide open to what this year means for him -- a chance to cash in with a big new contract if he can stay healthy and play to his first-round pedigree.

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