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Start to a season's worth of answers

10 key unknowns about the Dallas Cowboys will be clarified soon enough

Updated: September 3, 2013, 3:39 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

Garrett-Fredrick-RomoAP Photo

Will Jason Garrett keep his job? Was Travis Frederick the best option for the Cowboys' first pick? Can Tony Romo solve Dallas' slow starts after demanding more control over the game plan? Stay tuned.

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' season starts in five days against the New York Giants, which is when all the questions we have about this season begin to get answered.

No more theories and speculation. We'll all have to deal in reality.

That said, here are 10 unknowns we'll have all figured out when the season ends:


1. We'll know whether Jason Garrett has won enough games to keep his job.

It's hard to see him getting a fourth full season without at least nine wins and a trip to the playoffs. The Cowboys have never missed the postseason four consecutive years in Jerry Jones' 24 seasons. If that were to happen, it's difficult to envision Jones keeping the coach who was an integral part of such a skid.

Only 17 players remain from the 1-7 team Garrett took over in the middle of the 2010 season. He talks about rebuilding the offensive line and creating a culture for success -- buzz words for rebuilding.

He needs to win enough games to ensure a new guy doesn't benefit from the process he put in place. Think about Wade Phillips going 13-3 with the team Bill Parcells built.

Key stat: Only the Oakland Raiders (nine) and Kansas City Chiefs (seven) have hired more head coaches than Dallas since 1997.


2. We'll know whether center Travis Frederick was a better first-round draft pick than tantalizing players the Cowboys could have selected, including defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (Minnesota Vikings), safety Eric Reid (San Francisco 49ers) and tight end Tyler Eifert (Cincinnati Bengals).

It's OK if the Cowboys reached for a good player, but not if they reached for an average player.

If Frederick can keep the middle of the pocket clean -- so quarterback Tony Romo can step up and deliver the ball -- and if he helps the Cowboys develop a legitimate rushing game, then his worth to this team will trump what those other players could've done for the Cowboys.

Key stat: The Cowboys' last nine first-round picks have combined for eight Pro Bowl appearances -- seven by DeMarcus Ware and one by Mike Jenkins.


[+] EnlargeMonte Kiffin
Jayne Kamin/Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Monte Kiffin better have a better read on the zone read than he did at USC if the Cowboys expect to slow down the Redskins and Eagles.

3. We'll know whether the problem with the zone read at USC was with defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin or the players.

The Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles use the zone read as a big part of their offense. In three games against Chip Kelly's offense at Oregon, Kiffin's defense allowed an average of 49.6 points and 601 yards.

No one expects the Eagles or Redskins to run up those kinds of totals in the NFL, but if Kiffin can't teach the type of assignment football required to handle those offenses, then the Cowboys will struggle to stop them.

Key stat: Robert Griffin III completed 28 of 45 passes for 404 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, and rushed 13 times for 92 yards and a touchdown in two games against Cowboys.


4. We'll know if the problem with the Cowboys' slow starts is Romo or Garrett.

Romo demanded more control of the game plan during negotiations for the $108 million contract extension he signed in the offseason.

It couldn't hurt, right?

The Cowboys scored only two touchdowns on their first possessions and didn't take a 7-0 lead until the final game of last season.

This is Romo's offense and we'll see his influence, especially in the first quarter. The Cowboys scored only 36 first-quarter points last season. Oakland and Philadelphia were the only teams that scored fewer.

Key stat: The Cowboys' first-quarter point differential of -35 ranked 28th in the NFL. Only Kansas City (-53), Oakland (-71), Philadelphia (-75) and the Tennessee Titans (-83) were worse.


5. We'll know whether Bill Callahan's zone-blocking running scheme helps the Cowboys rush the ball well enough to call it in the red zone and at the end of games.

That's all the Cowboys really need to do. Can they run the ball in short-yardage and red zone situations?

They couldn't do it last season, resulting in way too many field goals. Nothing helps a red zone offense like a running game that sets up play-action passes to the tight end.

Can they run it well enough to close out games?

The Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, Washington and Houston Texans led the NFL in rushing attempts. Washington, Minnesota, Seattle and San Francisco led the NFL in rushing yards.

The Cowboys established a new level of futility with 1,265 rushing yards, the lowest in franchise history.

Key stat: The Cowboys ran 33.8 percent of the time in 2012, 31st in the NFL.


6. We'll know whether the careers of Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray will be defined by injuries.

Let's hope not.

They each have Pro Bowl potential and problems staying on the field.

They have combined for eight NFL seasons. None has played all 16 games.

Lee has played 35 of 48 games, Carter has played 21 of 32 and Murray has played 23 of 32.

If the Cowboys get 16 games from each this season, there's no doubt they'll be in the playoffs.

Key stat: Emmitt Smith played in 199 of 201 games in 13 seasons with Cowboys.


7. We'll know whether Romo can change the narrative of his career.

We know he's a good quarterback -- even the Romo haters can't deny that -- but the Cowboys need him to play his best football in his biggest games. Do that, and the Cowboys will make playoffs; perhaps they'll even win a game. Or two.

He must win in the postseason to get folks to stop talking about his 1-6 record in win-or-go-home games.

It's not fair, but it's the reality for every NFL quarterback. That position more than any other in the game is about winning.

Romo had a 101.2 fourth-quarter passer rating with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions last season. We remember his fourth-quarter interception against Washington in the final game of the season.

Key stat: Romo has 18 fourth-quarter comebacks. Troy Aikman had 16 and Roger Staubach had 15.


8. We'll know whether Jay Ratliff, Miles Austin and Anthony Spencer have played their last game with the Cowboys.

[+] EnlargeMiles Austin
AP Photo/Sharon EllmanHaving gotten through camp healthy, receiver Miles Austin should get plenty of chances in 2013.

It's easy to see Dallas parting with all three.

Austin has the best chance to stay, even though the Cowboys used a third-round pick on his eventual replacement in Baylor's Terrance Williams.

Austin, operating in the slot, can still be a dangerous player with big-play potential. He produced nearly 1,000 yards and six touchdowns in a down season.

Spencer, franchised for the second consecutive season, will be a free agent at the end of the season. He wants to be paid like a star; he will be if he produces another double-digit sack season. The Cowboys just won't do it.

Ratliff's body is breaking down, which makes it difficult to see him here long term. Any team puts up with disruptive players who are stars. No team puts up with disruptive players who don't make plays and can't stay healthy.

Key stat: Ratliff, Austin and Spencer have combined to start 202 games.


9. We'll know if Kiffin can coax turnovers from a defense that traditionally is below average in that category.

The Cowboys forced just 16 turnovers last season (eight fumble recoveries and eight interceptions), 28 fewer than Chicago Bears' league-leading 44. The NFL average was 25 in 2012.

Kiffin's Tampa 2 scheme should help because the Cowboys are playing more zone than they've used in the past. That means linebackers and defensive backs are looking at the quarterback instead of running with their back toward him -- as they do in man-to-man coverage.

The Cowboys forced 10 turnovers in the preseason. Only four teams forced more.

Key stat: Only twice in the past 10 seasons -- 2006 and 2010 -- have the Cowboys finished above the league average in turnovers.


10. And we'll know by season's end whether tight end Gavin Escobar was a good draft pick.

The Cowboys expected he wasn't going to be a good blocker until he had a year of learning proper technique and an offseason in the weight room to get stronger.

But the Cowboys did tell us he'd be a superior weapon in the passing game and really effective inside the 20 because of the matchup issues he creates.

If he does that, then it's a really good pick; if not, the Cowboys blew a premium draft pick, especially considering they could have drafted Eifert, easily the best tight end in the draft.

Key stat: The six tight ends the Cowboys have drafted since Jason Witten have combined to score 37 touchdowns. Kansas City's Anthony Fasano has the most during that time with 24.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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