Experts' Picks (Consensus: third)
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 The NFC East is not what it was, and you can point to flaws on every team in the division, including Dallas. The Cowboys lost division title games in the season finales the past two seasons, so it is hard to predict a first-place finish this season.
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 Jerry Jones may not agree that Jason Garrett is on the hot seat, but another 8-8 season could force Jones to make a decision about Garrett's future as head coach.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 With Bill Callahan leading the offense and Monte Kiffin leading the defense, the Cowboys have a chance to win the East.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 New defensive coordinator Kiffin is a nice addition, but expect another year without a postseason appearance. The Cowboys are mired in mediocrity.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 The Cowboys, per usual, have offensive line issues. Must protect the quarterback.|
Five things you need to know about the Cowboys:
1. It's a new year: You would think this team would have some emotional scarring from the losses to end the 2011 and '12 seasons to the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, but they certainly don't act like it. The Cowboys have been surrounded by Super Bowl-or-bust talk for most of the past five years and have busted, missing the playoffs in four of the past five seasons. As much as the Cowboys can go under the radar nationally, this has been a quiet summer where the focus has been on football and not the franchise's run to a sixth Super Bowl win.
2. A new playcaller: Jason Garrett is the walk-around head coach Jimmy Johnson always told him to be, having given up the play-calling duties (or having them taken away depending on whether you think Jerry Jones had something to do with it) to Bill Callahan. The offense remains the one Garrett has used since 2007, but Callahan and Tony Romo will add their own spices. With Callahan's offensive line background, there should be more balance between run and pass. The last time the Cowboys had a 1,000-yard rusher was in 2006 (Julius Jones), and that also happened to be with offensive line coach Tony Sparano calling the plays for Bill Parcells.
3. Moving to the 4-3: Former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan never delivered on his promises as defensive coordinator in 2011-12, and injuries played a big part in that last season. He is now in New Orleans, and the Cowboys are hoping Monte Kiffin has some magic left from his Tampa Bay days. The Cowboys have pieces -- DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher, Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr -- but also have questions -- Jay Ratliff's health, safety, depth. The key in all of this, however, could be new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who directed Chicago's takeaway defense from 2009 to 2012. In the preseason the Cowboys have shown the ability to take the ball away, which has not been the case in recent years.
4. Line remains unsettled: The Cowboys raised eyebrows when they took center Travis Frederick with the 31st pick in the draft, but the rookie has been a steadying influence from his first day and impressed coaches and veterans alike. But the interior remains a question, which is why the Cowboys went after veterans Brandon Moore, who backed out of a deal, and Brian Waters. Left guard Ronald Leary is a question mark for the opener with a knee injury. So is last year's starter at left guard, Nate Livings. Right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau was slow out of the gate in camp because of a hamstring strain. The Cowboys even worked Doug Free at guard some in practice as a possible early-season contingency. Last year, continuity was an issue. It remains an issue going into 2013.
5. It's about the quarterback: There might not be a more polarizing player in the NFL than Romo. The Cowboys offered their backing with a six-year, $108 million extension that included $55 million guaranteed in the offseason. Romo, who is the Cowboys' oldest player at 33, has more of a say in the offense than he has ever had and will be with the coaches in game-planning meetings. He missed the offseason because of surgery to remove a cyst from his back but has steadily improved over the summer. The key will be how he finishes the season. Without Romo, the Cowboys are a mess. With Romo, the Cowboys can contend for the division and make a playoff run.
-- Todd Archer, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
DeMarco Murray has averaged 4.8 yards per rush in his first two NFL seasons, tied for the third-best rate among players with 300 rushes in that time.
However, Murray has missed nine games since taking over the starting job in Week 8 of 2011, and a lack of a viable backup in Dallas has skewed the run-pass balance of the offense.
The Cowboys dropped back to pass (including sacks and scrambles) on 67 percent of their plays last season, the second-highest rate in the NFL. Even when the Cowboys had the lead or were in a tie game, they dropped back to pass more than 28 other teams.
On the surface, the extra drop-backs led to big passing numbers. Tony Romo threw for a career-high 4,903 yards with a 65.6 completion percentage last season, and only Demaryius Thomas had more 30-plus-yard receptions than Dez Bryant.
With more drop-backs, though, there's an increased likelihood of Romo making a bad decision.
Romo threw a league-leading eight interceptions when under duress last season, including one in the season-deciding Week 17 game against the Redskins.
• While the Dallas offense had success on big-yard passing plays last season, so did the opposition. The Cowboys' opponents completed 45.5 percent of their passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield last season, the second-worst percentage in the league.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
RB DeMarcus Ware (12.2 avg. AV since 2010)
Ware leads all edge rushers with 46.5 sacks since 2010. His 32 career forced fumbles are a byproduct of that pressure. It helps that he hasn't missed a game in his eight-year career.
-- Pro Football Reference