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Dallas Cowboys 2013 Season Preview

By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - It's always hot around the collar in Texas. So imagine playing or coaching for stringent Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Popular for his controlling ways and hands-on personality, Jones' patience is running thin with his Cowboys and 2013 is expected to be a big one for the franchise. But haven't we heard that each of the past five-plus years or so?

Dallas has missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and head coach Jason Garrett should feel some added pressure to get the job done. Garrett could have an easier job coaching now that he has relinquished play- calling duties to new offensive coordinator Bill Callahan.

"Being a head coach is a big job and being an offensive coordinator or playcaller is a big job. You have to somehow, someway separate yourself from the two," Garrett said in July. "I've divvied up a lot of the responsibilities I had over the past couple of years, and this is just the next step in doing that."

Jones actually recommended that Garrett make it easier on himself with a team that has finished 8-8 in each of the past two seasons and 6-10 in 2010. There's no question Garrett has struggled with the headphones on the sidelines and injuries have played their role, too. But there will be no excuse this year for Garrett if he fails to live up to his owner's high expectations.

And when expectations are tossed around, how could quarterback Tony Romo not be included in the discussion. Speaking of high hopes, Romo has carried a lightning rod on his back for several seasons now and the conductor that is a new contract could weigh him down. Romo inked a six-year contract extension in late March and the deal is reportedly worth $108 million with $55 million guaranteed.

Did Romo deserve the added comfort and financial flexibility?

That remains to be seen and it's obvious Jones is in Romo's corner. Romo is coming off a 2012 season that included a career-high 4,903 passing yards to go along with 28 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. However, his passer rating of 90.5 was the lowest of his career. He underwent offseason back surgery to have a cyst removed and missed OTAs. Romo, though, is back for training camp.

"Tony is uniquely qualified to lead this team at the quarterback position for the next several years," Jones said in a statement. "He has an abundance of experience and familiarity with our offensive philosophy, our head coach and the personnel around him. He is moving into a period of time where he can maximize all of his natural skills while continuing to build upon the talents that he has developed since entering the NFL."

Romo has the talent around him, but the defense was an issue in 2012. So the Cowboys brought in veteran defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to run the 4-3 scheme he established with the great Tampa Bay teams about a decade ago. Rob Ryan and his complicated system got the boot, and the Cowboys are hoping the transition bears better results.

For a team that looks great on paper, the time is now to put it on the field.

2012 RECORD: 8-8 (3rd in NFC East)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009 (lost to Minnesota Vikings Divisional Round)

HEAD COACH (RECORD): Jason Garrett (21-19, fourth season)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Callahan (second season with Cowboys, 1st as OC)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Monte Kiffin (first season with Cowboys)

KEY ADDITIONS: S Will Allen (from Steelers), LB Justin Durant (from Lions), DT Nick Hayden (free agent), CB Brandon Underwood (free agent), C Travis Frederick (draft), LT Demetress Bell (from Eagles).

KEY DEPARTURES: RB Felix Jones (Eagles), P Brian Moorman (Steelers), CB Mike Jenkins (Raiders), S Gerald Sensabaugh (released), DE Marcus Spears (released)

QB: Romo (4,903 passing yards, 28 TD, 19 INT) gets criticized heavily for wins and losses when it's not entirely all of his fault. He does come up short at times in crucial situations and is still one of the more dominant QBs in the league; he led the NFL in fourth-quarter touchdown passes in 2012. Romo can still improvise with his feet and has great perception in the pocket.

"He has a proven veteran quarterback grasp of the intellectual side of the game. He knows how to run an offense and run a team. He knows how to win games and has done it in a lot of different settings and under a lot of difficult circumstances," Jones said when Romo signed his new megadeal.

Romo will always be the scapegoat for Dallas' failures even though it's his right arm that puts the team in position for possible greatness. Whether the fans love him or not, Romo will be under center in Big D for a while.

GRADE: B+

RB: The Cowboys were one of the worst rushing teams in the league last year and that's mainly the reason Romo received so much slack. How can a team be successful when it averages 79.1 yards per game? That's what the Cowboys suffered through in 2012 and running back DeMarco Murray played only 10 games because of injury.

Murray (663 rushing yards, 4 TD) is not a game-changing back like Adrian Peterson or Arian Foster, but the Oklahoma product knows how to run between the tackles and grind out yards. Perhaps with Callahan calling the shots on offense, Murray will achieve more in his third year. If Murray's injury issue rears its head, rookie Joseph Randle or Lance Dunbar will be injected into the lineup.

GRADE: B-

WR: Dallas wideouts averaged 312.0 yards a game last season, good enough for third in the entire league. That comes as no surprise with Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and tight end Jason Witten catching passes.

Bryant (1,382 receiving yards, 12 TD) is a young stud on the rise and is arguably one of the best in the NFC behind Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald. Bryant seems to have matured from his early days and makes Romo that much better a passer in this league.

Austin (943 receiving yards, 6 TD) battled with injury from time to time and can still run with the best of them The thick-thighed Austin may have taken a back seat to Bryant, but is still dangerous. Rookie Terrance Williams should be honored to learn from both Bryant and Austin.

GRADE: A-

TE: One of the best tight ends in the NFL, Witten has been a thorn in opponents' side since 2003 and has played in every game the last nine years.

He missed one game during his rookie campaign and the durable Witten caught a career-high 110 passes last season. Witten (1,039 receiving yards, 3 TD) could get into the end zone more and understands that his role is to block as well. Witten never caught more than 94 passes in a season before and will most likely have a bust in Canton, Ohio down the road. Witten may be getting older and that shouldn't stop him from being Romo's favorite target. Gavin Escobar was drafted in April and it wouldn't be a surprise if he lines up opposite of Witten.

GRADE: B

OL: Romo has been treated like a rag doll the last few seasons, getting sacked 36 times in each of the previous two campaigns. In his last three full seasons, Romo has been sacked 106 times.

That cannot happen anymore, especially if $55 million is guaranteed. The Cowboys drafted center Travis Frederick in April and are hoping he will learn enough to start by Week 1. Doug Free and Tyron Smith will start at right and left tackle, respectively, with left guard Nate Livings and right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau expected to anchor the rest of the front. No matter who's up front, protecting Romo and making holes for Murray is imperative. Free did a horrible job of that last season and it wouldn't be a shock to see him get pushed for a younger prospect.

GRADE: C-

DL: There's no debate that Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware is the most dangerous player on that side of the ball. Offenses must keep an eye out for the freak of nature that is Ware, who has registered at least 11 sacks in each of the past seven years. Ware (56 tackles, 11 1/2 sacks) has never missed a game in his career and should be slighted somewhat he hasn't had the opportunity to play deep into the playoffs.

With Kiffin running the new 4-3 defense and Rod Marinelli guiding the defensive line, Ware could be eyeing another 20-sack seasons, something he achieved in 2008 and came close to in 2011 (19 1/2).

The Cowboys should send the Eagles a gift every year for making a draft-day trade back in 2007 for DE Anthony Spencer (95 tackles, 11 sacks). Spencer enjoyed a career year in 2012 and even missed two games. DE Tyrone Crawford is done with an Achilles tear.

Arguably one of the top interior linemen in the game is Jay Ratliff. Ratliff was limited to just six games last season and NFC East opponents were happy for that. Ratliff is back and ready to prove his durability once again. Jason Hatcher (51 tackles, 4 sacks) will start alongside Ratliff.

GRADE: B

LB: There shouldn't be much of a problem for the linebackers in the switch to a 4-3 defense. Tackling and reading formations will always require the same technique regardless of what formation the defense is in. Middle linebacker Sean Lee (58 tackles) was limited to six games in 2012 because of a toe issue and the tough kid out of Penn State has something to prove this season. Lee could be a Pro Bowl selection if his body allows it and is one of the smartest on the defense.

Bruce Carter (70 tackles) played well in his second season in 2012 and expectations are high for the 2011 draft pick. Carter has great speed and size as an OLB and an ankle injury on Thanksgiving ended his season.

Newcomer Justin Durant (103 tackles, half sack) came over in the offseason after two years in Detroit. DeVonte Holloman was drafted in April and veteran Ernie Sims is an admirable backup.

GRADE: B-

DB: The Cowboys allowed 230.2 passing yards per game last season, which was 19th in the NFL. That is an area of concern when Dallas plays in the NFC and within a division with the Giants, Redskins and Eagles. Eli Manning and Robert Griffin III like to air it out and both quarterbacks have their own set of weapons that Cowboys corners Brandon Carr (53 tackles, 3 INT) and Morris Claiborne (55 tackles, INT) have to deal with.

Claiborne showed flashes of brilliance and rookie mistakes in 2012, but with another offseason and training camp under his books it should be a bit smoother. B.W. Webb was drafted in April out of William & Mary and provides added depth. Barry Church (6 tackles) appeared in only three games last season because of a torn Achilles and should be ready to roll by Week 1.

Veteran strong safety Will Allen (34 tackles) came over from Pittsburgh to help Kiffin's suspect secondary. Rookie J.J. Wilcox has some learning to do and Matt Johnson provides insurance.

GRADE: C

SPECIAL TEAMS: Dwayne Harris will handle both kickoff and punt return duties for the Cowboys and he averaged 19.1 yards on 11 kickoff returns in 2012. He shared time with Felix Jones, who is with Philadelphia, and Lance Dunbar, a backup to Murray. It is very important for Harris to provide Romo with decent field position and he also posted an average of 16.1 yards on 22 punt returns.

Dan Bailey is Dallas' go-to guy foe kicks and he made 29-of-31 attempts last season, including all 37 of his PAT attempts. He was money from 30-39 yards, banging home all 13 tries. With Brian Moorman with the Steelers, it will be punter Chris Jones hoping to pin opposing offenses deep in their own territory. Jones had 12 punts over four games last season, averaging 45.3 ypp.

GRADE: C+

COACHING: There's a lot riding on Garrett this season even if he shirked some of his workload onto Callahan. Callahan had a decent offense with the Oakland Raiders years ago and gets to work with Romo and a bevy of talented pass catchers. Whether Garrett has the final say remains to be seen.

"I don't like to use the word veto, but you always have that as a head coach," Garrett said. "It's just important that you have a healthy respect for each other and a trust in each other and the communication is always really healthy, and those lines are always open going back and forth."

Kiffin, of course, is not stranger to the NFL and even though he doesn't have the likes of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks or John Lynch, coaching Ware, Spencer, Lee and Durant should be fun. The main issue for Kiffin is the secondary.

GRADE: C+

THE SKINNY: The 2009 season was a special one for Romo since that was the year he won his first and only playoff game. Can the 'Boys get back to double-digit wins and make a push in the competitive NFC?

It's going to be very tough to keep Jones pleased and he has to deal with the likes of the Giants, Packers, Redskins, Falcons, 49ers, Bears, Lions, Vikings, Seahawks, Saints.

Where do the Cowboys fit in that clustered conference?

There's only one way to find out and it's by winning. It will be a pressure cooker this season for sure for the hyped-up Cowboys and many could lose their job if goals aren't reached.

08/17 09:31:48 ET

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