COMMENTARY | On Sunday, July 31 the Dallas Cowboys will report to training camp and officially start the 2013 football season. There are multiple questions facing this team as they attempt to improve on their 8-8 record from 2012 and qualify for the playoffs.
The Cowboys have not made the playoffs since the 2009 season. Frustrated with the team's inability to compete for championships, owner Jerry Jones made wholesale changes during the offseason.
Jones fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and scrapped the 3-4 defense the Cowboys have run for the past eight years. He hired Monte Kiffin to convert Dallas to the 4-3 scheme and install his "Tampa-2" defense.
Quarterback Tony Romo was signed to a long-term contract, and Jason Garrett was stripped of his play-calling duties in favor of Bill Callahan. They released the only fullback on the roster and have indicated through their draft that they will run more 12-personnel in 2013.
No one knows whether these changes will be effective until the early evening on December 29, 2013. The Cowboys will finish the regular season on that date, and will find out whether they have done enough to qualify for the playoffs or not. Right now, this team faces multiple questions as they enter training camp.
Will The Offensive Line Improve?
The 2012 version of the Cowboys offensive line was very poor. The 'Boys only averaged 3.6 yards per carry and rushed for eight total touchdowns on the season.
Their miniscule running game put an unfair burden on quarterback Tony Romo to win the game by himself. Too often the Cowboys only chance at winning relied on Romo leading a game-winning drive during the last possession of the game.
The Cowboys failed to address their issues on the offensive line in the draft. They used their first round pick on Wisconsin center Jason Frederick, but did not select any other offensive linemen.
If Frederick earns the starting spot at center, then he will help improve a glaring weakness on the interior of the line. The problem is that other than left tackle Tyron Smith, none of the other offensive linemen stand out as potential difference makers.
Right now the offensive line appears to be a major issue. The problem was not addressed during the offseason like it should have been.
How Will Ware Adjust To His New Position?
With the move to the 4-3 defense, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware will be asked to put his hand on the ground on every play and change positions to defensive end. Ware is the best pass-rusher of his generation and this move will line him up closer to the quarterback.
Ware will still be playing in a 5-technique off the left shoulder of the left tackle. It should not be that much of an adjustment because Ware is already excellent against the run.
The logical question is why are you asking a first-ballot Hall of Famer to change positions? No one ever asked Lawrence Taylor to play defensive end.
Maybe the hire of Kiffin will prove to be a brilliant move and the defense will force a lot of turnovers in 2013. However, you have to question the wisdom of asking one of the best defensive players in the league to switch positions.
Will The Addition Of Joseph Randle Help Demarco Murray Stay Healthy?
Demarco Murray is a very good NFL running back. The problem with Murray is that he cannot seem to stay healthy.
Murray has missed nine games due to injury during the past two seasons. When he is healthy the Cowboys have an effective running game. When he is out the running game disappears.
To help address this issue the Cowboys selected Joseph Randle out of Oklahoma State in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. Randle rushed for 2,633 yards during his sophomore and junior seasons in college. His running style is very similar to Murray's.
If Randle proves capable, he could see 10-15 carries per game. That would lessen the wear and tear on Murray and increase the chances of him playing in all 16 regular season games.
If Murray is healthy for every game of the regular season then the odds of the Cowboys making the playoffs increase exponentially.
How Will The Offense Perform In 12-Personnel?
The Cowboys recently released fullback Lawrence Vickers. He was the only fullback on the roster so now the Cowboys have none.
The offense is moving towards 12-personnel which means that there is going to be one back in the backfield and along with two tight ends on the line. This is an interesting move for a team that struggled so much to run the ball in 2012.
Without a fullback, the offense is going to lose an extra blocker at the point of attack. However, the extra tight end will give the offensive line more help blocking on the edge.
With the selection of Gavin Escobar in the second round of the 2013 draft, Dallas indicated their commitment to the two-tight end formation. Escobar is known for his ability to catch the ball.
In Escobar, Jason Witten and James Hanna the Cowboys have three tight ends who should be weapons in the passing game for Tony Romo. All three of the tight ends should be matchup nightmares for opposing linebackers and safeties.
The issue is that only Witten is known as a good blocker. Both Hanna and Escobar were basically used as big receivers in college, and neither were asked to block much.
In the Cowboys' new offensive scheme, they are both going to be asked to block a lot. If they cannot block effectively then the offense will struggle. Only time will tell whether Hanna and Escobar can get the job done in sealing the edge in the running game.
Can Sean Lee Cover The Deep Middle?
The Cowboys are installing Kiffen's Tampa-2 defense. What differentiates the Tampa-2 from the typical cover-2 defense is the role of the middle linebacker.
In the Cover-2 you have two safeties playing deep and covering one-half of the field each. In the Tampa-2 the middle linebacker bails at the snap and drops into the middle-deep zone between the safeties. In the Tampa-2 you have the two safeties and the middle linebacker splitting the field into thirds.
When Kiffen was the defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they won the Super Bowl with Derrick Brooks playing middle linebacker. When you have a Hall of Fame caliber linebacker with 4.4 speed he can be effective in deep coverage.
The questions is whether Cowboys' middle linebacker Sean Lee can be as effective in this scheme?Through the first three years of his career Lee has been very good in pass coverage.
He has recorded seven career interceptions in three years. Lee is one of the better young linebackers in the league when he is on the field. Unfortunately, Lee has missed 11 games over the past two seasons due to injuries.
If Kiffen's defense is going to work in Dallas then Lee is going to be the player that makes it work. He has to be able to cover the deep-middle zone in the secondary.
Everything that Lee has done on the field so far indicates that he will be successful in his new role. If he can be effective then the Cowboys defense will be much better than they were in 2012.
Michael Taglienti lives in Dallas, and has been covering all levels of football for five years. His articles have been featured on CNN and numerous other websites.
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