The march toward to the 2012 season begins in earnest Wednesday when the Dallas Cowboys welcome rookies and selected veterans to the team's Valley Ranch training complex for the start of training camp.
The three-day abbreviated session is a precursor to the full camp, which begins July 29 in Oxnard, Calif.
Owner Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett have done a solid job overhauling the roster via free agency and the draft after last season's disappointing 8-8 campaign. But there are several issues that need to be cleared up over the next month before the Cowboys can declare themselves ready for the Sept. 5 season opener at the New York Giants:
Dez Bryant has jumped to issue No. 1 for the Cowboys at training camp. A quiet and productive off-season came to an ugly end last week when he was arrested on charges that he assaulted his mother. How will this case and the unwanted attention affect Bryant's focus in camp? Will there be court proceedings that take him away from the team? And when will the Cowboys get him some type of anger management counseling to help harness his sometimes volatile emotions, which have gotten the best of him on and off the field?
Mike Jenkins has been replaced as No. 1 potential distraction. But the issue has not gone away, and the Cowboys need to find a way to come to a peaceful resolution with Jenkins, who is unhappy with his role and has asked to be traded. The Cowboys did right by the team when they signed free agent Brandon Carr and drafted LSU standout Morris Claiborne. Finding a way to keep Jenkins in the fold is best for the team, considering that you can never have too many cornerbacks in what has become a pass-happy NFC East.
3Rob Ryan's defense
The learning process for the Cowboys' defense continues as it continues to try to master Rob Ryan's system. It was a huge problem last year because of the lockout. The Cowboys had communication issues, confusion and assignment breakdowns from the start to the end. Ryan began reteaching the defense at a slower pace in the off-season. He will continue the process in training camp so his defenders can play fast and react rather than have to think before attacking. The Cowboys noticed a difference in OTAs and minicamp. Ryan didn't promise the Cowboys a good defense. He promised a great one. The groundwork for that will be laid in training camp.
4Inside linebacker job
Bruce Carter is the heir apparent to the starting inside linebacker job opposite Sean Lee. The Cowboys made no attempt to re-sign veterans Bradie James and Keith Brooking, which was surprising since Carter, a second-round pick in 2011, missed all of camp and the first six games as a rookie because of a college knee injury. But the Cowboys have always been high on Carter, calling him a first-round talent who fell to the second round. They hope he can
make a second-year jump as Lee did. Getting Carter ready will be a primary focus of camp, despite the presence
of veteran Dan Connor as insurance.
5DeMarco Murray's health
Running back DeMarco Murray's ongoing development is key to an improved running game, which produced a paltry five touchdowns last year. He gave the Cowboys a glimpse of things to come in 2011, rushing for 897 yards and averaging 5.5 yards per carry in an abbreviated rookie season that he began as a third-stringer and ended with him on injured reserve. In between he showed that he could be considered the team's most complete back since the days of Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith. Murray is healed from a fractured ankle that ended his rookie year. He will have a full camp for the first time. At least 1,200 yards and double-digit touchdowns are legitimate goals for Murray. It all starts in camp -- a healthy camp.
Clarence E. Hill Jr., 817-390-7760