The wait is almost over. Football is almost back. * The Cowboys open training camp Friday when their charter arrives in California. Their first practice is a week from Sunday, and their first preseason game two weeks after that. * Time to lace up the cleats and snap on the chin strap.
1 Change in defense
The Cowboys allowed the most yards in team history last year as they ended the season without five starters and two key reserves. Dallas let Rob Ryan go, replacing him with Monte Kiffin, the team’s fifth defensive coordinator since the beginning of the 2007 season. He is switching Dallas back to a 4-3, the scheme the franchise has used for most of its history. Kiffin, 73, and Tony Dungy made the Tampa-2 defense famous with the Buccaneers, and Kiffin hopes for similar success in Dallas.
DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer have moved from linebacker to defensive end. Jay Ratliff becomes the 3-technique tackle, and Jason Hatcher moves from defensive end to the 1-technique inside. Bruce Carter transitions to weakside linebacker, and Sean Lee patrols the middle. But many of the key defenders, including Ware, missed much of the team work while rehabbing during the team’s off-season workouts.
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2 Romo’s return
Tony Romo missed all of the team’s organized team activities and the minicamp after having a cyst removed from his back in April. The Cowboys insist it was a minor procedure and that his absence was merely a precaution. But Romo, who has been throwing, will have all eyes on him the first practice.
The Cowboys have given Romo more money, a bigger role and more offensive weapons since last season.
Romo, 33, signed a six-year, $108 million contract extension March 29. With that, the Cowboys awarded him with more responsibility in the offense. They also assured a “Romo-friendly” offense by spending three high draft picks on offensive players. Now in his seventh full season as a starter, Romo seemingly has everything in place to win — and win now.
3 Playing-calling duties
For the first time since 2006, the Cowboys will have someone other than Jason Garrett calling the offensive plays. Garrett has handed over the duties to Bill Callahan, who is in his second season as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator.
Dallas finished sixth in total offense last season. It has never finished lower than 13th since Garrett took over as offensive coordinator, and the Cowboys have ranked as high as second (in 2009) with Garrett as the play-caller.
But Cowboys owner Jerry Jones suggested it was time for Garrett to become a “walk-around” head coach. So Callahan will call plays from the coaches’ booth this season, the first time he has called plays in an NFL game since 2003. Garrett, though, insists he will remain involved, and he maintains final say.
The Cowboys will work out the wrinkles during the preseason.
4 Frederick’s development
As mobile as Tony Romo is, he still was sacked 36 times last season. That’s two more sacks than the Cowboys’ defense had. And the Cowboys’ running game produced the fewest yards in team history for a 16-game season.
The Cowboys have to protect Romo better, and they have to run the ball better. To that end, they spent their first-round draft choice on center Travis Frederick. Frederick stepped in with the first team at center the day he walked in the door, moving ahead of veterans Phil Costa and Ryan Cook.
Frederick has endeared himself to the coaches with his work ethic, his intelligence and his confidence. But the Wisconsin product did not snap to Romo during the team’s off-season workouts. He also needs more reps in the shotgun, something he did little of in college.
5 Dez’s dominance
Receiver Dez Bryant was the Cowboys’ best player this off-season. He always has had athletic ability, but his focus, route running and knowledge of the playbook have improved greatly since he entered the league.
Bryant made headlines earlier this off-season by stating he is capable of a 2,500-yard season. That isn’t likely, but the Cowboys do expect big things from him this year after seeing him come into his own at the end of 2012.
Bryant had 50 receptions for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns in the second half of last season, scoring at least once in nine of the last 10 games. He realistically could break the team’s records for receiving yards in a season (1,603) and receiving touchdowns (15) in a season.