Season preview: 2011 Cowboys

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Offense: Coordinator Jason Garrett is the full-time head coach for the Cowboys, so nothing really changes here as far as the scheme. But productivity? You bet it could, largely because of an inexperienced offensive line. The right tackle is new. The left guard is new. Kyle Kosier moved to right guard. Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode is gone. Bottom line: Four positions are changed, with two rookies and one second-year pro starters. All are the last line of defense for quarterback Tony Romo, who returns after a season-ending injury, and their play could determine his. Romo lost Roy Williams as a wide receiver and Marion Barber at running back, but so what? He has wide receiver Dez Bryant and running back Felix Jones -- with Bryant the wild card. He has a ton of talent; just not a ton of common sense. Plus, he still hasn't learned how to run routes properly. I don't worry about Jones. Keep him healthy, and he should have a big season.

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Defense: These guys stunk last season, surrendering more points (436) than anyone in the NFC -- including one three-week depression where they hemorrhaged 121. Enter Rob Ryan, defensive coordinator, and his first job is to lock down a pass defense that kept springing leaks. Look for Ryan to gamble, attack the pocket from all directions and squeeze the quarterback -- because he must. The Cowboys get no pressure from their base front, which means there's no pass rush if Ryan doesn't resort to the blitz. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But anything is better than what Dallas had last season. Sean Lee will press Keith Brooking at inside linebacker, while cornerback Orlando Scandrick could start over Terence Newman, who continues to be bothered by a groin injury. Change is good, especially when it comes to this unit.

Coaching and schemes: Garrett did so well as the interim coach (5-3) he was named the team's permanent head coach. Dallas was a different club under his direction, barely losing to New Orleans and Philadelphia, while beating the Giants, Indianapolis and, yes, the Eagles. His offensive line is young and inexperienced, but it's also more athletic -- allowing the Cowboys more opportunities to run screen packages. The biggest change will be on defense where Ryan's approach will center around surprise, risk and, hopefully, big plays.

Outlook: The Giants are falling apart, which means there's room to move forward. The question is: Do the Cowboys have the players to do it? They have enough playmakers on offense to back off opponents, but what I question is whether their offensive line can protect Romo and their defense can survive. This is a work in progress, and it may take Garrett another season to get the club back on track. Second is not out of the question; the playoffs almost surely are.

Predicted finish: 8-8, third in NFC East.

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