The 2013 season will be a pivotal one for the Dallas Cowboys as they try and rebound from consecutive 8-8 seasons.
One of the keys for improvement on any team is that team's ability to have successful offseasons. But each offseason has a complexion all its own.
For the Cowboys, this offseason wasn't filled with the usual splash in free agency, as Jerry Jones didn't show up at free agent's doorstep to whisk him away on the owner's plane. The Cowboys spent the majority of the time sorting out their salary-cap situation and making minor moves.
So with the draft, OTAs, veteran minicamp and a more favorable salary cap both behind and in front of them, the Cowboys inch closer to Oxnard, Ca., where training camp will commence in a few weeks. Position battles, competition, a new defensive scheme and new wrinkles in the offense will be rolled out.
But while we wait for that to begin, where does this team stand right now? Did the Cowboys improve themselves enough for success in 2013?
Valid questions that only time will tell.
The good news is that we are closer to getting those answers, but for now let's assess the early winners and losers of this offseason for Dallas.
Bill Callahan has clearly emerged as a winner this offseason by being named the play-caller of this offense. It's not to say that he is more innovative or more capable than Jason Garrett, but I feel this is a significant move for this team on many levels.
Many will debate whether this was Garrett's doing or a direct order from Jerry Jones. Based on how the last two seasons ended, the Cowboys inability to start off games better and the offense's overall inconsistency, one would think this was the move Jones wanted.
So then would it be a trust issue between coach and owner? Is Jones simply taking control away from Garrett? Or is he looking out for the best interests of his coach to make him more efficient?
The bottom line is that Callahan is a veteran coach who has been around the NFL a long time. He took the Oakland Raiders team to the Super Bowl, and for the Cowboys, this is a big plus. Let's not minimize what Callahan can bring to this offense while allowing Garrett to grow as a head coach.
Garrett didn't lose because he named Callahan the signal-caller, he lost because of the way it was handled. Some will blame Jerry Jones for, yet again, wanting to undermine his coach and wanting the spotlight.
Call it whatever you want, but Jones hinted at Callahan taking over at the Senior Bowl. This could've been handled very early in the process without the need for being cryptic. Jones mentioned it again; Garrett was non-committal and then cleared the air.
It was a weird situation, and ultimately, it may not even matter who calls the plays for this team.
But when you finish 8-8 in Dallas, everything matters.
When the Cowboys pursued Leary at the conclusion of the 2012 draft, it came with a hefty price tag for an undrafted player. What made the move even more interesting was Leary's apparent knee condition and the question marks that come with that.
So while the 2012 season didn't really give us a proper look at Leary's ability, expect 2013 to be different. Leary has emerged as a bona fide starting candidate at the guard position for a few reasons: Mackenzy Bernadeau is recovering from surgery and Nate Livings has dealt with a nagging knee issue.
This means Leary is the man on the spot and he is in prime position to solidify a starting role. Training camp will determine a lot of things, and Leary's future will be one of them.
You really can't fault Tony Romo for taking care of a medical issue, but what he loses is valuable time with younger skill-position players like James Hanna, Gavin Escobar, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley. Romo is a veteran who will make up for the time missed, but chemistry takes time and he can't get that back.
The Cowboys commitment to using multiple tight end formations and their commitment to addressing the offense in the draft present Romo with some new weapons, new dimensions and plenty of work to do.
It's time to get started and mold this offense into a winner, and that starts with Romo.
The tight end position in the NFL has been revolutionized in recent years, so this is an opportunistic time for the young tight ends on the Cowboys roster.
Both James Hanna and Gavin Escobar have a chance to emerge as valuable weapons with big roles this season.
The Cowboys have tried a similar experiment with Anthony Fasano and Martellus Bennett, but were unsuccessful. Will the trio of Jason Witten, Hanna and Escobar be successful? When you think about what this trio could mean for Dallas' offense between the hashes, up the seam and in the red-zone, the possibilities do provide a reason for excitement.
Adding this dimension to the offense will keep Witten fresh. It will also cause matchup problems for opposing defenses, and it will open up big plays in the running and passing games. Hanna can use his speed and athleticism to his advantage, and Escobar's hands are getting quite the reputation.
Will the Cowboys make this part of their offense happen in 2013? I like their chances.
Austin's hamstrings haven't been the issue this offseason, but his history and propensity for injuring them have forced the Cowboys to give him random days off during the OTA and minicamp sessions.
So is this then cause for future concern?
The fear of injury will always be there with Austin, but in my estimation, this just continues to open the door for Dwayne Harris and Terrance Williams to solidify their futures and put Austin's in doubt.
Veterans are usually entitled to days off during this portion of the offseason, but doesn't it make you wonder if he already is dealing with something? Putting that working theory aside, the Cowboys offense needs Austin, and he is still a a very dangerous player.
And you can never have enough weapons.
I'm quite sure many fans and analysts are still wondering what the Cowboys did in trading down with the San Francisco 49ers to select Frederick. But let's give him some credit for coming in, blocking out the distractions and playing some good football.
All indications are that Frederick is on track to start, and that should come as no surprise. Anything less than him starting at center would be grounds for a revolt in Dallas, especially when a multitude of prospects at positions of need were on the board back in late April.
Frederick will have to prove himself in live-game action, and that's a given, but I'm starting to get a more positive feel for what he can add to this offensive line, and more specifically, the center position.
Nobody can ever question Jerry Jones and his family's passion for the Dallas Cowboys. I also think at this point in time the arguments surrounding his status at the team's general manager is a complete waste of time. He is never giving up the role, and he will always have the final say.
That's just reality folks.
But as of right now, there are still a lot of questions to be answered regarding this team and the decisions that were made this offseason. Given where this team started out with their cap situation and the its inability to add more pieces beyond Will Allen and Justin Durant...this all falls on Jones.
The Cowboys still need depth at defensive line, linebacker and offensive line, to name a few positions. At other areas like safety, the Cowboys are simply hoping for a few current players to emerge. The decision to spend a number of early draft picks on offense still left depth issues at these same spots.
The Cowboys will be switching to a new scheme defensively, and the concern is whether they have enough pressure players to fully implement this attacking style of defense.
With the likes of Kyle Wilber providing depth and other players making position changes, you have to wonder whether the Cowboys are properly assessing personnel needs. After all, there are still some unfilled holes ad management could've taken alternate routes in the draft.
The cement isn't dry on this roster by any means so expect change to occur.