The Dallas Cowboys have not been to the postseason in the past three seasons and will spend all training camp looking to change that fact. It's a long way from now until January, however. The Cowboys will need to answer several questions along the way if they want to punch their playoff ticket.
Starting in training camp, Dallas has some holes to fix and players who need to step up. Let's take a look at all of the burning questions facing America's Team going into the 2013 NFL season.
The Cowboys made waves early this offseason by firing defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in favor of longtime coordinator Monte Kiffin. The architect of the Tampa 2 defense has spent the past three football seasons on the college level with both Tennessee and USC.
The Kiffin hire likely helped former Chicago defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli join his former mentor in Dallas. Marinelli will serve as the Cowboys' defensive line coach, working with the likes of Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.
Luckily for the new defensive coaches, Ware and Spencer both played in a 4-3 system during their college years at Troy and Purdue, respectively. The defensive line shouldn't have a difficult transition with Marinelli coaching and the familiarity some players have with the system.
The challenge for Kiffin and company will come in the secondary. Second-year Cowboys Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne will need to forget everything Ryan taught them last year.
If Kiffin can coach up this defense and make it formidable once again, Dallas will not be forced to rely as heavily on its offense as it has the past few years.
The more challenging job facing the defensive coaches is deciding which two safeties will start next season. Eric Frampton and Will Allen have the most NFL experience of the bunch, but Barry Church, Danny McCray and Matt Johnson are also in the mix.
The fun part for fans who travel to training camp is the fact that this competition is wide open.
Frampton was kept on after being signed during the 2012 season. Allen was brought in this offseason. Church and Johnson are returning from 2012 injuries.
McCray filled in last season but will need to prove himself more during camp to lock up a starting job. Then there's J.J. Wilcox, who was Dallas' second third-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Dallas has struggled in the secondary in recent years. The team was 31st in the league in interceptions last year and tied for 26th in the same category in 2011. The safeties are only two parts to the secondary but are vital nonetheless.
Only time will tell which two of the aforementioned players rise to the top of the depth charts.
The Cowboys have been plagued by mediocre play on the offensive line for several seasons and cannot allow that to continue.
Offensive line troubles are nothing new for Dallas, but it needs to become a thing of the past if this team wants to contend for a playoff bid.
The team will look to 2013 first-round pick Travis Frederick to take over at center and put an end to poor pass protection and bad snaps, two things Phil Costa could not do in the same role.
Third-year tackle Tyron Smith is the other young member of the offensive line. He will try to continue to protect Romo's left side.
Guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau are both entering their second year in Dallas. Romo will be hoping another year under both guards' belts will increase his chances of staying upright.
The Cowboys cannot afford another season of Romo having to roll out of the pocket every other play in order to avoid a sack. If that recent trend doesn't come to a halt, it will be hard to put together a dominant offense.
DeMarco Murray burst onto the NFL scene in his rookie year, recording 897 yards despite starting just seven games. Of course, 253 of those 897 yards were earned in a single game against the St. Louis Rams, a single-game record for a Dallas rusher.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, Murray's rookie season was cut short due to injury. Murray also went down due to injury last season after rushing for 663 yards in 10 games.
The Cowboys have not had a dominant running back in the backfield for some time, and Murray could change that. If he can stay healthy, then the offense wouldn't have to be so reliant on the passing game and could grind out yards once in a while.
The Oklahoma product told Brandon George of The Dallas Morning News back in June that his recovery from his ankle injury is going well, saying "I definitely feel like I’m back to where I need to be."
With Murray, it's obvious the talent is there when watching his two (shortened) seasons in the NFL. There's nothing the coaching staff can do to help this issue, but Murray simply needs to stay healthy and off the injury report in 2013.
Fullback Lawrence Vickers has officially been cut by the Dallas Cowboys. His release will save the team $1.2 million, but it also leaves Dallas without a fullback.
The Cowboys chose to draft Gavin Escobar to add to the tight end depth chart. The Cowboys now have the rookie, Dante Rosario, James Hanna and Jason Witten on the tight end depth chart.
Whether players such as Rosario and Hanna stay with the team will be determined in training camp. That being said, the Cowboys could've cut Vickers to make room for another tight end.
Dallas seems to be leaning toward heading into the 2013 season without a fullback at least for now. How the team performs without one in the preseason will likely determine the coaches' decision to keep this stance toward the position.
Dallas announced earlier this offseason that offensive coordinator Bill Callahan will call the offense next season. This upcoming season will mark the first time since 2007 that head coach Jason Garrett hasn't been calling the offensive plays for the team.
Callahan is no stranger to his new job, as he served as offensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders from 1998-2001. He served as offensive line coach for the Cowboys last year and is entering just his second season in Big D.
Despite relinquishing a duty that was once his, Garrett publicly agreed with the move. Back in June, he told ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer:
[Callahan] was our run-game coordinator last year and getting more and more comfortable with our entire offense over the last couple of years. He's someone we believe is capable of doing it and doing a really good job for us.
Despite the struggles to make the playoffs in recent years, the Cowboys have boasted one of the NFL's top 10 passing offenses in six of the past seven seasons.
Of course, passing isn't the only aspect of an offense, and Callahan will need to work on mixing both passing and running into his play-calling.
If Callahan can bring a more balanced offensive approach to the Cowboys' offense, the team would have an easier time winning football games.
According to ESPN Dallas' Calvin Watkins, talks between Anthony Spencer and the Cowboys about an extension have cooled for now.
For the second straight season, Spencer was handed the almighty franchise tag and has yet to get the long-term deal he's been seeking. The Cowboys continue to struggle to find a way to lock up their 2007 first-round pick who tallied a career-high 11 sacks last season.
Dallas has been strapped with salary cap woes since being smacked with the fine for its actions during the 2010 uncapped season. The team also just recently awarded Tony Romo a six-year, $108 million contract extension.
Spencer will need to continue to make his case to the Cowboys' brass about a new deal through discussions and his play on the field in 2013. He would be a difficult player for the team to lose if No. 93 continues to build upon his 2012 season.
For now, Spencer will be a free agent after this year, and only time will tell if that changes before the end of next season.
The Washington Redskins swept archrival Dallas last year and won the NFC East by defeating the Cowboys in the regular-season finale. Between then-rookies Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III, the 'Skins scored a combined 66 points on Dallas last year.
As defending NFC East champions, the Redskins are the team the Cowboys will need to prove themselves against the most this year. With Washington boasting the No. 1 rushing attack and No. 5 run defense last year, it will be formidable to say the least.
The Cowboys will need to find a way to stop Griffin III, who ran a combined 13 times on them last year while boasting more than 400 passing yards in the two games. Washington's offense is run through its quarterback, so RG3 is priority No. 1 for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
On offense, Dallas will have to stay with the running game even if the Redskins defense is just as stingy as it was in 2012. Relying solely on the passing attack didn't work for Big D last year. Tony Romo threw 89 passes against the Redskins over the course of the two games.
Jason Garrett will be entering his third full season as the head coach in Dallas, and the team has yet to make the postseason under him. Given the high-profile atmosphere that surrounds the Cowboys, it's not crazy to wonder if this could be Garrett's last year in Dallas.
NFL.com's Elliot Harrison recently wrote that Garrett is indeed on the hot seat. He mentioned that working for a controlling owner like Jerry Jones means Garrett has a steep hill to climb.
During his time as an assistant coach in Dallas, the former quarterback saw interest from multiple teams about becoming a head coach. Garrett stayed with the Cowboys, and while there is very little loyalty in the NFL, that says something about him.
Garrett wants to win in Dallas, and if he can coach this team to the playoffs in 2013, he should be able to keep his job. If the Cowboys fail to do anything more than disappoint after two straight 8-8 seasons though, Jones might not show Garrett the same loyalty.
The biggest question asked around the Dallas area each year from September to December is whether or not the Cowboys can make the postseason.
Being in the NFC East always makes things difficult playoff-wise for each team. Philadelphia is going in a new direction with new head coach Chip Kelly. The Redskins are the defending NFC East champs, and New York has won two Super Bowls since 2007.
It's never easy in the NFC East, but the Cowboys are far from owning a terrible roster when looking at it on paper. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving last year.
Sean Lee and Bruce Carter took strides toward becoming a formidable linebacker duo during their injury-shortened 2012 seasons. Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray could very well lead a balanced Dallas offense to big numbers this year.
There is plenty to like on paper in Dallas, but the team will need to make the most of its talent on the field to make the playoffs. Until the season gets going, there's no real way to tell if Dallas will make it, but the playoffs appear to be an attainable goal on paper.