After being stripped of his play-calling duties, after back-to-back disappointing seasons which ended by losing the de facto NFC East Championship games each year, Jason Garrett could be seeing his last season as the Dallas Cowboys' head coach if they have another down season.
Garrett, of course, stepped in as head coach midway through the 2010 NFL season after Wade Phillips was fired, and he went 5-3 in those eight games. He has been mediocre since, going 8-8 in 2011 and 2012. It’s safe to say that his seat is pretty hot heading into 2013. Another 8-8 season probably spells the end for Garrett, who lost his play-calling duties to Bill Callahan, a move made by Jerry Jones himself.
And considering the roster, it could be an up-and-down season for the Boys—not what Garrett would like to hear in what is a make-or-break season for him.
As always, things start with the quarterback, and for Dallas, it's now $119.5 million Tony Romo (though his deal is likely to be restructured within the next two years).
We all know the story: one playoff win in eight seasons as the starter and his historic collapses in December. But he did have a career year in 2012, passing for almost 5,000 yards but also throwing 19 interceptions, including the painful one near the end of the Washington Redskins game that basically knocked the Cowboys out of the playoffs.
Let's see if Romo can shake off his critics and wind up being worth all the money he was given at age 33.
Dallas is hoping DeMarco Murray can get past his injuries. If healthy, Murray is a strong running back, as he has averaged 4.8 yards per carry in two seasons. However, he has also missed nine games in those seasons due to injury.
And there's no more Felix Jones; he's now in Philadelphia. The main backups are Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle should Murray go down yet again. It's the classic big risk, big reward with Murray.
Once again, the Cowboys will field one of the top wide receiver duos in Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. Bryant looks like he is finally seeing his potential, as he went on a tear in the second half of 2012, finishing with 1,382 yards on 92 catches with 12 touchdowns. This could be Bryant's breakout party, and he very well could lead the league in receiving yards.
Miles Austin rebounded nicely from an injury-plagued 2011 season by playing in all 16 games and finishing with 943 yards and six touchdown grabs. With Bill Callahan calling the shots, will Austin get back over the 1,000-yard mark?
As for the No. 3 spot, look for guys such as Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley, Danny Coale and rookie Terrance Williams to get a chance at the role.
Tight end is pretty easy for Dallas. It's Ol' Reliable, Jason Witten. He hasn't missed a game since his rookie year in 2003 and has started all 16 games each of the last six seasons. For the first time in his career in 2012, he caught over 100 passes (110). The problem is that he's caught five or fewer touchdown passes four of the last five seasons (nine in 2010).
But, as always, when Romo is in trouble, No. 82 is always there to save him.
After him, you have James Hanna and second-round pick Gavin Escobar of San Diego State. Escobar could be a solid pass-catching No. 2 and is possibly the tight end of the future. For now, he'll likely rotate with Hanna in 2-TE sets.
The one weak link for Dallas' offense is the offensive line. They drafted Travis Frederick in the first round, who can swing between center and guard. He will challenge Phil Costa at center. Tyron Smith struggled at times at left tackle, but right tackle could be the worrisome spot, especially if Doug Free gets the nod.
Free seemed undisciplined at times and had to take a pay cut this offseason. Now, he'll try to fend off Jermey Parnell. Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau should be the early favorites at guard.
Rob Ryan is gone and so is the 3-4 in Dallas. This means DeMarcus Ware shifts from a 3-4 outside linebacker to a 4-3 defensive end with Anthony Spencer on the other end. Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher will man the defensive tackle positions.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys do not have much depth on the defensive line, and the situation was aggravated once Tyrone Crawford went down with a torn Achilles. Kyle Wilber, last year's fourth-round pick, will likely see more snaps as a result. And with Ratliff's possible breakdown, teams may be able to run effectively against this front four.
Behind the line, however, lie three solid players, especially Sean Lee at middle linebacker. Before going down with a toe injury, Lee was having a career year, and that was as a 3-4 middle linebacker. Now, he is essentially the quarterback of this defense as the 4-3 MIKE. He will be flanked by Bruce Carter and Justin Durant, whom they signed from Detroit in free agency. Durant is a good tackler coming off an 80-plus tackle season in 2012. He will likely man the weak side.
The defensive backfield for the Cowboys will be a grab bag of sorts. You have two strong cornerbacks in Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, but the safeties are question marks. Barry Church and Will Allen are penciled in as the starting safeties. Church is coming off a torn Achilles and Allen has been bouncing around the league lately.
This could be worrisome for the Cowboys.
They did draft JJ Wilcox in April, but he is still a year or so away from contributing.
As for special teams, Chris Jones will punt and Dan Bailey will kick. Dwayne Harris and Lance Dunbar will handle punts and kicks, respectively.
The Cowboys open the season on Sunday night against the Giants before visiting Andy Reid and the Chiefs in Week 2. They also have Sunday night games Week 6 vs. Washington and Week 10 at New Orleans, plus a Monday night game Week 14 at Chicago. Oakland comes to town on Thanksgiving. As for the dreaded December schedule, after Chicago it's home against Green Bay in Week 15, at Washington Week 16 and home against Philadelphia Week 17.
It's yet another gauntlet at the end, which will likely decide whether Dallas crashes the playoff party or is sent home early again. And if they do miss the playoffs, Garrett will have coached his final game in Dallas.