Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones
At the one-quarter mark of the 2013 NFL regular season, the Dallas Cowboys find themselves in essentially the same place they always have been under head coach Jason Garrett. The team has a record of .500 and is still searching for answers to numerous questions.
Now, these questions aren't simply a knee-jerk reaction to a Week 4 loss to the San Diego Chargers. The loss itself simply magnifies those questions.
Believe it or not, there is still a lot to like about the future of the Cowboys. The team is getting younger at some key places, and this fact will pay dividends down the road.
For right now, there is still an atmosphere of frustration that exists for reasons that are quite obvious. Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that the following questions were there before this season started—and a couple have been around for years.
These are the biggest and most urgent questions on an unofficial list that stands between the Cowboys and another playoff victory. I focus strictly on the roster here, as there's no point in continuing to complain about coaches and executives who clearly are in place for the long haul. I do not include the future status of defensive end Anthony Spencer because I believe that he is done in Dallas.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com
All contract data courtesy of Spotrac
Yes, DeMarco Murray is among the most talented running backs in the league when healthy.
He's capable of catching passes and also brings physicality to the position. The third-year veteran from Oklahoma is fast, a quality not often seen either because of limited opportunities or inconsistent run-blocking from his offensive line.
Murray has had his share of injuries dating back to his days with the Sooners, but so far this season he's been healthy and active as Dallas' starting running back. Murray has 356 yards on 72 carries this season for a solid average of 4.9 yards per carry.
The future at running back doesn't have to be answered now, but it's important to remember that the final year of Murray's four-year rookie contract is next season.
Given that 2013 fifth-round draft pick Joseph Randle has yet carry the football in any game this season, Dallas should probably think about learning sooner than later exactly what the former Oklahoma State runner means to this offense.
The Cowboys are undefeated when Murray touches the ball 20 times or more—he had 19 touches in the loss to the Chargers and just 17 in the loss to the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 2.
It's a different story in Dallas victories this year. Against the New York Giants in the season opener, Murray had 28 touches. Against St. Louis in Week 3 he had 29.
His value on the field isn't much of a question. But his value in terms of dollars and sense—not cents—is going to have to be figured out just a little ways down the road. Murray will turn 27 as he hits free agency for the first time, provided he doesn't get an extension prior.
It took pulling the teeth of owner and general manager Jerry Jones to renegotiate the modest rookie contract of the greatest running back in NFL history in 1993. Emmitt Smith had earned back-to-back NFL rushing titles and a victory in Super Bowl XXVII.
You tell me what this means for Murray.
Rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams
Dez Bryant is off to a Pro Bowl-caliber season thus far in 2013.
While his receiving yardage doesn't exactly suggest that he's headed for the 2,000-yard season that was discussed during the offseason, the fourth-year veteran is still on pace for a solid total of 1,128 yards receiving with 16 touchdowns.
Not bad—and I believe that Bryant will surpass projections in both receiving yards and touchdowns if he remains healthy this season.
But whom can Dallas count on to play the opposite side of Bryant week after week?
Based on money alone, it would seem that No. 2 wide receiver Miles Austin is going to be in Dallas for some time. However, with a history of injuries and occasional dropped passes, Austin's salary is becoming a real eyesore.
Austin is scheduled to earn a base salary of just $840,000 in 2013, but that base explodes to $5,500,000 next season. In 2016, Austin is scheduled to rake in $6,888,000, and that total is followed by an insane $11,380,000 in 2016.
Over his first seven seasons, Austin has played a 16-game schedule four times. There are just two 1,000-yard seasons in there. We already know that Austin will not make it a fifth season playing in each game this season after he missed Sunday's game in San Diego. We don't know when he'll be back, either.
Rookie receiver Terrance Williams has plenty of talent, but his level of readiness for the NFL is lacking, an issue that should pass in time. It would seem like he is the future opposite Bryant, possibly as early as next season.
However, rookie mistakes, including blown routes and fumbling the football, have to come to a stop sooner than later.
With Bryant likely looking for an extension after this season, if not before, Austin's salary makes no sense whatsoever. It wouldn't surprise me to see Dallas drafting another wide receiver in the 2014 NFL draft next April.
Right guard Brian Waters
It was believed that Dallas would invest at least one pick on an offensive guard during the 2013 NFL draft, a draft that was very well stocked at the position.
This was especially true given the failed free-agent signings of offensive guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau. The former has already been released, and the latter just lost his starting job to another offensive lineman, Brian Waters, who was recently semi-retired and not playing much football.
It's interesting that Jones would sacrifice a second-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft to move up for a cornerback with the sixth overall selection. That cornerback, Morris Claiborne, has a single interception after 19 regular-season games.
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin openly suggests that cornerback Orlando Scandrick deserves to start over the former LSU standout, according to Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News.
Perhaps it would have been better to trade up for either of last April's top offensive guards, North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper or Alabama's Chance Warmack. These interior linemen were selected seventh and 10th overall, respectively.
Some will say that quarterback Tony Romo has enjoyed better pass protection than in recent seasons, but I fail to agree that it has been that much better. It took just one game this season for Romo to get injured for the first time, and nothing since has convinced me that there isn't more danger ahead. Romo is on pace to be sacked 36 times in 2013.
Are the Cowboys certain that left guard Ronald Leary is the answer?
A bigger question is exactly how capable Waters is in pass protection moving ahead—and for how long. Waters turns 37 next February, and he's only playing on a one-year contract.
Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher
Yes, Jason Hatcher has been impressive in Kiffin's new 4-3 scheme. Aside from the fact that Hatcher turns 32 next summer, it's worth noting that he's in the final chapter of a three-year, $6 million contract signed in 2011.
Do the Cowboys invest, yet again, in a defensive lineman at this age?
Didn't Dallas learn a lesson with fellow defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, a highly capable player who's wearing down quickly at this time? Ratliff hasn't played a down this season, and he sure didn't play a whole lot last year either.
If you're thinking about Tyrone Crawford as a future option, remember that he's a defensive end and he'll also be coming off of an Achilles injury suffered on the first day of training camp last summer.
The Cowboys simply plugged in last year's 3-4 linemen into Kiffin's new scheme and hoped for the best, one explanation as to why defensive tackle Sean Lissemore is now in San Diego's 3-4 scheme.
The Cowboys have to get serious about building a younger, more explosive defensive line no matter what. Hatcher and Ratliff make this case all by themselves, but there's literally nobody else who will change football games by blowing up offensive lines and bringing down whoever has the football.
2013 Dallas defensive tackles:
Caesar Rayford—Natural defensive end
Jay Ratliff—Will only play maximum of 10 games
1992 Dallas defensive tackles:
Russell Maryland—first overall selection in 1991 NFL draft
Defensive end DeMarcus Ware
This is the biggest question facing the Cowboys: What happens as DeMarcus Ware continues to get older and still has to face constant double-teams?
In other words, who's that bookend defensive end that has historically meant so much during Dallas' championship history?
We can probably expect Ware to play at a high level for another season or two—maybe three.
In the meantime, it's time to prioritize rushing the passer as much as possible. Just a casual look at Sunday's game in San Diego showed you exactly what happens when an opponent can focus its blocking attention towards Ware and not worry about much else.
As I mentioned before, Spencer's return shouldn't be a question. The future at defensive end needs to be located soon. I don't recommend waiting beyond the 2014 NFL draft.
Crawford is expected to make a full recovery from his season-ending injury as training camp opened. As a third-year veteran next season who is more like a second-year player—or a first year player in Kiffin's 4-3 alignment—do we really know at what level he will play?
Forget about this year's New York Giants, a winless team over the month of September. This franchise, historically, always grabs a strong pass-rusher when and if there's one available.
In other words, the Giants didn't pass on Jason Pierre-Paul in the 2010 NFL draft simply because they already had a pass-rush specialist like Osi Umenyiora. New York didn't pass on defensive ends Justin Tuck and pass rushing linebacker/defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka simply because Michael Strahan was on the roster.
Let's remember that the Giants won Super Bowls following both the 2007 and 2011 regular seasons, as big underdogs, mind you, because they could do one thing really well—rush the opposing quarterback.
Rivers, with a cast of injured offensive linemen on Sunday, was able to lob softballs around Qualcomm Stadium for over 400 yards because he was sacked once by defensive end George Selvie, the third sack for the first-year Cowboys defender. I don't think Rivers was even hit beyond that.
Speaking of Selvie, perhaps he could be a long-term answer opposite Ware at defensive end. He is tied for second on the team with three sacks after four games.
But why not get as much talent as possible in this department?
It's been said that you always take a franchise quarterback—unless you already have one.
The opposite is true when it comes to pass-rushers in a league dominated by quarterbacks like never before.