2012 Record: 8-8

2012 Downfall

Defensive Pushovers

While Rob Ryan fixes to ply his trade eastward in New Orleans, he leaves behind a Cowboys teamthat took a back-step in 2012. With Monte Kiffin, patron saint of the 'Tampa 2' defense, coming to town, he's tasked with fixing a defense that largely lacked bite.

The Cowboys were tied at the bottom of the league with just seven interceptions. Brandon Carr had three, while four other players had only one apiece. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer combined for 22.5 of Dallas' below-average total of 34 sacks.

The Cowboys run defense allowed 4.54 YPA, the sixth worst average in the league. On five occasions, opponents ran for over 140 yards in a game on them. That segment includes the Redskins' 274 ground yards in the season finale, with the NFC East at stake.

Offense Wasn't Much Better
Critics who delight in Tony Romo's unending struggles, especially in dire situations, had themselves a field day last year. The constantly besieged leader of the 'Boys threw 19 interceptions, tying a career high, and led the league. His rating dipped to 90.5, a career low.

But Romo isn't solely to blame. His offensive line left him open to raiding, resulting in him being sacked 36 times (same as last year). The poor play on the right side from Mackenzy Bernadeau and Doug Free (Romo's sight side) led to a number of panic plays.

It wasn't just Romo that felt the pressure crunch either. The running game suffered just as badly, averaging 3.56 YPA. That average would be the third worst in the league. In ten starts, DeMarco Murray had just one 100+ yard game: the season opener.

2013 Projected Wins: 8.5

Top 3 Rookies
-Travis Frederick, C (1/31): The Cowboys traded down to acquire a center not so much lauded for his physical prowess, but rather his recognition of defensive intent.

-Gavin Escobar, TE (2/47): Can be just as reliable and studious as the durable Jason Witten, and in a sense overtakes the icon by having the athleticism of a wide receiver.

-Terrence Williams, WR (3/74): If the offensive line can stand up for themselves more, Romo has a vertical target that will create mismatches in the secondary.

Other Moves
The Cowboys and Jerry Jones always seem to do something to draw headlines, and this offseason didn't disappoint. Romo was given a six-year extension worth $108M ($55M guaranteed). The move was actually done to relieve salary cap pressure, while keeping their franchise starter until, faintly possibly, past his 39th birthday.

Anthony Spencer, on the other hand, doesn't get years, but he gets one worth a decent chunk of change. The man with 11 sacks in 2012 signed a contract tender worth $9.6M. But Spencer's at least not in Doug Free's boat: the criticized tackle took a fifty percent pay cut.

On the defensive side, a few cogs have been brought in to try and heighten the lacking aggression. Run-stopping linebacker Justin Durant heads the class, while safety Will Allen and embattled defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove bring veteran presence.

Potential Starting Lineup
QB - Tony Romo
RB - DeMarco Murray
FB - Lawrence Vickers
WR - Dez Bryant
WR - Miles Austin
TE - Jason Witten
LT - Tyron Smith
LG - Nate Livings
C - Travis Frederick
RG - Mackenzy Bernadeau
RT - Doug Free

DE - Anthony Spencer
DT - Jay Ratliff
DT - Jason Hatcher
DE - DeMarcus Ware
OLB - Justin Durant
MLB - Sean Lee
OLB - Bruce Carter
CB - Brandon Carr
CB - Morris Claiborne
FS - Will Allen
SS - Barry Church

K - Dan Bailey
P - Chris Jones
LS - LP Ladouceur

2013 at a Glance
The problem with being the coach of the Dallas Cowboys is getting used to your digs living on Lame Duck Lane. Whoever the incumbent coach is in Big D generally finds themselves on "coaches most likely to be fired" slideshows, sometimes while the team has a winning record.

Jason Garrett has been at the helm for two and a half seasons, and was the attending leader during a pair of season-ending losses to the Giants and Redskins. In both games, Dallas had a chance to win the NFC East, and instead went home without even a consolation prize.

Jerry Jones continues to give public votes of confidence to Garrett, but the airings of reassurances are never required, unless they need to be. In other words, Jones' firing finger is likely having its trademark twitches.

No playoffs in three seasons, a richer quarterback that still needs to deliver, and an offense that struggles for balance and consistency. With little to show for his tenure but a pair of 8-8 finishes, that's a lot for Garrett to turn around in a year.

It helps that Murray's getting back to full health once more. The running back's been doing more individual workouts to test his hamstring, but he's vowed to be a 16-gamer this year. We'll have to see if his body agrees.

Swapping Frederick in place of the injured (albeit re-signed) Costa seems to be a minimalist move to improve line play. Mike Mayock's not always right, but he had a lot to say about Frederick being a first-round reach.

The genetic make-up of the group could change by opening day. Tackle Eric Winston, whom Dallas courted, is still a free agent.

Kiffin hasn't coached in the NFL since 2008, after Jon Gruden was fired, and the old man followed son Lane into the college ranks.

Kiffin's smothering defenses would be the ideal counterpunch to the RG3/Morris offense in Washington, as well as the collegiate blur that Chip Kelly would acclimate to pro game. Kiffin emphasizes speed on defense (something's he's preached to Claiborne).

The Dallas defense saw a slew of key young players wind up on IR last season, namely Church, Lee, and Carter. You can say Rob Ryan may have been scapegoated for the poor defensive play, but a chance to bring Kiffin's brand into the mix is too good to pass up.

Verdict
While Kiffin's defenses were generally a Top 5 or 10 group in his first decade with the Buccaneers (and was immediately impactful), the offenses never caught up, not even in the Super Bowl year. And that took rarefied defensive play to win it all.

With the offensive line as it is now, who's to say Romo isn't going to keep biting the bullet with bad desperation throws in the face of unrelenting blitzes? Until proven otherwise, if the offense can finally be a consistent force, the Cowboys are a one-sided team.

Prediction: 7-9