Dallas Cowboys out to break free from mediocrity

2013-07-19T00:00:00Z 2013-07-19T00:02:59Z Dallas Cowboys out to break free from mediocrityThe Associated Press The Associated Press
July 19, 2013 12:00 am  • 

ARLINGTON, Texas - Tony Romo is rested and ready. He has a big new contract and big new responsibilities.

Now the Dallas Cowboys head to training camp trying to break out of a cycle of mediocrity that dates back to 1997. They're .500 since the start of that season, including a pair of 8-8 records in Jason Garrett's first two full seasons as coach.

Dallas hasn't been to the playoffs since 2009, with each of the past two years ending in a loss to an NFC East rival with a playoff berth on the line.

Even though they were that close to the postseason, the Cowboys fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and replaced him with Monte Kiffin. They made several other changes to the defensive staff and a couple on the offensive side.

Here are five things to know as the Cowboys prepare to open training camp with their first practice Sunday in Oxnard, Calif.:

1. Romo's ready. Romo missed all the offseason practices after a procedure to have a cyst removed from his back. He is ready to go for the start of training camp, so Sunday's workout will be his first since signing the richest contract in franchise history. The six-year, $108 million deal has $55 million guaranteed, or about $3 million more than Super Bowl winner Joe Flacco got from Baltimore.

2. Let the Jason Garrett watch begin. If an overhaul of a coaching staff doesn't work, the head coach is usually next. That's part of why this is viewed as a make-or-break season for Garrett. Plus, the perception is he was desperate to keep the job because the hiring of Kiffin and the switching of play-calling duties to Bill Callahan were seen as moves orchestrated by owner Jerry Jones.

3. The second (and third) options at skill positions. Miles Austin is paid like a No. 1 receiver, but he's essentially lost that designation because of his troubled hamstrings and Dez Bryant's breakout season in 2012. If Austin stays healthy, it's possible the Cowboys could have a "1" and "1A" with a pair of receivers who have proven they can produce.

4. Same players, new defense. With a switch to the 4-3, all the leaders are holdovers getting used to new roles. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are ends instead of outside linebackers, and they now don't have to worry about much besides getting to the quarterback. Sean Lee and Bruce Carter shared the inside at linebacker last year, but now Lee will likely be in the middle and Carter will be at a weakside spot.

5. It all starts up front. Tyron Smith starting at left tackle is the only certainty for the offensive line after one of the worst rushing seasons in franchise history and spotty protection for Romo. Since Jones is intent on finding "that extra half-second for Romo," the offensive line will be a big priority.

Extra points

• Defensive tackle Josh Brent, 25, retired Thursday, saying "doing the right things in life" is more important as he prepares to defend himself against a manslaughter charge in the drunken-driving crash that killed a teammate.

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