Cowboys outlook: Expectations low, intrigue high

The Super Bowl isn’t coming to Cowboys Stadium, and nobody is

talking about the main tenant playing in February.

It’s hard to tell what to expect from the Dallas Cowboys this

season.

Surely they can’t be as bad as their 1-7 start last season. And

they probably won’t be as good as the division champs who went 11-5

the year before.

Here’s the really confusing part: The roster hasn’t changed

much. Some veterans have left, but there haven’t been any of the

splashy arrivals you’d expect from team owner Jerry Jones.

The most notable changes are the guys in charge, coach Jason

Garrett and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Garrett became interim coach in the middle of last season and

immediately shook up things. Practices went faster and were more

physical. Digital clocks were installed throughout team

headquarters to eliminate excuses for being late. The team went 5-3

the rest of the way, despite backup Jon Kitna and third-stringer

Stephen McGee taking all the snaps.

Jones liked what he saw enough to keep Garrett, and the

Princeton grad was smart enough to make sure everything would be

done his way.

His culture change has continued in ways big and small, from

grumpy veterans who’ve been dumped to the ”Carpe Diem” sign

players now see on their way to and from the practice field. That

certainly wasn’t left by coach Wade Phillips.

”We always talked about the importance of being great each and

every day,” Garrett said. ”We talk about the importance of

letting last year’s team go, and that it’s a new team. You can have

the exact same collection of coaches and players and the team from

year to year changes and you have to redevelop that chemistry and

all that goes with putting a team together. If we had won the Super

Bowl last year we’d be preaching the same thing.

”We were 6-10, and I’d be lying to you if I said that doesn’t

kind of sit in everybody’s craw as extra motivation. We’re focused

on today, we’re putting last year behind us, and hopefully we’ll

stack some good days together and give ourselves a chance to be a

good football team.”

Pretty vanilla stuff, right? That’s where Ryan comes in.

The son of bombastic Buddy (architect of the 46 defense run by

the 1985 Chicago Bears and the guy who once took a swing at a

fellow coordinator during a game) and twin of audacious Rex (the

coach who’s guided the Jets to the AFC title game in each of his

first two seasons and also made headlines for his outsized

personality), Rob could be described as the anti-Garrett.

Just look at his protruding belly and long silvery hair. Or

listen to what he said about the Eagles after they became the

popular pick to win it all this season: ”I don’t know if we win

the all-hype team. That might have gone to someone else, but we’re

going to kick their (rear) when we play them.”

Pass-rush specialist DeMarcus Ware wasn’t sure if Ryan was a

coach ”or a Harley-Davidson motorcycle rider.” But like the rest

of the defensive players, he’s quickly fallen in love with Ryan’s

style and his playbook, which is full of unpredictable ways of

getting to the quarterback. That’s a huge selling point to the

players because predictability is often cited as the reason Dallas

went from giving up the second-fewest points in the NFL in 2009 to

allowing the most points in franchise history in 2010.

”I’ve had a lot of coaches that are fun and personable, real

characters, but they weren’t very good football coaches,” veteran

inside linebacker Keith Brooking said. ”He’s a heck of a football

coach, too. That makes it even more exciting to play for him.”

Ryan won two Super Bowls as linebackers coach in New England,

and he’s been defensive coordinator in Oakland and Cleveland. Ware

is a great talent to build around, having led the NFL in sacks two

of the last three seasons, and Jay Ratliff gives him another

dynamic player up front. The problem is in the secondary, which was

woeful last season, especially at safety. Abram Elam followed Ryan

from the Browns to the Cowboys, and his knowledge of the system

should help.

The offense is mostly the same that Garrett has been running

since becoming offensive coordinator in 2007.

Tony Romo is back from a broken collarbone that ended his 2010

season in October, and Dez Bryant is over his season-ending ankle

injury and his drama-filled offseason. The dazzling young receiver

will start opposite Miles Austin, and alongside tight end Jason

Witten, giving Dallas a potent passing game.

Felix Jones is the unquestioned featured back and he’s gotten

off to a strong start in the preseason.

The big question on offense is the line. There will be two

first-time starters, including 20-year-old top pick Tyron Smith.

Then again, last year’s line was among the problems, so change

there could be a good thing. And developing youngsters on the line

is something this club has long neglected.

Ultimately, that could be symbolic of what this season is about:

getting ready for the future.

Garrett could be in charge for a while. Maybe not a Landry-like

29 years, but probably more than five, the most anyone has lasted

under Jones. So this year will be about laying a foundation, on and

off the field. Veterans who don’t like the changes likely will be

the ones who find their job security challenged.

Most predictions have the Cowboys finishing around 8-8. As far

as transition years go, that might not be so bad.

”There are times when you have your highs and you have your

lows; I think we’ve had that,” Ware said. ”So, right now, we’re

right in the middle, and we’re climbing.”