The Dallas Cowboys arrive Friday in Oxnard, Calif., where they will become the first NFL team to open training camp. No one loves the spotlight more than Jerry Jones, so expect a bravura performance at his opening news conference. But before Jerry has a chance to talk, let’s take a look at five of the biggest storylines heading into camp: 1. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has always used the offseason to tinker with his game and bond with teammates. He’s talked about the value of OTAs and minicamps. Now, we’ll see how he performs when he hasn’t been able to participate in any of those sessions. I have heard from several of his teammates that Romo was more involved than ever in providing feedback to his teammates.
But that’s different than making throws and getting used to how Bill Callahan will call plays. Romo has an even bigger target on his back because of his enormous new contract. Jerry Jones is asking him to take a more prominent role in game-planning. Jones wouldn’t have changed offensive play-callers without Romo signing off on it. I think Romo has craved the opportunity to call his own plays, and he’ll likely have that chance. He has a good relationship with Garrett, but he may have wanted him out of his way.
2. In many ways, this is Monte Kiffin’s training camp. He was brought in to oversee the return to a 4-3 defensive scheme. And the fact that he has defensive line coach Rod Marinelli with him gives this thing a real shot. Still, it’s hard to dismiss the failures of Kiffin’s defenses at Tennessee and USC. There’s a belief that he’s better-suited for the NFL because of all his success with the Bucs. But everyone will be watching closely to see if the 73-year-old has the requisite energy to make it through an NFL season.
There’s no question that Kiffin will inherit some great players among the front seven. But what will happen if the Cowboys suffer several injuries? Rob Ryan didn’t get the benefit of the doubt last season when he lost several key players. Kiffin will have more wiggle roomed based on his past, but we’ll see how long the honeymoon lasts with Jerry. For now, Jones is thrilled to no longer be the oldest guy in the building. 3. All eyes will be on Bill Callahan in his new role as offensive playcaller. He hasn’t done it since his failed stint as Nebraska head coach. I will say that folks inside the Jets organization have told me that Callahan had a huge say in gameplanning. I’m not sure, though, that’s something Callahan wants to claim. The one thing you can bet on is that Callahan will be more committed to the running game. That’s the way he’s wired as a longtime offensive line coach. It’s going to be fascinating to watch the dynamic between Callahan and Garrett since the latter was so reluctant to give up his playcalling duties. Garrett will still have plenty of influence on the game plan, but he’ll attempt not to second-guess Callahan on Sundays. If the offense sputters early, everyone will be watching Garrett. 4. The offensive line remains a big question mark. Tyron Smith should be OK at left tackle, but everything else feels up in the air. The Cowboys are hoping Doug Free responds well to a significant pay cut. He spent time last season platooning at right tackle with Jermey Parnell. First-round pick Travis Frederick should be the opening-day starter at center…unless the guard spots look bad. The Cowboys continue to pay for free-agent whiffs at Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau. Former undrafted guard Ron Leary has shown improvement this offseason, but I’m not sure it’s a great sign if he’s starting Week 1.
5. Everyone will be watching to see if Dez Bryant uses the second half of last season as a springboard. He has a chance to become one of the top three or four wide receivers in the league this season. His goal is to surpass 2,000 yards. I’m not sure about that, but he is about to enter the land of Calvin “Megatron” Johnson. Bryant had a very quiet offseason, and that suggests that he may have turned the corner from a maturity standpoint. The Cowboys have disgraced themselves with their handling of Josh Brent. But with Bryant, they have done everything to help him flourish on and off the field.