Cowboys looking to break 8-8 rut, playoff drought

Tony Romo slammed his helmet on a cart and screamed at nobody in

particular during an embarrassing flurry of turnovers in a

preseason game.

Dez Bryant sprinted 50 yards to the end zone after a catch with

no one pursuing him – during practice in training camp.

Jason Garrett chastised his rookies over not being ready for the

speed of the NFL and benched running back DeMarco Murray after a

fumble that wasn’t even a turnover because a teammate recovered

it.

The Dallas Cowboys are talking urgency and accountability. Three

of the leading voices are a quarterback trying to prove he’s worth

the richest contract in franchise history, a receiver emerging as

one of the league’s best and a coach whose job might depend on

getting out of an 8-8 rut and ending the team’s three-year playoff

drought.

”There’s just a way to play winning football and there’s a way

not to,” Romo said. ”And we’re going to make sure we play winning

football, that’s everybody included. When we’re not, it needs to be

extremely important and I think it is.”

Starting with Romo, here are five things to know about the

Cowboys coming off consecutive seasons that ended with losses to

NFC East rivals with a playoff berth on the line.

ROMO’S REDEMPTION: Entering his seventh full season as the

starter, Romo still battles the perception that he cares more about

golf and other things than winning a Super Bowl. Not only did Jerry

Jones give him a six-year, $108 million contract, the owner created

the biggest talking point of the offseason by saying Romo would be

more involved in everything about the offense. Jones called it

”Peyton Manning-type time.” After missing all the offseason

workouts to have a cyst removed from his back, he’s been steadily

building toward the Sept. 8 opener against the New York Giants. He

finished the preseason with a 123.3 passer rating and wasn’t

responsible for any of the ghastly five first-half turnovers in a

preseason game against Arizona.

GET THE BALL: The Cowboys forced nine turnovers in the first

four preseason games. They had 16 the entire regular season last

year. The talk has been turnovers since the day defensive

coordinator Monte Kiffin replaced the fired Rob Ryan and brought a

new scheme that emphasizes takeaways. Defenders do drills where

they chase bouncing balls around the field and have to pick them up

and run the other way. Whistle or not, defenders try to poke out

the ball at the end of plays, and if an offensive player drops it,

they grab it and run. It’s not just getting turnovers. It’s

returning them for touchdowns. Linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce

Carter are looking for more than just tackles, and cornerbacks

Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne want higher interception totals

after combining for just four their first year together last

season.

GUARDED OPTIMISM: The Cowboys had one of the worst running games

in franchise history last season, and they’ve had one injury after

another at guard during training camp. Last year’s starters,

Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings, were both sidelined less than

two weeks before the opener, and they weren’t great in their Dallas

debuts after signing as free agents. But the Cowboys aren’t waiting

on those two to come back. Doug Free was decent in a surprise

appearance at guard in the preseason game against Cincinnati after

spending his first six seasons at tackle. Ron Leary looked good

before a knee flared up in camp, and he could be ready for the

opener. First-round pick Travis Frederick is expected to be the

starting center but could play guard.

BEWARE OF WARE: The only player who’s looked as dominant as

Bryant in training camp is DeMarcus Ware, who is moving to

defensive end from outside linebacker in Kiffin’s four-man front.

He’s always been a pass rusher first, but now he’s a pass rusher

only – with rare exceptions. He looked fit, fast and nearly

unblockable in training camp. Constant pressure from Ware could be

the most important component for a first-team defense that didn’t

give up a touchdown in its first three preseason games. The Cowboys

believe strongly that Ware might even be better at end than

linebacker, where he had 111 sacks in his first eight seasons. If

they’re right, the Dallas defense could be an asset for Romo,

leading him to take fewer chances and therefore make fewer

mistakes.

MURRAY AND COMPANY: A healthy Murray has looked like a

difference-maker for the Cowboys in his first two seasons. The

problem is, he hasn’t always been healthy. He missed the last three

games of his rookie season with a broken ankle and six more last

year with a sprained foot. Murray’s injury history made the battle

for his backup one of the most interesting stories of camp after

Dallas decided not to bring back Felix Jones. Lance Dunbar, an

undrafted second-year player, emerged as the No. 2 back before a

foot injury slowed him. Joseph Randle and Phillip Tanner are locks

to make the 53-man roster as well.

Online:

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