Questions loom as Cowboys open minicamp

Beginning Tuesday, the Dallas Cowboys will hold a three-day mandatory minicamp. This will offer backup quarterback Kyle Orton yet another opportunity to let the organization know how little it means to him.

Orton’s offseason of discontent/disappearance has opened the door for former Cleveland Browns first-round choice Brandon Weeden to have a crack at the backup job. He’s not as capable as Orton, but his presence alone makes him a more attractive option. Tony Romo will continue to limit his work to individual drills. Jason Witten told me last week that Romo has been a little more aggressive in the practices that are off-limits to the media, but his first real action will come in Oxnard, Calif. Romo’s been quite optimistic in discussing his return from back injury. And I’ve been struck by how open he’s been in talking about his pursuit of a championship.

In the past, Romo’s been more likely to join head coach Jason Garrett in talking about the process instead of the destination. It will be interesting to see how he works with new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. I’ve thought for a long time that Romo and Garrett were acting too much like buddies. I don’t recall a lot of head coaches taking trips to Duke for basketball games with their quarterback. Bill Callahan wasn’t the right fit for Romo because he didn’t have the best grasp of the Cowboys’ passing scheme.

With Linehan, Garrett actually has someone who he trusts to call the plays. There won’t be as much confusion leading up to and during games. Linehan has enough experience and credibility in the league where he doesn’t need to bow down to Romo. He’s not as good an offensive coordinator as Norv Turner, but he’s not far behind.

My focus over the next three days will be to observe how Linehan works with this offense. Witten seems to believe that Linehan will make a commitment to the running game. That’s not something Linehan was known for in Detroit, although he did work tailbacks into the passing game. It will be fascinating to see how Callahan responds to his demotion. The Cowboys demoted Callahan after one season of (maybe) calling the plays and then refused to let him pursue offensive coordinator positions elsewhere. It reminded me of the way Bill Parcells handled some situations.

No matter how the Cowboys try to spin it, this defense could once again be among the worst in the league. That will put plenty of pressure on Linehan because the team will likely need to win some shootouts. Romo’s health will remain somewhat of a mystery until he actually takes a few hits in the preseason. This team isn’t built to withstand an extended absence from him.

Rod Marinelli will do a better job than Monte Kiffin with this defense, but he’s not a miracle worker. The Cowboys lost their top two pass-rushers in free agency and they have no idea whether Anthony Spencer will be ready for the regular-season. The best thing the Cowboys have going is playing in the NFC East. Chip Kelly did a nice job with the Eagles in his first season, but his team has some of the same issues on defense. Much like the Cowboys, the Eagles have been compromised in the secondary for several years.

You can normally count on the Giants bouncing back after a disappointing season, but it didn’t happen in 2013. And the Redskins are a total crapshoot with first-time head coach Jay Gruden. The Cowboys are perfectly capable of finishing 4-2 against their division opponents. Then they’ll likely need to go .500 against the rest of their schedule. This team is uniquely qualified to reach that mark.

This feels like a sink or swim season for Garrett, and that’s not always a bad thing. Maybe he’ll feel more confident working with his former mentor Linehan. The Cowboys have gone a long way in building what should be a solid offensive line.

No team has ever needed to keep its defense off the field like the 2014 Cowboys. And perhaps this offense has an outside chance to do just that.