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Dallas Cowboys break minicamp in position to succeed in 2012

IRVING, Texas -- The Cowboys wrap up their three-day minicamp Thursday, and coach Jason Garrett will send his players into the summer for a few deep breaths before the work starts again. They've cherished the extra few weeks of preparation in this lockout-free offseason, and confidence is high heading into the break.

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There will be time to prove whether that is justified or not. As tight end Jason Witten told NFL.com earlier in the week, "Your actions will speak louder than words."

Before the players scatter to their various locales to recharge, we did learn a thing or two about what the Cowboys will look like going forward. Here are a few things we've gleaned:

1. Quarterback Tony Romo is in a position to succeed: It's nearly impossible to judge mindset, with media-savvy players often lauded for simply sounding good. That disclaimer aside, Romo might be in a better position this year to reach the playoffs and find success than at any time in the past few years. He has all the advantages, and he gets it.

Romo scored points the other day when he brushed off a question about stats, saying, "It's about winning. That's the story that's going to be written when it's all said and done."

He's right. It's nice that he threw for 4,000 yards again and had a career-best 3.1-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio. But it's about victories, and the offense is set up perfectly to generate those.

He has two receivers in or entering their prime in Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. He has one of the game's premier tight ends in Witten, who can do it all. His backfield is blessed with breakout star DeMarco Murray and productive (if healthy) Felix Jones. And his left tackle is Tyron Smith, a 21-year-old who could become one of the game's best.

Are there five quarterbacks in a better position to thrive than Romo, particularly with an offensive-minded coach entering his second full season? It's all there for him.

2. The Mike Jenkins saga could have a sensible ending: The story that won't die centers around disgruntled cornerback Mike Jenkins. Frustrated with the team's selection of first-rounder Morris Claiborne and desirous of a new contract, Jenkins' camp demanded a trade. He sat out OTAs, but showed up to minicamp to avoid a fine. Yet he hasn't endeared himself to the team by being less-than-forthcoming about the progress of his shoulder injury.

Now, it looks like the former Pro Bowler could begin camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list. The team has said it won't trade him, which would no doubt continue to frustrate Jenkins. But let's assume the team is telling the truth, and that he works himself back to full health.

There is a potential satisfying ending for both sides out there -- at least according to the Cowboys. It's what owner Jerry Jones tried to explain to Jenkins during their talk.

"I talked a lot about our coming year and how we've really bolstered our secondary and how being a part of that can be something special," Jones said. "I'm excited about having this kind of corner situation. We'll maximize it for our team."

Jones is trying to sell Jenkins on playing in a stellar defensive backfield rotation, being part of an excellent group, and then using it to earn a rich contract in greener pastures. He used the Giants' defensive line as an example of how a rotation can allow individual players to thrive.

One scenario to look for has Jenkins opening as the starter if Claiborne takes some time to learn and heal (wrist). Jenkins is the Cowboys' security blanket to allow their rookie to come along slowly. If he plays well before being replaced by Claiborne, Jenkins could be more valuable to another team.

3. This will be the first chance for the Cowboys to really see what a Rob Ryan defense looks like: Last year wasn't fair to anyone. Ryan was hired as defensive coordinator to install his complex schemes, but no offseason and a fast-forward training camp short-circuited that. The result was a year of far more frustration than the mediocre statistics would indicate.

Ryan's defense was fine last year, but blowing several late leads left him stewing. Times have changed. A new secondary and a little more leadership from the linebackers helps. But more important is the time Ryan gained to put in his plans. Last year, they had a four-week build-up to the opener. This year, they have a six-week period of work before the summer.

Seeing how fast the defenders were moving while dominating the offense in Wednesday's passing game work, the progress was obvious.

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"I don't see any changes, just more time on the clock for us to install the defense," defensive end Marcus Spears said. "It makes it easier for guys like myself. I'm an on-the-field learner and actually going through the steps helps me learn more about the defense. Hopefully we're through the thinking phase, whereas last year we weren't there."

With his tricky disguises, a propensity to get creative, and a desire to use versatile players in a variety of roles, Ryan needs his players to be instinctive. They're getting closer.

4. Don't be surprised if the running game provides the foundation: The Jets took a ground-and-pound approach to two straight AFC championship games, and it was offensive line coach Bill Callahan and his guys setting the tone. Only when the Jets became a pass-first team did Callahan bolt for greener pastures as the team missed the playoffs.

Now, Callahan is running the Cowboys' offensive line and offense in general.

An old-school coach who has a hand in designing the 2012 offense, Callahan's influence won't be minimal. Expect the Cowboys to set the tone early with their run game. Considering they boast last year's breakout star in Murray and talented-yet-mercurial Jones, can you blame them?

Murray shined last year in a fleeting spotlight that lasted only seven games, but the team was just 18th in rushing. That should change. Murray is back, and he should make an attempt to take pressure off Romo. All signs point to an increased focus on pounding the rock.

"I can see the holes open up more crisp," said Murray, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season. "Guys are on the same page."

Garrett has praised Callahan, both for his fresh ideas and the way he teaches. Garrett yearns for balance to maintain his team's unpredictability, and a solid run game early creates that.

"You always want to be an attacking, aggressive football team," Garrett said. "That's really important to us. But just because you're aggressive, it doesn't mean throw it every down, it doesn't mean run it every down. You have to be balanced."

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @rapsheet

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