As one of the most polarizing teams in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys can be tough to pin down. Depending on who you ask, they're either hopelessly overhyped or a talent-packed squad perpetually on the cusp of breaking out. But when the bluster and emotion are stripped away, I believe they have what it takes to be better in 2013 -- to the point that they'll make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Now that organized team activities have begun across the NFL, staffs have been filled out and draft picks have been made, I feel comfortable making projections about the 2013 season. And after evaluating what the Cowboys have done this offseason, I've come up with 10 reasons to think Dallas will significantly improve on its 8-8 finish last season. In fact, I expect the Cowboys to finish with the best record in the NFC East.
1) Better defensive coaching
Last season, Dallas' defense was hampered by the random and somewhat ineffective coaching of former coordinator Rob Ryan. This season, the unit will benefit greatly from the more experienced guidance of new coordinator Monte Kiffin and line coach Rod Marinelli.
Kiffin has a long history of success, but one of the most important things he'll bring to the table in Dallas is a familiarity with college offenses. The long-time coaching veteran's most recent career stop before this one was at USC, where he certainly got a taste of both the increasingly popular pistol offense and the hurry-up, no-huddle offense that new Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly ran at Oregon.
Marinelli is probably as highly thought of as any position coach in the NFL today. Anybody and everybody who has played for him -- whether it came during his time as a position coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the head coach of the Detroit Lions or as a coordinator for the Chicago Bears -- knows that he is one of the few coaches who can get players to play above and beyond their expectations.
2) More help for Tony Romo, part I
Last season, the Cowboys did not have enough offensive weapons to scare opposing defensive coordinators, who could focus on stopping receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin and tight end Jason Witten. That should change for Tony Romo and Co. in 2013, thanks to two draft picks with a history of producing at a high level.
In Gavin Escobar, the Cowboys have another pass-catching tight end to run out there with Witten, expanding the matchup strategies available to the Dallas offense. Also, with his size (6-foot-6, 254 pounds), Escobar promises to be a threat in the red zone.
Terrance Williams, meanwhile, can be productive on the outside, which could allow Austin to switch to the slot position. I think Austin is a stronger receiver between the hashes; that is, after all, where he's had most of his NFL success.
3) More help for Tony Romo, part II
Many questioned the Cowboys' decision to draft Wisconsin center Travis Frederick in the first round, but as I said last week, I think that pick will pay off. As a rookie, Frederick will solidify the interior of Dallas' offensive line, which was one of the team's biggest problems last season.
People tend to overlook the importance of the center position, because centers aren't usually drafted at a premium. But it's worth remembering that when Paul Brown -- a guy who was, it must be said, really on top of everything -- had his first college draft with the Cincinnati Bengals, he spent his first pick on a center (Bob Johnson of Tennessee). And I think we've seen over the years how much the center position can matter; just look at what Jeff Saturday did for Peyton Manning throughout his career with the Indianapolis Colts. Frederick is also, as I said last week, very, very smart; I think he'll be the guy who is identifying the defensive plays and making the calls on the line.
4) A steadier offensive line
The offensive line should offer much more stability than it did last year, seeing as how this will be the unit's second season under the direction of coordinator/line coach Bill Callahan. The team no longer needs to learn how to work under Callahan -- who is, by the way, a very good coach. Incidentally, as a former position coach at Wisconsin, Callahan should have a general feel for the type of player the school produces, which should give him a natural understanding of what he'll have in Frederick, a former Badger.
Also, right tackle Doug Free and left tackle Tyron Smith were new to their respective positions in 2012, having swapped places before the start of the season. Now that they've had some time to adjust, I'd expect the two bookends to improve.
The line played better in the latter half of the 2012 season, and I foresee the unit continuing on that trajectory in 2013.
5) "Bedlam" in the backfield
With fifth-round draft pick Joseph Randle in the fold, the Cowboys finally have two legitimate runners/receivers in the backfield. Randle and incumbent starter DeMarco Murray are very much alike in terms of size, running style and ability to catch the football; they're really two peas in a pod.
Murray's production has been limited, because he's had a hard time avoiding injury. In the past, this has caused problems for the offense. If Murray goes down now, Randle can step right in, allowing the Cowboys to keep rolling without adjusting their scheme much. The "Bedlam Backfield," as it might be called (after the Bedlam Series, the name for the rivalry between Murray's Oklahoma Sooners and Randle's Oklahoma State Cowboys) should be a boon to the Cowboys in 2013.
6) Extra prep time
Because they'll be playing in the Hall of Fame Game, the Cowboys will get an extra week of time in training camp, which has the potential to be an important advantage. If you get more time to get ready as a team -- and if you know what you're doing -- you're able to use that to get better.
7) Season starts and ends at home
In 2012, the Cowboys opened and closed the regular-season schedule on the road. This season, they'll get to bookend the schedule with matchups at home, which should be helpful. Yes, the Cowboys did win their 2012 opener on the road, with a thrilling defeat of the defending champion New York Giants. But then, in Week 17, they lost a de facto NFC East title game to the Washington Redskins in FedEx Field. Much better to host the first and last acts of the regular season.
8) They have to be healthier
The Cowboys spent large parts of last season without the services of defensive leader Sean Lee and starters Barry Church and Bruce Carter, while DeMarcus Ware played hurt for most of the year. Usually, teams that suffer through a lot of injuries in one year don't have quite as many the next, which leads me to believe the team is bound to be healthier in 2013. I just can't see Dallas having such bad luck for two straight seasons. (And no, the cyst that will keep Romo from participating in OTAs does not bother me.)
9) A special teams boost
The Cowboys' new special teams coordinator, Rich Bisaccia, is pretty good and comes with plenty of buzz. Plus, Dallas has a fine young kicker in Dan Bailey, who converted 93.5 percent of the field goals he attempted in 2012, tied for second-best in the NFL. That's a necessity in this league, what with how many close games there are.
10) Wisconsin bond
The relationship between a quarterback and his center can be important, and Frederick should have an easy "in" with Romo. The town he grew up in, Sharon, Wis., is just about 50 minutes by car from Romo's hometown of Burlington, Wis. I would expect Romo to take a special interest in his fellow Wisconsinite and help give his career a jump-start.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.