1. Jason Garrett is rebuilding the Cowboys in the mold of the franchise's championship teams under Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson. The new coach has embraced the traditions of the past and demanded the commitment, accountability and toughness that were associated with the Cowboys during their title runs.
Garrett started raising the standard of accountability by placing clocks in all of the meeting rooms to ensure punctuality. He also raised the level of intensity and focus in practice, which were crisp and aggressive, with an emphasis on fundamentals. The players operated at a game-like tempo and the pad poppin' was reminiscent of rugged practices during the Johnson era. Garrett took it a step further by having officials at practice to call penalties and infractions. With added attention to detail that was lacking under his predecessor, Garrett has the Cowboys looking and acting like a championship squad.
2. Tony Romo should bounce back with a big year in 2011. The Cowboys' much-maligned leader is coming off a disappointing season due to injury, but Romo looks poised and confident in practice. He routinely delivered the ball on time to Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, showing complete command of the system.
Romo also handled the varied pressure packages thrown at him by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan with little problem. He quickly identified potential rushers and used audibles or hot reads to combat the aggressive tactics. Although Romo was executing within the confines of a controlled practice, his anticipation and awareness of pressure suggests he's already in midseason form.
3. Dez Bryant will emerge as the Cowboys' top offensive weapon. The second-year pro is a remarkable talent. He's a natural pass catcher with a blend of size, strength and speed. At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, he efficiently gets in and out of his breaks while gaining separation from defenders. His balance and body control rate off the charts as does his hand-eye coordination. Bryant's ability to win the contested ball is reminiscent of Larry Fitzgerald, and Romo has shown more confidence throwing the ball up to him in traffic. With defenses unable to direct double coverage in Bryant's direction with Austin and Witten also threats, it's possible that Bryant will be the most productive player in the passing game.
4. The Cowboys' young offensive linemen show promise. The trio of Tyron Smith, David Arkin and Phil Costa look like viable contributors. Smith, who is expected to start at right tackle, has displayed the athleticism and power that captivated scouts and coaches in the pre-draft process. Although he still is sorting through the nuances of pass protection, his natural ability should allow him to thrive as a rookie starter.
Arkin is competing with Montrae Holland at left guard, but his athleticism and movement skills could move him slightly ahead of the injured veteran. Arkin has shown the ability to block in space, which allows the Cowboys to incorporate more movement plays into their game plan. Costa will fill in as a capable swingman at guard or center, and provide the line with much-needed depth on the interior. Also, rookie Bill Nagy has a chance to jump into the rotation at guard or center. He only had one year of starter's experience at Wisconsin, but has shown some promise when given reps with the first unit.
5. If Rob Ryan's defense is to match his bodacious claims, the secondary will have to lead the way. Ryan wants to get after the passer with his talented frontline, but he needs to get better play from the secondary to implement his aggressive, high-pressure tactics. Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman, in particular, must bounce back from sub-par years to give Ryan the blanket coverage he needs. Their struggles a season ago led to the Cowboys finishing 26th in pass defense, and injuries have hampered any potential progress in training camp. In their absence, Alan Ball and Orlando Scandrick have stepped in, though they lack the skill set of their counterparts. Still, they showed signs of being effective thanks to the pressure generated by the frontline. If Newman and Jenkins can provide more than serviceable coverage, the defense has a chance to be good.
6. Sean Lee is prime for more. He showed flashes of being an impact player during spot duty as a rookie, but he looks ready to supplant Keith Brooking at inside linebacker. Lee is a sound tactician with a strong nose for the ball, and his underrated athleticism would upgrade the starting linebacker corps. If he shows a better feel for attacking the run, he should be starting when the season opens.
New guy watch
» Dwayne Harris. The rookie out of East Carolina has opened eyes with his playmaking skills as a receiver/returner. He had an impressive preseason debut against the Denver Broncos with five catches for 127 yards and two scores, including a 76-yard touchdown on a catch and run. Although Harris remains a work in progress as a route runner, he has shown enough potential to merit consideration as the third receiver.
"You guys have all of the answers."
--Keith Brooking, in an exchange with a handful of reporters on the practice field in response to having his status on the team questioned.
The Cowboys will challenge the Eagles for the NFC East title. They have as much offensive firepower as any team in the league, and Ryan's emerging defense has the potential to wreak havoc. If Dallas can avoid the miscues and penalties that haunted the team in 2010, the Cowboys should be a title contender.