OXNARD, Calif. -- The one-on-one confrontations drawing the most attention these days in Dallas Cowboys training camp are the ones between running back DeMarco Murray and linebacker Sean Lee. Each of Dallas' young, serious, budding stars sees the other as a daily personal challenge. Murray is determined to finish every run as far downfield as he can, and Lee is determined to make that as difficult as possible. The action is so good, coach Jason Garrett said, that he's using Lee and Murray as examples for the rest of the team: "Look at the way this guy works. Look at the way this guy practices."
The fact Garrett's examples, in this case, are a third-year linebacker and a second-year running back says a great deal about where the Cowboys are as a franchise. Yes, of course they want to win in 2012-13. But the sense you get when you spend time around this team is that everyone is focused on building a successful and sustainable long-term future.
"Those young guys we have came in right away and just started molding themselves as impact players," star linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "Those are the guys that are going to be here and be that team. And right now, our veteran guys are still in our prime, along with the guys who are going to take your place eventually. So I think we have the building blocks that we need, and I feel like we have that total team this year."
This year could go either way for a Cowboys team that still has questions about its defense, its offensive line and its depth in general. But those who focus only on the upcoming season and wonder whether Garrett or quarterback Tony Romo will be in trouble if Dallas doesn't reach the playoffs are missing the point. Garrett is increasingly in control of the way this team is being put together. And his long-range vision has the support of owner Jerry Jones, who longs for a return to the 1990s dynasty days.
"We're trying to build our football team for 2012, but we're also trying to build a football program," Garrett said. "To put a program in place that's going to have sustained winning for years to come. 'Build' is an important word for us. It's something we've talked about a lot this offseason. I think the values that I have are shared by the people in our organization. We've done it a lot of different ways with the Cowboys through the years, but I would argue that the football character of the Super Bowl teams in the '90s was outstanding. They loved to play football. They worked hard at it. There was great spirit to them. They loved it and they worked hard at it and they understood what 'team' was."
By trying to prioritize character and makeup when choosing which players to draft or sign, Garrett believes the Cowboys are giving themselves the best possible chance to replicate that 1990s vibe. Of course, there's one very important thing this year's team can do to contribute to the long-term goals.
"We've put the good work in when it comes to foundation, but it doesn't mean anything unless we win," Lee said. "We need to win in big situations. We need to get to the playoffs. We need to compete for Super Bowls every year if we want to be a legitimate team. I think we have the character and the talent to do it, but it's a matter of putting it on the field."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. The offensive line. For all the well-deserved heat the defense took during last season's collapse, the offensive line was a yearlong problem. The Cowboys couldn't find any kind of decent mix on the interior, where they're still struggling with health, strength and the center-quarterback exchange. Phil Costa returns as a somewhat-underwhelming starting center, and the hope is that veterans Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings will solidify the guard spots, but to this point they have not. Doug Free struggled so much at left tackle last year that he has been moved back over to the right side, while 2011 first-round pick Tyron Smith has moved to the left. Smith was outstanding as a rookie, and there's little reason to believe he won't be able to handle the transition, but the other four spots on the line remain question marks.
That Romo was able to post big numbers last year behind a struggling line says a lot about him, and the Cowboys will once again count on their quarterback to cover some of those weaknesses. But they must be able to protect him, and open holes for Murray in the run game. NFL history is littered with teams that had great quarterbacks, running backs and receivers but were done in by bad offensive lines. If the Cowboys want to avoid becoming another of those teams, they need to find a serviceable mix of linemen at some point in August.
2. Corner-ing the market. Garrett says that the first thing the Cowboys do when constructing their roster is identify the "money positions" -- the spots on which they're willing to commit major resources. For Dallas, these are quarterback, offensive tackle, pass-rusher, playmaking wide receiver and cornerback. Given that, it's no surprise they attacked cornerback hard this offseason. They signed free agent Brandon Carr to a huge contract and traded their first-round and second-round draft picks for Morris Claiborne. That's committing major resources to one position, and the Cowboys' hope is that they can build their 2012 defense around two great man-coverage cornerbacks.
"No pressure, right?" Carr joked when asked about the responsibility he carries as the big free-agent signing. "I like it. I came from Kansas City, where we played a lot of man-to-man, and with this front seven we have here we should have an opportunity to go out there and challenge receivers and make plays on the ball."
Claiborne missed the offseason program while recovering from wrist surgery, and a knee problem has kept him off the field for the early part of training camp. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be able to do a lot of creative things with his defensive front if he can count on Carr and Claiborne being effective in man coverage, so the Cowboys would like to see Claiborne on the field as much as possible this preseason so he can get up to speed on the NFL game.
3. Winning when it counts. The Cowboys lost four of their last five games last season, including two to the Giants, and finished one game behind the first-place Giants in the NFC East. It's not hard to figure out what they need to do better.
"That's why we didn't end up making the playoffs and that's why the Giants went on -- because they could make big plays in big situations," Lee said. "We need to be able to do that and be more consistent with it."
Lee, Ware and the linebacking corps look like a bunch of playmakers. The Cowboys think their new cornerbacks can be playmakers. They know Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Miles Austin can be playmakers on offense. But as Lee says, they just need to do it. Austin can't lose the ball in the lights on third down in the home game against the Giants. Somebody besides Ware needs to come up with a sack every now and then. If the Cowboys' lesson of last season is that they need to be tougher in big spots, they'll get plenty of chances this season to show whether they have learned it.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Cowboys' front-line talent is very good. Romo, Bryant, Austin and Witten all rank among the top players at their positions on offense, and Ware is probably the best defensive player in the entire league. There's reason to believe a healthy Murray can be an outstanding runner, and the offense worked well last year while he was healthy and starting. Lee looks like an emerging superstar on defense, and we've already talked about the corners. If they can get lucky and avoid major injuries to starters, the Cowboys have as much talent at key positions as anyone in the conference.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The flip side, of course, is that there isn't much depth behind those offensive stars. And guys like Austin, Bryant, Murray and Romo aren't always the picture of health. You can make the point that no team can sustain injuries to key starters, but the Cowboys especially look like a team for which everything really needs to go right. An early training camp hamstring injury to Austin is a bad sign. Unless they're going to somehow find another Laurent Robinson in the wide receiver bargain bin, they need to keep Austin and Bryant on the field.
There are interesting battles going on for spots on the defensive line, where Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears are seeing their roster spots challenged by the likes of Sean Lissemore and Clifton Geathers. With Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher looking like sure-thing starters, Josh Brent the likely backup at nose tackle and third-round pick Tyrone Crawford in the mix as a situational pass-rusher, there may only be two more spots on the roster for defensive linemen.
Don't rule Ronald Leary out of the mix for a starting guard spot. He was undrafted, but the Cowboys like him a great deal and the competition at those spots is very much open at this point.
Bryant looks like the best player on the field at Cowboys practices. Simple as that. There is nothing football-related that's keeping him from being one of the best wide receivers in the league. Now, if they can just build him an apartment that's attached to the field so he never has to be away from it, they should be all set.
This time last year, everybody was worried about the third wide receiver spot, and they plucked Robinson out of nowhere to catch 11 touchdowns. With Robinson gone off to Jacksonville, fans are worried again, but the Cowboys aren't. Even if someone like Kevin Ogletree wins the spot and can't play the way Robinson did last year, they'll find a way to make up for his production. "You can fill it with the second tight end, you can fill it with the backs, and obviously with the third wide receiver," Witten said. "But I don't think it's just one guy. What Laurent did, it's hard for a No. 3 receiver to come in and do that. So I think it's got to be a combination."
Barry Church won a starting safety spot in the first week of camp. Yes, Brodney Pool was a disappointment, but part of the reason they cut him so early was that they liked what Church had shown them. So it appears he'll start at safety along with Gerald Sensabaugh. If he can transfer his early-camp performance into real games, that'd be a big bonus for the secondary -- whether or not those corners are locking people down in man coverage.
The linebacker group looks like a real strength, even inside. Lee is a big-time playmaker, and both Dan Connor and Bruce Carter have been performing well as they fight for the other starting inside linebacker job. Still not sure if Anthony Spencer can improve as a pass-rusher enough to give them a credible threat opposite Ware, but they should be tough to move the ball against in the middle of the field.
The switch from left tackle to right tackle could take a little time for the ultra-talented Tyron Smith. He played right tackle in college and is working on retraining himself on things as simple as which foot to move first. I expect he'll get it figured out in time.
The talk early in camp was of using Bryant on punt returns and backup running back Felix Jones on kick returns. The Cowboys have been hesitant to use Bryant on returns because of his value to the passing game, so they're looking at other options. But none is as potentially game-changing as Bryant is with the ball in his hands.