Cowboys' 2015 season looks like Jason Garrett's most challenging

IRVING, Texas -- This season is shaping up as Jason Garrett’s most difficult as Dallas Cowboys head coach.

Harder than 2011, when he took over on a full-time basis? There was no offseason program because of the lockout from the collective bargaining agreement talks. There was no way for Garrett to truly implement his program with an offseason full of workouts, organized team activities and minicamp.

Yes, harder.

There are burning issues every season. Last year, the Cowboys had to deal with Tony Romo coming back from major back surgery. They said goodbye to DeMarcus Ware and did not have a true replacement. In May, they lost Sean Lee for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

But this year Garrett will have to navigate many different situations that could prove tricky.

When the Cowboys placed the franchise tag on Dez Bryant, a Dez Watch started. Will he show up for the voluntary offseason program? It’s an unknown. Bryant wants a long-term contract and would be well within his right to not show up for any part of the offseason.

He has to use his leverage and the only leverage he has is not showing up.

If he doesn’t get a long-term deal before the July 15 deadline, does he show up for training camp? Until he signs the tag, he doesn’t have to show up for anything, which is something his agent, Tom Condon, has pointed out.

Bryant might be the closest thing to irreplaceable on the roster after Tony Romo.

Garrett has already laid out the expectations for Greg Hardy in his first comments this week from the NFL owners meetings. The signing just increases the already hot spotlight on the Cowboys and it will bring a segment of attention from outside football. With the added attention to the NFL’s increased personal conduct policy, every move made by Hardy on and off the field will be watched and judged.

Brandon Carr’s agent, Ben Dogra, told the Star Telegram that the cornerback will not accept a pay cut from his $8 million salary. At present it’s a negotiation tactic. The Cowboys don’t have to address Carr’s contract yet. They can act like it is business as usual, but the longer the offseason goes, they can put a squeeze on Carr because the money and job opportunities will dry up.

While it’s conceivable the Cowboys could pay Carr $8 million, his level of play hasn’t warranted that kind of money.

When the Cowboys said goodbye to a player Garrett never wanted to lose, DeMarco Murray, they created an on-field issue that may or may not be solved by taking a running back early in the draft. Garrett can swear the Cowboys’ style of play won’t change in March, but if they don’t have a running back or running backs to come close to what Murray provided, then the offense will fall completely on Romo’s shoulders.

Expectations around the Cowboys are always high, but coming off a 12-4 finish in 2014 and a playoff win, the expectations will be ratcheted up even more. And the Cowboys should have a more difficult schedule than 2014 when they were matched up with the AFC South.

While it’s never easy in the NFL, it is easier to take a team that Garrett inherited in 2011 and turn it into what it became in 2014. The harder step is the next step.

Bill Parcells said he often felt like a fireman because he had to put out so many fires.

Garrett should know how that feels this year. Some of it comes with the dinner as the Cowboys’ coach. There is always something. Garrett’s single-minded focus on being good today has allowed him to avoid traps that have befallen other coaches.

But it’s one thing to deal with one major fire. It’s another to have to deal with multiple fires.