It makes sense for the focus of this offseason to rest squarely on the Cowboys defense.
We're talking about a unit that finished last in the NFL and was the worst in franchise history. The Cowboys surrendered 500 and 600 yard days, 40 and 50-point totals and first downs galore in 2013; in 2014, they changed their defensive coordinator from Monte Kiffin to Rod Marinelli.
All eyes will be on how the defense improves, and it will certainly have to if the Cowboys are going to compete for anything meaningful. For my money, though, I'm guessing the real improvement comes on offense, which is also under new management in the form of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
The story is well-known by now: Jason Garrett brought in an old college in Linehan – someone with similar offensive philosophies to himself – to oversee the passing game and manage play calling duties in place of Bill Callahan.
Both Marinelli and Linehan have had their share of success at these positions before. Chicago led the league in turnovers and finished fifth in total defense under Marinelli's supervision in 2012. With Linehan serving as offensive coordinator, Detroit finished sixth, third and fifth in total offense in the past three seasons.
Take a look at who each coordinator is working with for your answer about which unit will look better in 2014. The defense could possibly lose Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer, and there is the ever-present question about whether DeMarcus Ware returns – or how well he'll play if he does. The secondary remains a question mark, particularly at safety, and the linebacker corps appears unsettled – its lone constant, Sean Lee, is once again returning from injury.
Yes, it's likely that Marinelli will have some new draft picks to work with, and there's no telling what free agency could bring. As much as that might help, though, any rookie contributions would have to be substantial to bolster the Cowboys' standing that much.
Meanwhile, this Dallas offense – which finished a surprisingly mediocre 16th in total offense – returns four of the team's five Pro Bowlers from 2013. The Cowboys have 2013 Pro Bowlers at wide receiver, left tackle, tight end and running back. Although not an award winner last season, Tony Romo has a few accolades of his own.
Everyone knows the gaudy numbers Linehan was able to put up with Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford in Detroit, and that can only benefit Romo and Dez Bryant. Similarly, it should open up opportunities for Jason Witten, Terrance Williams and even Cole Beasley to get more involved.
And take a look at the Lions' 2013 rushing totals before you worry about DeMarco Murray's production. Murray is coming off his first 1,000 yard season and his first Pro Bowl nod, and the Cowboys will undoubtedly want to continue that momentum.
Fortunately, 2013 saw Reggie Bush manage just the second 1,000-yard season of his career under Linehan in Detroit. The Lions' offense also produced a 650-yard, eight-touchdown effort from backup Joique Bell. The two backs weren't exactly slouches in the passing game, either. Bell caught 53 balls for 547 yards, while Bush nabbed 54 for 506. [embedded_ad]
The Cowboys managed basically no production from the running backs behind Murray. If you're a fan of Lance Dunbar or Joseph Randle, the addition of Linehan can only mean good things.
None of that accounts for an offensive line that may finally be considered a strength of this team. Anchored by Tyron Smith and bolstered by the addition of Travis Frederick, the Dallas offensive line caught fire in the second half of 2013.
So it's not as if I think Linehan is a better coach than Marinelli, and I'm also not saying Marinelli can't improve this defense. I don't think there's any argument Linehan has more to work with, though, and that should show when the offense returns to its more explosive ways.