SCHUYLER DIXON, AP Sports Writer
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Even if Tony Romo’s surgically repaired back holds up, the Dallas Cowboys could have a difficult time matching the 8-8 finish they’ve had for three years running.
A beleaguered defense that gave up the third-most yards in NFL history last year is in disarray, and it won’t be long before the season opens against San Francisco.
More than likely, the Cowboys will simply have to outscore opponents to avoid matching the franchise record of five straight years without a trip to the playoffs.
“It’s been a tough three years in a row, so you want to have that breakthrough that you talk about,” said Jason Witten, who needs 201 yards receiving to join Tony Gonzalez and Shannon Sharpe as the only tight ends in league history with 10,000. “We’ve just got to go show it. We know what it takes. The only way to do that is to work hard every day.”
Romo, Witten and receiver Dez Bryant hold the keys to that breakthrough, along with running back DeMarco Murray and an offensive line the Cowboys have invested in heavily with three first-round picks the past four years.
The makeover up front started in 2011 with tackle Tyron Smith, who recently signed an extension that gave him the second $100 million contract in franchise history after Romo. Dallas added center Travis Frederick in 2013 and guard Zack Martin this year.
Bryant, who has 2,615 yards and 25 touchdowns the past two seasons, is motivated by his desire for a new contract — but more by the fact missing the postseason again will mean all five of his seasons in Dallas have ended without a playoff game.
“Of course it burns me, especially because of how much I love this game,” said Bryant, who was drafted in the first round the year after Dallas’ only playoff victory since 1997. “Not only it bothers me, it bothers everybody else. You feel like you work hard and the results don’t come out right.”
Things to watch as the Cowboys try to break a .500 rut that includes a 136-136 record going back to 1997, and season-ending losses to NFC East foes that kept them out of the playoffs each of the past three years.
GARRETT’S HOT SEAT: Owner Jerry Jones said when training camp opened that Garrett wasn’t coaching for his job. But the backup quarterback on Dallas’ championship teams of the 1990s is in the final year of his contract, and his fourth full season. Only twice has Dallas missed the playoffs five straight times — the franchise’s first five years starting in 1960, and a stretch that included Jones’ first two seasons as owner. “I really don’t think about it at all,” Garrett said.
LB QUANDARY: The Cowboys are having trouble settling on a plan to replace Sean Lee, who tore a knee ligament in the first offseason practice. They would like former top 10 pick Rolando McClain to start in the middle, but they’re bringing him along slowly after he sat out in 2013 and twice walked away from football during a brief stint in Baltimore. Justin Durant was in the middle, but is more suited to an outside spot. Bruce Carter is coming off a subpar season. Rookie fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens is an even bigger part of the mix now that second-year player DeVonte Holloman has been advised by doctors to quit playing because of a neck condition.
ANOTHER PLAY CALLER: Romo has his third play caller in as many seasons in Scott Linehan. Jones raves about the relationship, and Linehan was spending a lot of time with Romo even when his 34-year-old quarterback wasn’t taking competitive snaps in offseason workouts. Linehan also seems intrigued by Murray’s backup Lance Dunbar, a speedy change-of-pace back. “Scott is a really gifted play caller,” Romo said. “We will talk for hours sometimes.”
D-LINE WITHOUT D-WARE: Franchise sacks leader DeMarcus Ware’s departure could loom large if the Cowboys are as porous as they were defensively last year. Free agent tackles Henry Melton and Terrell McClain missed most of training camp and the preseason. Rookie second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence, their heir apparent to Ware in more than name only, is out until probably midseason with a broken foot. Undrafted rookie Davon Coleman has been starting in the preseason, and unheralded second-year man Zach Minter was one of the exhibition stars. “I liken this defense to a no-name type defense,” executive vice president for personnel Stephen Jones said.
ROMO’S BACKUP: Kyle Orton bailed on the final year of his contract after starting the finale against Philadelphia last season, a loss that was sealed by his late interception. The Cowboys quickly grabbed Brandon Weeden, who was released by Cleveland just two years after getting drafted in the first round. He’s 5-15 as a starter, but the Cowboys seem committed to him should anything happen to Romo.
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