By Andrew Garda
In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. So far we've featured the Falcons, Cardinals, Ravens, Bills, Panthers, Bears, Bengals and Browns.
Remember when we thought the biggest hubbub surrounding the Cowboys this offseason was whether Jerry Jones was going to draft local celebrity quarterback Johnny Manziel?
That was a quaint time. So adorable!
Who could have expected a complete immolation of the defense while in OTAs and minicamps?
While the offense continues to improve, the defense is beginning to look like an anchor around the team's neck.
Biggest Offseason Move: Bringing in Rod Marinelli
As much as Monte Kiffin seems like your lovable old grandfather, he was overmatched as Dallas' defensive coordinator last season. A combination of poor scheme fit, player injury and bad luck made it even worse. The result for the Cowboys was an abysmal 2013, during which they allowed the third most yards in NFL history.
Enter Rod Marinelli, promoted from defensive line coach to coordinator. It's a much better fit. Marinelli is a much better coordinator than a head coach, evidenced by his work during the 0-16 Detroit Lions season in 2008.
It's hard to know exactly what parts of the defensive line struggle were because of the ineffective scheme Kiffin was running and what was the result of poor line play. Really, both were culprits.
When Marinelli was defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears (from 2010 to 2012) the defense was great, but also had Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman at the height of their superhuman ability. This allowed Marinelli to run defensive schemes without a ton of extra defensive backs -- you knew Jennings and Tillman could be trusted to cover receivers without a lot of safety help.
Can Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr similarly step up? We haven't seen it yet, but Kiffin didn't let them press much despite both being better at man coverage. Marinelli ran more single-safety looks with the Bears, so we can expect a less Tampa-2 looking secondary with more responsibility on the corners.
If they can't pull that off, the front seven will have too little time to get to the quarterback and the defense will break down like last year.
Marinelli has his work cut out for him, as he tries to right the defensive ship in Dallas. He's had success before, though, so from a scheme and coaching standpoint, this was a great promotion.
Of course, he's currently facing a pretty bare cupboard.
Biggest Gamble: Releasing DeMarcus Ware
There wasn't much choice, mind you.
Ware's contract was expensive and Jones was reminded of Ware's age when he missed three games last season and had to fight through lingering injuries. Ware also put together the lowest sack total (six) of his career.
That said, it was one year from a guy who has averaged 13 sacks, 49 tackles (14.5 assists) and 3.5 forced fumbles a year. Did the Cowboys pull the ripcord early? Could they -- should they -- have found a way to make the numbers work?
At Denver Broncos minicamp, Ware didn't look like a guy who was going to struggle this year.
Ware looks good and the decision takes on an even grimmer coloring with the rash of injuries to key defensive players.
Sean Lee is out for the foreseeable future, possibly for the whole season. Defensive end Anthony Spencer is rehabbing, and nowhere near ready to play football. He might not return until after Week 1.
On the right side, George Selvie is dealing with a shoulder injury and has yet to be cleared for team drills.
Newly acquired defensive tackle Henry Melton is also banged up, though the hope is he can come back in time for camp. Unfortunately, that doesn't leave him a ton of time to get used to the defense.
That's four players in the 4-3 defensive front who are out at the moment, before you even count Ware.
Last season, the Cowboys were ranked dead last in overall defense, 30th against the pass and 27th against the run. They were tied for the sixth least amount of sacks (34), generated just 15 interceptions and just 16 fumbles (tied for sixth worse in the NFL).
Their top two defensive players -- and it's not even close -- were Ware and Jason Hatcher, who is now in Washington. Lee was a very distant third.
It's funny how what appears to be a necessary and good move in the early dawn of the offseason becomes a scary and somewhat risky one in the full light of day.
This was a defense which had very little margin for error after removing Ware. The injuries have made any wiggle room evaporate.
Biggest Question: Can the offense overcome a poor defense?
It's hard not to see the NFC East as anything but wide open. All three of the other teams have flaws which make them vulnerable.
The Cowboys could be in the thick of it, but defensive injuries and departures are obviously a concern.
Which leaves the offense to do the heavy lifting.
Quarterback Tony Romo is dealing with back issues, but he should be good to go come training camp -- and absolutely will be ready for Week 1. So he's not a worry.
Over the last few years, the team has put together a solid offensive line. Pro Football Focus has them ranked as the No. 4 overall line, while Football Outsiders ranks them fourth on run plays and 10th for pass plays.
That line should give Romo plenty of time to attack with his array of receivers. Dez Bryant, while still inconsistent, is at the pinnacle of his career. Tight end Jason Witten may be past his peak, but he is a very good vertical threat and a tremendously reliable pass catcher for Romo. Meanwhile, Terrance Williams is only just scratching the surface of his talent.
The team also features a potentially great running game with DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar (more on that in a minute).
With questions all across the defense, the Cowboys are going to need the offense to pick up the team and carry it.
Whether it can or not will go a long way toward deciding if Dallas will make the playoffs.
Last year, the Cowboys finished the year with the 24th best rushing attack with the second fewest attempts in the NFL.
This season they're going to feature a top-10 unit. With new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan wanting to lean on the run, a quarterback who could use some breathing room and the need to burn clock and protect the defense, all signs point to more running.
They've got the talent in Murray and Dunbar. Despite being hurt, Murray topped 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, while it appears as if Dunbar might take change-of-pace duties. Both are three-down backs, so they can always be on the field.
On top of this, they've got a top-five offensive line which can flatten people on run plays, and a passing offense good enough to guarantee there won't be a stacked front in sight.
If nothing else, this backfield might ease the suffering of having to watch the defense struggle.
Andrew Garda is a freelance writer currently murdering internet trees in the name of NFL football. A member of the Pro Football Writers Association, he is a contributing writer for Sports on Earth and has been featured on sites such as Bleacher Report, The Jets Blog, Comcast Sportsnet, Footballguys and CheeseheadTV. Garda has been credentialed for many NFL drafts, Senior Bowls, pro days and various NFL events and currently lives in Montclair, N.J., where you can't swing a stick without hitting another sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter at @andrew_garda.