by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Things have been unusually quiet this offseason in Dallas. Which begs the question:

What’s going on with Jerry Jones?

Maybe the formerly quick-triggered Cowboy supremo is just mellowing with age. Or, maybe, ’ol Jerry is just basking in a new-found avenue for his celebrity. After all, wasn’t he playing himself, hobnobbing with J.R. Ewing, in a summer episode of the remade Dallas TV show on TNT?

Or, perhaps, it’s simply a yes on all counts.

What we do know is that a younger Jones wouldn’t have stood for Dallas continuing to fumble around and blowing chances at playoff berths, as has been the case the past two years. While a year-and-a-half still might be a bit quick even by Jerry’s old standards to hit the eject button on HC Jason Garrett, Jones was still expecting a lot more than what he received a year ago, when his Cowboys kicked away a clear shot at the NFC East title when losing four of their last five games.

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By the time the smoke had cleared, Jerry’s team had missed the playoffs entirely, hardly putting up much of a fight in the regular-season finale against the Giants. That 31-14 loss to Tom Coughlin’s side, coupled with a 37-34 giveaway loss to the G-Men three weeks earlier in Arlington, paved the way for New York, and not Dallas, to win the division. And we know what happened with the Giants thereafter in the postseason.

In past days, Jerry would have been openly lamenting about how that should have been his Cowboys, and not the Giants, making a Super Bowl run. Either that, or Jones might have contemplated a jump off of Reunion Tower, much less consider making coaching and personnel changes.

Still, the old Jerry lurks beneath the surface. And we suspect that no matter how much he likes Jason Garrett, of whom Jones championed for years as the unofficial Dallas coach-in-waiting, the Cowboys had better reach the playoffs this fall, or a purge of biblical proportions could await in Big D.

Oddsmakers, however, are not necessarily convinced that Jerry really has a serious Super Bowl contender on his hands this fall. Most Las Vegas wagering outlets have Dallas’ season-win total at a modest 8 ½. They’re also a third pick in the NFC East (though not rated too far behind the Eagles and Giants), in the 5/2 range for the division wherever that wager is posted. To reach the Super Bowl out of the NFC, the Cowboys are grouped in a second-tier cluster and priced roughly at 14/1.

Those Dallas diehards who can’t resist a Super Bowl win wager on their favorite team can get the Cowboys at a rather healthy 25/1 to win the whole thing. Which, if Dallas indeed emerges as a serious contender this fall (not too far-fetched a notion) and odds drop as the season progresses, might actually be a bargain price at the moment.

Regarding Garrett, remember that Jerry didn’t give much rope to the likes of long-ago predecessors Chan Gailey or Dave Campo, and moved out Barry Switzer just two years after the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXX over the Steelers. And Jerry famously couldn't share the stage with Jimmy Johnson, who departed (fired or forced resignation, take your pick) after winning the second of back-to-back Super Bowls. Don't forget that Jerry was also the one who, once upon a time, in his first significant act as team owner, pulled the plug on a past sell-by date Tom Landry, risking the sort of backlash that Bobby Bowden’s forced departure at Florida State would cause two decades later.

If Jerry could move out Tom Landry, Jimmy Johnson, and Barry Switzer, he can certainly make Jason Garrett walk the plank.

But Jones did, however, stick with Garrett predecessor Wade Phillips for longer (3 ½ seasons) than most envisioned, suggesting the owner is indeed a more-mellow chap these days.

Jerry also continues to ride with QB Tony Romo, who has won only one playoff game in six years as the starter, something that the old Jones probably wouldn’t have tolerated, either. While Romo cannot shoulder the entire blame for the continuing underachievement (at least underachievement as defined by by Dallas standards), he has also proved as ineffective in “winning the big ones” as Don Meredith was once labeled in Big D.

In the offseason, there was even talk that Jerry might make a run at Peyton Manning, but that never materialized, and with other pickings relatively slim in the free-agent QB market, all Jones did in the offseason to upgrade at the position was add ex-Bear, Bronco, and Chief QB Kyle Orton as veteran cover behind Romo.

NFC East sources, however, are insistent that neither Garrett nor Romo have any more mulligans to use on their scorecards with Jones. Another playoff-less year in Big D likely results in major housecleaning in the offseason.

And, in truth, Romo cannot take much blame for another playoff miss in 2011, as his stats were among the best of his career. With 31 TD passes and only 10 picks, Romo performed beyond the call of duty for much of the season, especially with injuries hampering his receiving corps for much of the year. Not to mention himself, playing through a painful fractured rib and punctured lung.

Before it’s too late, Romo has one more chance to prove he can win some big games, which in Dallas has always been the litmus test of QBs and separated Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman from a group including Meredith, Craig Morton, Danny White, Gary Hogeboom, and a few others, and one that Romo is running out of time to separate from in Cowboys annals.

Romo, however, just might have enough help to get over the hump this fall. Jones, for one, thinks that 2nd-year RB DeMarco Murray (right) is about to explode after gaining 887 YR in an abbreviated rookie season, perhaps providing the best all-around threat in the Dallas backfield since the days of Emmitt Smith. Long-ball threat and ex-Arkansas star (those sorts are always dear to former Razorback Jerry J.) Felix Jones is also still in the mix, and could flourish in his preferred change-of-pace role rather than as an every-down workhorse. The RB combination intrigues.

Meanwhile, the offensive line remains solid, bolstered by the FA addition of versatile Mackenzy Bernadeau (who can play guard or center) from the Panthers.

Jones is also expecting 3nd-year WR Dez Bryant to become a terror this fall after hinting at such a year ago when catching 63 passes for nine TDs, although the ex-Oklahoma State star is never far from the personal demons that some believe will forever stunt his career. Still, with Bryant and a healthy Miles Austin, Romo has his secondary-distorting targets, while TE Jason Witten (left, who has led Cowboy receivers for the past six seasons) remains state-of-the-art as a trusted, go-to underneath target.

Offense, however, is always only half of the story. If any improvements are in store for the strike force, they threaten to be undone unless the “D” progresses correspondingly.

Many NFC East observers suggest last year’s spring/early-summer lockout prevented the platoon from having the extra time it needed to digest new d.c. Rob Ryan’s application of 3-4 schemes, which were more complicated than those used previously by Wade Phillips.

And after ongoing struggles on the stop end last fall, Jones, not surprisingly, opted for defense with his first four picks in the draft.

The first-round selection, LSU CB Morris Claiborne, finally signed in late July. Widely considered the top cover corner in the draft, Claiborne is expected to break into the lineup, probably sooner rather than later.

Ryan, however, still has to worry about the long-running soft spot in the Cowboy secondary at free safety, where a revolving door of DBs have tried and failed in recent years. Ken Hamlin, Alan Ball, and Abe Elam have all underperformed the past few seasons, and Ryan has yet to be bowled over by the latest candidate, FA addition Brodney Pool, who didn’t impress in OTA get-togethers during the spring. Some believe that 4th-round pick Matt Johnson, from Big Sky Eastern Washington, could even challenge for a starting role if Pool can’t deliver. Jones also added ex-Chief CB Brandon Carr in free agency.

If the Cowboys can in fact upgrade their secondary (and getting Claiborne and Pool to deliver will be key), the stop unit could yet flourish, with plenty of other established playmakers in the mix. At the top of that list, most certainly, is LB DeMarcus Ware (left), off another All-Pro season when he recorded 19 ½ sacks, which ranked second in the league. On the other side of the field, however, Jones is said to be running out of patience with LB Anthony Spencer and his $8.8 million salary. Another rookie, Wake Forest LB Kyle Wilbur, could push Spencer in training camp.

Ryan and Jones are also cautiously optimistic regarding another rookie, Boise State DE Tyrone Crawford, a third-round pick who is expected to compete for snaps right away and could team with holdover Kenyon Coleman as an impactful DE combo.

Spread-wise, Dallas supporters are also hungry for some pointspread improvement this season, as the Cowboys have dipped to a 10-20-2 spread mark the past two years.

We can at least be sure that Jones isn’t a betting man, because if he were, we know he definitely wouldn’t have stood still and accepted that sort of performance against the line.

Summary...This fall is no different than any others in Dallas, where expectations for the Cowboys are always high. The only difference in recent years is that Jerry Jones has been showing a bit more patience with the operation, but almost all NFC East observers are suggesting that 2012 is an especially crucial campaign for HC Jason Garrett and QB Tony Romo, who are sooner or later going to have to start making the playoffs and winning once they get there to keep Jerry happy.

There are no easy roads through the NFC East, but if the pieces fall in pace, Dallas appears to have many of the ingredients needed to emerge as a viable Super Bowl contender. But those involve a lot of ifs. And about the only “if” we can guarantee is if the Cowboys once again don’t make the playoffs, expect a very busy offseason in Big D. Jerry Jones, remember, still has the keys to the broom closet at the new Cowboys Stadium.


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