Dak Prescott and the Cowboys look to make a statement in Mike McCarthy's first season as head coach
Owner Jerry Jones is hoping that Mike McCarthy as the head coach of the Cowboys is a marriage made in NFL heaven. Jones says he "heard bells" in his first meeting with McCarthy, who went 125-77-2 in the regular season in his 13 seasons as Packers head coach and won a Super Bowl. The Cowboys hired him to replace Jason Garrett, who won two postseason games in his nine and a half seasons as the team's head coach.
"One of our primary goals in selecting the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys was to focus on a proven team-builder and winner. Someone who's got a proven track record of winning not only consistently, but at the highest level," Jones says. "[In] Mike McCarthy, we found a coach who not only checked those boxes, but also has the experience of taking an NFL team to the biggest stage, the Super Bowl, and completing the job."
On paper, the Cowboys bear similarities to many of McCarthy's Packers teams. They are oozing with offensive talent, but they may need to outscore opponents. The defense appears to be somewhat lacking. McCarthy, though, gives Jones and the Cowboys hope.
Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper give Dallas the 2020s version of the Triplets. Prescott, like Troy Aikman, ultimately will determine how far the Cowboys go. He has a 40-24 record, but he has won only one postseason game in four seasons. Prescott, 27, had seven 300-yard passing games last season, two more than he had in his first three seasons combined. He averaged a career-best 8.2 yards per attempt and has proved he can get the ball downfield when he has a receiver who can get open. The Cowboys signed Andy Dalton to back up Prescott, the first time since Prescott's rookie season that he has had a veteran starter behind him.
Elliott held out of training camp in a contract dispute a year ago. The Cowboys paid him, but the running back didn't repay them on the field. He had a career-low four rushes over 20 yards, with a long of 33. Elliott's lack of big plays led to questions about whether he had lost a step. He will get another chance this season to prove he was worth the money. Tony Pollard arrived in last year's draft to back up Elliott, but he was so good as a rookie that the Cowboys want to find a way to get him more involved this season. Fullback Jamize Olawale was in a position to potentially seeing more playing time in McCarthy's offense, but he has opted out this season, leaving the team's plans for the position up in the air.
The Cowboys opened the checkbook to keep Cooper. But Cooper's numbers on the road don't compare favorably to his numbers at home. Last season, Cooper caught 52 passes for 869 yards and five touchdowns at AT&T Stadium but managed only 27 receptions for 320 yards and three touchdowns in road games. Cooper did play hurt, spending most of the season on the injury report with injuries to a foot, a quadriceps, an ankle and a knee. Michael Gallup proved a capable starter opposite Cooper with his first 1,000-yard season. The Cowboys couldn't pass up CeeDee Lamb when he fell to them at No. 17 in the first round of the draft. Lamb will take over the slot.
The Cowboys didn't have much interest in Jason Witten's return, as his unretirement proved a progress-stopper for Blake Jarwin in 2019. Jarwin played only 39 percent of the snaps but caught 31 passes for 365 yards and three touchdowns. The Cowboys signed Jarwin to a long-term deal as Witten's replacement.
Center Travis Frederick abruptly retired a year after returning from Guillain-Barre syndrome. Joe Looney replaced Frederick in 2018, starting every game at center while Frederick was out with his autoimmune disorder. Looney was functional in the role, but the Cowboys are better served with him as their interior backup. They will try both Connor Williams and Connor McGovern at center in training camp, with hopes that Williams proves up to the task. Fourth-round pick Tyler Biadasz also could get a shot in training camp. If Williams can convert to center, McGovern will take over at Williams' left guard spot. Zack Martin is the best right guard in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl honors for a sixth time in six seasons and All-Pro for a fourth time in 2019. Left tackle Tyron Smith joined Martin on the league's All-Decade Team for the 2010s, and he remains one of the game's top offensive linemen. Right tackle La'el Collins was the team's most consistent members of the unit last season.
The Cowboys are rolling the dice that the NFL clears Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory to return from indefinite suspensions and that they can remain on the active roster. Both have the body types to fit defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's designated pass rusher position. Although the Cowboys will play a base 4-3, they will have multiple looks that allow them to utilize variations with body types in rushing situations. The war daddy pass rusher remains DeMarcus Lawrence, but he had only five sacks last season. Dorance Armstrong and Joe Jackson provide depth at defensive end, and fifth-round choice Bradlee Anae could carve out a role. Tyrone Crawford, a team captain, returns from hip surgery that ended his season after only four games. He can play end or tackle. It appears the Cowboys already have given up on defensive tackle Trysten Hill after only one season, prompting them to sign Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy in free agency and draft Oklahoma's Neville Gallimore in the third round.
The Cowboys have a solid trio of starting linebackers when they are healthy. But middle linebacker Jaylon Smith missed his entire rookie season in 2016; strong-side linebacker Sean Lee has missed 51 of 160 career games; and weak-side linebacker Leighton Vander Esch sat out seven games with a neck injury last season. Vander Esch had minimally invasive surgery to fix a nerve issue, so the Cowboys are hoping he can return to the Pro Bowl form of his rookie season. Lee has returned for an 11th season after playing all 16 games for the first time in his career in 2019. Smith has remained healthy the past three seasons, but he has yet to live up to his draft position or his contract extension.
The Cowboys couldn't afford to keep defensive back Byron Jones this offseason and drafted Alabama's Trevon Diggs to replace him, and they used a third-day pick on Tulsa's Reggie Robinson II while looking to the future. Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown are the top returning cornerbacks, but Lewis and Awuzie are free agents in 2021. Dallas appears to have upgraded at safety, signing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Xavier Woods, the starting free safety last season, is underrated.
The Cowboys were one of the league's worst special teams units the past two seasons. Thus, one of McCarthy's first hires was John Fassel, one of the league's best special teams coaches. Veteran kicker Greg Zuerlein followed Fassel from the Rams, and Zuerlein will compete with veteran Kai Forbath for the job. Forbath arrived at midseason in 2019 and made all 10 of his field-goal attempts. Punter Chris Jones had career lows in 2019 with a 41.6-yard average and a 37.0 net, and it won't come as a great surprise if the Cowboys look for another punter. Pollard, a fourth-round choice in 2019, likely will handle the team's returns after tying the FBS career record with seven kick-return touchdowns in three seasons at Memphis. But Lamb and Diggs also are capable returners.
One of Garrett's mantras was "Finish." He couldn't, which is why he is now the Giants' offensive coordinator. The last time the Cowboys played in an NFC Championship Game (1995), Garrett was the team's backup QB. Detroit and Washington are the only other teams not to reach the NFC title game since the last time the Cowboys were there. McCarthy now gets a chance to see if he can finish what Garrett started.