The Cowboys have five Lombardi Trophies in the lobby of their training complex, The Star. Cases across the hallway showcase the five Super Bowl rings that go with those five championships. But they’re history.
The Cowboys haven’t come close to another title since 1995. In fact, only Washington, Detroit and Dallas have failed to make the NFC Championship Game in the past 22 seasons. The Cowboys have become “Next Year’s Champions” just as they were tabbed in 1969, two years before they broke through to win their first title in 1971.
That hasn’t affected their optimism. The Cowboys are as confident about winning it all in 2018 as they were in 2017 and 2016 and 2015 and ...
“It’s all about chasing [Super Bowl] No. 6,” quarterback Dak Prescott says. “We have the right guys. We’re excited. I promise you, 2018 is going to be a great year.”
Six NFC teams have better Super Bowl odds in Vegas than the Cowboys, who for the second consecutive offseason have lost big-name playmakers. A year ago, Tony Romo retired. This year, Dallas moved on from Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten retired.
The departures of Romo, Bryant and Witten over the past two offseasons have signaled a changing of the guard. This is Prescott’s team. He will try to regain his rookie touch after winning fewer games (nine in 2017, 13 in 2016), throwing fewer touchdowns (22, down from 23), throwing for fewer yards (3,324, down from 3,667) and producing a lower passer rating (86.6, down from 104.9). He continued to have trouble getting the ball down the field, which kept him from getting on the same page with Bryant in two seasons. Defensive coordinators did a good job taking away Prescott’s favorite target, Cole Beasley, underneath. Kellen Moore, who went into 2017 training camp as Prescott’s backup, now is his quarterbacks coach, replacing Wade Wilson. Undrafted free agent Cooper Rush will have to beat out fifth-round pick Mike White for the backup job.
While Prescott is the leader of the offense, the Cowboys’ offense still goes as Ezekiel Elliott goes. He missed six games last season while serving a suspension, and it likely cost the Cowboys a playoff berth. Dallas went 3-3 without him. Elliott led the league in rushing as a rookie with 1,631 yards. He gained 983 in 10 games last season. The Cowboys traded for Tavon Austin, whom the Rams listed as a receiver. Dallas will use him as a “web back,” trying to get him in space to make some explosive plays. Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones says they would like to get Austin 12 touches per game. Dallas used a fullback on 12 percent of its offensive snaps last season. It traded with Oakland for Jamize Olawale, who will become Elliott’s blocking back. Rod Smith beat out Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris for the backup job to Elliott last season.
For the first time since 2009, the Cowboys don’t have Bryant as their No. 1 receiver. In fact, they admit they don’t have a No. 1 receiver on their roster. Maybe they don’t need one the way Prescott prefers to spread the ball around. The Cowboys hired Sanjay Lal as their receivers coach, and he convinced them to sign Deonte Thompson, who caught a career-high 38 passes in 2017 (27 for Buffalo, 11 for Chicago). Dallas also signed Allen Hurns, whom Jacksonville cut after he missed 11 games with injuries the past two seasons, and drafted Michael Gallup in the third round. The Cowboys return Beasley and Terrance Williams. Beasley’s numbers dipped last season, falling by 39 catches and 519 yards from 2016. Williams, who had no touchdowns last season, has not proved reliable enough. The Cowboys likely will use more three-receiver sets and a committee approach.
Witten’s retirement surprised the Cowboys. They didn’t get a chance to replace him in free agency and used a fourth-round pick on Stanford’s Dalton Schultz. As a result, the Cowboys will go with a committee approach with Rico Gathers, Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin and Schultz. The four have combined to catch nine passes for 94 yards and no touchdowns in 29 career games. The Cowboys will miss Witten’s leadership even more than his production on the field.
The Cowboys offensive line will enter this season looking to regain its reputation as the best in the league. They lost their swagger last year after right tackle Doug Free retired, left guard Ron Leary left in free agency and left tackle Tyron Smith had back, hip and groin injuries. Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin all earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2016. None made it last season, although Martin was a second-team selection. The Cowboys signed guard Marcus Martin and tackle Cameron Fleming in free agency to add depth, and they drafted Connor Williams. Williams was a three-year starter at left tackle for Texas, but the Cowboys will move him to left guard. La’el Collins spent his first two seasons at left guard, starting 14 games, before moving to right tackle last season.
The Cowboys went into last year’s draft looking for their “war daddy” pass rusher, not knowing that guy was already on their roster. Demarcus Lawrence, who had nine sacks his first three seasons, busted out with 14.5 last season. He became the first Cowboy with at least 10 sacks in a season since 2013. Tyrone Crawford will start opposite Lawrence. The Cowboys signed Kony Ealy to add to the defensive end rotation along with Taco Charlton, a first-round choice last year. They drafted Dorance Armstrong and could see the return of Randy Gregory from a year-long suspension. The Cowboys have high hopes for defensive tackle David Irving, who was disruptive in making seven sacks in eight games, but he has been suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Maliek Collins will continue to man the nose and the team traded for Jihad Ward to add to the depth up front.
The Cowboys found a replacement for linebacker Anthony Hitchens in the first round, taking Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch. He will start at middle linebacker, pushing Jaylon Smith to strong-side linebacker. Smith played 55 percent of the defensive snaps, and the Cowboys would like to keep that number around 50 percent, which they will do with him at Sam. Sean Lee remains the mainstay -- when he’s on the field. He has missed 42 games with injuries in his eight seasons. Damien Wilson has started 15 games the past two seasons, so the Cowboys have depth at the position.
In two offseasons, the Cowboys have completely remade their secondary. Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox and Orlando Scandrick have departed, and Byron Jones is moving from safety to corner. Jones started all 16 games at free safety last season, but he has had trouble in run support and has only two career interceptions. New secondary coach Kris Richard likes bigger corners, and Jones is 6'0", 205. Jones joins Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown at corner. Xavier Woods will start at free safety. Jeff Heath will continue to start at strong safety, and Kavon Frazier will spell him.
Kicker Dan Bailey has left the Cowboys with at least a small measure of concern after he uncharacteristically missed five field goals and two extra points last season. He did miss four games with a right groin injury, so Dallas has to hope that explains his inconsistency. Punter Chris Jones was consistent with a 44.1-yard average, a 41.4-yard net and only five touchbacks. The Cowboys’ trade for Austin gives them a game-breaking punt returner, and they plan to use him as their kick returner, too.
Jason Garrett kept his job, but most of his assistant coaches departed. Coordinators Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli return, so the offense and defense remain the same. But after a disappointing non-playoff season, Garrett is back on the hot seat. He has only two playoff appearances and one postseason win in seven full seasons as head coach. The Cowboys took some losses in the offseason, but they’re hoping that makes for better chemistry and more victories during the season.