The Cowboys again have Super Bowl aspirations despite not having come as close as even the NFC Championship Game since 1995, when they won their fifth Lombardi Trophy. They have reasons for optimism: Their quarterback, Dak Prescott, is coming back from a right ankle injury that ended his 2020 season prematurely; their starting tackles are returning after combining for only two games last season; former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has taken over as defensive coordinator; and the Cowboys added 10 players in free agency and 11 others in the draft, with 14 of the 21 newcomers on the defensive side of the ball.
“We’re going to put this thing together in a way that allows us to get in the big one and win a big one,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says.
The best news for the Cowboys this offseason came March 8 when they signed Prescott to a four-year, $160 million contract. That ensures that he will remain their franchise quarterback long term, but head coach Mike McCarthy’s future is more tenuous.
Prescott underwent immediate surgery Oct. 11 after a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle. He required a second surgery in December to strengthen the ankle. Prescott vows to “be more than healthy and better than I was before.” Prescott was leading the league in passing yards when his season ended. The common theory to explain the Cowboys’ 6–10 record is Prescott’s injury, but the Cowboys weren’t winning with Prescott. They were 1–3 in the games he started and finished. Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush and Ben DiNucci will compete for jobs behind Prescott.
Ezekiel Elliott had the worst statistical season of his career in 2020, averaging 4.0 yards per carry and 65.3 rushing yards per game. Worse still, Elliott had six fumbles with five lost. It’s also time to ask if he has lost a step. He had 32 plays of 20 or more yards in his first three seasons — including five over 40 yards — but only four plays of 20-plus yards in 2019 and three in 2020, with a long rush of 33 yards the past two seasons. Tony Pollard has solidified himself as a reliable backup. In fact, Pollard made a case last season that he was the best back on the team’s roster. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore needs to find a way to get Pollard the ball more than last season, when he had 129 touches.
Dallas has one of the best wide receiver trios in the league. The Cowboys are paying Amari Cooper $20 million this season to be their No. 1 wideout, and they drafted CeeDee Lamb with their first-round choice in 2020. Their third receiver, Michael Gallup, might be their best receiver, if only the Cowboys gave him more opportunities. The three combined for 225 catches for 2,892 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2020. Cooper and Lamb will continue to be the centerpieces of the passing game. The Cowboys could shop Gallup before the trade deadline since he is in the final year of his contract. Much depends on whether the Cowboys are competitors in late October. Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, Malik Turner and fifth-round choice Simi Fehoko will compete for backup roles.
Tight end Dalton Schultz stepped up after Blake Jarwin’s ACL tear in the opener and proved worthy of the fourth-round choice the Cowboys spent on him in 2018. Schultz finished 2020 with 63 receptions for 615 yards and four touchdowns.
Left tackle Tyron Smith played two games last season. Right tackle La’el Collins didn’t play at all. Right guard Zack Martin missed six games. All told, Smith, Collins and Martin, who have combined for 13 Pro Bowls, missed 36 total games last season. The Cowboys are counting on all three to return to health in 2021. If they do, the Cowboys again should have one of the league’s best offensive lines. If they don’t, the Cowboys will face a large rebuilding project in 2022.
The experiment with the 3-4 in 2020 ended with the Cowboys allowing the most points in franchise history. Quinn takes over the unit and is returning to the Tampa 2 the Cowboys played previously.
The Cowboys paid DeMarcus Lawrence before the 2019 season, signing him to a five-year, $105 million deal. In the two seasons since, Lawrence has 11.5 sacks and 26 quarterback hits. He had 14.5 sacks and 26 quarterback hits in 2017, his first of back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, which convinced the Cowboys to sign him to a long-term deal. They have not gotten their money’s worth yet. The Cowboys also need Randy Gregory to remain eligible. Gregory, 28, has served multiple suspensions since the Cowboys drafted him in the second round in 2015, playing only 38 games in six seasons. Dallas saw enough out of him in 10 games last season after his reinstatement to move on from Aldon Smith. Ex-Jets edge rusher Tarell Basham and third-round choice Chauncey Golston will join Dorance Armstrong and Bradlee Anae in spelling Lawrence and Gregory. The Cowboys finally saw enough from defensive tackle Trysten Hill to believe he is a long-term solution. Neville Gallimore, a third-round choice last season, played 14 games, starting nine, and is penciled in as the starter in 2021. Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins will play in the rotation.
The Cowboys invested a lot in the linebacker position and yet remain wanting, which is why they used their first-round choice on Micah Parsons. Leighton Vander Esch, a first-round choice in 2018, has missed 13 games and parts of others the past two seasons with neck issues. Until he proves he can stay on the field, Vander Esch will continue to face questions about his future. Weakside linebacker Jaylon Smith missed his entire rookie season in 2016 but has played every game since. Smith, though, struggled so much last season that some wondered whether the Cowboys would cut him. They didn’t, but Smith is on notice. Parsons is a three-down linebacker who will remain on the field even in the substitution packages. The Cowboys signed Keanu Neal in free agency, and he has the position versatility to play linebacker or safety.
Trevon Diggs, a second-round choice in 2020, has the skills to be a shutdown corner. He improved steadily during his rookie season, showing Pro Bowl potential late in the year. The Cowboys used another second-round choice on a corner this year, taking Kentucky’s Kelvin Joseph, who will compete with veteran Anthony Brown for the starting job opposite Diggs. Dallas re-signed Jourdan Lewis to play the slot. Rashard Robinson will begin the season serving a suspension, but he will provide depth upon his return. The Cowboys have long neglected the safety position, but the emergence of Donovan Wilson combined with the free agent signings of Damontae Kazee, Jayron Kearse and Neal should address the deficiency.
The Cowboys have turned over their special teams since hiring John Fassel as the unit’s coordinator before last season. Kicker Greg Zuerlein followed Fassel from the Rams in 2020, and veteran long snapper Jake McQuaide followed this offseason. The Cowboys signed veteran punter Bryan Anger in free agency after the Texans cut him. Pollard, who tied the FBS career record with seven kick-return TDs in three seasons at Memphis, will handle the team’s kickoff return duties. Lamb is the punt returner.
The pressure has turned up a notch on McCarthy this season. Maybe a return to the playoffs will be enough for 2021, but soon enough, McCarthy will have to prove that he can do what Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett couldn’t. The Cowboys haven’t played in the NFC Championship Game since 1995, which is the last time they won a Super Bowl. But having coached in Green Bay, McCarthy knows all about expectations.