The Dallas Cowboys were really good last season. You don't remember that part.
An NFL team can play a full season, look like the best team in football at times, then lose in the playoffs and everything else is forgotten. The Cowboys were good enough to be the best team in Football Outsiders' DVOA last season. If you don't trust that metric, go back and watch Dallas' 56-14 win over the Washington Commanders. The Cowboys were very good.
What you recall from the 2021 Cowboys is probably a 23-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the wild-card round, or perhaps more specifically a strange quarterback draw call on the final play that killed the clock. It's not fair to judge an entire season of work on one loss to a hot 49ers team, but that's life in the NFL. It was crushing. Dak Prescott said about a month after Dallas' season ended that he still thought about the loss constantly.
“Yeah, I mean, nonstop. Multiple times a day,” Prescott said on "The Rich Eisen Show," via On3.com. “I mean, it was tough. I mean, just expecting to go so much further; to have your season be a lot more than it was and just for it to end so sudden, and especially in the way that it did. It’s a tough one to swallow there. There’s certain moments and games and things that I think will stick with players or people for a long time in their career and I think this this game was one of them."
The problem is the Cowboys haven't had any unexpected postseason runs to balance out the disappointments. They haven't been to the conference championship round since the end of the 1995 season, when they won Super Bowl XXX. Since a Dec. 28, 1996 wild-card round win over the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas is 3-10 in the playoffs. When you have three playoff wins over two and a half decades, bad playoff losses won't be forgiven easily. Especially with that fanbase.
The goal of a deep playoff run is still viable in Dallas, but the offseason didn't help. The Cowboys lost pass rusher Randy Gregory and two starters on the offensive line, guard Connor Williams and tackle La'el Collins, in free agency. Gregory left after the Cowboys thought they'd re-signed him, but the deal fell apart over contract language Gregory's side didn't agree with. Receiver Amari Cooper was practically given away in a trade to the Cleveland Browns. Those were the big departures, and a few others eat away at Dallas' depth. The Cowboys are stuck with some big contracts (Ezekiel Elliott's $18.2 million cap hit is egregious based on his predictable decline) and couldn't add much. Their big free-agent move was a one-year, $3 million prove-it deal to pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr. Dallas is good and has some young players who will improve, but it's hard to say the roster is better than a year ago.
Yet, Dallas fans should have optimism. It's not like the expectations will change. Many of the same ingredients that propelled the Cowboys into contender status are still in place. Dak Prescott came back from injury and played at his typical, productive level. CeeDee Lamb should emerge as a standout No. 1 receiver without Cooper around to share targets, and tight end Dalton Schultz had a big breakout last season. Elliott might be aging faster than the Cowboys want to admit, but he still had 1,002 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and forms a good running back duo with Tony Pollard. The defense, led by young stars Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs, took a massive step forward with coordinator Dan Quinn last season.
The problem for the Cowboys is another good season won't cut it. There have been some good seasons since 1995. There haven't been any great ones. Owner Jerry Jones has to be getting antsy. Coach Mike McCarthy obviously knows that Sean Payton is a free agent after stepping down as New Orleans Saints coach, and Jones' affinity for Payton is well known. McCarthy and Jones already seem tired of answering questions about the coach's future. The players have to be tiring of hearing about the playoff failures.
The Cowboys come into this season knowing that anything short of at least a trip to the NFC championship game won't be good enough. That goal seems a bit further away than it was at the end of last season.
Here's a list of starters or key contributors from a season ago who aren't on the roster anymore: Receivers Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson, offensive linemen La'el Collins and Connor Williams, edge rusher Randy Gregory, safeties Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal, and kicker Greg Zuerlein. Cooper, a four-time Pro Bowler who is just 28 years old, was traded to the Browns for the low price of a 2022 fifth-round pick and a swap of 2022 sixth-round picks. That's disheartening. The two biggest signings were edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. and receiver James Washington, and both are downgrades over the players they're replacing. Dallas did retain players like defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and tight end Dalton Schultz, the latter on the franchise tag. The draft got a poor grade from most analysts. The top three picks were offensive lineman Tyler Smith, edge defender Sam Williams and receiver Jalen Tolbert. Even the most optimistic Cowboys fan can't look at the comings and goings of the offseason and feel the roster is better.
Dak Prescott had a successful return from a major leg injury that ended his 2020 season early. He was just fine passing the ball, finishing with 4,449 yards and 37 touchdowns. One area that didn't bounce back was Prescott's running game. Prescott isn't a frequent runner, but he has added value with his legs. Last season he had 146 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown. He barely ran, which was by design. Now that Prescott is another year removed from injury, the limitations will be off.
“I think we tried to be smart,” coach Mike McCarthy said about limiting Prescott's running last season, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I think it’s obvious we didn’t call as many quarterback runs than probably prior years. So, there weren’t as many in the game plan. I think we tried to be smart when we used him.”
The Cowboys' win total at BetMGM is 10.5, and the under is one of the most popular plays of the offseason among bettors. I wouldn't be so excited to take the under. Even with a bad offseason, the Cowboys were very good last season and it wasn't a fluke. I don't know that I like the over either, so I'll be passing on Cowboys future bets this offseason. But don't underestimate Dallas' ability to have another fantastic regular season.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Ezekiel Elliott has been buoyed by volume, durability, and touchdown deodorant in recent years. He finished as the RB6 last season, despite few splash plays and the worst receiving efficiency of his career. And he's averaged a modest 4.1 yards per carry since 2020.
"Meanwhile, Tony Pollard was a whirlwind last year, in a secondary role. Pollard averaged 6.2 yards per touch in 2021, compared to just 4.5 for Elliott.
"On a normal team, we'd look at this backfield and project a healthy time share. Alas, the Cowboys often play to their name players, and Elliott is still in the middle of a monster contract extension he signed three years ago. The Cowboys don't view him as a sunk cost.
"The fantasy market has cooled to Elliott — he has a Yahoo ADP around 32, and it's outside the Top 40 in July NFFC drafts. Meanwhile, Pollard can be found around Pick 93 in Yahoo, and Pick 84 in July NFFC rooms. Mindful that running back windows often slam shut with little warning, I'll be eschewing Elliott at the draft table, but open-minded to Pollard. Maybe Pollard would need an Elliott injury to really pop as a fantasy play, but I can't ignore the arrows moving in opposite directions."
Here are Ezekiel Elliott's rushing yards per game for each of his NFL seasons, starting with his rookie year: 108.7, 98.3, 95.6, 84.8, 65.3, 58.9. The aging curve of a high-volume running back in the NFL stinks. Elliott isn't finished as a starting NFL running back. His drop last season can be attributed to a partially torn PCL in his right knee that he played through. However, anyone who has watched the Cowboys the past two seasons can see that Tony Pollard is the more explosive of the two backs. Elliott played 65.9 percent of Dallas' offensive snaps last season and Pollard got 30.5. That could be closer to 50-50 this season, though the Cowboys seem beholden to Elliott's contract and his past production when it comes to playing time decisions.
Can Micah Parsons approach 20 sacks?
The Cowboys drafted Parsons in the first round, believing they were getting an off-ball linebacker with some pass rushing skills. When Parsons had to rush the quarterback more due to injuries on defense, there was a revelation. Parsons ended up being one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Parsons finished with 13 sacks, just short of Jevon Kearse's rookie record of 14.5 sacks. Parsons has some high hopes for his second season, and wants to make a run at the single-season record of 22.5 sacks.
"Yeah, 15's like the minimum. 15's what I wanna hit," Parsons said, via CBS Sports. "But definitely 23 is that goal, to break the record.
Only six players had 14 or more sacks last season. Parsons is one of the few edge rushers in the league that can set that as a realistic goal.
The Cowboys could have won a Super Bowl last season. We sometimes make too much of results in a single-elimination tournament. Dallas lost a close playoff game against the 49ers, and that shouldn't have erased every positive thing the Cowboys did last season. And there were a lot of good things. Dallas had a rough offseason but perhaps none of the personnel losses will prove to be a fatal blow. Dak Prescott should be better, not having to rehab a leg injury all offseason. Dallas led the NFL in yards and points scored last season and that shouldn't fall off too much. The Cowboys had an excellent defense too. They might have a top-five offense and a top-five defense this season. They could be right back to the same level they were last season, when they looked like a Super Bowl contender. Then they just need some playoff luck.
The personnel losses over the offseason were worrisome, and that's not the only potential issue. Ezekiel Elliott is in decline. The receiving corps is relying heavily on Michael Gallup's healthy return from a torn ACL, and that's no sure thing. The offensive line lost two starters, and tackle Tyron Smith and guard Zack Martin are both 31 years old. Smith in particular has had a hard time staying healthy. There is no guarantee the defense repeats its surprising performance of last season. The Philadelphia Eagles had a far better offseason and could win the NFC East. Dallas should make the postseason in a watered-down NFC even if Philadelphia wins the division. But would a wild-card spot and an early postseason exit make anyone in Dallas happy? You already know the answer to that.
I'm in a weird place with the Cowboys. I think what they did last season has been forgotten and underestimated, and a lot of it is repeatable. Yet, I'm fully on board with the Eagles' improvement and I'll be picking them to win the NFC East. (Philly isn't ranked higher than Dallas because the Eagles haven't earned a higher spot yet.) Dallas will probably take a step back after losing some good players in the offseason, but they're still good enough to make the playoffs. And unless there's an unexpected playoff run, it will feel like another lost season. Then we get an offseason full of Sean Payton rumors.
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