On July 11 last year, ESPN published an annual exercise they like to call Future Power Rankings. To arrive at their rankings, they ranked each franchise's prospects for the next three years based on five factors - roster, quarterback, coaching, draft, and front office. Three of their NFL "experts," Louis Riddick, Field Yates, and Mike Sando rated each team on a scale of 0-100 on the five factors, and when the results were aggregated, the Cowboys ranked 26th in the league.
Granted, the entire exercise may have been nothing more than offseason filler, but something must have gone very wrong if a team that finished with the second-best record in the NFL and the No. 1 NFC seed was ranked 26th by a panel of experts.
So let's look at what led the ESPN analysts to make their dire, dire projection.
High point: The strength of the Cowboys' roster is its offensive line, a direct reflection of the front office. The front office dynamic is unlike any other in the NFL with owner Jerry Jones also serving as the GM, but the personnel department has shown that sometimes the best decisions are the ones you opt not to make. Jones famously wanted to draft Johnny Manziel in 2014, but the other front office members, namely son Stephen, swayed him toward guard Zack Martin. Martin has been an All-Pro performer from nearly his first snap in the league. This front office will continue to build the Cowboys' roster going forward. -- Field Yates
Low point: It has been said by many that the Cowboys have one of the most talented rosters in the entire NFL, and that much of their lack of success has been because of ownership meddling, coaching incompetency or injury/bad luck. Here's the truth: With Tony Romo now 36 and coming off an injury-riddled season, the Cowboys have no real succession plan at QB. They have severe deficiencies at pass-rusher for a variety of reasons (injuries and character misevaluations). They have major injury/longevity/character concerns at linebacker. And they simply are not good enough in the secondary, with Byron Jones being the only player who excites me long-term. To summarize: The Cowboys' roster is more hype than substance. -- Louis Riddick
What could change: Stephen Jones' role in running the team should only continue to grow as Jerry Jones enters his mid-70s. As Field alluded to, the younger Jones' influence has been positive, by all accounts, but the Cowboys could quickly become a team in transition as age catches up with cornerstones Romo and Jason Witten. Romo's ability to play a full regular season and postseason is in serious question at age 36. That makes the Cowboys a volatile team over the next couple of seasons. -- Mike Sando
It would be easy to sit here, all high and mighty, and ridicule the ESPN writers for their failure to anticipate the astonishing season the Cowboys had, or go on a lengthy and righteous rant about ESPN itself, but that's not what's going to happen today.
Instead, think back to when the ESPN writers rated the Cowboys last year.
- The team was coming off a four-win season that brutally showed everyone what the team was worth without Tony Romo - the Cowboys' stellar O-line notwithstanding.
- Romo's injury history also meant there were legitimate concerns about the state of his back, which proved warranted in hindsight.
- And beyond a quarterback taken at the bottom of the fourth round - whom the Cowboys backed into after failing twice to trade up (Paxton Lynch, Connor Cook) - there was no discernible plan for a potential Romo successor, except for some vaguely formulated fantasy about Romo continuing as the franchise quarterback for the next four to five years.
Sure, the Cowboys had also just drafted Ezekiel Elliott, the Seahawks preseason game hadn't happened yet and Romo still looked healthy, and even guys like Louis Riddick "saw something" in Dak Prescott.
If you were inclined more towards optimism than towards pessimism, you could probably have made a fairly reasonable case for why the Cowboys should have been ranked somewhere in the 10-15 range for the next few years in the ESPN rankings.
ESPN will likely publish their next Future Power Rankings soon, and the Cowboys will probably rank a lot higher on this year's version than they did on last year's version. And of course we'll find plenty of reasons to argue why the Cowboys are ranked too high or too low on this year's iteration.
But none of it can take away from how far the Cowboys have come since ESPN published its story of doom and gloom last year.
Today, the Cowboys seem to have skipped entire chapters from The Guide to Team Rebuilding, and in one fell swoop went from 4-12 to 13-3. Along the way, they look to have found their franchise quarterback in 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year Dak Prescott, have the NFL rushing leader in Ezekiel Elliott, and an O-line that won the inaugural Offensive Line of the Year Award and are still the second-youngest O-line in the league. In addition, the Cowboys hope to have restocked their defense with a lot of young talent from the last two drafts.
As fans, we have a tendency to take much of what the Cowboys have achieved for granted. As such, the ESPN article from a year ago serves as a timely reminder of how far the Cowboys have come in just one year.
The future is bright for the Dallas Cowboys.