It’s a time of optimism for fans of the Dallas Cowboys. The team has a new head coach and a largely revamped staff, a more exciting crop of free agents than we have seen in years, and what may be the best rookie class in the NFL. We are thinking the team got better and can’t wait for football to return.
Of course, almost all teams think they are better after the offseason, which obviously is not true in all cases. For Dallas, the most important teams are the rest of the NFC East. All have seen their own major changes, and just how they do will depend largely on how those work out for them. From a Cowboys perspective, here is the biggest question for each team that we really would like answered.
Which version of Jason Garrett will show up?
The New York Giants have a new head coach in rookie Joe Judge. As often is the case, there was a decision to bring in a top assistant with head coaching experience to help him learn the unique requirements of the new level of responsibility. In doing so, the Giants also jumped on an opportunity to get some serious inside information on the Cowboys, and hired Jason Garrett as their offensive coordinator.
A lot of Dallas fans are licking their chops at going up against an offense run by the man who inspired so much frustration over his near-decade at the helm of the Cowboys. But that may overlook just how good an offensive coordinator Garrett was before he got the head coaching gig from Jerry Jones.
And therein lies something of a paradox. When he was in his first incarnation as an OC, Garrett showed admirable traits of aggressiveness and creativity. But after moving up, he seemed to become increasingly more conservative and cautious. While it may be more legend than fact, there is certainly a wide belief that Garrett was throttling back Kellen Moore in the latter’s first season as offensive coordinator and play-caller.
Now we are going to find out which version of Garrett will show up. Will he still have a marked propensity to hand the ball off on early downs and go for “manageable” third down situations? With Saquon Barkley in the backfield, that seems almost a given.
Or will he find some of the quarterback whispering skills that turned Dak Prescott into a rookie sensation? Daniel Jones is just in his second year, and his need to grow and develop probably played a significant part in bringing Garrett in. If Garrett can coach Jones up and get away from the highly predictable and frequently telegraphed offensive play calls, he could be a real thorn in Mike McCarthy’s side. Which is also a bit of motivation for Redball.
I am always hesitant to expect aging canines to acquire new performance skills, however. Garrett is going to have to prove he can move on and grow. With that ball carrying safety blanket, it does seem doubtful.
How long before Jalen Hurts becomes the starting quarterback?
It has been a running gag on Twitter that the Philadelphia Eagles drafted their new starting quarterback this year, but it isn’t entirely a joke. Carson Wentz saw his season ended by injury in both 2017 and 2018. Last season saw him play a full 16 games, only to go out early in the first playoff game he ever appeared in.
Wentz’s health is the real question here, because the season for Philadelphia will likely depend on just how long he lasts. While Hurts was probably a more logical and valuable selection than we want to give the Eagles credit for, he is no Nick Foles, at least not yet. Doug Pederson is a very good coach who showed that he can make players like Foles better, but Hurts is not going to get the chance to develop that Wentz did when he was actually drafted to be the immediate starter. Hurts is going to be relegated to the second string, which means second-string work. With the CBA practice restrictions, that means that he is not going to be ready to immediately step in. While there is always a chance he could come in and set things on fire, it is very, very slim.
Injuries are always very hard to predict, and there is a real argument to be made that being injury prone is not really a thing as long as there is not a degenerative element. That does not seem to be the case with Wentz, so he probably has a very good chance to make it all the way through the season.
Of course, maybe his injury problems spring from his own decisions and playing style. He certainly has not shied away from contact, and is a fierce competitor that wants to fight for every yard, or try to extend a play rather than throw the ball away. That does mean he takes more hits than some quarterbacks.
In any case, the Eagles’ season, including how they do when they face Dallas, will likely come down to how long Wentz can stay on the field.
Will the dumpster fire be put out?
The NFC East has seen the most coaching turmoil of any division this offseason, with three of the four teams replacing their head coach and much of their staff. Ron Rivera in Washington joins McCarthy and Judge as new faces at the top. He is like McCarthy, an experienced head coach, having spent almost the same amount of time leading the Carolina Panthers as Garrett headed up the Cowboys.
But McCarthy landed with a team that has some really good returning players, a recent history of successful drafting, and, despite the memes, an effective if unique organizational structure that he seems to have taken to like mallards seeking a pond. Rivera walked into one of the most notoriously dysfunctional franchises in the NFL. Under owner Dan Snyder, the team has seen continuous turmoil and an endless stream of bad decisions.
Rivera did get things off to a good start in the offseason, with the team taking arguably the best overall player in the draft in DE Chase Young. That may, however, have been more about not blowing the second overall pick than anything. They also lacked a second-rounder due to some of those questionable decisions in the past.
What will really matter is how well Rivera can take the reins. Hiring him was a strong indication that just maybe Snyder has realized the error of his ways. The move is reminiscent of Jerry Jones hiring Bill Parcells, who exercised more organizational control than any coach since Jimmy Johnson during his time in Dallas. And he did leave the Cowboys in better shape than when he arrived.
That would still require a major shift in approach for Snyder. It remains to be seen just how well that goes. Rivera also has the challenge of a second-year starting quarterback in Dwayne Haskins, who now has Kyle Allen eager to press him, and Alex Smith still trying to recover from his severe leg injury. Rivera, with his defensive background, will have to rely on offensive coordinator Scott Turner to sort that situation out. And unlike Garrett, Turner is new to the position. He may have learned a great deal from his father, Norv Turner, but whether he can put it all together on the field is yet to be seen.
Still, the greatest contribution Rivera can make to his team is to bring some order and focus to the football circus Washington has become. If he can do that, they could be a markedly better team.
Considering how bad they were in 2019, though, they may still be a season or three from being much of a challenge for Dallas.