It’s a brand new year, a time for fresh directions and trying to improve ourselves. That is a concept that can easily be applied to the Dallas Cowboys, who may be able to do so right out of the gate in 2021. They have to have a little help from the Philadelphia Eagles, or even the Washington Football Team who could decide to completely flop on Sunday night. But even if that does not go the Cowboys’ way, a win over the New York Giants would let them end the year on a four-game winning streak. Many have been preoccupied with how this affects their draft position, but in keeping with the theme of this time of year, our David Howman and Tom Ryle are digging for positives that can come from going out strong.
Tom: I absolutely think a win would be great for the Cowboys. That goes beyond just keeping the hopes of a playoff game alive for at least a few more hours. For twelve games, 2020 was about as horrible a season as you could imagine. There were rumors floating around about the locker room having a lack of faith in the coaching staff. Whether those were actually what was coming out of the players, or just some media types projecting, there were certainly many reasons to doubt Mike McCarthy and his staff.
That makes the head coach perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the three-game winning streak. Obviously, it would be even better with a win over the Giants, and a playoff appearance would ramp things up. But already the head coach and all the assistants have a level of accomplishment to inspire and encourage the team. They certainly did not have that three weeks ago. Maybe they were about to lose the locker room. I think that overstates how it was, but in any case, it is going to be a lot easier to move forward than it would have been with more losses.
David: I completely agree. The way this season started off, with Dak Prescott’s injury being the rotten cherry on top, brought a ton of adversity for a team still going through a culture change after having little time with Mike McCarthy and his new staff before the season started. Those are less than ideal circumstances to be implementing a new culture, but it appears that the team is coming out stronger for it. And unlike some teams with a losing record, the Cowboys will be getting a bunch of talent back next year just from good health, so this has the potential to carry over into the 2021 season in a huge way.
As for the draft, it’s really not the worst thing to fall down the order this year. Whereas in years past there have been obvious day-one difference makers on defense - the Cowboys’ biggest need this offseason, unless they choose to start over at quarterback - there is no Chase Young or Jalen Ramsey in this year’s class; or at the very least, there doesn’t appear to be any of those caliber of defenders. So it’s entirely possible Dallas can land a defensive prospect in the latter half of the first round with as much talent as they would with a top ten pick. In other words, just enjoy yourself if the Cowboys do make the playoffs.
Tom: Yeah, we both know that starting over at QB is not in the plans, especially as long as Dak continues to improve faster than expected. Draft picks tend to be overvalued, because every single one is a risk. You have busts because teams do a bad job evaluating the players, some obviously talented players are just too knuckleheaded to make it in the NFL, and sometimes even when the team does everything right and the player lives up to expectations, it still doesn’t help, at least right away. Look at what happened with Joe Burrow. He appeared to be on his way to being a real star and immediate help for the Cincinnati Bengals, but now he’s just another big-name talent on IR while they are sitting near the top of the draft order yet again.
No team can answer all its roster questions in one draft. There aren’t enough picks, and the deeper you go, the more of a crapshoot things become. We tend to get really excited about sixth-round guesses and seventh-round flyers, but those almost never turn into anything particularly helpful.
What can be more valuable to a team is something we are seeing with the injury-depleted Cowboys: Developing their existing talent. Dalton Schultz, Neville Gallimore, Brandon Knight, Connor McGovern, Terence Steele, and Donovan Wilson are just some of the more obvious players who are growing and learning right before our eyes. It is about much more than top of the draft talents like CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs.
David: You hinted at it, and I’m going to come right out and say it: A big reason those sixth-and seventh-round pet cats never turn into anything is because they rarely get any playing time in the first place. But with the way this season has gone, Dallas has had an opportunity get extended looks at guys all over the field going up against first-string talent each week. Donovan Wilson, for example, has seized the opportunity and probably enters next year as the top safety on the roster, while Terence Steele has overcome a dreadful start to the year to become a viable backup option and probably the third-string swing tackle next year.
While I could use this as an opportunity to once again rant about the lack of opportunities for Bradlee Anae, I’ll instead focus on all these other rookies that have cemented their status this year. Francis Bernard, Reggie Robinson II, and Rico Dowdle have all become valuable special teamers, with each of them routinely being among the leaders in special teams snaps each week that they’ve been active, while Sean McKeon has found a nice role as a blocking tight end in goal line jumbo packages. All of these players got those opportunities because of the unique way this year unfolded, and it ended up (somehow) coming without a significant detraction from the team’s ability to play competitive football late in the season. The Cowboys have a lot less question marks now about their overall roster, and they did it all while still being in the playoff hunt entering Week 17. That’s a net positive.
Tom: While we are talking about confidence, don’t forget the veterans out there who have gone through this season of difficulty piled on disaster and clawed their way back into the playoff picture. That can lead to more faith in the players around you, as well as in the coaches and yourself. If nothing else, it means there will be little need to get their heads straight for next season.
I love analytics even though I really don’t know how to do them, but I also believe in intangibles. That especially applies to what goes on in the heads of players and coaches as well, and finishing the season on a high note just improves that. You can call me old-fashioned, but I’ll take winning over losing every time.