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A rebuilding Cowboys team could still dominate the NFC East

Dallas probably won’t be able to hang with the best in the league, but they can become the best of the worst.

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants
Are we really afraid of these guys? I think not.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Here are a couple of seemingly contradictory statements:

  • The Dallas Cowboys are in a multiyear rebuilding process.
  • The Cowboys should be the best team in the NFC East, and by a comfortable margin.

We recently went into some detail about why the first of those two points is true. This is going to explain why the second is just as valid.

It all starts with looking at the division as a whole, not something recommended for the squeamish. This was an epically bad division in 2020. There are so many ways to look at that, but it can be succinctly illustrated with just two stats: Points scored per game, and points allowed. Raw stats like that may seem simplistic, but there is nothing that encapsulates how a team is performing like the score.

NFC East points per game

Team Points scored NFL rank Team Points allowed NFL rank
Team Points scored NFL rank Team Points allowed NFL rank
DAL 24.7 17th WFT 20.6 4th
WFT 20.9 t25th NYG 22.3 9th
PHI 20.9 t25th PHI 26.1 20th
NYG 17.5 31st DAL 29.6 28th

Before going into the specifics of what we can glean from this, let me lay out the main plan the Cowboys need to follow. The ensuing analysis will explain why this is the only way for them to approach this offseason to become a better, more competitive team in a dismal division. One where the other teams do not have anything as clear cut and effective to follow. It is an interconnected, three part plan that is not only achievable, but completely within the control of the team.

  1. Pay
  2. Dak
  3. Now

Go back and look at the average points scored columns. While they only wound up just outside the top half of the league, they still were well ahead of their rivals. And consider the split between games with Dak Prescott and without. In those first five games when he was the starter, they averaged 32.6 ppg. Had they kept that up for the entire season, they would have led the league. The final 11 games saw them averaging only 21.1, which would have been bottom ten. That alone is a strong indicator of just how important Prescott is to the team.

Having him back and healthy might not be enough to make the Cowboys Super Bowl favorites next year, but it should easily make them the class of the NFCE. That is just how much the quarterback impacts all NFL teams. The rest of the division all have problems at that spot, and no obvious solutions.

The New York Giants seem to believe they have their quarterback in Daniel Jones, but through his first two seasons he is in the bottom half of the league by just about every measurement available. Recent reports have the Giants sticking with Jason Garrett as their offensive coordinator despite that rather horrific ppg figure. The most likely reason would be that they think he is capable of developing Jones. He certainly did a great job with Prescott in his rookie year, and despite the bad stretch Prescott had from mid 2017 to mid 2018, he has shown real growth as a quarterback. However, it is not unreasonable to argue that Garrett now has an inferior player to work with. Add that to the often questionable play-calling and dedication to “establishing the run” of the former Cowboys head coach, and it is very unlikely that they will make a major leap with Jones.

The only way to describe the QB situation of the Philadelphia Eagles is that it is a hot mess. Carson Wentz was benched by Doug Pederson in favor of rookie Jalen Hurts. His reward for making the move was to be fired, despite it being necessitated by the meltdown of Wentz last season. Now new head coach Nick Sirianni has been tasked with the reclamation of Wentz’s career. That is complicated by the reported desire of Wentz to be traded, a difficult task with his large contract. There is also some doubt about just how successful a rehabilitation would be in any case, and Hurts looks to be a year or more away from being truly ready. That is especially true if he is taking second team reps in preparation for the season, which seems to be the plan.

The Washington Football team is one of the many that are in the quarterback market, and winning the NFC East last season put them back enough in the draft order to make it a difficult challenge by that route. They will have to pay the price if they want to trade up to get one of the top ranked college arms. Meanwhile, with Matt Stafford already off the market, there is not much in possible trades or free agency that would help. Look for them to be struggling at the position for at least a season.

All the Cowboys have to do is not blow the Prescott contract situation again. It is going to be more expensive than it would have been if they had been smart any of the past three years. If they can get over their ridiculous and mendacious obsession with how much cap space to lock up in the position they have far and away the best QB in the division. With the receiving corps they already have on the roster and what should still be a solid running game, this could be a juggernaut offense. They still have concerns about the offensive line, but there are multiple possible solutions, and as they showed during their three-game winning streak late last season, they can score a lot of points even with a patchwork line.

The offense is the engine that drives most NFL teams, but defense has to be taken into account. That was the big problem for the Cowboys even before Prescott went down last year. However, as the chart above shows, even a top ten defense does not guarantee a wining season. The Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills both got to their conference championship games with middle of the pack defenses.

That is all the Cowboys need to be on top of the NFCE, which is fortunate for them. They have myriad problems to address on that side of the ball this offseason. They have already made a big move with the hiring of Dan Quinn to replace Mike Nolan, along with a makeover of the defensive staff in general, but the talent demands a lot of upgrading. That has to be addressed successfully with free agency and the draft, with the latter expected to be the main tool for them. After finishing so far down statistically, they almost have no place to go but up.

As for their division rivals, both Washington and New York are not likely to see much improvement on defense. They could just as easily see some falloff. Philadelphia has lots of room to get better, but that issue in the quarterback room is likely to overshadow anything there.

If injuries had not derailed things from the jump last year, they would likely have won the division, even though their time in the postseason would likely have been as short as it was for the Football Team. Injuries are the great unknown for any season, but we can hope at least for a regression to the mean. Just keeping Prescott healthy for the year would likely be enough to take the NFCE. A lot has to go well for them, or at least not go as badly as it did in 2020. Odds are, though, that Dallas will be the best team in the division this year even as they are trying to rebuild this roster.