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Six fears about the Cowboys for the 2021 season

It’s been a positive week. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some scary things that could still happen for the Cowboys.

Dallas Cowboys v Minnesota Vikings
Let’s hope some missing faces are back and ready.
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

It’s been a bit of an exciting week for the Dallas Cowboys. The big development was the sudden agreement on a four-year contract with quarterback Dak Prescott. That was followed quickly by restructuring of some key contracts to create some cap space for free agency, and some other internal roster moves, including the one that will put the team over the top, re-signing Ron’Dell Carter.

OK, I may exaggerate a bit on that last thing, but the rest of the developments injected a huge burst of optimism for many of us. No more Dak drama, the cap is suddenly in good shape for a team normally as ridiculously cheap frugal careful in free agency as the Cowboys, and the fact the three restructures were for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins is a hint the team thinks all are over the injuries that cost so many games last year. Heck, we are even getting Oxnard training camp back. Things certainly seem to be rolling along very well.

Which can fill one with a bit of existential dread. Going through enough of these rodeos has shown there can be bitter disappointment after what was thought to be a very good offseason for Dallas. In the past decade or so, they have underperformed expectations far more often than not, including last year. Only that magical 2016 season when Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott caught the entire league by surprise wound up far better than we could have predicted, especially in the wake of Tony Romo’s preseason injury. And it still wound up leaving a bitter taste in our mouths as they were one and done in the postseason, thanks in large part to nemesis Aaron Freaking Rodgers.

So despite how encouraging this week has been, there are still some fears lurking about what could go wrong.

They better be right about Dak

We certainly hope they are, and the evidence of his first five seasons supports it.

Of course the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles also thought the same about the quarterbacks they got in the 2016 NFL draft. Signing them to huge contracts wound up leaving those teams with little more than huge dead money numbers after having to face reality and moving on.

Is that hypocritical for someone who spent much of the last five years making arguments that Prescott was better than both Jared Goff and Carson Wentz? Maybe, but the Dallas ownership and front office have made some real boneheaded decisions over the years. Maybe this time the fact that so many people that are smart about evaluating QB play and overall team structure approve of the signing presages success for Prescott and the team. It is still something that jumps out from behind a corner and scares a bit.

That is above and beyond the whole “he basically had an ankle destroyed” thing. Recovery and rehabilitation from injuries that once would have forever ended careers is not quite commonplace in the NFL, but they aren’t all that rare anymore. Alex Smith, who Prescott cited as an inspiration for him, is just the most notable of late. So far, all signs are that the Cowboys will have their starting quarterback fully ready by the start of training camp, and perhaps even before.

We’ll still likely be holding our breath every time he takes a snap, at least for a few games.

A REAL worry about the offensive line

The Cowboys appear to be banking on starting Smith, Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Martin, and Collins this season, unless they draft someone like a Rashawn Slater who could take Williams’ spot. That means having four of your five starters coming off of IR.

We saw what happened last year as the line was rapidly reduced to UDFAs and backups. It is widely seen as one of the main reasons for the dismal results, and may have been a contributing factor in Prescott’s injury. The advances in sports medicine are important here, but there are other concerns. Smith not only has a half decade of fighting injuries during the season, but the never defeated Father Time is stalking him. Collins’ problems last year still seem mysterious. Biadasz had injury issues in college. Only Martin seems a good bet to come back and pick up where he left off.

The holding of breath thing could lead to bouts of unconsciousness when you include this bunch.

Please don’t let Dan Quinn be Mike Nolan redux

Offensive line injuries were seen as one of the culprits for the 6-10 finish last year. Prescott’s injury was another, but there was a third. The Cowboys’ defense was far too often just run off the field, sometimes by otherwise incompetent offenses. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan became the scapegoat. There were admittedly ample reasons to lay much of the blame at his feet. Now Dan Quinn has been tasked with fixing things as his replacement, hopefully with a lot of new talent to work with.

The main reason some think he will be up to the task is because of his well-documented success with the Legion of Boom during his tenure with the Seattle Seahawks. But that goes back to the old Jimmies and Joes vs. X’s and O’s argument. Did Quinn create one of the best defenses in the league, or did he just wind up with so much talent that he couldn’t mess it up?

How that is answered will be the key. What creates cold sweats is a concern that talent is really the most important part of the equation. Dallas clearly has a major challenge in addressing that. Complicating it even more is that Quinn needs to focus more on properly using whatever roster he winds up with than making them fit into his scheme. Nolan appeared really bad at that. There is also a fear that forcing the pegs into the wrong holes is far more common in the NFL than adapting and adjusting to the players. We have to hope that Quinn is not that way, or that the team just gives him much better material to work with.

Then there’s the annual free agency struggles in Dallas

It’s almost a tradition that the Cowboys stick to the bargain bin approach to free agency and don’t do as much to improve the roster as they could. This could be a year when that is a more viable approach than normal, as the reduced cap and all the moves many teams are having to make to get under it is leading to a lot of available talent. A few teams have the space to go wild, but many will not be as free with their offers. According to Over the Cap, the Cowboys now have about $19.5 million in space to work with, which should be enough to find solid upgrades at some of the defensive holes they have.

That in no way assures us they will do any better than they have of late. They have had a few successes, such as Robert Quinn and Aldon Smith, but the overall results are generally depressing. That needs to change, and frankly, there is no real evidence to make us think it will.

The draft has to go well

It has long been the preferred method of roster building under the Jones family, especially in the salary cap era. Last year’s crop seems to be a good one, based on the limited evidence. Will McClay seems to be very good at what he does in building the board, and discipline in sticking to it has improved.

The scary part here is that there is always an element of chance with any draft pick. True locks are rare, and there are many examples of those not panning out. The deeper into the draft you go, the better the chances of missing with a pick become. The Cowboys are a bit loaded up with ten overall picks now that the compensatory ones have been awarded. They also are favored by being so high in the order.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course. With the much greater needs on defense, Quinn’s inputs are going to be crucial. Just as importantly, how he is able to sell his viewpoints will factor in. He is, of course, coming out of a head coaching job, and now has to take a step back as a coordinator.

That staff dynamic is just one more thing that causes worry, because there are going to be some big egos rubbing against one another in the pre-draft meetings. This is the first time to have Quinn and his new assistants in the mix. If it is too volatile, things could go poorly.

There is a bit of trepidation that the Cowboys are overdue to have a poor draft. Maybe they need to move the whole war room to the Jerry yacht, which was a bit of a charm for them last year.

Is luck bigger than we want to admit?

We love to dive into video study, analytics, and coaching dissection. Make the right decisions, and with good talent, you should control your own destiny.

Until a quarterback gets incredibly hot, the ball takes unfavorable bounces, the refs make some stupefying bad calls, or a David Tyree makes the best play of his career at a crucial moment. As much as we may hate to accept it, chance and random factors play a huge role in football, arguably more than any other sport. Count injuries in that equation, since they are almost completely out of the team’s control and can ruin a season in an instant, or in a bunch of them as happened to Dallas last year.

Luck can hurt a team, or favor it. We just have no idea which way it will go for the Cowboys this season. Hopefully this year will see something of a regression to the mean and 2021 will be more about the players and the coaching. Meanwhile, chalk bad luck as just one more fear that makes it hard for me to fall asleep at times.