The postmortem for the 2020 Dallas Cowboys season tends to center on two things as the main contributors in creating that debacle. One, injuries, mostly impacted the offense, with Dak Prescott and most of the offensive line missing significant parts of the season. The other is thought to have mostly damaged the defense. That was the loss of all offseason work and OTAs. With a mostly new coaching staff, including defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and most of his assistants, it is theorized that trying to install a new, more complicated scheme with its attendant adjustments and changes from the year before was just a bridge too far.
Are those explanations or excuses? When the injury list includes your franchise QB, it is hard to discount how much they affected things. But that stuff about having to do a virtual offseason does not have as solid a basis. After all, every other team had the same issue. There were four other teams that also changed head coaches, and one of them, the Washington Football Team, managed to win the NFC East under Ron Rivera.
While it certainly wasn’t easy under the restrictions, most of the responsibility for things going sideways under Nolan should be his. From what we know, it was a fairly significant change from the previous season. That made it harder to get across with distance coaching. Nolan and his staff should have recognized this, and adjusted things more.
That stubbornness and the nature of most coaches played a role. When you put an NFL roster, coaching staff, and probably the team’s ownership together, you have about as close to 100% alpha males as you are going to find anywhere. Coaches have to find a way to have some control or influence over their players, which tends to make it hard for them to admit they are wrong. Flexibility is not one of the traits you often find among the coaching ranks, either. “My way or the highway” is pretty much the order of the day for many. That is a route straight to Loserville when circumstances demand just the opposite, as last season.
There are some who believe Nolan became the scapegoat last year. They wanted to see what he might be able to do with another year. More likely, he really gave his team no real option. After all, he had a full season to effect change, and while there was some improvement later in the year, it certainly wasn’t enough.
Now it’s Dan Quinn trying to get things back on the right path. Those same excuses cannot be applied this year. First, recognizing what went wrong to be able to fix it is a big part of his job. He better be able to realize where he has to adjust his approach and coaching, or his stay in Dallas will be brief.
While the issues there are more or less the same as last offseason, the opposite is true about the problem of not having the players at the Star to install Quinn’s scheme and make assignments and responsibilities on the field clear. With a majority of rosters answering the NFLPA’s call for a full or partial boycott of all voluntary work, the Cowboys players seem to be intending to show up and have a full slate of activities. So far, it seems like they are part of a dozen or so teams that don’t think the boycott is needed.
Suddenly, Quinn and the entire Dallas staff have an advantage. Assuming the boycotting rosters don’t have a change of heart, there is going to more effective coaching going on for the Cowboys and those other teams that are showing up at their facilities. This is much more important for the defense with reports that Dak Prescott has been inviting teammates over to his place, which just happens to have a football field in the backyard in case they want to work on timing, route running, and other things.
The defense has a lot more new faces already than the offense, and that should be even more pronounced after the draft. Additionally, the free agents signed on defense, like Keanu Neal, Demontae Kazee, and Brent Urban, look to have been hired to fit Quinn’s plans. While most of the league is stuck with Zoom meetings, the Cowboys can get together in person, in a socially-distanced manner thanks to the spacious facilities at the Star. More importantly, they will get the invaluable install sessions of OTAs. That should put them well ahead of most of the league when training camp rolls around. The Cowboys get an additional edge by being in the Hall of Fame game, which will enable them to start things early at Oxnard.
The excuses of 2020 should have no relevance for this year’s team. Quinn has to lead his defense to a significant improvement. Given that Dallas was at or near the bottom in just about every defensive metric last year, he even has the advantage of not having to get to the top of things to be considered a success. Just being at or near the league average would represent a major move forward. And with the hoped for return of Prescott and the stars of the offensive line, that should be all the team needs to win quite a few games.
It does put a lot of pressure on Quinn, but that is precisely what he was hired to handle.