Of course there is optimism about the 2021 edition of the Dallas Cowboys. All teams usually inspire that among their fans and much of their local media every year at this time. New blood has been brought in, in some cases they have moved on from perceived problems, and the cliché is that everyone on the roster is in the best shape of their career. Still, you don’t want to be overly optimistic about something. So in this article concerning the Cowboys OTA week, there will be a bunch of good mixed with a dose of bad.
Positive: Mike McCarthy is getting his first real offseason program
All teams faced the lack of a normal offseason program last year due to the pandemic, but it was worse for the new head coaches around the league. Some, like Kevin Stefanski of the Cleveland Browns and Ron Rivera of the Washington Football Team, led their franchises to the playoffs. Stefanski deserves nothing but credit, but Rivera just managed to be a bit less unsuccessful than the rest of the worst division in the NFL. Don’t forget that the Cowboys were in the thick of that dubious race for the NFC East until the very end. That was despite using four different quarterbacks and dealing with the most patchwork of offensive lines due to injuries. Had Dallas managed to wiggle into the playoffs, we would likely be having a very different conversation about McCarthy’s first year at the helm. Perhaps we would have been spared the somewhat ridiculous contention that his seat is the hottest in the NFL.
Now, the head coach is getting to work on many things he had to forego last season. One that is often overlooked is building the culture. That did not go so well a year ago. There were many grumblings last year from the players about what was going on, particularly on defense. The buy-in was not what it should have been. While there were other factors that will be addressed momentarily, just having the contact and time to work with the players in the abbreviated OTAs and minicamp should pay some dividends.
Positive: Dan Quinn appears to be very different from Mike Nolan
Part of it is scheme, but more importantly Quinn has already shown a more hands-on approach to coaching up his players. That seemed to be the main source of some of those complaints that were being voiced last year.
That is why the brief videos of Quinn working on technique with players and even going in to fill in for Quinton Bohanna elicited praise. It should mean that the defenders have a much clearer idea of what is expected of them on the field. That alone may cure a group of woes from 2020.
Related to the scheme, there is also a lot of evidence that Quinn got the groceries he wanted when the team was shopping for new talent. Free agents like Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee, and Brent Urban are players that would not likely have landed with the Cowboys under prior regimes. Micah Parsons and Nahshon Wright are rookies that also would have landed elsewhere without Quinn’s voice. We may not all agree with some of the new names added, but there is some value in giving the defensive coordinator the resources he wants.
Negative: All that new blood
We want new talent, of course, but having so many new faces, particularly on defense, presents its own challenges. That is a lot of extra coaching and teaching required to get them up to speed, particularly the rookies. Add in the lack of NFL experience that will happen if many of the first year players get on the field at one time, a very likely thing with so many needs being addressed in the draft, and there could be more rough patches than we’d like. Quinn’s approach is going to be tested early and often.
Positive: Improved health
The Cowboys were one of the teams most affected by injuries, with perhaps only the San Francisco 49ers having a claim to challenge them for the worst situation in the league. The list of starters who missed significant time, most for more than half the season and some the entire campaign, is long. Dak Prescott is the most important. The tackle tandem of Tyron Smith and La’el Collins is very close behind. Add in Zack Martin, Blake Jarwin, Trysten Hill, and Tyler Biadasz, and that is a whole bunch of lost starts. Even one of the new free agents, Kazee, is coming back from his own serious injury, and he was perhaps the fullest participant of all recovering players in the OTAs.
You can’t look at that much talent returning and not say that the team is better just for having them back. Some, like Jarwin, Martin, and Biadasz, are still working their way back to full participation, and Prescott and others are being limited as a precaution. But training camp is still three months away, and all are believed to be on track for full go by then.
Negative: Holding our collective breath
The first time Prescott takes a hard hit, our hearts will skip a beat until he gets up. And we will also be understandably concerned until all, or at least most, of the players listed above get through a full game and are ready to go for the next. Then you can rinse and repeat for every ensuing contest.
The odds dictate that not all of them will make it through a season unscathed. That is why depth is so important. A lot of the offseason additions should help there. Still, we are desperately hoping for a regression to the mean for Dallas on the injury front. Unfortunately, it is one area where nothing really can prevent things. Injuries have a random factor that may continue to drive us all to distraction.
Positive: The competition for starting jobs and the 53-man roster seems real
This seems more obvious on defense, but even on offense, the swing tackle, backup IOL, starting TE, and WR5/6 jobs may be more open than we have seen in a while. Meanwhile it is possible that the majority of starting jobs on defense could see real camp battles play out. Not only were there a ton of holes there, the much-discussed linebacker duo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are under a bit of a cloud after how things went last year. Look to see some interesting combinations tried in camp and the preseason games. Some jobs and roles are really up for grabs.
Negatives: Some fan favorites may fall prey to the numbers game
There are some crowded rooms, which means we may see some favored players fail to make the 53-man roster. One is Bradlee Anae. The staff last year just couldn’t seem to find a way to get him on the field, and with Quinn looking to use more three man fronts, especially on early downs, Anae may be in real peril. Rookie Chancey Golston may be a direct threat to him.
Another is C.J. Goodwin, who has built his career to date on being a special team ace. But the Cowboys drafted three defensive backs in Wright, Kelvin Joseph, and Israel Mukuamu, and added two more free agents, Kazee and Jayron Kearse. John Fassel did an outstanding job improving special teams play last year, and there should be no doubt he could use the new players to find a replacement for Goodwin if the numbers dictate he lose his slot.
We hate to see our pet cats put up for adoption. But it happens, and with the high level of churn this year on the roster, it might be inevitable.
Positive: This offense should be formidable
Prescott is back, and he still has one of the best trios of wide receivers in the league to throw to, with nice depth building behind them. There is a possible two-headed beast at tight end, and Ezekiel Elliott is chomping at the bit to prove he is still one of the elite running backs in the league. If the health of the offensive line holds up at all, Kellen Moore should be able to cook up some real feasts. And the unexpected addition of Ben McAdoo seems to be a move to make the passing attack even more potent.
If the offense is at all what it appears to be, then Quinn just has to get the defense more in the middle of the pack for the Cowboys to pile up double digit wins and get back to the playoffs. If Quinn gets his side of things edging towards top 10 territory, this could be a fun year.