There is little argument that the NFC East was 2020’s worst division in the NFL. And according to several articles filling the space before training camps open, there is not much reason to think it will improve significantly. Many do think that the Dallas Cowboys are likely to get into the playoffs by winning the division. However, that seems to be more a case of just being the least worst of the worst. There is also a theme that runs through many of these rankings, with the best example coming from one written by John Breech for CBS Sports. He does set up his conclusions with a harsh yet accurate review of just how bad the NFCE was last season.
If you need a quick refresher on how bad the NFC East was last year, just consider this: Washington won the division with a losing record (7-9). Overall, the NFC East finished with a 10-29-1 non-divisional record last season, which was tied with the 2014 NFC South for the worst non-divisional record since the NFL realigned the divisions in 2002. Also, the NFC East combined to go 23-40-1 overall, which was the second-worst overall record ever for a division (The 2008 NFC West went 22-42).
That is valid. But what he said about the Cowboys is not so much.
The Cowboys will be getting Dak Prescott back, but who knows if that will actually help. In the four games where Dak was healthy last year, the Cowboys went 1-3.
That factoid about the record before Prescott was hurt keeps cropping up in articles and social media. It is very irritating. Let me use my pinned tweet to illustrate why.
Remember, a football team is 11 men on the field at a time, and includes offense, defense, and STs. One player, no matter how good, doesn't win by himself.— Tom Ryle, fully vaccinated (@TomRyleBTB) October 14, 2020
And the corollary is that one player doesn’t lose games by himself. Certainly Prescott had some turnover issues last season before he was lost for the year. He had three fumbles and four interceptions, but he also accounted for ten touchdowns passing and running. And he was hardly the only player who had a problem hanging onto the ball, as Ezekiel Elliott had six fumbles during the season.
Meanwhile, this glosses over the role the defense had in last year’s fiasco for Dallas. They yielded an average of 509.5 yards and 36.5 points per game during the 1-3 start. They didn’t improve enough as the season progressed to help the backup quarterbacks salvage many wins. It wasn’t Kellen Moore and his offensive staff that was subjected to a major housecleaning in the offseason. We have to see just how successful Dan Quinn will be in correcting the mess, but it at least indicates where management thought the biggest problem was.
More importantly, the analysis by Breech only mentions Prescott’s health. It ignores what was happening in front of him. All four of those games referenced were missing La’el Collins, the starting right tackle, and with swing tackle Cameron Erving also unavailable, the team had to resort to going deep into the depth chart just to field a team. Then with Tyron Smith going on IR for the rest of the season after Week 2, Prescott was literally under fire, which may have a lot to do with his fumbling issues.
That 1-3 record in his four complete games is not a condemnation of Prescott, who was putting up huge numbers. Those weren’t just garbage time stats, either, as he had the team within one score late in the fourth quarter in all but the loss to the Cleveland Browns. Not so coincidentally, that was also the worst defensive performance of the year, as they yielded 566 yards and 49 points. It is all but impossible for any quarterback to overcome that kind of problem.
While it is inarguable that the NFL is now a passing league, and the Cowboys are built to be most threatening through the air, there were also major issues with the running game. That patchwork line was a big problem, but many forget that Ezekiel Elliott contracted COVID in the offseason. It was not the symptom-free kind, and he was still recovering when the season began. It has been an ongoing story about what great shape he appears to be in this year. At least part of that is in comparison to how he was slowed in 2020 while trying to get back into shape. Now, apparently fully recovered, he is ready to go out and prove that he still is one of the most effective all around backs in the league.
A more accurate assessment of the prospects for Dallas should focus on the overall health of the team, with an obvious emphasis on Prescott’s recovery. But the rest of the offense needs to be ready to go, including Blake Jarwin. While Dalton Schultz was a big surprise filling in at tight end, Jarwin’s loss is often overlooked. It is better to have two really good TEs than one, and that could be where the Cowboys are.
Now there seems to be only one significant injury concern, but it is a big one. Reports are that Amari Cooper may not be ready for the start of training camp. The team is making optimistic noises about his recovery, but the history of them downplaying what became serious injury concerns in the past is hardly encouraging. They are blessed with good depth at the position, but Cooper is a master at route running, and it would be a problem if he is unavailable.
That circles around to Prescott and how he would have to work around not having the WR1 on the field. But it also means he needs that support from the rest of the team. A key intangible is the quarterback’s leadership, which gets nothing but praise. It may be his biggest asset, and one that should help make this a much more successful season.