26 years. With every season ushering in another disappointing ending for the Dallas Cowboys, we are constantly reminded how long it has been since the last NFC Championship game featured America’s Team.
The truth is that Dallas is likely still far away from ending their drought, and the 2021 season was probably the best chance they will have in years. That said, all hope isn’t lost quite yet. But what would it take for the Cowboys to be competing this time of the year next season?
The offense needs to gain consistency
Here is some good news - the Cowboys' offense does not need to play to the level they did in weeks one through six for this team to find success. While the pre-bye-week offense was nearly perfect, Dallas needs to value consistency over “nearly perfect” heading into the offseason.
Here is how 2021 played out. The Cowboys' offense was nearly unstoppable in the first six weeks, and then over the rest of the year, they oscillated between 40-point games and sub-20-point games.
Depending on how you feel about Dak Prescott, his performance in weeks one through six might have been unsustainable. But we don’t need pre-bye-week Dak to make the NFC Championship, we just need a consistent quarterback.
Regardless of how free agency and coaching hires pan out, the Cowboys will still have a relatively young and talented team. Dak doesn’t need to be Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes, winning the game on his arm talent alone. He simply needs to be the same quarterback week in and week out.
Take Jimmy Garoppolo, who is now playing in the NFC Championship for the second time in his career, as the perfect example. He will never be considered the best quarterback in the NFL, but there is little variation in his performances. He is as consistent as they come.
Obviously, this is not a perfect comparison since the Cowboys do not have the same rushing attack as the 49ers. However, that is what we need out of Dak Prescott and the offense. Instead of the constant up and down weeks that result in a season-long average of 30 points per game, a consistent 27 points every game is preferable.
Because when you get to the postseason, one down game ends it all. Instead, we need an offense that we can trust come playoffs, and that shouldn’t be too much to ask given the talent on this team.
Who cares about the passing touchdown record, the total points scored record and any other accolade that was achieved this year? We would happily give it all up for any semblance of consistency in the back half of the year.
The defense needs to take the next step
It is odd to believe a defense that was top-ten by nearly every metric, top-five by most, would need to improve in 2022. But here is the sad reality, if the defense doesn’t improve, they are likely to take a massive step backward.
Dan Quinn is assuredly going to be a head coach for another team next season, and whoever the Cowboys decide to replace him with will likely be a downgrade. He turned one of the worst defenses in the NFL into one of the best, how do you upgrade from that?
Another thing to consider is the turnover regression. At 1.9 turnovers per game, the Cowboys led the NFL behind eleven interceptions from Trevon Diggs alone. Unfortunately, that number will decrease in 2022. No team has gone back-to-back seasons of leading the league in turnovers since at least 2003. Granted, the Cowboys will likely be above average in takeaways forced, but it is incredibly unlikely they reach 1.9 turnovers per game again.
So, with a likely regression in turnovers and losing one of the best defensive coaches this team has seen in years, how does the defense improve?
Well, the younger players have to develop into a truly formidable defense. This would entail Micah Parsons taking a second-year leap and outperforming his rookie season, Trevon Diggs learning to play tighter coverage instead of baiting a mistake, and the defensive line improving against the run.
If the Cowboys' defense wants to see success in 2022, they have to be a truly dominant unit. The turnovers won’t come as easy, but if they can take the next step, maybe the turnovers don’t matter. Learn to stop opposing offenses by making them punt.
As good as the Cowboys' defense was this year, it is hard to believe opposing offenses saw them in the same light as the Rams or Patriots defense. Dallas is capable of evolving into that tier of defense, where the other team is scratching and clawing just to gain a single yard. With an incredibly young defense, this is attainable.
But this also requires a defensive coordinator that knows how to coach young talent, and for Micah Parsons to somehow improve on an other-worldly season. Two large question marks that could happen, but we have to wait and see.
Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore need to learn how to rise to the occasion
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but over the back half of the year, the Cowboys could not beat other good teams. Another important note: if the Cowboys want to make it to the NFC Championship or further, they have to beat other good teams. What a crazy notion.
Excluding the Eagles, the Cowboys went 1-5 against playoff teams in 2021. Even worse is that, after the bye, that record was 0-4 including a loss to the Cardinals who went 1-5 after week 13 (the Cowboys were the one win they had).
Every team will see a decline in efficiency against playoff teams, that is just logic. But there is a difference between a slight drop-off and the Cowboys playing an entirely different brand of football against other decent teams.
Against bottom-half and NFC East teams, Dallas was unstoppable. Even the most pessimistic fan had to be slightly encouraged after the 56-14 demolition of the Football Team. However, if you can’t defeat the good teams on the schedule, it doesn’t matter how much you beat up on the bad ones.
Maybe this is a confidence issue, but much more likely is that this is a leadership problem. In fact, the leadership might be affecting the confidence the players have in their ability to rise to the occasion.
McCarthy, Kellen Moore, and whoever the new defensive coordinator is, need to learn how to elevate this team in critical games. There is exactly a 0% chance this team advances a single round in the post-season if the complete inability to beat good teams continues. And if McCarthy and Moore can’t learn how to do it, Jerry seems willing to move on quicker than he did with Jason Garrett.
1-5. That needs to change now.
Here is a harsh reality for 2022, the team is likely to regress. Between a brutal salary cap situation, the number of free agents leaving, and the departure of the single coach that breathed life into this team, there is little reason to believe they can repeat as a three seed or better. If the three things above don't happen, it will be difficult to reach the playoffs, much less the NFC Championship.
However, as we have learned from the Bengals, Rams, and 49ers, once you get into the postseason anything can happen. But a lot needs to change before the Cowboys can even think about ending their 26-year drought.