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Big picture: The Cowboys’ competition looks to have taken a step back

It has been a pretty chaotic offseason, and that could benefit Dallas.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings
They may face a very manageable task.
Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you are a fan, a member of the team, or ownership, the 2021 season was a very disappointing performance from the Dallas Cowboys. Yes, they had a 12-5 record, but the way the team was stumbling down the stretch and then fell to the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card Round left a lot of negative feelings. Now the team faces a potentially large number of losses in free agency and has limited draft capital to use, plus a need to free up cap space just to cover current contracts. There is a chance that the talent level will at least will take a step back. And with the coaching staff likely remaining mostly intact, pending the results of Kellen Moore’s interviews with the Miami Dolphins, we also worry about whether things can be cleaned up on offense. Even having Dan Quinn back is not a guarantee that the defense will have a good year, since defensive performance is far more volatile year-to-year.

That tends to make us pessimistic. But the Cowboys do not exist in a vacuum. What determines success is not just how good your team is. Wins or losses depend greatly on the quality of the competition. 2021 saw the expected powerhouse teams mostly stumble in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Rams are the only team to make it to the Super Bowl that was getting some consideration in preseason, and most saw them behind the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Cincinnati Bengals really weren’t on the radar. While both deserve plenty of credit for getting the job done, they also benefited from a generally down year in quality of play in the NFL, especially once the playoffs rolled around.

We discussed this overall idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows. Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

There are some interesting indications that things are not going to be better for 2022. It may actually be a worse year across the board. There are two things that have large impacts on team performance, the quality of the starting quarterback and hiring a new head coach. Quarterback play is pretty self explanatory. While there are some rising stars at the position, most of them now play in the AFC. That is highly pertinent for Dallas, since they don’t even play most of them and certainly don’t have to worry about them if they get back to the playoffs. If Dak Prescott can come back in good health and with better focus this year, he should be a real asset in their games.

This offseason has seen an abnormally high number of changes at head coach. Nine teams made a change. It is rare for teams to have real success in the first year after making that change. Most of the past cases have involved situations where a new head coach inherits a really good roster, such as happened for the Cowboys when Barry Switzer replaced Jimmy Johnson and had a 12-4 campaign in his first season before riding that team to a Lombardi Trophy in year two. In the vast majority of cases, which is true this year, the new head man will have a rebuilding job on his hands, and getting to the playoffs is doubtful.

Using the dual lenses of quarterback quality and who has changed head coaches, here is a breakdown of the coming season for the Cowboys.

The NFC East

Half of the wins for Dallas in 2021 came from sweeping the division. While the Philadelphia Eagles made it to the playoffs as a wild card, the New York Giants and the newly renamed Washington Commanders were pretty much hot messes.

The Giants face a double whammy. They fired HC Joe Judge and GM Dave Gettleman. The latter was especially long overdue, and his replacement Joe Schoen should pay dividends in the long run. Brian Daboll has been hired as the new head coach, and he is also likely to be an improvement in the long run. But Schoen and owner John Mara have expressed faith in Daniel Jones as their quarterback, and he is still a project. The Giants may become a more significant challenge in the future, but this year should see them struggling to get above .500.

The Commanders are lead by Ron Rivera. He is an outstanding person, but as head coach he has a 14-19 record in Washington. Last season they had Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starter, but he was injured and replaced by Taylor Heinicke. Many are projecting them to take a quarterback in the first round. It is not seen to be a particularly strong draft class for QBs this year, so expect them to also be facing a hard time this fall.

Jalen Hurts is the starter for the Eagles. While he can have very good games, he is very inconsistent. His playoff performance was not at all good. His running is better than his passing currently, which is not the best formula in the NFL. Philadelphia should remain the biggest challenge for Dallas in the division, but a very early evaluation of the division still should put them in second place. The Cowboys should be favored to finally break the long string of not having repeat division winners in the NFCE this year.

The rest of the Cowboys’ opponents

We don’t know the schedule dates, but we do know who they will play. Here is the situation faced by them.

Chicago Bears

Former Cowboys defensive assistant Matt Eberflus is their new head coach, and he is certainly walking into a rebuild. They do have a promising young quarterback in Justin Fields, but he had a rough season in 2021. Starting ten games, he only averaged 187 yards passing, and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. If he has success in the future, it will still likely take more than this season to get there.

Detroit Lions

Before the 2021 season, the Lions swapped quarterbacks in a blockbuster deal with the Rams. We know who won that trade so far. Detroit now has Jared Goff, whose big contract pretty much locks them into starting him. They do have the second overall pick in the draft, but are expected to go another direction, while they also have either the 31st or 32nd pick, acquired from the Rams in that trade. They might take a quarterback with that one, but still will have to see what they can do with Goff this year. Dan Campbell is still working on rebuilding his team, but it is going to be a multi-year project.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With Tom Brady retired, they have no quarterback at the moment. Given their position late in the draft order, they are expected to go the free agent route again to replace Brady. Their dream would be to get Aaron Rodgers from the Packers, but that is assuming no reconciliation in Green Bay. Even if he is traded, the Packers are expected to send him to an AFC team. That makes the Bucs a favorite to trade for Jimmy Garoppolo. He is serviceable, but even the most favorable evaluation of him still makes him a downgrade. Tampa Bay is a much less formidable opponent than they were last season.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are a team on the rise, just missing the playoffs last season. Carson Wentz is their starter, and he is of course very familiar to Dallas. While he is very good at times, he also can have truly bad performances. Indianapolis still looks like one of the stronger opponents on the schedule, and the Cowboys cannot overlook them.

Houston Texans

One of the most dysfunctional teams in the league, they are still looking for a new head coach after unceremoniously dumping David Culley after just one season, and still have the Deshaun Watson mess to sort out. Davis Mills was better than was expected, but many think the Texans are still hoping to engineer a trade for Tua Tagovailoa with the Miami Dolphins. There is also believed to be some chance they trade for Baker Mayfield with the Cleveland Browns. In any case, they are hardly a candidate to be much improved from their 4-13 record.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Cowboys get to play both of this year’s Super Bowl contenders, and both are going to be big challenges. Joe Burrow could be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL for years to come. It is certainly a game that we can chalk up as a probable loss in 2022.

Green Bay Packers

Rodgers is a big question for them, but he played last season after a similar bout of drama to what is happening now. Still, he could decide to retire or force a trade. If he does come back for one more year, he makes the team dangerous. And he usually brings his A game against Dallas. This is a home game for the Cowboys, and Rodgers won his lone Super Bowl ring at AT&T Stadium. Just mark this one as TBD for now.

Minnesota Vikings

They continue to seek a replacement for former HC Mike Zimmer. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has one more year on a contract that makes him an unlikely trade chip for them. They probably would like to move on from Mr. Average (he is 61-62-2 as a starter) but probably are stuck with him. The Cowboys have to go visit Minnesota, which is a tough stadium. Still, they beat them with Cooper Rush last season, so the Vikings should not exactly strike fear in Dallas’ heart.

Los Angeles Rams

Matthew Stafford has been resurrected in LA. Sean McVay is one of the best coaches in the league. Don’t get your hopes up, even though the crowd in SoFi Stadium will have a bunch of Cowboys fans in attendance.

On a bit of a side note, with the Cowboys facing both the Rams and the Bengals this year, you can pencil Dallas in for the season-opener against one of them.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Trevor Lawrence could become a superstar in the league, but his rookie year was stunted by the failure of the Urban Meyer experiment. Now they still are searching for a new head coach. Don’t expect them to suddenly rise to competence this coming season, much less contender status.

Tennessee Titans

They got to the number one seed in the AFC before being bounced in the divisional round by the Bengals. Ryan Tannehill has led them to the playoffs for three consecutive years, but there are rumors that the team would like to trade with the Seattle Seahawks for Russell Wilson. That isn’t exactly a vote of confidence in Tannehill. Still, the Titans are always a challenge in the regular season. They also lay an egg every few games. Another team to not be too overconfident against, but still one that can be beaten.

The rest of the NFC

One reason the Cowboys wound up with the three seed in the playoffs was that they had a very good record against the rest of the conference. That makes how successful the teams in the NFC that they do not play important for the season. There is good news and bad.

The NFC West was the powerhouse division, sending three teams to the playoffs. The San Francisco 49ers have an uncertain situation at quarterback. Trey Lance is believed to be the future, and as has been mentioned Garoppolo is rumored to be a possible trade chip for them. Kyle Shanahan will probably have them in the playoff mix with whomever winds up starting. The Arizona Cardinals have the final year of Kyler Murray’s rookie deal to figure out if he is the future or not for them. Kliff Kingsbury may also be coaching for his job. This could go either way. Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks have been in a steady decline as Pete Carroll seems increasingly behind the times as head coach and Wilson has been less effective with a weak supporting cast and poor utilization.

The AFC South was not strong behind the Buccaneers, and the New Orleans Saints face multiple nightmares. Sean Payton is gone and they still search for his replacement, they have more questions than answers at quarterback, and their cap situation is the worst in the league. Look for a rough year on the bayou. The Atlanta Falcons will try and get at least one more year out of Matt Ryan, but have other roster issues. Matt Rhule is struggling as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers and they are not happy with Sam Darnold as their QB. Don’t expect much improvement there.

It is far too early to be tabulating fetal domestic fowl, but when you step back from just focusing on the Cowboys, the big picture is that the coming season is setting up well for them. If they do retain Kellen Moore, the stability on the coaching staff could work out in their favor. Moore certainly has things he needs to fix from late in the 2021 season, but a healthy and refreshed Prescott could be a big help there. It is wise to be cautious about Dallas until they prove something on the field. But the quality of their coming opponents and the projected relative weakness of much of the rest of the conference certainly provides them a road to do so.