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Despite the same ending, 2021 was different than most seasons for the Cowboys

If Cowboys fans look at 2021 in a vacuum, there is evidence that this team was different.

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

It is the most popular phrase tossed around by Dallas Cowboys optimists, "this team (or year) is different." But every season, the optimists are proven wrong, and fans are left with the same outcome, disappointment.

With four playoff wins in the past 26 years, no one will defend the 2021 Cowboys for being anything less than an underwhelming team. They were promising at one time, derailed around the halfway mark, and were mediocre at best over the back half of the season. But was it ridiculous to believe in this team?

There is evidence to suggest 2021 was a different year for the Cowboys

Before the eternal Cowboys pessimists become too enraged, this is not a vote of confidence that 2022 will end in a Super Bowl win. 2021 was likely the best chance Dallas will have to win it all in a while. And they blew it.

However, despite the phrase's connotation, it was a “different year" than in previous seasons.

The obvious evidence of this is the prioritization of defense. Before 2021, here is the Cowboys' highest ranking in various defensive metrics over the last ten years:

  • EPA per play allowed: 8th
  • DVOA: 9th
  • Points per play allowed: 8th
  • Takeaways per game: 2nd

And here is where Dallas finished in those same metrics in 2021:

  • EPA per play allowed: 3rd
  • DVOA: 2nd
  • Points per play allowed: 7th
  • Takeaways per game: 1st

You can cite any metric you want, but even without statistics, the casual observer is aware that this was the best defense the Cowboys have had in a while. With various free agency departures, Dan Quinn's squad will likely regress in 2022. But for a team that has spent the past 20 years relying on their offense, a dominant Dallas defense was a change of pace.

If you want proof that 2021 was "different," it is because Jerry Jones finally placed value on (or got lucky with) defensive personnel. A versatile safety, two talented edge rushers with a do-it-all linebacker to clean up, and two decent coverage corners was the most talent that Dallas has seen on one defensive roster since the 1990s. And all eleven guys seemed thrilled to be playing for Quinn every week.

Dallas Cowboys tight end Sean McKeon was a guest on this week's episode of 1st and 10 on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. You can listen to the episode above. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don't miss any of our episodes! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

This leads us to another reason 2021 was different. Whether it be the turnovers, blocked punts, flying to the ball on defense, dismantling the bad teams, or even beating teams without your starting quarterback, this team had a winning attitude. That is, until a certain point after the bye.

Dallas Cowboys tight end Sean McKeon discussed this winning mentality:

It was a big difference from my rookie year in 2020, we had some guys in there that weren’t exactly team-first players. And then they added some guys in last years’ class that really brought our locker room closer together.

I felt like guys were playing for each other. And we all had the same goal, and that was to win the Super Bowl. We were going to do whatever it took, and the guys really bought into that. Everyone on the team was close; offense, defense, we all hung out together outside of football.

Sean McKeon on the 1st and 10 podcast discussing the dynamics of the 2021 Cowboys

The season didn't end how the Cowboys expected, but you could see the chemistry that McKeon discussed. Unlike previous years where the players would walk off the field while their head coach slowly clapped, there was a different energy in 2021.

Maybe this is because of Dan Quinn, maybe Micah Parsons brought a new hunger to the entire team, or maybe losing a couple of big personalities from 2020 was the reason for this culture shift. Whatever the explanation, the Cowboys looked excited to play football every week, and they looked hungry to win.

But that changed around week ten when the confidence slowly faded. Before then, Cowboys fans were witnessing a different energy to this team than they had seen for a very long time.

And it was because of this winning mentality that resulted in the final difference; the wins were more inspiring. While this primarily applies to the first eight weeks, Cowboys fans can’t retroactively discount the end of the season wins.

Coming into 2021, here is the Cowboys' record in various situations in the previous 20 years:

  • Win percentage against teams above .500: 32%
  • Win percentage in one-score games with less than four minutes remaining: 54%
  • Percent of games won by 2+ scores: 26%

And here are those same stats in 2021:

  • Win percentage against teams above .500: 56%
  • Win percentage in one-score games with less than four minutes remaining: 67%
  • Percent of games won by 2+ scores: 41%

This is not an attempt to prove the 2021 Cowboys were an otherworldly team that was simply unlucky in the playoffs. They deserved to lose to the 49ers by the way they played, and there is no excuse for what happened.

But there were more inspiring wins in 2021 than in nearly any individual Cowboys season since 2000. Dallas has struggled with playing down to their opponent, winning close matchups, and beating the above-average teams over the past twenty years.

No one will argue that the Cowboys played up to their competition last season. They struggled against other decent teams. However, their performance against above-five hundred teams this previous year was an improvement over what they had historically done.

In fact, coming into this year, the Cowboys were on a one-and-half year streak of failing to beat a team over .500. In 2019 and 2020, Dallas was an abysmal 2-11 against teams with a winning record.

Hindsight is 50/50. But the Cowboys had the wins in 2021 that were unlike previous seasons.

Once again, this is not an attempt to inspire hope for next year or even to prove that last year was better than we might think. It was a disappointing season. However, it was never ridiculous to believe that 2021 was a genuinely different year. In many aspects, it was.

But it is all over now. The excitement and thrill of rooting for a team that underachieved is almost worse than never being able to get your hopes up in the first place.

If you are in the camp that believed and were let down, you had a reason to be hopeful. If you were adamant that the Cowboys would let you down in the end, sure you were right, but you have to admit it looked different in a few facets of the game.

But whichever group you fell into, everyone is in the same boat now. Disappointed and confused about what went wrong.