When the Dallas Cowboys lost Dak Prescott for the season early in 2020, it put a hold on fully evaluating Mike McCarthy as the right head coach to get the Cowboys deeper into the playoffs. Fast forward to week one of 2021, and a healthy Prescott is making his return against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Brady.
Some considered this game the start of a reset year for McCarthy, and at the end of four quarters all of the following was true:
- Tom Brady remained undefeated against the Dallas Cowboys (a record we all thought he happily took into retirement a few months ago)
- The last-second loss felt familiar to many Cowboys fans and many wondered if the team could turn the corner in big games.
That 29-point output would have been a welcome sight later in the year as the Cowboys offense became inconsistent. They feasted on NFC opponents at times, but struggled in some important games including the playoff game.
With how the totality of last season played out for the Cowboys, it is important for this club to sell fans on any early season success. The Cowboys regular season record was inflated by divisional wins, but they’ve been quiet this offseason while the Giants, Eagles, and Commanders all took significant strides.
Every early season win in 2022 will just bring back the same playoff expectations this team fell short on when the 49ers pulled up to AT&T Stadium, but with the Cowboys strength of schedule, the start of this year does have a chance to help Dallas prove they’ve truly improved as a team.
Another primetime rematch against the Bucs will start things off, followed by the Cowboys hosting the reigning AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals. The Cowboys will then be right back in primetime at the Giants for Monday Night Football in week three, and visit the Super Bowl champion Rams in week five.
Strength of schedule metrics are always faulty, as so much changes in the offseason, and even week-to-week once the 17-game season begins. The Cowboys had no problem hyping themselves up over big wins against inferior opponents last year though, and still have plenty of chances to do so again this season. Dallas’ schedule ranks as one of the easiest on paper right now, but another NFC East team challenging them would quickly throw a wrench in this. The Cowboys will have faced all of their division rivals once by week six, already playing their third primetime game at the Eagles.
If these early season contests go the Cowboys way against some of their toughest opponents, the burning question will be if they - particularly the offense - can sustain a high level of play. The players and coaches want this season to be different as much as the fans if not much more, but the front office responsible for the product on the field has done little to shake things up. They’ve doubled down on the core players that made up the 2021 season, while hoping the next wave of rookies and second-year players can be a pleasant surprise.
The NFL schedule release is supposed to be a time of optimism. Cowboys fans always travel well, and with dates on the calendar now there’s trips to be planned and excuses to call out of work the Monday after night games being prepared. Come the end of week one against the Bucs again though, the Cowboys would love nothing more than another familiar feeling to circulate their home locker room. Not of another tight loss, but of now-forgotten wins like those at the Chargers, Patriots, Vikings, and Saints from last year that showed somewhere in the shadows of this roster is an NFC contender.
Passing this test would set the Cowboys up for a matchup with another team that has a ton to prove, as the Bengals look to show they weren’t a one hit wonder. With Joe Burrow already playing in a Super Bowl, there may be more patience around the Bengals should they get off to a slow start, but the pressure is squarely on Dak Prescott and the Cowboys to come out of these two major games with one win at worst.
With on-field activities and training camp right around the corner, it’ll be easy to get caught up in the excitement for a new season, with what the Cowboys face right out of the gates in 2022 serving as the motivation for putting last year in the rear view mirror.