The desultory end to last season for the Dallas Cowboys revealed some significant warts for the team. Perhaps the most glaring was how unprepared the team looked in the wildcard loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Dallas had a more talented roster, but got thoroughly outplayed. More specifically, they were badly outcoached. Now the team is preparing for the new season with a lot of position groups they are worse than they were a year ago. Free agency so far has yielded little help as the Cowboys once again relied heavily on the draft. If the team is going to make it back to the playoffs, much less finally advance, it is on the coaching staff to elevate them. Training camp is going to be crucial, because the first week of the season is too late to come up with solutions.
Head coach Mike McCarthy will bear the brunt of the blame if things don’t go well. However, he has established himself as more of a walk-around leader who leaves the main work to his assistants. Here is what they need to accomplish.
McCarthy probably has more input here, both due to his background and the experience of Dan Quinn with the defense. Kellen Moore is a different case, in his first coordinator job and only having four years as a coach under his belt, three as the offensive coordinator. Moore still needs mentoring, so it is reasonable that McCarthy retains a lot of influence.
Moore has three big issues facing him.
A depleted receiver corps
The departure of Amari Cooper and the expected absence of Michael Gallup for the first few games of the season leaves Dak Prescott with more of a challenge finding receivers to get the ball to. CeeDee Lamb is the new WR1, and he is going to draw double coverage on all the passing downs. Jalen Tolbert has a lot of potential, but that does not always pan out as players make the jump to the NFL. That leaves James Washington, one of the few free agent acquisitions so far, Noah Brown, and Simi Fehoko as the rest of the wide receiver group. The team signed five UDFAs to compete for a spot on the 53-man roster, but those numbers are also necessary to get through the workload of training camp and preseason games. It would not be surprising to see at least one of them make it, at least until Gallup comes back. Still, this is a much less potent group than they had last year.
Don’t forget tight end. Had Blake Jarwin not been injured last year, he and Dalton Schultz would have been a strong combination. Jarwin is now gone, and the competition for the TE2 job looks to be between rookie Jake Ferguson, Sean McKeon, and Jeremy Sprinkle. Ferguson is very intriguing, because he brings some strong run-blocking credentials along with an ability to bring the ball in when targeted.
Clearly it is going to be up to Moore to scheme things and call plays to get targets open for Prescott as well as for the players to step up. That scheming should include more throwing out of two tight end sets. We know Schultz is quite effective, and if Ferguson or one of the other contenders also is able to be a reliable target, throwing out of 12 personnel is a good way to cross up the defense.
Properly utilizing the backs
This offers its own challenge. Many see Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard as a binary choice, but Pollard’s skills should make two back sets more prevalent for Dallas. Pollard can move all over the formation and seems ideal for jet sweeps as well as faking those. He needs more touches in any case, and using him more in the passing game could help there while allowing Elliott to be the workhorse runner the team needs. Pollard should still get reps as the lone back, especially in down and distance situations that make throwing or handing off viable choices. Moore needs to be the creative mind we thought he would. Last season lacked much evidence of that. This is where McCarthy’s guidance may help.
Rebuilding the offensive line
The biggest challenge for the offense is the line. Joe Philbin is going to have to earn his paycheck as well for the team to succeed. Left guard appears to be Tyler Smith’s to claim. He is transitioning from the left tackle position he played in college and has a lot of technique issues that need to be fixed. If this goes poorly, it could be a long season for both Prescott and the running backs. Terence Steele is projected as the starting right tackle. He showed the staff enough to move on from La’el Collins. Whether he is a legitimate NFL caliber starter remains to be seen. If he isn’t, that is another nasty can of worms. Finally, Stephen Jones has talked about competition for the starting center job held by Tyler Biadasz. We know from experience that when Jones starts talking about problems with players, things often go poorly for them.
Philbin has to figure out the starting jobs as well as coming up with a plan at swing tackle. The offense starts with the blocking up front in both the running and passing game. If it is not up to the task, the best play calls will not have much chance to work.
If you noticed, that means challenges for the offensive staff everywhere but at quarterback. Prescott is a real strength for the team, but he can’t do it all himself. He needs help, and it is up to the staff to give it to him.
After the job Dan Quinn did last season, McCarthy logically should leave him to handle his side of the line of scrimmage. However, part of the defensive success for the Cowboys came from their league-leading turnover margin, driven by the 26 interceptions on the year. Trevon Diggs was a big part of that by having the most picks in the league. That is problematic, since takeaways are historically almost impossible to maintain year to year. The differential should be expected to go down, perhaps even into negative territory. It doesn’t mean the players or Quinn are doing a bad job in that department. It is just that luck plays so large a part.
Despite those gaudy takeaway numbers, Dallas was very middle of the pack in yards allowed both to passes and runs. They literally lived off those takeaways, which is highly unlikely to be viable this season. To make up for that, the team needs to get two things done.
Get after the quarterback
There are arguments that Randy Gregory was not as big a loss as some claim. Regardless, the team wanted to keep him and would have except for bungling the contract negotiations. Now they have to fill that void. Second-round pick Sam Williams has some intriguing traits that have led to some looking at him as something of a Micah Parsons-light type. Be cautious with that. Parsons was clearly far from a typical player last season. He was a terror rushing the passer and extremely effective hunting down and stopping runners.
Williams is strictly a down lineman in the current plans, at least as far as can be determined. Like Tyler Smith, he is making a change. Unlike Smith, it is almost certainly going to benefit him. In college, he spent a lot of his time as a 5-tech, lining up directly over offensive tackles. He did not thrive in that role. When the Mississippi coaching staff moved him outside to come off the edge, as he is expected to spend most of his time in Dallas, he was far more effective. Still, he is a rookie making that big jump. The team needs depth in any case. They must have a solid rotation at right defensive end to play with DeMarcus Lawrence, and someone needs to spell Lawrence at times. That depth is likely to come from the group of Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler, Tarell Basham, and Chauncey Golston. One of them may be the starter at right defensive end while Williams acclimates to the NFL.
It also would help to have some more pressure up the middle. Once Neville Gallimore was healthy last year, he and Osa Odighizuwa seemed to be growing in this aspect. The team also uses defensive ends to kick inside on obvious passing downs.
Most importantly, Parsons will be used at times as an edge rusher, and he was devastating in that role, notching 13 sacks, good for sixth best in the league. Given that it was essentially a part-time assignment, he should remain a big part of the mix. That is a very good thing.
Shoring up the run defense
That loss to the 49ers was in large part to them running the ball so effectively, amassing 169 yards on the ground. They had the advantage of jumping out to a two score lead early, but it was unquestionable that they exploited the Cowboys’ defense with their ground game. Since much of run defense is reliant on the interior of the defensive line and the linebackers. there is reason for concern here. They only spent one draft pick, a fifth-rounder, on interior defensive line help. John Ridgeway seems to have the traits to be a good nose tackle on early downs. However, if the opponent threw the ball against his team in college, Ridgeway was a liability with little ability to push the pocket. At linebacker, the team is putting a lot of faith in Leighton Vander Esch and second-year player Jabril Cox, who was out injured the last half of last season. They may have found a long-term play in Damone Clark, but he might be out the entire season. Jayron Kearse is a big part of this as well, playing as a hybrid safety/linebacker very effectively. Parsons is a strength against the run when sticking with the traditional linebacker role, but as seen he is not always going to be there.
Dallas has to fix this soft aspect of the defense. Just like the offensive staff, Quinn is going to have to earn his paycheck and show that 2021 was not just a fluke due to those takeaways.
This is not going to be an easy year for the Cowboys despite what appears to be a very favorable schedule, especially after the first couple of weeks. With what looks to be less talent overall the coaches have to find ways to get things done. It is a real challenge.