These are the times that try Dallas Cowboys fans’ souls. After one of the more desultory offseasons in recent memory, they are widely seen as regressing while most other teams, particularly their NFC East rivals, have advanced. Speculative analyses like the one Peter King did for Football Morning in America are reflecting that, with the Philadelphia Eagles emerging as a legitimate contender in the NFC East.
Worries about the Cowboys being overtaken are certainly warranted. The frustration over the refusal to use the free agent market to acquire talent, even as Dallas elects to part ways with key starters over salary cap concerns and friction between the players and the staff, has certainly grown this year. The Cowboys rely almost exclusively on the draft, and due to finishing last season in first place in the division, there was not as much of that to work with this season, while division rivals like the Eagles and the New York Giants had a ton. So even in the area where the Cowboys pride themselves on doing well, they were outstripped just because those teams had so many high picks to nab new talent, including trading picks for veterans.
While, based on the above, this is going to be a challenging year to try and break the long streak of NFCE winners not repeating, the dismissal of Dallas’ chances are probably overstated. As mentioned, any rankings or predictions are highly speculative. Teams are just now doing OTAs and minicamps. Those give only the vaguest idea of how rosters will shake out and how the new mix of players will gel. While things will become more discernable during training camps and preseason games, only the regular season games will prove how well things work out.
Further, there is a long history of preseason projections being very wrong. Guesswork is the biggest factor here, and a prediction being made by a national NFL writer is not any guarantee of accuracy. Just looking back at one such exercise, this one a joint effort by eight SI experts just before the start of last season, illustrates this. The real results last year were that the Cowboys won the division while the Eagles earned a wild card spot in the expanded playoff format. But only two of the predictions in the article above had Dallas winning the NFCE, with one other projecting them earning a wild card bid. The Giants were the favorite, with four of the writers picking them as the division winner. The Washington Commanders were picked by two to win it all, and two others saw them getting a wild card bid. None of the writers saw the Eagles even making the playoffs. In reality, New York would wind up with one of the worst records in the league at 4-13, while Washington would fall short of a winning record, going 7-10.
Every year, the same mistakes are made by many. Both draft picks and free agent additions get overvalued. The reality is that many high picks fail to live up to expectations while free agents are more often disappointments than successes. The latter is a driving factor in why the Cowboys avoid those like they have monkeypox, although they go too far. They have done better than many with the draft recently, particularly in the first round. But part of that has been luck. CeeDee Lamb was never seen as a possibility for them until it happened, and Micah Parsons is just a unicorn. We all hope they have hit gold again with Tyler Smith, but the circumstances make him a long shot to be an immediate hit for them. However, other teams will also see flops in both markets. The Eagles are seen as having one of the best offseasons in the NFL. That is all on paper at the moment. We have seen a supposed superteam flop there in recent years. The coaching staff is different, so the outcome could be much better for them. But it is still very much to be determined.
The same is just as true for Dallas. There are still some major questions for them to answer, and it will be hard to get things to work out. They do have one significant thing in their favor, however. Quarterback remains the biggest single factor in a team’s success. It is also historically the most predictive one. Dak Prescott is still the class of the NFCE. The projections for the Eagles to win the division rely on Jalen Hurts taking a major leap. There is no real evidence he is going to do so outside of the trade to add A.J. Brown to the receiving corps. That gives him a big time target he lacked previously, but the biggest part of things is still how well Hurts performs. The idea that Carson Wentz is going to be the answer for the Commanders is hard to justify, and the Cowboys seem to have him figured out in any case. Daniel Jones still has to prove he is the guy for the Giants.
Prescott will elevate his team. The question is if he can sufficiently elevate a roster that demonstrably got weaker. The assumption is that all the division rivals improved. At least one of them will probably be badly disappointed. Still, likely at least one will see a real jump. Will it be enough to overtake Dallas? They were the only one with double-digit wins last year and took the division easily. It comes down to whether anyone else in the NFCE closed that gap, and how much the Cowboys might fall off.
That’s not to say the predictions are going to be that wrong. It is just that they usually are. Only one of the writers in the SI article linked above got the league champion Los Angeles Rams right last season, and none of them even had the Cincinnati Bengals even making the playoffs.
The bottom line here is that none of the predictions mean anything, especially at this point. The Cowboys are very hard to figure out this year, more so than usual. But uncertainty exists to a certain point about all teams. We just have to wait and see how things play out.