Despite the 12-5 regular season record and the NFC East crown, 2021 left a bitter taste for the fans of the Dallas Cowboys. They collapsed in the playoffs against the San Francisco 49ers. Given that the roster was seen as one of the most talented in recent memory, there are obvious questions about how 2022 is going to go. Some big changes happened with the players, but one thing was a bit surprising. The coaching staff was almost totally retained. Now we wait to see if that particular bet is going to pay off or go bust.
The only significant change to the staff was the replacement of wide receivers coach Adam Henry with Robert Prince. Otherwise, Mike McCarthy kept things intact. This appears to have been his call as Jerry and Stephen Jones seem to be letting him make the decisions on his staff. There is certainly validity in keeping the coaching consistent from year to year when things are going well. However, that only works when the coaches are doing a good job. The apparent lack of preparation for the wild card game last January raises significant questions.
It all starts with the one person that the Joneses decide, the head coach. Mike McCarthy certainly improved things from his first season to the second, but that was almost certainly more due to the return of Dak Prescott after his 2021 campaign was cut short by his brutal ankle injury. Even coming back from rehab and then suffering a calf strain that seemed to affect him down the stretch, he was still the most important cog in the offense. Now McCarthy is facing what is widely believed to be a make or break season. His faith in his staff will be tested.
When Kellen Moore was promoted to replace Scott Linehan as offensive coordinator in Jason Garrett’s final year with the team, there was a belief that he would be more creative and open the offense up. That appears to be what McCarthy expected as well when he retained Moore. So far, it has not seemed to be the case. Both 2020 and 2021 started off with a bang. That major injury to Prescott obviously derailed things in 2020. His calf strain suffered against the New England Patriots had a lesser but apparently limiting effect last year. The team still used a run-first approach even though Ezekiel Elliott was dealing with a PCL issue for most of the season. Tony Pollard continued to be underutilized. This year, Prescott has a very uncertain receiving corps. Amari Cooper was traded away for a pittance, Michael Gallup is expected to miss multiple games as he is recovering from his own serious injury. James Washington has been the only free agent addition to the corps so far. The team is relying on third-round rookie Jalen Tolbert to step in as an immediate starter, which doesn’t always go the way hoped. Starting tight end Dalton Schultz was tagged and is now planning on sitting out the last week of OTAs due to frustration over getting a long-term deal. Depth at both wide receiver and tight end is not encouraging.
Meanwhile, the offensive line has undergone a major shakeup with the departure of starters La’el Collins and Connor Williams. Terence Steele is the projected replacement for Collins at right tackle. His performance last year showed a lot of growth for the 2020 UDFA. It remains to be seen how he will hold up for an entire season. Rookie Tyler Smith is being switched to left guard from his tackle position in college. Doing that while making the leap to the pros is certainly a gamble. To his left, Tyron Smith is still one of the best left tackles in the league - when healthy. He has struggled with that for years now, not having started an entire season since 2015.
That is a pile of challenges for the offensive coaching staff to address. On the other side of the ball, things are different, but still filled with potential pitfalls.
Dan Quinn returns as defensive coordinator despite reported interest for him to become head coach with other teams. That is good for the team as he absolutely got a much improved performance last year and is even seen as a likely heir if McCarthy is fired. But his success was a bit deceiving. The Cowboys lived off turnovers, tied for the best margin in the league. That level of performance is almost impossible to replicate. There is just too much chance involved. There should be a strong regression to the mean for the team, which means they need to improve in the basics on defense. Those were at times questionable, especially against the run.
Quinn also benefited from a remarkable year in improving the talent. First and foremost was the addition of Micah Parsons, who was a dominant player from day one. Whether working from his nominal role as a linebacker or lining up as an edge rusher, he just made plays. He was sixth in sacks for the year despite that being a part-time role. A bit under the radar, Osa Odighizuwa also had a strong rookie campaign. And for a change the parsimonious approach to free agency paid off for Dallas as Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, and Damontae Kazee all came in and gave the Cowboys the best safety group we have seen in many years. Kazee is gone, but Kearse and Hooker were wisely re-signed. Further, in his second year Trevon Diggs became a huge part of that turnover margin, leading the league in interceptions.
As with the offense, the defense lost a major component when the negotiations to bring defensive end Randy Gregory back came apart. Sam Williams has a lot of potential, but cannot be expected to immediately play to the level needed to replace Gregory. Free agent addition Dante Fowler was more of an insurance move.
Quinn and his assistants have to get the defense to play better and be less reliant on taking the ball away to stop opponents. It is hoped that another year under the same coaches will pay benefits.
That is the plan for both the offense and defense. Success is not guaranteed. Clearly the team needs to make changes after what happened against the 49ers. The Cowboys are rolling the dice on the same coaches being able to make improvements. That is not at all a sure bet.