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Cowboys named biggest make or break team of 2022, have smaller margin of error to repeat in NFC East

The Cowboys are facing pressure just to hold off the Giants, Eagles, and Commanders this season.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys haven’t exactly been known for living up to expectations and handling pressure well, but face both in their efforts to repeat as NFC East winners in 2022. After a 12-5 season a year ago yielded a familiar early playoff exit, the Cowboys brought back head coach Mike McCarthy, as well as both coordinators, Dan Quinn and Kellen Moore, despite the pair interviewing for multiple head coach openings.

The pressure on this coaching staff to hold off the rest of the division and advance further in the playoffs is the basis for Bleacher Report naming the Cowboys as this season’s biggest “make or break” team.

The Cowboys will also be doing so without several key starters from last year’s team, calling on both their established and upcoming stars to carry them.

McCarthy and Moore faced heat after the Cowboys lost to the Niners in the Wild Card Round. Dallas held San Francisco to only seven points in the second half, but the Cowboys’ high-powered offense came to a screeching halt for most of the game. They scored 10 of their 17 points in the fourth quarter and couldn’t complete the comeback attempt.

The efficiency and balance that helped the Cowboys offense soar in the regular season was missing against the Niners. Prescott completed only 23 of his 43 pass attempts. Ezekiel Elliott mustered only 31 yards on 12 carries. CeeDee Lamb had one catch for 21 yards.

It’s hard to win when your offensive stars play nowhere near their usual levels. While the players deserve blame for that, the coaching staff does as well. McCarthy and Moore can’t afford for their offense to sputter in the playoffs again and expect to be back in 2023.

If the Cowboys do go on a deeper playoff run, McCarthy’s coordinators bolt might anyway. That would be a welcomed trade-off for reaching the NFC Championship Game, but it would be tougher to swallow if the Cowboys fall flat. Dallas is already fortunate Quinn returned after receiving requests to interview for every open head coaching job except the Las Vegas Raiders this past spring.

Where McCarthy was supposed to be taking over a Cowboys roster entering a championship window, the Super Bowl-winning coach has had to adjust on the fly and deal with questions about his job security from his own coordinators. Early in the 2021 season, losing Moore and Quinn felt like a foregone conclusion as a result of the Cowboys finding success. Keeping them for 2022 to break in new starters on both sides of the ball is now a risk Dallas finds themselves taking in an effort to repeat as division champions for the first time in 26 years.

The Cowboys have a number of stars, including Prescott, Lamb, Elliott, Lawrence and Micah Parsons. Those high-level starters separate them from the middling contenders in the NFC.

But the swing players must show up in 2022 to keep Dallas from another early playoff exit.

Gallup must be the playmaker he showed before he tore his ACL. Tyron Smith needs to stay healthy. Diggs and Fowler need to be consistent difference-makers for the defense to overcome the powerful offenses of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams.

Around this time last offseason, the Cowboys were projected to have the offense that could keep up with the Rams or Buccaneers, but now their identity has shifted more to an opportunistic defense that can complement a powerful, but at times, inefficient offense. With Prescott, Lamb, and Elliott listed as high-level starters though, there’s still plenty of firepower for the Cowboys to prove themselves as NFC contenders again and take the next step.

Training camp will be very telling for this Cowboys team as they look for signs of progressions from a multitude of young starters, as well as the depth needed to seriously contend in the postseason.