Ever since an “extraordinarily dissapointed” Jerry Jones met the media following his team’s season-ending loss to the 49ers in the Wild Card playoffs, it’s been hard to find many positive headlines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys. Jones warned that the NFL is designed for the best teams to regress and new contenders to arise every season, with the offseason taking several key starters away from this most recent contending team.
The Cowboys weren’t without their major flaws going into the playoffs, almost all of which showed up against the 49ers, but a roster with Amari Cooper, La’el Collins, and Randy Gregory felt like their best chance in years to make a championship run. Now with training camp around the corner, none of those starters are still with the team. The Cowboys arriving in Oxnard is supposed to be a time for optimism, so before they get to sorting out who will fill all of the starting jobs, it’s time to put a more positive spin on the direction this team may be heading.
Training camp will be another step further into the most normal and complete offseason head coach Mike McCarthy has had in Dallas. McCarthy faces a lot of pressure to make the most of this and at the very least win the division again in 2022, but rarely gets any credit for the Cowboys success anyway. Any discussions on McCarthy’s future seems to forget he followed a coach in Jason Garrett who got ten years in the position, building the team to his liking multiple times but without results.
McCarthy may be just now starting that process as the Cowboys have certainly gotten younger across the board this offseason. The immediate impact he could make for Dak Prescott went into the Jones’ hiring him, and rightfully expecting to win right away, but with Prescott still in his prime McCarthy has surrounded him with talent that fits his offense. The Cowboys receiving corps may be their most unproven position going into camp, but on paper they have the potential to play into the West Coast offense that McCarthy has won with in the past.
The veteran coach also has two coordinators that could have been on the way out for other head coaching jobs following the season. At one point this felt inevitable as the result of the Cowboys winning early in the season, but now there’s concerns mainly with Kellen Moore as the right play-caller on offense. While some more inexperienced coaches would have a harder time working with coordinators that could very well replace them, McCarthy has used his perceived job security to let both Moore and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn do what they do best. After just one season with the team, Quinn’s defense has become a huge part of the Cowboys identity, as a unit that carried them through games at times in 2021.
With five more of their draft picks going to defense this year, the Cowboys defense under Quinn should still hold a big advantage against the quarterbacks in the NFC East this season.
There’s also the commitment Dallas has made to retooling their offensive line, learning the hard way that reputation doesn’t win battles in the trenches. The fastest way for any offense to get out of sync is by allowing pressure from the interior, and that’s exactly what the Cowboys did with Connor Williams starting at left guard. The Tyler Smith pick was heavily criticized as one that lacked the value or star-power this roster needs, but if it helps Ezekiel Elliott in the ground game while keeping Prescott upright, the Cowboys should be a much more consistent offense.
This organization still believes in Moore’s scheme, and his experience to date is with coaches that emphasize the run game. Losing that for weeks at a time last season made the Cowboys too predictable, but as their new faces at receiver get acclimated they’ll be able to attack defenses differently.
It will take something of a perfect storm with early season success against other top teams, as well as strong play late in the season, for Cowboys fans to buy into this year’s team completely. It wasn’t until Garrett’s fourth full season that the Cowboys made the playoffs, making a Wild Card loss in McCarthy’s second year a possible sign of progress. This front office could have done a lot more to help McCarthy this offseason, but his vision for the roster can become even clearer at training camp. For a team that almost welcomes offseason distractions that have little to do with football, this year has been all about their personnel decisions.
At this point last year, nobody knew Micah Parsons would be an emerging star in the NFL, or that Terence Steele was a capable starting right tackle. Now it’s finally time to evaluate this roster fairly from a football perspective, being led by coaches that feel the collective pressure to build on last year’s playoff berth. The Cowboys have not been a playoff team in consecutive seasons since 2006-07, so starting off as clear division favorites again is a decent starting point.
What they do with it will be incredibly telling in retrospect, when looking back at how much was truly lost when the team failed to defend home field at AT&T Stadium in last year’s playoffs.