No team has won the NFC East in consecutive seasons since the turn of the century, when Andy Reid’s Eagles did so in four straight years from 2001 to 2004. After winning the division handily last year, the Cowboys were gearing up to try and make history by breaking that streak.
The last time the Cowboys were attempting to do so, coming off a strong 2018 season, they started off hot but lost four of their last six games to finish 8-8, miss the playoffs, and usher in a whole new coaching staff. Before that, it was the 2017 season in which the Cowboys were in a good spot at 5-3. But an injury to Tyron Smith coincided with Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension finally happening, and Dallas dropped three straight to derail the season.
It seems as if there’s a Final Destination style trend going on with NFC East champions, as something always seems to happen. Throughout this past offseason, many assumed the downfall of this Cowboys team would likely be the offense regressing after massive downgrades at wide receiver, or possibly even the defense taking a step back after such a strong 2021 campaign.
As training camp and preseason waged on, though, neither of these looked to be the case. Noah Brown and Simi Fehoko both look to have made big jumps, and rookie Jalen Tolbert has had no shortage of impressive moments when Dak Prescott is throwing the ball. Even Dennis Houston came out of nowhere to become a strong contender for a roster spot.
And the defense hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down either. Micah Parsons is still ridiculously talented and Trevon Diggs is still making plays on the ball; it seems to have spread to Anthony Brown, Israel Mukuamu, and DaRon Bland as well. The run defense has looked stout in two preseason games, hinting at improvement in this unit’s biggest weakness last year.
So if it wasn’t the wide receiver spot letting us down or the defense regressing towards the mean, what was it going to be? All three division rivals got better this offseason, but none made significant jumps in talent. And if the Cowboys were looking good in their two problem areas, as they have been, what could possibly happen to derail their hopes of making history and winning a division title in consecutive years?
Well, the answer came quickly, and almost out of nowhere. Tyron Smith, the paragon of consistently bad injury luck, fell during practice on Wednesday night and was seen with a limp. Coaches insisted he would be fine, and Connor McGovern shared Smith’s reassuring grunt as evidence of such.
He was spotted leaving the locker room after practice and did not appear to be limping badly. Connor McGovern: “He gave me a nice, reassuring grunt like he usually does. That’s the one thing playing next to him for so long, I can decipher his grunts. I think he’s all right.”— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) August 25, 2022
McGovern may need to brush up on his grunt-to-English translations, because Thursday morning brought news that Smith suffered an avulsion fracture in his knee, which sounds like the most painful injury invented. There is no timetable for his return, as it largely depends on when his surgery is and how it goes, but the most optimistic estimations at the moment suggested December as the earliest possible return.
The more likely scenario is that Smith is done for the year. This likely results in rookie Tyler Smith kicking out to left tackle, his position in college, with McGovern manning the left guard spot and having to learn a whole new grunt language. Dallas could, of course, surprise everyone and bring in an outside option via free agency or trade.
Regardless of how they handle this going forward, Smith’s loss is a crushing blow for the Cowboys. Everyone figured the left tackle would miss a couple games at some point this year, as he’s done literally every year since Prescott came into the league. But the team likely felt comfortable with surviving a handful of games without him.
That doesn’t compare to not having him until December, if at all. Furthermore, the replacement options are completely uninspiring. Tyler Smith was moved inside to guard in large part because he was too raw to stay outside at tackle for the time being. Now, he may have to do exactly that after spending the past four months learning a new position. And if it’s not Smith at left tackle, then it’s either Josh Ball or a player that hasn’t been practicing with this offense at all yet.
All of this is exacerbated by the daunting lineup of pass rushers Dallas will face this year. Just in their own division they’ll face the likes of Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, and a Giants defense that’s already become known for endless blitzing. Outside of those three teams, the Cowboys also play six different teams that finished last year in the top 10 in either sacks or pressures.
It might be too early to officially declare doomsday on this season, but the clock has definitely been moved up to one minute until midnight. The Cowboys’ offensive line was already uncertain, and now it’s been thrown into total chaos. Suddenly, it’s a lot easier to see a world in which the Cowboys fail to become just the second team this century to win the NFC East in consecutive years.