For a few more hours, there is a thirty-two way tie for the best record in the NFL. Optimism tends to run rampant until results start rolling in, with almost every fan base in the league convinced their team is definitely headed for a winning record because they are better this year.
Well, while some fans of the Dallas Cowboys may be swimming in that blue Kool Aid, most of us have a more jaundiced view. The team parted ways with proven talent during the offseason and didn’t put in a very impressive effort to replace it. With obvious roster holes since February, they continued to eschew free agency and relied on new draftees, UDFAs, and improvement of players still on the roster.
We discussed the ideas from this article in the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
It says something that of the limited number of free agents they did acquire, it is the ones they managed to sign after the start of training camp that seem most likely to help them.
All that means that there are some real questions for the Cowboys that need answers when they open the season Sunday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here are the biggest.
Will this offensive line hold together?
Some of us are still hoarse from months of screaming about adding veteran OT depth. The signing of Jason Peters didn’t exactly shut us up, either. By waiting until they had a disaster on their hands with the injury to Tyron Smith, Dallas ensured that Peters would not be able to help things in the first week, maybe more. It is nice to have him mentoring the younger members of the offensive line, but this could be a very different situation if they had brought him in early enough to line up this week at left tackle. That would have allowed Tyler Smith stay at left guard and put the best five linemen on the field together.
It remains amazing that the team complacently rolled forward with Josh Ball and Matt Waletzko as their depth behind a player in Tyron Smith whose injury turned out to be as inevitable as we expected. As a result, Tyler Smith is going to be the starting left tackle, with Connor McGovern next to him. Tyler was drafted to be the future at left tackle, but the original plan was to use him as a guard this year. That was a position switch for him, so he focused on that all camp and preseason. When Tyron went down, there was really no viable option other than getting Tyler reacclimated to tackle. Now the staff is talking about keeping Tyler as the starter even after Peters is ready to go. Peters seems content to be a backup as he winds down his career in his home state.
The current plan just seems risky, despite it being the only logical approach. No one thinks throwing Waletzko or Ball out there as a starter is anything other than a pure desperation move. Given that the team was already putting a lot of faith in Terence Steele at right tackle, the overall performance of the offensive line remains the biggest question of all - and it has been ever since La’el Collins was released.
Are the wide receivers going to step up?
The Cowboys have a rising star in CeeDee Lamb to head up this group. Michael Gallup is coming back from his injury, and the way he was kept on the roster indicates that will be sooner than we once hoped. It still is not expected to be this week although the Cowboys are keeping it open as a possibility. The staff had at least tried to get some more veteran experience at the position by signing James Washington, who was not exciting but did add needed seasoning to the group. That evaporated when he was injured and wound up on IR, making him unavailable for at least four games.
Instead, we now have a group of wide receivers that have a grand total of 39 catches and no touchdowns. Those all belong to Noah Brown, who has mostly been a special teams contributor during his five years in Dallas. The rest are one second-year player who barely set foot on the field as a rookie and never caught a pass, their third-round pick this spring, a UDFA signing from immediately after the draft, and another UDFA who was not added until after camp started and was brought in primarily for his kick and punt return potential.
What could possibly go wrong?
This rivals the gamble they are taking with the offensive line. Only the presence of Lamb keeps it from creating real PTSD from the “receiver by committee” approach that failed so spectacularly in 2018 that the team traded away their 2019 first-round draft pick to get Amari Cooper. You remember him? The guy they traded away for a fifth-round pick and a swap in the sixth?
A lot of hope rides on how well Simi Fehoko, Jalen Tolbert, Dennis Houston, and KaVontae Turpin will rise to the challenge. Training camp fed those hopes, as all seemed to do well, especially when Dak Prescott was throwing the ball to them. But, as former NBA player Allen Iverson once stated, we’re talking about practice. Now it is for realsies. Those young’uns (and an older and hopefully much wiser Turpin) have to prove themselves against NFL secondaries. If this doesn’t go better than can objectively be hoped, it could be really, really bad.
Are Dak’s shoulders big enough?
The ownership has already started talking about how the quarterback is going to have to be the difference maker on offense. That smacks far too much about setting up a pie-eating scapegoat should the team falter this year.
It is too much to load on him, but Prescott is talented and experienced enough to at least offer a glimmer of hope. Countering that are the two previous questions. The staff totally failed him in providing reliable protection on the line to keep him upright and healthy. And outside of Lamb and TE Dalton Schultz, playing on the franchise tag, they also failed to give him a well-stocked receiver group. Wide receiver is not the only place they are relying on rookies, either, as Schultz is backed up by fourth-round pick Jake Ferguson and surprising UDFA Peyton Hendershot. Tony Pollard is being talked up as taking a bigger role in the passing game, but we’ve heard that one before. It falls squarely in the arena of we’ll believe it when we see it.
At least to start the season, Prescott is in good health. Now that scrambled line and his own mobility will have to keep him that way. It just seems bizarre to put so much on him after stacking the deck against his success.
Can the running game come through?
With so many other things to haunt our playoff dreams, it is easy to forget how much the staff has talked about the run being central to the success of the offense. Like Prescott, lead back Ezekiel Elliott is healthy. Last season he got off to a hot start before being injured in the fifth game of the season. There is certainly the potential for him to have a strong year, but that offensive line issue also could have a deleterious effect on his performance. Like in the passing game, we can only hope that Pollard makes a significant contribution running the ball. There is also a chance that Turpin and other receivers can add a bit with some jet sweeps. Prescott can be used on some designed runs to help out, but that comes with obvious risks.
The staff seems to unfortunately retain something of a 1990s mindset about using the run in the pass-centric NFL of the 21st century. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton.
Are the defense and special teams what we think they are?
Dan Quinn’s bunch looks to be deep and talented. Turpin showed us in the second preseason game that he can be a dynamic threat returning both kickoffs and punts. That engenders hope that the other units can help carry the team as the offense faces some real growing pains early in the season.
But defensive performance is much harder to sustain year-to-year. That is especially true for a unit like Dallas’ that relied so much on turnovers last season. Those entail a degree of luck. Being lucky is not a plan. The pass rush will have to live up to the potential it showed in camp, the linebacking corps is relying a lot on Leighton Vander Esch to have a bounce-back year, and the secondary has to cut down on allowing chunk completions. They do have the unicorn that is Micah Parsons, but the rest of the NFL now knows how dangerous he is, and offensive coordinators are going to be digging deep in their bag of tricks to find ways to neutralize him. Similarly, it is almost unfortunate that Turpin went off in a preseason game. Don’t expect him to get many opportunities this year as the correct strategy is now shown to be to kick away from him, even if it sacrifices some field position. Meanwhile, we have to hope that Brett Maher continues the improvement he showed last season with the New Orleans Saints. We have bad memories of what happens when he goes into a slump. So far, so good, but remember what Iverson said?
At least these two phases of the game currently look to be favorable for the Cowboys. They are going to need it.