This offseason for the Dallas Cowboys has drawn generally good reviews. They retained some key players like Donovan Wilson, added important pieces in Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore, and made a major shift in their draft strategy in taking nose tackle Mazi Smith in the first round. Most importantly, the returning players under contract were already one of the most solid groups in recent history. While the team still has some potential concerns, starting with the offensive line, this roster just looks very strong, especially in the NFC, which is now the weaker conference. And the team did not stand pat with the coaching staff. After some questions about play-calling last year, Mike McCarthy grabbed the reins of the offense himself. Optimism abounds.
Well, that is true for the majority of teams this time of year. While there are certainly arguments to be made that the Cowboys made themselves better, that is just on paper at this point.
We discussed this overall idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you do not miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
If you have been following this team for any time, you know how preseason optimism can be shattered on the rocks of the regular season. While this team has a lot going for it, it seems like there are too many rosy assumptions. There are some of those that we need to more closely examine, just to keep ourselves grounded.
One is the offensive line, which has been dissected thoroughly. We are holding our breath about that already. If issues develop there, they probably won’t surprise anyone. It is also obvious that the kicking job is up for grabs, but that is common for maybe half the teams each year, so it doesn’t really fit in here. This piece is about the things that are often just assumed are going to go well - which covers more of the rest of the team than you might think. One thing we don’t have to mention is the defensive end group in Dallas, which is both very good and remarkably deep. That isn’t something to worry about.
But there are still plenty of things to reconsider. Most of these have been pointed out before, but this is a look at the big picture.
Waiting for Dakota
Dak Prescott is polarizing. National media makes things worse concerning him, as the controversy driven shows know full well that throwing shade at the Cowboys quarterback makes for big ratings. Unfortunately, the fact the team has not gotten out of the divisional round with him as quarterback provides ample fuel to the fire. The assumption for many fans is that his issues with turnovers last season should be correctable, and he and the coaches are on top of it. His high interception rate last year is explained as him having to take risks in unfavorable down-and-distance situations to try and extend drives.
So far, he has tended to come back from things like that. The concern is that they don’t go away for good. The offensive success this year is more dependent on Prescott’s performance than any other individual. If he isn’t right, it’s going to be a long, long season.
The wide receiver situation
The Cowboys have struggled with giving Prescott enough quality receivers on the field, but the planned starting trio of CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks, and Michael Gallup looks to have solved that.
Well, this is a bit of a twofer. The trade for Cooks was very well received, but he is a player that is on the backside of his career. He had an off year in 2022. The case is made that he was playing with very ineffective quarterbacks, but we should be very cautious about expecting him to rebound to the 1,000+ yard receiver he has been for most of his career. If he falters with Dallas, it will obviously degrade the position.
Michael Gallup also had a poor season last year. He was slow recovering from his injury late in 2021, and never got to 100%. The assumption is made that he is going to bounce back, but that still has to be demonstrated on the field.
These things may not go badly in this department for the Cowboys, but that is still an assumption. If either Gallup or Cooks has a hiccup, it is a problem. If both have issues, we will likely see the offense struggling with just one good WR on the field.
The team is betting on how much Stephon Gilmore has in the tank, too
Stephen Gilmore has had an outstanding career, but Dallas got him cheap because he is also getting up there in football years, and for a position like cornerback where speed is crucial, this has to be watched closely. The assumption is that he will be a great bookend with Trevon Diggs, but just like with Cooks, we will have to see how that turns out. With DaRon Bland and Jourdan Lewis also in the room, the depth here is better than at wide receiver, but there is still a chance this could be disappointing.
How will Tony Pollard hold up?
Releasing Ezekiel Elliott was something that had become regrettably necessary. Now Pollard is the lead back, and the only proven quantity in that position group. While he certainly showed he could be effective when he was spelling Elliott, he was still more of a change of pace back so far in his career. Now he is expected to have more of those tough runs when the defense is keying on him.
That is going to mean more wear and tear on his body. In one way, this is a cold but efficient use of him. He is playing on a tag, which inflated his cost, although he is certainly more cost effective than Elliott. But the team has the option of moving on from him next year, which may be the plan. Someone else will be the new RB2, and they will very much be auditioning to allow the Cowboys to move on and finally embrace the reality that running games don’t require special talent to be effective, as many teams have proven.
That is the long view. What is important is how the ground game functions this year. This is a bit of an experiment, and given that the coaches keep saying that running the ball is going to be integral to the offense, we have to hope it turns out well.
The tight end room is solid - right?
In what may presage the plan for Pollard, Dallas moved on from Dalton Schultz after he played on the tag last year. They were confident in Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot, and added Luke Schoonmaker in the second round of the draft. All’s well.
Except that Ferguson and Hendershot have a grand total of 30 targets in the NFL between them and Schoonmaker is a rookie. This group is very untested. The ceiling appears high, but we simply don’t know who is going to be the new security blanket for Prescott. A lot depends on how McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer use the position. But these three have to step up, or trouble will ensue.
Will Mazi Smith be ready to take the starting job right away?
I was one who went “Who?” when his name was called, but was quickly won over. He has All-Pro potential before he gets to the end of his rookie contract.
But that might not be evident right out of the gate. Smith is an incredible physical specimen, but he has never lined up against wily NFL offensive linemen. He is going to face a learning curve, and if it is steep for him, it will be a while until he has the impact the team needs. Dan Quinn and Aden Durde are among the best in the business at coaching defensive linemen. We need them to do a superb job getting Smith ready for NFL trench warfare. There is a bit of insurance here in Johnathan Hankins, but he was injured last season. The expectations are very high for Smith, perhaps too high.
Is McCarthy going to clear up the offensive glitches?
This loops right back to the first point raised, since we all got tired of failed first downs and seeing Prescott in bad down-and-distance situations, which probably had quite a bit to do with his league leading interception total. While it seems odd to say so given that McCarthy got the team to the playoffs two years in a row for the first time since the 2006-2007 seasons, he also seemed to feel his seat heating up. Taking the play-calling duties was a logical step to have as much control over his fate as possible, but we will have to see if he can recover the mojo he had during his best years calling plays for the Green Bay Packers. He is doing so while trying to keep as much of the offensive the same for the returning players.
If he does not do much better than the former offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore, was seen as doing, he will indeed be on the hot seat. The team has to advance further this year, at least to the NFC Conference Game, to cool things off for him. If he doesn’t manage that, no matter the reason, he may not finish out his five year contract.
That’s a lot to be concerned about, and there are likely others. We just need to be aware that nothing in the NFL is guaranteed.