When you examine the performance of the 2022 Dallas Cowboys, it seems evident that the defense was more capable than the offense. This was absolutely true when the team managed to achieve a 4-1 record with Cooper Rush filling in for Dak Prescott, but it also showed in many other games. Going into the regular season, it appears that several things will create more balance for the main components of the team. Our David Howman and Tom Ryle take a look at that, and see if there are any holes to poke in the idea.
Tom: You have to look at what the team did in assembling the current roster and think it is going to elevate the offense. There were some significant additions and a few players look to be upping their game significantly.
Last year, Dak was limited by the receivers he had to work with. His only reliable targets were CeeDee Lamb and Dalton Schultz. Michael Gallup was never at 100%, and they were trying to find a good WR3 all season, with little success. Now they have Brandin Cooks to line up with Lamb and a healthy looking Gallup. That alone should be a big help. Indications are that the depth is good, especially Jalen Tolbert, who has put his desultory rookie season behind him and claimed the WR4 job. Even KaVontae Turpin and Jalen Brooks, who round out the room, look like they are able to contribute. Turpin was on the team last season, primarily to return punts and kickoffs, but hardly employed as a WR. His work in camp and preseason games makes that look like a lost opportunity.
There is a bit of uncertainty at tight end, with Prescott’s security blanket Schultz now gone, but Jake Ferguson looked more than ready to assume the role in preseason. Behind him are Peyton Hendershot, who was sparingly used in 2022, and rookie Luke Schoonmaker. Both flashed enough to offer a bit of encouragement.
I think this is really going to unleash Prescott - along with something I’ll hold onto for a bit that may be even more important.
David: I’ve been bullish on McCarthy as a playcaller all offseason, and I love the addition of Cooks, so this is in no way meant to come off as anything short of enthusiasm for the Cowboys offense. But measuring up to this defense is a tall task. It’s hard to overstate just how much Dan Quinn has done since arriving in Dallas, just as it’s hard to overstate how ridiculously talented Micah Parsons is.
It would be one thing if the defense was just Parsons & Friends, but it’s not. There are playmakers all over the field. Trevon Diggs tied Everson Walls’ single-season interceptions record, and got even better in coverage last year. The three-headed monster that is this safety group has apparently grown, as Israel Mukuamu proved his value in the playoffs last year and both Markquese Bell and Juanyeh Thomas showed out all preseason long. Then there’s Stephon Gilmore, acquired in the offseason, who has been elite for years and even won Defensive Player of the Year not too long ago.
Oh, and did I mention the pass rush? Parsons is obviously public enemy number one for any offensive line, but it hardly ends there. DeMarcus Lawrence remains criminally underrated, while Dorance Armstrong, Sam Williams, and Dante Fowler make for a very, very deep rotation. Linebacker is a bit thin right now, but Leighton Vander Esch is a pro’s pro who seems to be getting better now that his health issues are behind him. I like the additions the team has made on offense, but they’re still unproven to this point. The Dallas defense, though, is littered with players who have plenty of scalps on the wall. Topping them is going to be very hard to do.
Tom: I am not arguing that the defense, so good last year, looks to be even stronger and deeper. But the receiving corps is not the only thing they did to upgrade that offense.
We may not want the team to focus too much on the running game, but it still is important. The Cowboys have completely revamped it. Ezekiel Elliott is no longer with the team, a sad but necessary move as he just was not able to make the runs he used to last fall. Tony Pollard is the new lead back, and he has been dynamic so far with the team. He is playing on a tag like Schultz did last season, but our focus today is on what they are putting on the field now. Pollard should be good.
Behind him is a trio of new faces, at least for the 53-man roster. Rico Dowdle, after fighting the injury jinx for his first three years with the organization, is finally healthy and ready to show he is capable of being Pollard’s primary backup. Joining those two are a pair of rookies that have me, at least, very excited. Deuce Vaughn is already a bit famous for the heartwarming story of his draft call from his own father, but that is rapidly being replaced by the electrifying way he showed up in the preseason. He had already become a meme, the smol back, and I cannot wait to see what he does when the games count. Hunter Luepke was my favorite UDFA signing. He exploded in the final preseason game, playing as an H-back, which melds the role of RB and TE. His retention allowed the team to go short at TE. The versatility of that pair, and former change of pace back Pollard, makes them key pieces for the passing game as well.
If there is an Achilles’ heel lurking, it is offensive line depth. The starting five is about as solid as you could hope for, but the backups make you pucker up a bit. Health may be key to overall offensive success, and meanwhile Mike Solari needs to be coaching his butt off to get the backups ready if needed.
David: You took the words right out of my mouth on the offensive line end. The depth there is really quite concerning, especially since Tyron Smith hasn’t played a full season since the year before Dak Prescott entered the league (just writing that blew my mind). I would argue, though, that depth all across the offense is a bit of a question mark too.
Outside of Jalen Tolbert, the receiver room isn’t exactly loaded with guys you want starting many games. The backups at running back are a third-year pro with seven carries to his name, a sixth-round rookie, and an undrafted rookie who mostly played fullback in college (at the FCS level, too, mind you). And the tight end room is young and inexperienced all the way around. Now, there’s plenty of reason to be excited about Jalen Brooks, Deuce Vaughn, and the rest of those guys, but if they have to play starter level snaps this year it likely won’t be the easiest of feelings. At least not at first.
On defense, though, it’s quite the opposite. I already mentioned the depth at EDGE. Johnathan Hankins is entering his 11th season and he’s maybe DT2 or DT3 in a group filled with veterans. At cornerback, Jourdan Lewis just came back from the PUP list as someone with 43 career starts, and he’s now a depth guy. And, sure, linebacker is thin on paper. But Quinn, being the mad genius he is, can offset that anyway with the way he uses Jayron Kearse and Donovan Wilson as safety/linebacker hybrids. Everywhere you look for an Achilles heel on this defense, there’s an answer. If it’s not the players themselves, it’s the steady hand that is Quinn.
Tom: That is an astute observation about the Cowboys’ outstanding defensive coordinator. One of the greatest things he brings to his job is how he finds ways to use the talents of his players in creative and imaginative fashion. He is so good at adapting his scheme to his resources, not the other way around.
Last year, Kellen Moore seemed quite the opposite. His play-calling and scheme seemed to try to use his talent to fit his somewhat inflexible plan. It hearkened back to the days of Jason Garrett, who strongly believed in sticking to his particular approach no matter how often it was effectively countered by the defense.
But Moore is gone, and Mike McCarthy will have the play sheet on game day. You have to believe the drafting of Vaughn and keeping Luepke on the 53 were at least partly due to his influence. His version of the West Coast offense can unleash the talent at hand, especially Prescott. And he has a lot more talent, at least potentially, than Moore did last year.
Moore was of course just getting started as an OC, and I hope he grows and thrives with the Los Angeles Chargers. But McCarthy is nearly as experienced as Quinn, with more skins on the wall. Now the offense and defense have coaches running things who are very much on the same level. McCarthy’s claiming the play-calling may be the most important factor in why I think the offense is now on par with the defense.
David: I can’t argue with you on that part, and I really do hope you’re right in McCarthy being what we both seem to think he is. But while we know what McCarthy is capable of, we have yet to actually see it happen in Dallas. Quinn, as the Cowboys defensive coordinator, is a very known commodity, and he’s done something special. Leading the league in takeaways in back-to-back years is remarkable, and the list doesn’t stop there.
Quinn’s Cowboys have also finished second in defensive DVOA each of the last two years, on top of a whole host of other important categories. Not only has he succeeded but he’s showed consistency for an area of football that tends to not be very consistent from year to year. Even in 2021, when the Cowboys offense was loaded with weapons and humming on Sundays, they weren’t as dominant as Quinn’s unit. Can McCarthy surpass that record-breaking 2021 season? It’s a high bar, but it’s what he’ll have to do in order for the offense to actually catch up to the defense.
Of course, even if McCarthy comes up a bit short, that should still make for a really good football team.