Were this not the name of a recurring column, I’d swap the colon out for a question mark. Because with 48 hours to go until the 2022-2023 Cowboys play their first game, an apathetic offseason has begat a most unusual feeling: complacency. Are they ready to start?
This team has asked its fanbase to endure so many things throughout 26 ringless seasons. The incompetence that comes with the most lucrative sports franchise on Earth winning three playoff games this millennium. The obstinance of their power structure, a hierarchy emulated by no successful teams during that time. The timidness on the free-agent market. The recklessness with taking on character risks both in and out of the locker room. The sloppiness that allows position groups to be neglected wholesale and the resulting slovenliness with franchise quarterbacks’ primes. The interminable cycling through head coaches ill-equipped in one way or another for the mountainous task of restoring this team’s glory years.
But no one is accustomed to complacency, to the distinct and unavoidable feeling that the Cowboys simply are not trying as hard as they could be to reach the Super Bowl. If you’ve been around this offseason, you’ve seen us explain why. There was Jake Kemp checking the organization on their lapsed promise of more free agent spending, and Jeff Cavanaugh pulling his hair out at the team’s self-created disaster at wide receiver. I wrote about how poor Brett Maher epitomizes Dallas’ flawed decision-making irrespective of whether he succeeds, and Aidan Davis looked at how all of this might do in Mike McCarthy for reasons that are bigger than McCarthy.
If you took a needed break from this team over the summer, just know that the Cowboys entered the offseason as one of the NFL’s over-capped teams and exited it as one of the most cap flush. They are worse on paper in several key areas—most notably wide receiver, offensive line, and edge rusher—and have only discernibly improved in the return game via KaVontae Turpin, the former TCU receiver who was dismissed from the team after multiple arrests and eventually pled guilty to assaulting his girlfriend.
We are used to the Cowboys’ many foibles at least having some urgency to them. We watch them ricochet from one headline to the next, getting nowhere but moving hurriedly all the same. Perhaps they’re worse off for it, but if nothing else, they’re rarely accused of holding much back. This is something else.
Perhaps there’s an explanation for all of it. Last week, during a radio appearance on 105.3 The Fan, Jones went back to the well and did a little self-mythologizing about his risk tolerance. I’ve bolded what I found to be the interesting part:
“No one will deny that I’m a risk taker. No one. I take risks. And I do it every day in my life. And so there is a proper time to take some risks. We have taken them, and we will wake them.”
The subtext is now is not that time. Why, exactly, is an open question. The galaxy-brained out there might point to it as a long con to grease the wheels for dumping McCarthy in favor of Sean Payton, while the cynics declare that on-field success may just be immaterial for Jones so long as his team tops the NFL’s Forbes valuation list for the 15th consecutive season.
Whatever the case, the week leading into Sunday’s season opener has had the feel of a college junior pulling an all-nighter to finish a term paper. It’s hard to feel differently when McCarthy teased the idea of Michael Gallup making an early return from last season’s ACL tear and playing Sunday, despite Gallup already ruling it out and the idea flying in the face of the Cowboys’ longstanding recovery timeline. Same goes for finally using some of that cap reserve to bring in 40-year-old Jason Peters as a stand-in for Tyron Smith after the left tackle’s latest injury, a move that is both too late in Peters’ career and too little to paper over the cracks throughout this offensive line to swing the pendulum terribly far. Presuming, that is, Peters starts at all: Jones says that will depend on the comfort level of green 21-year-old rookie Tyler Smith, who is suddenly the lynchpin of the line’s left side either at tackle (the position team had hoped to ease him into) or guard (where he’s been penciled in as the starter from the moment the team drafted him, despite not having played the position since at least high school). Considering the alternatives on hand—the underwhelming Connor McGovern inside, and the overmatched Matt Waletzko and Josh Ball outside—it’s almost hard to blame them.
The show goes live Sunday night, and the script is being written and rewritten. It’s all so needlessly slapdash, the natural byproduct of not caring enough, soon enough. Which is why it feels inevitable that all of this will bite them at some point this season—perhaps many points. That a depleted offensive line will make Dak Prescott’s body, his on-field performance, or both suffer just like Tony Romo’s did before him. That, even with a third-year breakout season, CeeDee Lamb can’t function as an entire receiving corps. That the same kicker who once got run out of town midseason almost certainly will shank an important kick or three over a 17-game season. That a pass rush now much closer to good than chart-topping won’t compensate for the inevitable turnover regression coming for Trevon Diggs. That the check they’ll have to write Dalton Schultz after the season will be so much higher than it would have been in the summer of 2022 if he soaks up all the receiving volume that no one else after Lamb can handle. And that all of it will have come in a wasted year because McCarthy, a man as good as his surroundings, might struggle to return to the playoffs coaching a division winner’s schedule with a worse roster while Philadelphia, the Cowboys’ nearest challenger, took big swings to beef up its own depth chart.
All of these are in play. All of these were preventable. And so again I ask: are the Cowboys ready to start? For that matter, ahead of a season with as many things to dread as hope on: are we?