Tuesday, September 26, 2023 Sep 26, 2023
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The Cowboys Are at an Inflection Point

The new season kicks off Sunday night. If Dallas doesn't win big this year, it might go down as the last of this Cowboys era.
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Was this the last offseason Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott spent together? Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In January, I wrote that the window of opportunity for this iteration of the Cowboys had already closed. They had just been eliminated in the divisional round of the playoffs for a second straight year. They appeared to be on the verge of losing both of their very capable and talented coordinators. They seemed committed to holding onto Ezekiel Elliott, a running back in serious decline with a bloated contract. Their quarterback was about to turn 30, and again had turned in a campaign that was good but not good enough. The club had a number of impending free agency decisions, and it was difficult to see how it would sort through that and return with a better roster than the one we last saw. 

As the brass is fond of saying, the Cowboys had won more regular-season games than anyone other than the juggernaut in Kansas City over the last two seasons. But it didn’t matter, because … good but not good enough.

And you know what? That still might be the case. The window might still be closer to closed than open. But it’s hard not to look at what the Cowboys did in the offseason and conclude they’re stepping back into the ring with a better fighter. And because of that, it’s hard not to view this, yet again, as a make-or-break year for this franchise.

Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has left the building, after Moore and the Cowboys decided to “mutually part ways.” (Moore was immediately snatched up by the Chargers.) Moore had become a lightning rod by the end of his time in Dallas, and we can debate whether much of the criticism directed his way was warranted. But there is no debating that Moore’s departure has turned up the heat on coach Mike McCarthy. The offense is McCarthy’s show now, and if this team doesn’t make a deep playoff run, it will be because the offense let it down. 

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which this uber-talented defense is again not dominant. McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn both know this. I do not intend to characterize Quinn as some sort of diabolical, conniving figure, but he knows he’ll be the first interview if McCarthy doesn’t produce this year. Perhaps that explains why Quinn, for the second consecutive year, spurned head-coaching opportunities to stay in Dallas. It might sound strange when a team has authored back-to-back 12-win seasons, but McCarthy’s seat is especially hot. And it should be.

The quarterback is due for an extension, and while he has been good, he has been outpaced by a new crop of younger passers. He finished 12th in ESPNs QBR ranking last year; ninth in EPA/play. Both of those metrics feel representative of where Dak Prescott figures into the league’s hierarchy of signal-callers. Prescott isn’t going anywhere, but his performance this season, one way or another, will have a massive impact on the value of the contract extension he ultimately signs. 

Elliott is finally gone, which means the offensive staff will no longer feel the need to force-feed him inefficient carries. If the mere presence of Elliott meant he was going to be the nominal starter and hold back the offense, that excuse is gone. But Tony Pollard is playing under the franchise tag, which means there is a decent chance this will be his last year in Dallas. The Cowboys have unfortunately wasted much of Pollard’s first four years, and now, by the very definition of being under the tag, this is the most important season of football Pollard will ever play. 

The deservedly handsome contracts for Micah Parsons and CeeDee Lamb are coming. Two of your most important young players are on the brink of becoming two of your highest-paid players. Acquiring cornerback Stephon Gilmore to pair with the recently extended Trevon Diggs was a very nice piece of business, but Gilmore turns 33 this week and is on the last year of his deal. Tyron Smith’s health remains a week-to-week proposition. Everywhere you look on this team, there are inflection points. 

Then, of course, there is Jerry Jones. He routinely jokes about the amount of time he has left to win another Super Bowl. The worst thing to happen to McCarthy was succeeding Jason Garrett, who at eight-plus years is the second-longest tenured coach in franchise history. I have a difficult time envisioning a scenario where McCarthy is extended as much leash as Garrett was in terms of the lack of postseason success. McCarthy has won a Super Bowl; he was hired in Dallas to win a Super Bowl in pretty short order. 

So on one hand, I do feel like the Cowboys need to post another double-digit win total and advance to a conference championship game for McCarthy to keep his job. On the other… what is their other plan? Fire McCarthy, promote Quinn, and give Prescott another offensive coordinator? This is part of the Cowboys experience; they back themselves into corners because of their organizational structure. We saw this with Garrett and Wade Phillips before him, once upon a time. In any other NFL franchise, the general manager might be fired for a lack of January success, then a new general manager would hire a new coach and new coordinators. But this is not any other NFL franchise.

The good news is, the Cowboys are good. They’ve been good. And there is a real chance they pulled off the very difficult task of bringing back a better roster, even if they remain comfortably under the salary cap. The lack of depth on the offensive line is a real concern, and could make or break the season. Smith’s injury issues are real. He has appeared in fewer than half of the games possible since McCarthy arrived in 2020. But that belies the fact that Dallas has had decent injury luck during McCarthy’s tenure. Obviously, Prescott’s injury during his first season at the helm rendered that season a wash. But according to Aaron Schatz’s “Adjusted Games Lost” metric, which weights injuries to a team by how many snaps the lost player was projected to play, this team has been relatively healthy the last two seasons. Injury luck is just that, though: luck. And luck runs out. If the Cowboys have another season of, let us call it, “league-average injury luck,” there is no reason they shouldn’t be a factor in the final four.

Unless they are good but not good enough. Maybe Prescott isn’t a guy who can elevate the situation around him on offense to a degree where deficiencies can be overcome. Maybe he’s a really good quarterback who can only be great if everything around him is perfect. Maybe McCarthy is a really good coach who can only be great if he has prime-Aaron Rodgers executing his scheme. Maybe Jerry Jones at some point made a deal with the devil to get his first three Lombardi Trophies, and only he knows a fourth is never possible. It does feel cruel, from a narrative standpoint, that the Eagles have assembled their own championship-caliber roster, winning a Super Bowl at the end of the 2017 season and getting to another last season, while the Cowboys have scrambled to stay in the game. Who knows?

But I know this. I have a hard time believing I’ll be writing this same column next year. The status quo is almost certain to change. Either we’re talking about a team coming off of a deeper playoff run than it has experienced in nearly 30 years, or we’re talking about a new coaching staff. It’s never quiet with the Cowboys, but prepare for this season to be the loudest in a long, long time.


Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who currently works for…

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