The Dallas Cowboys obviously want to contend for a Super Bowl. They’re starving for one and have made the offseason moves to justify a Super Bowl or bust year.
But I don’t like that tag here—I also don’t think the Cowboys could even get to the Super Bowl in 2020, but that’s for another time. It would be important for Dallas to return to the annual championship after its last appearance in 1995, and sure, it’s a large part of why head coach Mike McCarthy was brought on. But if we’re being realistic, McCarthy just needs to get the Cowboys through the playoffs and to the NFC Championship Game. What happens from there against the New Orleans Saints or San Francisco 49ers or Seattle Seahawks? Again, that’s for another time.
The Cowboys haven’t made it past the divisional round since that 1995 season. While its history of dominance should be discussed within the history of the NFL itself, recently, Dallas and its fans haven’t been able to marvel at any postseason success despite its costly and talented roster. The Cowboys are trying to correct course and have found some resemblance of playoff hope, but it quickly ended with losses in the divisional round in 2014, 2016, and 2018.
Dallas was off to a hot start last season. It won its first three games and remained fairly healthy throughout the year, but a losing skid beginning Week 4 and wins scattered throughout the remainder of the schedule brought an 8-8 finish. The Cowboys missed the playoffs for the seventh time in the last 10 seasons when this team, in 2019, was supposed to be taking the next step. Instead, Dak Prescott’s franchise-record season excluded, it slightly regressed. What do the Cowboys need to do to call the 2020 season a success? Dallas needs that trip to the NFC Championship Game.
The Cowboys had nearly everything they needed to make the 2019 work, they just couldn’t execute. While Prescott takes responsibility and puts it on the backs of the players, former coach Jason Garrett’s stubbornness was also a factor; I would say the biggest one when you have talent like Prescott on the roster. It’s what ultimately ushered in McCarthy, who will need to get a big year out of their quarterback.
Prescott will be incentivized to play 1) to win and 2) for a big contract. The Cowboys and Prescott’s camp haven’t come to any sort of agreement as Wednesday’s deadline approaches. According to ESPN’s Todd Archer, “there are no scheduled talks between the Dallas Cowboys and the quarterback’s agent, Todd France,” after what “was expected to be more urgency in getting a deal done” to make Prescott one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. If no deal is reached and Prescott plays under the franchise tag, he could benefit in the long term; after all, the Minnesota Vikings’ Kirk Cousins took a similar route, as ESPN’s Adam Schefter pointed out Monday, and is making more than quarterbacks that are undisputedly better. Whether a deal does get done, or not, McCarthy and Prescott will need to work together for some success when, or if, the season begins.
However, despite the talent the team has, including top earners in defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and wide receiver Amari Cooper as well as first-round draft pick CeeDee Lamb, there are a couple of things standing in the way.
It starts up front with the offensive line, which, like the franchise, was once dominant. However, Travis Frederick’s retirement will certainly change things even with the continued presence of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La'el Collins. They continued to be at the top of offensive line rankings following the 2019 season and need to maintain that as Joe Looney gets ready to move back into a starting role. Prescott has plenty of weapons and could see emerging roles from Lamb and tight end Blake Jarwin, who’s entering his fourth season and primed for a breakout year.
Changes will also come on defense as coordinator Mike Nolan takes over after spending the last three seasons as the New Orleans Saints’ linebackers coach. The unit has been inconsistent and needs to improve its forced turnovers. While the defense itself is good on paper, the unit finished in the top 10 in total defense, it struggled to really execute on the field consistently.
The Cowboys have made the necessary changes to bypass the hurdles that have blocked their success in the past and continued success from their stars—including running back Ezekiel Elliott—will continue to produce .500 or greater seasons. But for this team, a winning season and making the playoffs is the minimum, not the goal. They need to at least contend for a conference championship. Anything beyond that will be an exceptional turn around in the first year under McCarthy.