Six Things for Six Rings: how the Dallas Cowboys’ offseason can win them their sixth Super Bowl
AMARILLO, Texas (KFDA) - The last time the Dallas Cowboys were in the NFC Championship, Tom Brady was a high school senior, Bill Clinton was the President of the United States and Joe Burrow hadn’t even been born yet.
This weekend marked the 12th straight playoff appearance that America’s Team failed to make the conference championship, the league’s longest such streak since the 1970 merger. It’s not like they haven’t been close, either. Six of those playoff appearances brought them one win away from the conference championship, all within the last 15 years. To some, it may seem like we’re only a few short years removed from the Cowboys’ glory days, but an entire generation of Cowboys fans only know disappointment in the NFL Playoffs.
Despite the last two years showing glimpses of hope that the curse may finally be broken, the San Francisco 49ers sent the Cowboys packing in heartbreaking fashion… twice. Mike McCarthy and crew secured the first back-to-back 12-win seasons since 1995 (the last year they won the Super Bowl), Dan Quinn turned a historically bad defense into one of the best in the league, and young stars like Micah Parsons, CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs lit the league aflame with highlight plays. The team is clearly doing some things right, but with only one playoff win to show for it, there are still issues to solve if they want that sixth ring. Here are six ways the Dallas Cowboys can improve this offseason to finally make a legitimate Super Bowl run.
The Dak Dilemma.
I won’t mince my words here. Dak Prescott had one of the worst seasons of his career. Leading the league in interceptions despite playing a fraction of the games the rest of the league played is… less than ideal. Prescott failed to go two consecutive games without throwing a pick. It’s not good. Yet, he still showed us why he’s the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. Over the last 13 games played, Prescott ranked second in passing touchdowns and top-ten in passing yards. The argument that Dak Prescott is a bad quarterback, or that the Cowboys need to move on from him, is simply disproven by statistics across his entire career. This year was an outlier in terms of turnovers, but he still managed to put up impressive numbers.
Let’s compare Dak Prescott to another well-known quarterback in the league. In each of their 13 games played since Dak’s return from injury, Dak’s passer rating was nearly 12 whole points higher than our anonymous QB. Dak also threw six more touchdowns, over 300 more yards, and only three more interceptions. Take a look behind the curtain – I’m comparing him to Bills quarterback Josh Allen. Their two seasons were not all that dissimilar. Each tried too hard to play “hero ball” at times, threw foolhardy interceptions and had wild inconsistency from game-to-game. With no replacements for Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson’s departures, Dak Prescott faltered. Without Brian Daboll scheming up brilliant offensive gameplans, Josh Allen faltered (meanwhile former turnover machine Daniel Jones had a career-saving season under Daboll).
To put Prescott or Allen in the same tier as the Patrick Mahomeses and Joe Burrows of the football world would be incorrect. Numbers show that Prescott and Allen are both good quarterbacks, but only excel to a Super Bowl caliber tier when surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Quarterbacks like Mahomes and Burrow, on the other hand, don’t need as much help. Without Tyreek Hill, Mahomes played one of the best seasons of his career, landing as the MVP favorite. Without three starting offensive lineman in the snow, Joe Burrow trotted up to Buffalo and decisively won a divisional round game by 17.
So, the question remains: how can Dallas fix the Dak dilemma and ensure that the 2022 season was truly an outlier? The answer is more simple than you might think: find more playmakers for the receiving corps. CeeDee Lamb proved himself more than capable of being a WR1 this year, but outside of him, there weren’t a lot of reliable receivers for Dak. Lamb was the only Cowboy receiver who averaged over three yards of separation from his defender per catch, while Michael Gallup and Noah Brown both ranked bottom-12 in separation per catch (minimum 45 targets). T.Y. Hilton was a positive late addition to the team, but simply didn’t have enough time in the system to make the impact he could’ve before it was too late. When your receivers can’t create separation, windows become tighter. When windows become tighter, your quarterback throws more interceptions.
The draft won’t help them here. Players like CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs, Tyron Smith and Jayron Kearse will need new contracts after next season. Tony Pollard, Leighton Vander Esch and Dalton Schultz need them after this season. There’s no time to spend three years developing a star wide receiver like with Lamb. The window is now. The Cowboys can hope Michael Gallup returns to form next season, or they can go out and acquire a proven receiver. Remember those Odell Beckham Jr. rumors from a few weeks ago? Or what about when Dallas tried to trade for Brandin Cooks at the deadline, but Houston demanded a first-round pick? (Asking prices lower after the deadline.) Trading Amari Cooper for a couple of fifth-round picks feels a little foolish in hindsight.
Secure Secondary Strength.
The secondary was easily the most injury-ridden personnel group on the Cowboys in 2022, but it wasn’t the strongest group to begin with. Throw in Anthony Brown going down in Week 13 and Jourdan Lewis missing the entire season, and things got grim for the entire unit. Reggie Robinson III was let go, and Kelvin Joseph doesn’t look to be panning out the way the team hoped. We began to see names like Trayvon Mullen, DaRon Bland and Israel Mukuamu pop up. You may have caught yourself saying “who are these guys?” I know I did.
Trevon Diggs didn’t make headlines with his interceptions like in 2021, but he played a good year nonetheless. Justin Jefferson, Terry McLaurin, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Deebo Samuel were all held to under 50 yards receiving against the Cowboys. Still, just like Lamb in the receiving corps, Diggs can’t do it all (and he still has some issues to work through). Brown and Lewis returning bodes well for the Dallas secondary, and Bland and Mukuamu both showed promise with late-season interceptions and pass breakups. Whether it’s looking toward the draft or free agency, or simply making strides with the guys you have, the secondary must be addressed this offseason.
If new additions aren’t brought in, a lot of in-house work needs to be done. Like I said, Diggs played a good season in pass coverage, but shied away from making big tackles late in the season. Take the “George Kittle Drive” in the season-ending 49ers game for instance, a third quarter drive that gave San Francisco the points and the momentum they needed to eventually win the game. On Kittle’s explosive bobbling 30-yard reception, Diggs had a chance to knock the ball right out of his hands. He was closing in on Kittle, who had yet to secure the catch, and simply… whiffed. Six short plays later, with the 49ers in the red zone, knocking on the door, Brock Purdy misfires. Anthony Barr tips the ball, and it lands right in the lap of none other than Trevon Diggs. Diggs lets the ball slip through his hands, and San Francisco takes the lead on a touchdown three plays later. Two crucial plays where the star cornerback could’ve, should’ve changed the course of the game, but failed to. It was the gut punch that ended the season.
Outside of Diggs, the rest of the group still has plenty of improvement to make. When Anthony Brown returns, will he still get burned on the deep ball? Will DaRon Bland take the step Diggs took this year, going from a splashy interception ballhawk to an elite pass coverage corner? Can Israel Mukuamu build on his surprising, yet unpolished late-season gameplay to become a regular factor in 2023? Will Xavier Rhodes be back, and will he be able to reach Pro Bowl level once again? These are the questions that have to be answered if the Cowboys don’t make an acquisition through the draft or free agency.
Run to a Running Back.
Tony Pollard had a breakout year. In the last ten years, only ten running backs have had more yards per carry in a season with as many carries as he had. As the season progressed, Kellen Moore began to integrate him more and more into the offense, going from 8.8 carries per game in Weeks 1-5 to 13.5 in Weeks 6-17. He became as dynamic a playmaker as there is, with Christian McCaffrey-esque versatility in the offensive gameplan, and Ezekiel Elliott-esque blocking in the backfield. All of this pointed toward a huge payday for Pollard in the offseason, as he’s due for a new contract.
Then, he suffered a high ankle sprain in the season-ending game versus San Francisco. The tone of the entire game changed when Pollard was carted into the locker room, clearly done for the day and likely the remainder of any postseason run. It sliced the Cowboys’ offensive playbook in half, with so many plays at this point in the season specifically drawn up for him. There was no replacement in the Cowboys offense for Tony Pollard. Ezekiel Elliott used to be the most exciting running back in the league, but does he have enough juice left to fill that role? Malik Davis is an exciting rookie, but is he polished enough to block and secure the ball the way Pollard can? KaVontae Turpin is fast, but can he take the physicality of the running back position?
These are the questions Kellen Moore began asking himself on the sideline once Pollard exited the game, and they’re the exact questions the Cowboys will be asking themselves this offseason if they let Pollard walk – and they very well may. As I mentioned earlier, the team has a number of heavy hitters who will be up for a payday soon, and elite running backs are infamously short-lived. It’s a dangerous game to hand out large contracts to running backs in this day and age. To find the best example of that in the league, you don’t even have to leave the Cowboys running back room.
Ezekiel Elliott’s contract will count for just over $16.7 million against the salary cap next season, which would all be fine and dandy if he were still playing like he did six years ago… but he’s not. The former Pro Bowler averaged a career-low 3.8 yards per carry this season, the first time he’s ever dipped below the number four in that statistic. That’s not to say he didn’t have usage this season; he was great in short yardage situations, scoring 11 touchdowns in nine straight games. However, he is no longer the dynamic playmaker who signed that monstrous contract. During that touchdown stretch, nine of them came from two yards or less. The longest of them was the very first one at 14 yards. It was the longest touchdown run of his season. Simply put, Ezekiel Elliott isn’t who he used to be, and he’s not slated to be a free agent until 2027. Tony Pollard provided the shot of espresso that the Cowboys’ sleepy run game desperately needed. They worked extremely well as a tandem, but if the team thinks Ezekiel Elliott can fill the hole left by Pollard, the price they pay will be worse than his own contract.
If Pollard walks, as we know he may, Dallas will need an explosive running back with something to prove who can fill his role. Taking a chance on a veteran free agent like Kareem Hunt or Dont’a Foreman is arguably a bigger risk than investing in Pollard long-term. If they’re smart, they’ll look toward the draft. Bijan Robinson out of Texas is far and away the best running back in this draft class: a top-15 talent with unparalleled athletic prowess, speed and instincts. It’s unlikely Robinson falls to Dallas’ spot in the first round with the 26th pick, but on the unlikely chance he does, the Joneses won’t hesitate to nab another dynamic offensive playmaker. Remember, CeeDee Lamb wasn’t supposed to be available at pick 17, and wide receiver wasn’t exactly the most pressing need for Dallas, but that pick was a no-brainer (and it paid off). Assuming Robinson is taken by the 26th pick, there are still a handful of prospects worth looking into, even if it isn’t until the second round. Jahmyr Gibbs, Blake Corum and Devon Achane in particular are all fast, dynamic players who could very feasibly be available for the taking.
All of this said, Pollard still may very well have a star on his helmet next season. But Zeke’s black hole of a contract will continue to mercilessly suck in salary cap, and players with longer shelf lives like Lamb, Diggs, and eventually Micah Parsons are knocking on the door for new contracts. Opting for a cheaper, younger running back in lieu of Pollard doesn’t seem like all that bad of a decision. Shortsighted fans will cry out at the Joneses’ seeming ineptitude, but there’s no guarantee that Pollard will look the same next season (especially after his injury), and he’ll almost certainly cost more than a rookie would. There are other needs that the Cowboys need to prioritize in the draft, but don’t be surprised if you see a new member of the backfield alongside Ezekiel Elliott next season.
Don’t Quit, Dan Quinn.
First of all, I know if Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn were to take a head coaching job elsewhere, it wouldn’t be “quitting.” (It made for a catchy subhead, forgive me.) Second of all, it’s growing increasingly unlikely that Quinn stays in Dallas. He was one of the hottest head coaching candidates a year ago, he’s one of the hottest head coaching candidates today. It was a stroke of luck we kept him last year, and I believe it’ll take nothing short of a miracle to keep him this year. Third of all… that really blows.
It’s been said many times, but it is truly impossible to overstate what Dan Quinn has done for the Dallas Cowboys defense. The year before Quinn was hired, the Cowboys defense allowed their second-most yards per game in franchise history with 386.4, and the most touchdowns allowed in franchise history with 57. It was a historically bad defense. In the two years since Quinn has taken over, he has revolutionized the entire unit. Both 2021 and 2022 allowed less touchdowns and yards per game than the year before. The Cowboys also led the league in takeaways in both years, with 34 and 33, the most a Cowboys defense has had in 36 years. With playmakers like Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, DeMarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch at his disposal, Quinn has created a monster most fearsome to any opposing offense. Teams like the Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals have all expressed interest in Quinn, who proved himself a capable head coach when he brought the Atlanta Falcons to their second Super Bowl in franchise history in 2017. There aren’t that many coaches on the market who have been to the big game, and that kind of experience is invaluable to many general managers and owners around the league.
That said, hope is not all lost for Cowboys fans. One could say Quinn has “been there, done that” when it comes to head coaching in the NFL. Now, that pay raise is certainly hard to resist, but he signed a multiyear contract with Dallas back in January 2022, with Jerry Jones saying he would remain the defensive coordinator “for years to come.” Not only that, but Micah Parsons compared their relationship to that of a father and son earlier this season, clearly showing the relationship Quinn has developed with his star edge rusher over the last two years. The grass may look greener on the other side for Quinn, but Jones, McCarthy and company need to do everything in their power to ensure that it doesn’t. Just like Tony Pollard, replacing Quinn is a nearly insurmountable task. From his historic resurrection of the entire defense to the personal bonds he’s built with his players, his impact, once again, cannot be overstated.
That very impact was on full display in the 2022 playoffs. In the wild card round, Quinn’s defense forced Tom Brady to throw the most he’s ever thrown in a playoff game, with 66 pass attempts. Brady only completed 53% of those passes, marking his sixth-lowest playoff completion percentage (his lowest ever in the wild card round). It was clear to anyone watching the game: the GOAT was rattled. The very next week, he faced the fifth-ranked offense in the league and winners of eleven straight: the San Francisco 49ers. Their core of Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk arguably make up the best set of skill players in the entire league. For nearly three quarters, those four players were a non-factor. It wasn’t until five minutes left in the third quarter that Kittle’s 30-yard catch turned the tide of the game. If Tony Pollard hadn’t been injured, or if the Dallas offense had another playmaker who could create separation, it’s very possible that the game would’ve been well out of reach by the time the 49ers were able to pick up any steam at all. The Cowboys lost the game, but the Dan Quinn effect was as present as it’s ever been. San Francisco’s 19 points scored was their lowest point total since Brock Purdy took over as starting quarterback, and their 312 total yards was their third-lowest of all season.
The Dallas defense is the only reason Dak Prescott and company even had a chance to win in the divisional round, and it’s the reason Tom Brady was unable to lead one of his trademark second half comebacks in the wild card round. Playoffs are when championship teams emerge. It’s when the best teams play their best football. Dan Quinn’s defense did just that this year. Without Quinn scheming up such stifling, turnover-frenzied defensive gameplans every week, the Cowboys’ chances at a deep playoff run plummet.
Back the Big Men.
Outside of the secondary, the offensive line was the most hobbled unit of the year. Terence Steele missed the second half of the season, Tyler Biadasz was injured late in the season and former All-Pro Tyron Smith tore his hamstring in training camp, causing him to miss 12 regular season games. The line was constantly shifting. Rookie Tyler Smith went from left tackle to left guard, Tyron Smith played left tackle and right tackle, and Connor McGovern moved from guard to center for a brief period of time.
With injuries always seeming to affect the offensive line in some way, shape or form, it wouldn’t hurt Dallas to look toward linemen in the draft and free agency. Consistency is everything when it comes to the line. When players are shifting into new positions with new assignments each and every play, it can negatively affect your run game and pass protection. Both starting quarterbacks for Dallas this year ranked in the bottom 15 in time to throw, with Cooper Rush having the third-worst in the entire league at 2.57 seconds. Only Tom Brady and Joe Burrow, each with infamously poor offensive lines this season, averaged less.
The offensive line could use some assistance in the offseason, but it wouldn’t hurt to improve the defensive line, either. Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence are bonafide stars, but the rest of the line proved inconsistent. Dorance Armstrong seemed to be having a breakout year with eight sacks in the first 11 games, but failed to record a solo sack after Thanksgiving (with only one half-sack in Week 18). Players like Osa Odighizuwa, Neville Gallimore and Jonathan Hankins did fine on the inside, but again, it wouldn’t hurt in the slightest to add just one more player that can make a similar impact to that of Lawrence, or even Armstrong in the first half of the season.
Micah Parsons was the sixth-most double teamed defensive lineman in the league in 2022 (sporting the highest pass rush win rate out of that six). When offensive lines are forced to divert so much attention to a one-man wrecking ball, it’s key to have a few penetrators who can slip through the cracks that wrecking ball creates. As it stands, DeMarcus Lawrence is the only Cowboy that can be consistently trusted to do that.
Live Up to the Star.
It’s simple: the Dallas Cowboys are the golden standard for sports franchises. Whether they’re universally beloved or hated, there is an undeniable responsibility that comes with wearing the star on your helmet. They may not have the most playoff wins in the last two decades, but they remain the most-watched professional sports team in the country, and the most valuable professional sports team in the world. There are always eyes on the Dallas Cowboys. They are, after all, America’s Team.
Their Thanksgiving Day win against the Giants boasted 42.06 million viewers, making it the most-watched regular season game in NFL history, and the fifth-most watched sporting event of 2022. Their wild card round win against the Buccaneers was ESPN’s largest NFL audience since Super Bowl XL in 2006, with 31.2 million viewers. The divisional round matchup against the 49ers drew in 45.7 million viewers, becoming FOX’s second-most watched divisional round game. Number one was the Cowboys’ divisional round game against the Packers in 2017. They are the golden standard for sports franchises.
Troy Aikman once said he “can’t fully explain what happens” when you become the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback. There is an expectation that comes with the star on the helmet, a legacy to uphold. In the last few decades, that legacy has been forgotten, mocked and trivialized, and the worst part is that Cowboys fans have nothing to stop it. There’s no reason to sugarcoat it: the legacy of the Cowboys post-1996 has been playoff disappointment. It’s been fumbled field goal snaps, controversial catch rulings, clock management mishaps, and late-game collapses. This season, it was embarrassing interceptions, missed extra points and another divisional round exit. Next season doesn’t have to repeat history.
The Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl window is now. Their seven Pro Bowl selections this year ties the Kansas City Chiefs for second-most in the league, only behind the divisional rival Philadelphia Eagles. The roster is almost as complete as you’ll find in the league, with Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs and DeMarcus Lawrence all set to return. It won’t be easy. The division will be a gauntlet. The Chiefs, 49ers, Eagles and Bengals aren’t getting any worse. The pressure will be higher than ever. But after back-to-back 12-win seasons, right now is arguably the best chance they’ve had at a championship since the glory days of the 1990s. All that’s left to do is live up to the star and in 2024, they may just finally bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Dallas for the sixth time.
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