Our 2022 NFL Preview heads to the Lone Star State where the Cowboys once again face raised expectations, which is business as usual for Big D at this point. After earning their fourth NFC East Title in the last eight years, Dallas once again flamed out in the postseason earlier than they’d like, and as a result enter this season with plenty of pressure to succeed in January. With that said, a healthy (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Dak Prescott coupled with a resurgent Defense wasn’t enough to end their Division Round drought (26 years!!!), so what more can they do to reach (outspoken Owner) Jerry Jones’ mandate of being “viable” in the playoffs? Read on, ladies and gentlemen…
Dak at it Again
Two years ago, Dak Prescott (pictured) was coming off a catastrophic leg injury leading to an epic contract standoff with the Cowboys, as he sought that lucrative payday after seriously outperforming his rookie deal as a fourth-round pick (135th Overall). Eventually, the parties agreed on a hefty, four-year, $160 million contract, including $126 million in total guarantees and a $66 million signing bonus, with an annual average salary of $40 million. By and large, the 29-year-old repaid Dallas’ faith in him, putting together a career campaign in which he posted personal bests in both completion percentage (68.8%) and passing touchdowns (37) en route to leading the league’s highest-scoring (31.2 PTS) and top-ranked (416.5 YDS) attack. And it’s a good thing that he performed at such a high level, for he will need to continue his ascent as the supporting cast around him has undergone some serious erosion over the offseason. Jones traded away (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Amari Cooper to the Browns and has thus far failed to replace his production (68 REC, 865 YDS, 8 TD) with either a proven commodity in free agency or with a first or second round pick in last Spring’s Draft, which was once again flush with pass-catchers. CeeDee Lamb impressed as a rookie with seventy-nine receptions for 1,102 yards and six scores, though Michael Gallup, who hauled in thirty-five catches for 445 yards and a pair of touchdowns, will miss the first few weeks of the campaign rehabbing from knee surgery. Simply put, Prescott’s cadre of targets is largely unproven, and to compound concerns, the Offensive Line is undergoing a good deal of turnover too. No longer “the best in the NFL”, the Cowboys quintet in the trenches has a number of questions heading into 2022. Can (perennial All-Pro Tackle) Tyron Smith remain healthy after missing twenty games over the last two seasons? Is (First Round Pick) Tyler Smith ready to replace him if need be? If not, will he beat out Connor McGovern at Left Guard? That’s a lot to answer, folks, but one thing is for certain: for the first time in his career, Prescott will be counted upon to lift the supporting cast around him.
How About an Encore
Apart from Prescott’s triumphant return from injury, the other major component of Dallas’ success last season was the resurrection of their Defense under the direction of Dan Quinn. Simply put, the Cowboys was ABYSMAL on that side of the football prior to his arrival, yielding a franchise-record 473 points in 2020. And it’s with that said that the 51-year-old went about simplifying the scheme to better suit the personnel on hand, while at the same time altering his own system to make it less predictable for opposing Offenses. Quin rose to acclaim back in 2013 as the Super-Bowl-winning Seahawks’ Defensive Coordinator, and throughout his tenure as Falcons’ Head Coach struggled mightily to ever put together a unit remotely comparable to the vaunted Legion of Boom. However, under his watch the Cowboys allowed a far more respectable 21.1 points (7th Overall) on 351.0 total yards (19th Overall), while leading the NFL in takeaways with thirty-four, TWENTY-SIX of which were interceptions (1st Overall). (All-Pro Cornerback) Trevon Diggs (pictured) absolutely flourished under his guidance, totaling a league best ELEVEN interceptions, while (Defensive Rookie of the Year) Micah Parsons made a seismic impact after moving from Linebacker to the Edge, registering thirteen sacks and thirty hits of the Quarterback. The return of a healthy (Edge) DeMarcus Lawrence, who was limited to just seven games last year due to injury, should ensure that this unit continues growing, though there are concerns opposite the former Pro-Bowler in replacing the departed Randy Gregory; Dante Fowler, Dorance Armstrong, and (Rookie) Sam Williams will all be competing for a spot on the opposite flank, with Fowler perhaps having the inside track after playing for Quinn in Atlanta. In the end, (Head Coach) Mike McCarthy and Jones were fortunate to retain his services for at least one more season, for there certainly were no shortage of suitors. With so many question marks in regard to the Receiving Corps and the Offensive Line, the Defense may need to carry an even larger weight if Dallas is to truly become “viable” in the playoffs.
On the Hot Seat
Entering his third season as Head Coach, the pressure is mounting on Mike McCarthy (pictured) to deliver a champion in Dallas. It was an awfully big deal when Jones unveiled the former Super Bowl Champion back in 2019, with expectations being that the one-time Packers’ general would succeed where his predecessors failed in maximizing a habitually talented, yet often underachieving team. Unfortunately, his first season in Arlington was nothing short of a disaster; COVID, along with a rash of injuries to their best players (I.E Prescott, Smith, Cooper, and Ezekiel Elliott to name a few), and that aforementioned porous Defense led to an embarrassing 6-10 finish. Last season, he benefitted greatly from a much cleaner bill of health throughout the roster, while the hiring of Quinn to coordinate the Defense was a stroke of genius, resulting in a top-ranked Offense, a vastly improved Defense, and a division title. Unfortunately, a controversial late season loss at home to the Cardinals dropped the Cowboys out of contention for a first-round bye, instead setting up a nightmare matchup with the surging 49ers on Wild Card Weekend, which ultimately ended in an equally controversial 23-17 defeat. Mistakes, penalties, and all-round uneven play plagued them throughout that fateful affair, continuing a disturbing postseason trend that has lasted for well over two decades. Jones made it clear during his comments in Training Camp that his charges needed be “viable” in the playoffs, which means that the heat is on McCarthy to at the very least get them into the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 1995. With that said, things have lined up for Dallas to make a legitimate run come January, for the return of Quinn should signify that they haven’t reached their ceiling defensively, while Prescott’s torrid form in wake of signing such a massive contract inspires greater things down the road. Furthermore, the shifting landscape of the NFL has left the NFC in a much weaker position than its counterpart, which makes for less competition for the Cowboys, who should be among the few legitimate contenders to represent the conference this Winter. However, anything less than that could very well cost McCarthy his job, for patience, as always, is a very precious commodity in North Texas.
Projected Finish: 11-6
Once again, we find the Cowboys armed with the requisite talent and coaching staff to contend for an NFC Championship, and once again we have concerns over their ability to get over themselves and reach their potential. If Prescott can elevate an Offense with clear question marks along the Offensive Line and in the Receiving Corps, and the Defense’s growth under Quinn’s leadership continues, then there is no reason to think that Dallas will capture a second straight NFC East crown while contending for a trip to Glendale, Arizona come February. However, if even one of those factors doesn’t work out in their favor, then their postseason misery will likely continue.