After multiple stops in the Midwest, our 2023 NFL Preview is traveling to the heart of Texas where they Cowboys look to once again finally get over the hump and secure the franchise’s all-important SIXTH Lombardi Trophy. By now we all know the story with Dallas, who last reigned atop the National Football League nearly THIRTY years ago, with (longtime Owner) Jerry Jones desperate to add another championship to the club’s trophy case. However, after running into a brick wall in the form of the 49ers last January, the team has made a series of changes that they hope will better position them for Super Bowl glory. Will (Head Coach) Mike McCarthy regain his play-calling mojo as he takes over following (former Offensive Coordinator) Kellen Moore’s exit? How will (emerging Tailback) Tony Pollard carry the load in the wake of (longtime Tailback) Ezekiel Elliott’s departure? Will the defense be stouter against the run? Let’s stroll through Arlington for a look into all things Cowboys…
Arguably the biggest story coming out of Big D this offseason has been the transition from Kellen Moore to Mike McCarthy as the Cowboys’ primary offensive play-caller. This is an interesting situation if not a predictable one, given that Moore had been courted by many teams for their vacant head coaching positions over the past few years. During that period as Offensive Coordinator, the former Quarterback did a helluva job turning this unit into one of the most prolific in the NFL, ranking first in total offense twice and finishing in the top-six in points scored on three occasions. Last season, his offense ranked fourth in points (27.5), eleventh in total yards (365.3), fourteenth in passing yards (230.1), ninth in rushing yards (135.2), fifth on third down (45.5%), and tops in the league in red zone efficiency (71.4%), despite missing (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Dak Prescott for five games due to a broken thumb. With that said, they had a maddening habit of running hot and cold, while playing a little too loose at times, evidenced by their twenty-three turnovers committed (17th Overall), including eighteen interceptions, the third-most in the league. And so, Moore’s contract was not renewed, with the play-caller taking his talents to the Chargers this season, leaving his vacant duties in the hands of McCarthy (pictured above). Of course, the 59-year-old is no stranger to calling plays, spending six years as Offensive Coordinator with the Saints (2000-2004) and 49ers (2006) before enjoying a successful 13-year reign as Head Coach of the Packers, all but one of which he was also chief play-caller. Over that span, his offenses ranked in the top-ten in total yards on eleven occasions, while finishing within that range in points scored ten times, presiding over Green Bay’s Super Bowl run in 2010. However, he hasn’t called plays since 2018 and even then, he was criticized for a lack of imagination and balance over his last few seasons at Lambeau Field, while frequently clashing with (four-time MVP Quarterback) Aaron Rodgers to boot. It will be interesting to see if McCarthy has indeed learned from his past mistakes, but if can turn back the clock and rediscover his play-calling mojo, then this talented offense shouldn’t miss a beat, particularly if their weapons remain healthy.
Prime Time Pollard
Moore wasn’t the only notable figure to leave Dallas this past Spring, for arguably the most significant was (three-time Pro-Bowl Tailback) Ezekiel Elliott, who was allowed to walk in Free Agency after spending the past seven years in Arlington. Needless to say, Zeke was a HUGE part of the offense, rushing for 8,262 yards and sixty-eight touchdowns during that period of time, leading the league in rushing on two occasions, while serving as one of the NFL’s better pass-blockers at his position. Even as he settled into one half of a tandem alongside Tony Pollard, he remained effective, totaling 1,878 yards and twenty-two scores over the last two seasons. As he had lost some of the speed and explosion that made him such a threat earlier in his career, he became the top option running between the tackles and in short yard situations, while Pollard (pictured above) flourished as a runner outside of the tackles and as a major weapon in the passing game; a converted Receiver in college, the 26-year-old hauled in thirty-nine receptions in each of the past two seasons, amassing 708 yards and three touchdowns along the way. With that said, he turned a lot of heads as a rusher in 2022, churning out 1,007 yards and nine scores, averaging a very healthy 5.2 yards per carry in the process. In fact, Pollard logged 5.9 yards per touch last year, earning his first Pro-Bowl nod as well. As a result, the Cowboys franchise tagged the former fourth-round pick, keeping his services in North Texas for at least one more season. However, will he remain as effective in carrying a heavier load of the offense? Pollard’s 193 carries last year were by far and away the most of his career, paling in comparison to the load that Elliott had carried during their time together; the 27-year-old toted the rock no fewer than 231 times over the last four seasons, meaning that there will be a significant increase in volume for the former Memphis standout. This is something to keep an eye on, for there isn’t much depth behind Pollard, with Dallas signing (former Buccaneer) Ronald Jones and selecting (Kansas State product) Deuce Vaughn in the sixth round of last April’s NFL Draft.
Though the offensive side of the football has received the majority of the attention in Dallas over the past few years, arguably the biggest reason that they have remained successful during that period has been the rapid growth of their defense, which has ascended to new heights under the guidance of (Defensive Coordinator) Dan Quinn. Simply put, after the recovery job he performed in his first season in Big D, it was considered a major coup that Jones and McCarthy managed to keep him in house despite multiple teams clamoring for his services. Well, after another stellar campaign followed by yet another offseason ripe with suitors blowing up his phone, the 52-year-old has opted to stay with the Cowboys for at least one more season. Over the last two campaigns, his troops have ranked seventh and fifth overall in points allowed, aided greatly by their ability to generate takeaways, topping the league in that category each year with a combined SIXTY-SEVEN over that stretch. A plethora of playmakers have also emerged under his watch, chief among them (two-time All-Pro Edge-Rusher) Micah Parsons; a decorated Linebacker at Penn State, Parsons (pictured above) was converted to Defensive End early in his career in Dallas, and has been nothing short of a terror since, totaling 26.5 sacks, thirty-three tackles for loss, fifty-six QB hits, and eighty-eight pressures since 2021. With that being said, Quinn’s defense is largely predicated on speed, quickness, and athleticism, with the depth chart littered with smaller defenders that possess those qualities. What they lack though, is size, girth, and mass, as some of their opponents have been able to manhandle them in the trenches via the run; Dallas ranked twenty-second against the run (129.3) and seventeenth in yards per carry (4.4) last year, while yielding a porous 160.0 yards per contest in their five losses, including 113 in their narrow 19-12 defeat in the playoffs at San Francisco. In an attempt to get bigger up front, Jones and McCarthy selected (Michigan Nose Tackle) Mazi Smith, a 6′-3″, 337-pound anvil of a human being twenty-sixth overall in last April’s NFL Draft to anchor the defense, while also bringing in (veteran Defensive Tackle) Jonathan Hankins, who tips the scales at 340 pounds respectively, via Free Agency. Depth and rotation along the Defensive Line has been a huge part of Quinn’s success in Dallas, and if these two can succeed in their roles of occupying blockers, then there will be even more space for the likes of Parsons and his teammates to wreak havoc in the backfield.
Projected Finish: 11-6
Over the last two seasons, the Cowboys have been talented enough on both sides of the football to advance to their first Super Bowl since 1996, though they have been unfortunate on both occasions in the playoffs where they were ultimately defeated by the 49ers in the Divisional Round. How the offense operates with McCarthy calling plays and how Pollard handles a much larger load in the run game will go a long way towards determining whether or not they will remain among the elite teams in what appears to be a very top-heavy NFC. However, the addition of some sorely needed size along the Defensive Line should serve as the equalizer if they are to meet either the Niners or Eagles late in the playoffs, with the physicality of those sides separating them from Dallas at the moment.