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State of the 2021 Dallas Cowboys: With Dak Prescott back, pressure's on Mike McCarthy

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Cowboys' organization, Dallas fans around the world and those hoping that, like many other beloved franchises that had their heyday in the 1990s, the 'Boys can be rebooted, too:

The Dallas Cowboys are one of the most iconic teams, not only in the NFL but in all of professional sports, boasting a long tradition of winning. But recent years have not been so kind -- and 2020 might have been the darkest hour since the disastrous 1-15 season of 1989. That season actually helped propel the Cowboys to great heights, serving as an introductory throat-clearing for Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman. This Dallas team is more established, but can these Cowboys also rise up from the ashes of a lost season?

How the Cowboys got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The high:

  • Dak Prescott enjoying the hottest start of his career. In the first four games of 2020, Prescott threw for 1,690 yards, at a clip of 422.5 yards per game -- meaning he was on pace to finish with over 5,000 yards (well over) for the first time in his NFL tenure. And then ...

The lows:

  • Losing Prescott for the year in Week 5. Against the Giants, Prescott suffered a compound right ankle fracture and dislocation, a gruesome injury that knocked him out for the rest of the year -- and which I don't really want to think about any further. It was pretty brutal. Seriously, let's not spend too much time on this.
  • Getting blown out, 41-16, on Thanksgiving by the Washington Football Team. Not only was Dallas embarrassed on national TV on a national holiday, but the Cowboys also frittered away a chance to help themselves in the race for the NFC East. They were 3-7 coming into this game and even led for a bit, but crumbled and managed to win just three more after -- meaning they fell just short of the eventual champions, the 7-9 Football Team. (I started Washington RB Antonio Gibson, who racked up 115 yards and three scores, in fantasy for the Thanksgiving bout, so I wasn't super sad. But it was bad for you guys.)

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Mike McCarthy. In this exercise last year, I brought up the long history of Super Bowl-winning coaches who failed to reach that level of success at their next stop. Guys like Jimmy Johnson. Bill Parcells. (Those are two former Dallas Cowboys coaches, mind you.) And it was hard not to get George Seifert vibes from McCarthy's first year on the job in Dallas. That might be a little unfair to McCarthy, considering he lost his franchise quarterback in mid-October. But then, that's kind of the whole point. Because there are a lot of people who felt McCarthy really benefitted from having Aaron Rodgers for all those years with the Packers, and that McCarthy should have won more than one Super Bowl in Green Bay. Losing because your star quarterback went down is not the kind of thing that's going to instill confidence in the fanbase. Yes, I suppose we can give McCarthy credit for Prescott's early-season success -- but the Cowboys also went 1-3 when Prescott was healthy.

The most troubling thing for me was the Thanksgiving game, which, again, the Cowboys actually led before undergoing a horrific collapse. It was so bad, you wondered if McCarthy was going to be welcomed back into the building the following week. In the end, former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn was brought in as McCarthy's new defensive coordinator this offseason, replacing Mike Nolan. Given that Quinn and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore are reportedly signed through 2023, could McCarthy end up playing the role of Wade Philips circa 2010, with Moore as the new Jason Garrett, an heir apparent ready to take the reins?

Well, the more that I think about it, the more that I want to give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt and see what he can do with a full season of Dak. I know this kind of undercuts all the fretting I did in the preceding paragraphs, but the deck really was stacked against McCarthy in 2020. Dak is back, and the defense should be better. Perhaps my main takeaway here is, this is looking like a bigger year than you might think for a coach as established as McCarthy. He's got to prove he can elevate this group.

Quarterback: Dak Prescott. The Cowboys apparently had no issues with Dak's return from his ankle injury, as they signed him to a four-year deal worth $160 million this offseason. I guess that's what watching Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert start in his place will do for you. It's like taking a trip to Vegas and staying at the Luxor. One night there, and you'll happily pay top dollar for the Circa. Because sometimes, it costs less to pay a little more.

Dak went through surgery and really grinded through his rehab to get ready for the Cowboys' OTAs. He said recently that he was so far ahead of schedule, he "could go out there and be very successful, start the game, finish the game and not even worry about the leg."

Which is good enough for me. I know there are always going to be concerns about how players will perform coming off devastating injuries. I have none about Dak, who I fully expect to regain the form we saw over the first month of last season.

Projected 2021 MVP: Dak. This might seem too easy. It might be more of a curveball to go with, say, someone on defense, where Dallas really needs to step it up. But I'm not going to get cute. Dak is the most important part of this team. Let's just roll on.

2021 breakout star: CeeDee Lamb, wide receiver. I'm talking more of a breakout on national terms here. Cowboys fans already know about Lamb, but his nice rookie season was overshadowed on the league-wide stage by Vikings rookie Justin Jefferson's out-of-this-world stats -- thus marking the first time a Cowboys player actually didn't get the national attention he deserved. (Well, since Jay Novacek.) CeeDee kind of reminds me of Hangman Page -- it's tough to get noticed when you're hanging with Cody, Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks, but eventually, Hangman was able to show what he could do, and now it's only a matter of time before he's top-of-the-card. CeeDee had 74 receptions last year, going for nearly a grand in receiving yards and putting up five touchdowns despite, uh, questionable QB play. I expect a monster year, especially with Dak healthy and ready to go.

New face to know: Keanu Neal, linebacker. The free-agent signee is a longtime favorite of mine, because he was named after famed actor Keanu Reeves. What, you think I'm making that up? Well, here's another thing I'm not fabricating: Keanu, who's been a safety since entering the NFL as a first-round pick in 2016, is going to be asked to play WILL linebacker for defensive coordinator Dan Quinn -- a guy who (checks notes), coached him in Atlanta. So perhaps he knows what's best for him.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. Of course, the stakes are astronomical for the Cowboys, as they always are. The trick is, Dallas -- which hasn't won the Super Bowl since the 1995 season -- has had trouble lately delivering on the sky-high expectations the franchise sets for itself. (I'm going to avoid making jokes about the Star Wars sequels here.) At any rate, there is an annual expectation that the Cowboys will win, and this year will be no different.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Thursday night). Congratulations, Cowboys. You were picked for the season opener against the defending-champion Bucs. But that also means you have to play the Bucs. And then you have to go on the road again in Week 2 to face the Chargers. Not the ideal start for a team trying to regain its footing, even with a healthy Dak Prescott.
  • Week 5 vs. New York Giants. After that tough opening two games, the Cowboys have some winnable contests at home against the Eagles, Panthers and Giants before heading out to New England in Week 6. I know Cowboys fans will want to be 5-0 at that point. But carrying a 3-2 record into Foxborough would be huge (and going 2-3 might be more realistic).
  • Week 18 at Philadelphia. Dallas faces a couple more landmines (notably, at the Chiefs in Week 11 and vs. the Cardinals in Week 17), but a closing five-game stretch includes contests against the Washington Football Team (twice), the Giants and, finally, the Eagles. The Cowboys might have a shot to write their own ending.

Will the Cowboys be able to …

Restore their offensive line to glory? The Cowboys' great offensive line drew raves for years -- but what did they have to show for it? A couple top-five rushing seasons? That's not what you want. There hasn't been this much wasted potential since the Star Wars sequels. (Sorry, I resisted for as long as I could.) In 2020, center Travis Frederick retired, while the team lost Tyron Smith for 14 games and Zack Martin for six, and La'el Collins missed the whole the year. Consequently, Dallas fell to 27th in Pro Football Focus' offensive-line rankings after finishing 2019 in fourth place. We can talk about how much Dak means to this franchise, but if the Cowboys aren't dominating (and healthy) up front again, 2021 is going to be a long slog.

Count on Micah Parsons to be an actual good first-round defensive pick? That might seem a bit harsh. But the Cowboys really haven't hit on a first-round defensive player since DeMarcus Ware in 2005. I mean, they took Taco Charlton over T.J. Watt in 2017 -- they're lucky Mitchell Trubisky exists, because otherwise, that would be the thing most people remember from that draft. (As for Leighton Vander Esch and Byron Jones, injuries have sidetracked Vander Esch's promising career, while Jones -- who now plays for the Dolphins -- is a fine player. But a fine player is what you want in the third round, not Round 1.) All that said, I really do believe the Cowboys crushed it with Parsons at No. 12 overall. He does a lot of things very well, and I expect him to help from Day 1. (BTW, Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith should be very worried. You have Parsons. I talked about Keanu. And fourth-rounder Jabril Cox was kind of a nice pick, typical of the late-round contributors Dallas excels at finding.)

Get a breakout season from Trevon Diggs? The 2020 second-rounder (not a first-round pick, so you're safe!) played pretty well at times for the Cowboys last season -- but I think Diggs should play much better with Quinn than he did with Nolan. Diggs is great at jamming receivers, but not so great at keeping guys from getting behind him. Quinn's Cover 3 should help with that. And let's not forget, Diggs is a taller corner, and you can't help but think of another tall corner Quinn has worked with in the past: Richard Sherman. It's one of the reasons Sherman was discussed as a potential fit with the Cowboys early in the offseason, though it feels like they are content with Diggs and 2021 second-round pick Kelvin Joseph. (Hey, not a first-rounder, either!)

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: Dan Quinn's impact on this defense from top to bottom. So many different guys will have a chance to flourish under Quinn, from Diggs to Neal and Randy Gregory. I'm also really interested to see what third-round pick Osa Odighizuwa brings to the table, and sixth-rounder Quinton Bohanna could be a player, too. As retired linebacker Sean Lee explained to Colin Cowherd, the defense last season was not able to support the offense's early success. I don't think the defense needs to be great under Quinn, but it should at least be a speed bump for other teams -- and that could be enough.

... people are overthinking: Ezekiel Elliott's ability to bounce back from a down year. I wouldn't pull the alarm here, not necessarily because I'm high on Zeke, but because I don't think he needs to win a rushing title for this offense to roll. As I mentioned last year, McCarthy-coached backs tend not to put up numbers, but Elliott is well-rounded enough to make an impact anyway. And if he struggles again, backup Tony Pollard is a stud, too. (My quick fantasy take, by the way, would be to draft Jonathan Taylor over Zeke.)

For 2021 to be a success, the Cowboys MUST:

  • Get to the playoffs. That's the most important thing to this franchise. Jerry Jones is such a great owner, because you know he wants to win so bad. That means the expectation level is ALWAYS high.

In closing

I don't know -- I was pretty cool on the Cowboys when I was doing my post-schedule-release predictions, but I think I'm warming up to this team. I'm not saying I'm picking Dallas to win the NFC East or anything. But again, I want to see what McCarthy can do with Prescott and this stacked collection of skill-position talent. (I can't believe I got this far without even mentioning Amari Cooper, coming off his third straight 1,000-yard season!) And then you have Dan Quinn working up that defense. Dare I say that I'm almost ... on board with the Cowboys?

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