The disjointed end to last season for the Dallas Cowboys exposed significant warts for the team. Perhaps most glaring was the team’s lack of preparation in the wild card loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Dallas had a more talented roster, but was largely outplayed. Specifically, they were poorly trained. Now the team is preparing for the new season with a lot of position groups, they are worse than they were a year ago. So far, free agency has been of little help as the Cowboys have once again relied heavily on the draft. If the team is to get back to the playoffs, let alone advance, it’s up to the coaching staff to elevate them. Training camp is going to be crucial, because the first week of the season is too late to find solutions.
Head coach Mike McCarthy will bear the brunt of the blame if things don’t go well. However, he has established himself more as an itinerant leader who leaves the main work to his assistants. Here is what they must accomplish.
McCarthy probably has more influence here, both because of his background and Dan Quinn’s experience with defense. Kellen Moore is a different case, in his first job as a coordinator and having only four years as a coach under his belt, three as an offensive coordinator. Moore still needs mentorship, so it’s reasonable that McCarthy retains plenty of clout.
Moore has three big problems facing him.
An exhausted body of receivers
The departure of Amari Cooper and the planned absence of Michael Gallup for the first games of the season leave Dak Prescott with more difficulty finding receivers to pass the ball. CeeDee Lamb is the new WR1, and he’s going to draw double coverage on every pass. Jalen Tolbert has a lot of potential, but that doesn’t always come true when players make the jump to the NFL. That leaves James Washington, one of the few free agent acquisitions to date, Noah Brown and Simi Fehoko as the rest of the wide receiver group. The team signed five UDFAs to compete for a spot on the 53-man roster, but those numbers are also needed to cope with the workload of training camp and pre-season games. It wouldn’t be surprising to see at least one succeed, at least until Gallup returns. Still, it’s a much less powerful group than last year.
Don’t forget the tight end. If Blake Jarwin hadn’t been injured last year, he and Dalton Schultz would have made a strong combination. Jarwin is now gone and the competition for the TE2 position appears to be between rookie Jake Ferguson, Sean McKeon and Jeremy Sprinkle. Ferguson is very intriguing as he brings strong run blocking credentials as well as an ability to get the ball in when targeted.
Obviously, it will be up to Moore to plan things out and call the plays to open up targets in Prescott as well as get the players to step in. This pattern should include more throws from two tight sets. We know Schultz is quite effective, and if Ferguson or any of the other contenders are also capable of being a reliable target, taking out 12 is a good way to break through the defense.
Use the back correctly
This offers its own challenge. Many see Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard as a binary pick, but Pollard’s skill set should make two sets more prevalent for Dallas. Pollard can move throughout the formation and looks great for jet sweeps as well as faking them. He needs more touches either way, and using him more in the passing game could help that while allowing Elliott to be the workhorse the team needs. Pollard should still get reps as a solo back, especially in downhill and distance situations that make viable throw or pass choices. Moore must be the creative mind we thought he would be. Last season lacked evidence of this. That’s where McCarthy’s advice can help.
Rebuild the offensive line
The biggest challenge for the offense is the line. Joe Philbin will also need to earn his salary for the team to be successful. The left guard appears to belong to Tyler Smith. He is transitioning from the left tackle position he played in college and has a lot of technical issues that need to be addressed. If it goes badly, it could be a long season for Prescott and the running backs. Terence Steele is projected as the starting right tackle. He showed the staff enough to pass La’el Collins. Whether he’s a legitimate NFL-caliber starter remains to be seen. If it isn’t, it’s another bad Pandora’s box. Finally, Stephen Jones spoke about the competition for the starting center position occupied by Tyler Biadasz. We know from experience that when Jones starts talking about issues with players, things often go wrong for them.
Philbin needs to figure out starting jobs and come up with a swing tackle plan. The offense begins with blocking up front in the run and pass game. If he’s not up to it, the best play calls won’t have much of a chance of working.
If you noticed, that means challenges for offensive personnel everywhere except at quarterback. Prescott is a real strength for the team, but he can’t do it all himself. He needs help, and it’s up to the staff to give it to him.
After the work Dan Quinn did last season, McCarthy should logically let him manage his side of the line of scrimmage. However, part of the Cowboys’ defensive success comes from their league-leading turnover margin, driven by 26 interceptions on the year. Trevon Diggs was a big part of that by having the most picks in the league. This is problematic, as take-out has historically been nearly impossible to sustain from year to year. Expect the spread to narrow, perhaps even into negative territory. That doesn’t mean the players or Quinn are doing a bad job in that department. It’s just that luck plays such a big role.
Despite those garish take-out numbers, Dallas was very much in the middle of the pack in yards allowed for both passing and rushing. They literally lived off these takeouts, which is very unlikely to be viable this season. To compensate for this, the team must do two things.
Get after the quarterback
There are arguments that Randy Gregory wasn’t as big a loss as some claim. Either way, the team wanted to keep him and would have done so, except for messing up contract negotiations. Now they have to fill that void. Second-round pick Sam Williams has some intriguing traits that have led some to consider him a lightweight Micah Parsons type. Be careful with this. Parsons was clearly far from a typical player last season. He was a terror rushing setter and extremely effective at tracking down and stopping runners.
Williams is strictly a lineman in current plans, at least as far as can be determined. Like Tyler Smith, he is making a change. Unlike Smith, this will almost certainly benefit him. In college, he spent much of his time as a 5-tech, lining up straight for attacking tackles. He did not thrive in this role. When the Mississippi coaching staff moved him away to stand out because he was expected to spend most of his time in Dallas, he was much more effective. However, he is a rookie who takes this big leap. The team needs depth in any case. They need to have a solid rotation at the right defensive end to play DeMarcus Lawrence, and someone has to spell Lawrence sometimes. That depth will likely come from the group of Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler, Tarell Basham and Chauncey Golston. One of them may be the starter at the right defensive end as Williams acclimates to the NFL.
It would also help to have a bit more pressure in the middle. Once Neville Gallimore was healthy last year, he and Osa Odighizuwa seemed to be growing in that aspect. The team also uses defensive ends to kick inside on obvious passes.
More importantly, Parsons will be used as an edge rusher at times, and he’s been devastating in that role, scoring 13 sacks, good for sixth-best in the league. Since this was essentially a part-time assignment, there should be a lot of the mix left. It is a very good thing.
Strengthen the run defense
That loss to the 49ers was largely because they ran the ball so efficiently, amassing 169 rushing yards. They had the advantage of taking an early two-point lead, but there’s no denying that they exploited the Cowboys defense with their running game. Since a lot of the run defense depends on inside the defensive line and linebackers. there is cause for concern here. They spent only one draft pick, a fifth round, on the inside defensive line assist. John Ridgeway seems to have what it takes to be a good nose tackle on early downs. However, if the opponent threw the ball against his team in college, Ridgeway was a handicap with little ability to push the pocket. At linebacker, the team relies on Leighton Vander Esch and sophomore Jabril Cox, who was injured the latter half of last season. They may have found a long-term game in Damone Clark, but he could be out all season. Jayron Kearse also plays a big part in that, playing very effectively as a hybrid safety/linebacker. Parsons is a force against the run when he sticks to the traditional linebacker role, but as we see, he won’t always be around.
Dallas must correct this soft aspect of the defense. Much like the attacking staff, Quinn is going to have to earn his paycheck and show that 2021 wasn’t just a fluke because of those takeaways.
It won’t be an easy year for the Cowboys despite what looks like a very favorable schedule, especially after the first two weeks. With what appears to be less talented overall, coaches need to find ways to get things done. It’s a real challenge.