Entering the 2020 NFL season, Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones believed his roster boasted the most talent of any in the 31 years since he bought the team.
Mike McCarthy, joining Dallas after coaching 13 seasons in Green Bay, similarly felt this roster was “arguably” among the best he’d had.
Fast forward to January, and the Cowboys' 6-10 season concludes without a postseason berth even from the wretched NFC East.
“We fell far short of what I thought our team would accomplish,” Jones said Tuesday morning on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “The fact that we're not getting it done, the fact that we aren't in the playoffs right now, the fact that we don't have a chance to get in that Super Bowl, all of that just makes me sick because this is the heyday of our game. This is the heyday of the NFL.
“It makes me sick."
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hired head coach Mike McCarthy for the 2020 season, but Dallas missed the playoffs again. (Photo: Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports)
Injuries, miscalculations in scheme philosophy, game-management gaffes and a historically bad defense contributed to McCarthy’s underwhelming Cowboys debut. Here are five key issues that unraveled Dallas’ season — and what the team must do to reverse course in 2021:
1) Quarterback instability
The window is open. The Cowboys and Dak Prescott’s moratorium on negotiating a long-term contract while Prescott played out his $31.4 million franchise tag has expired. Prescott is expected to recover from his Week 5 ankle fracture and dislocation by spring. A second franchise tag would cost the Cowboys $37.7 million against a dipping 2021 salary cap. Perhaps this confluence explains Stephen and Jerry Jones’ intensified public support this week for Prescott.
“This is Dak’s football team,” Stephen Jones, the Cowboys chief operating officer, executive vice president and director of player personnel, told 105.3 The Fan on Monday.
“I don't know how you could have any more leverage,” Jerry Jones said Tuesday. “[Prescott] evolving into an NFL quarterback has been nothing short of a perfect picture."
Hall of Famer Troy Aikman believes Cowboys QB Dak Prescott “checks every box.”
“He won’t stop, [no] matter how much success he’s had. He’s just wired that way,” Troy told @1053thefan. “I would go to bed [and] sleep real good if I had Dak Prescott locked up with a big contract.” pic.twitter.com/2JHQW6nJl5
In the 4½ games Prescott did play this season, he completed 68% of his passes, averaged 371.2 passing yards a game and accounted for 13 total touchdowns. Ball security was an issue (four interceptions, three lost fumbles), but Prescott was on pace for a career season in production. Given his prior durability — 72 consecutive starts from 2016-20 — and the positive health reports he’s receiving, the Cowboys have reason to lock up their unquestioned locker room leader who has demonstrated improvement on the field each year.
Still, two offseasons of failed negotiations are ominous. The Cowboys previously sought a five-plus-year deal, while Prescott and agent Todd France were amenable to a deal no longer than four seasons. France will point to the Cowboys’ woes in Prescott’s absence as highlighting his client’s value. The Cowboys cite their historically bad defense as reason they must save cap space if Prescott wants to contend on a competitive roster.
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2) Historically bad defense
How bad was this defense? The 473 points and 57 touchdowns the Cowboys allowed are each the most since the franchise was established in 1960. The Cowboys narrowly missed their claim to the league’s worst run defense, but they won’t hang their hats on the 158.8 yards a game they allowed, second-worst in the NFL this season and second-worst in franchise history. Opponents averaged 4.98 yards a carry against Dallas. The defense allowed a play of at least 20 yards 69 times. Opponents scored touchdowns on 20 of those.
Players and coaches each shoulder blame. Jerry Jones blames himself, too, for signing off on coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme shift during a COVID-hampered offseason.
“I really missed it relative to how important it might be to stay fixed with the same overall philosophy,” Jones said. “You look at a defense that gives up big plays (and go) directly to the word in the dictionary called ‘discipline’ of doing your assignment.”
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An announcement is expected soon on the fate of Nolan, who ultimately abandoned his initial scheme plan once missed assignments and poor on-field communication made it apparent the players were not implementing the system effectively. Regardless who coordinates the group in 2021 and whether the Cowboys commit to a 4-3 defense that may better cater to their talent, they need more consistency. The Cowboys will also need to lean defense in the draft, adding secondary pieces to aid cornerback Trevon Diggs and safety Donovan Wilson. Defensive tackle is also a glaring roster weakness.
3) Turnover ratio
Poor ball security on offense wrecked games even before Prescott’s injury. An unexpected takeaway stretch in December helped shift the tide, albeit against losing teams starting Brandon Allen, Nick Mullens and Jalen Hurts at quarterback. Nonetheless, consider this: In the Cowboys’ first seven games of the season, they lost 16 turnovers while forcing three. They were outscored 243-176 in those contests. In the final four weeks, the defense collected 12 takeaways and the offense lost just two balls. Dallas averaged 11.75 more points per game than opponents.
Here’s Cowboys safety Donovan Wilson’s second INT of year. Also has three forced fumbles, two recoveries.
“My No. 1 priority, and it's always been that way as a football team, is to win the turnover differential,” McCarthy said. “The history speaks for itself. Our last four weeks, especially, we've done a tremendous job of taking the ball away. So we have the first part in order and with that we took a huge step defensively."
Offense and defense must improve here for 2021. Prescott can’t afford to turn the ball over at the rate he was (seven in 4½ games) and three-time Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott must move past his career-worst season of six fumbles (five lost). The defense, particularly against the run, may need more than one year to drastically improve. But if the group can force turnovers as it did in December, that should suffice to complement a talent-laden offense.
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4) Game management
When the Cowboys let Jason Garrett’s contract expire a year ago, their concern wasn’t with his preparation Monday through Saturday. Garrett’s teams practiced hard; he ran a smooth operation, and he generally was competitive in the NFC East. But on game days, the Cowboys often didn’t front a coaching advantage. They hoped McCarthy, with a Super Bowl and four NFC Championship appearances in Green Bay, could fix that. Instead, McCarthy’s decision-making came under fire from the 20-17 loss to the Rams in week 1 through the 23-19 season-ending loss to the Giants.
In week 1, trailing by 3 with 11:46 to play, McCarthy opted to attempt a conversion on 4th-and-3 from the Rams’ 11-yard line. Rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb was a yard short on his crossing route. The Cowboys, after eschewing the field goal, lost by 3. In week 17, McCarthy opted not to go for 2 after his team’s lone touchdown, trailing by 4 in the third quarter rather than potentially 3. He opted not to use one of three remaining timeouts to challenge a questionable catch in the fourth quarter that immediately preceded a 50-yard Giants field goal. Even McCarthy admitted Monday that once seeing the replay, he “clearly see(s) what everybody else saw after the fact” and “it was definitely a play you would consider challenging.” Instead, the Cowboys needed a touchdown rather than field goal to win, and they sputtered.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy: “I didn’t feel there was enough information..to overturn it. We didn’t think it was clear and obvious.”
FOX rules analyst Mike Pereira: “No question in my mind that if Dallas would’ve challenged this, it would’ve been reversed to an incomplete pass.” pic.twitter.com/5HQ4sHR78Z
McCarthy will examine each call, his game-day operations and some of his gambles — a fourth-and-10 fake punt vs. Washington on Thanksgiving stands out as costly — this offseason.
“Clearly,” he said of game-day operations, “we all have a lot of work to do.”
5) Offensive line
The Cowboys have invested heavily in their offensive line the last decade. When McCarthy arrived in Dallas, he expected to start homegrown, first-round selections in left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick, as well as a second-round selection in left guard Connor Williams. Right tackle La’el Collins, whose stock had fallen due to off-field issues, had started at least 15 games each of the last three seasons.
Frederick, a five-time Pro Bowler, retired in March. Smith and Martin missed 14 and six games due to injury. Collins underwent hip surgery that eliminated his entire season. In total, eight offensive linemen spent time on injured reserve as the team cycled through more than a dozen lineup combinations.
“We've always known that if we came up and lost several key players in the offensive line we were going to be challenged,” Jones said.
Cowboys offense faces 49ers without:
QB Dak Prescott
RB Ezekiel Elliott
TE Blake Jarwin
RG Zack Martin
RT La’el Collins
LT Tyron Smith
Collective 18 Pro Bowls.
The bright note is the Cowboys now have a stable of young linemen who gained extensive experience and improved through the season. But the Cowboys will need Martin, Collins and Smith to return to feel confident they can consistently thrive against improving defensive lines in Washington and New York. Martin said he’s optimistic the group will return. The stout line would complement a cast including Prescott, Elliott, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin. Two seasons removed from their last postseason appearance, Martin feels they have much to prove.
“On paper it looks pretty good,” he said. “But that’s on paper, so it’s up to us to go out (and act). Obviously there’s been a lot of talk about what we can.
“It’s time to put that into action and actually do it consistently over a whole season.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
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